Teaching a 284 Year Old New Tricks: E-pistle 09.22.11

Teaching a 284 Year Old New Tricks: E-pistle 09.22.11

Old First turns 284 years old on Sunday. (Or at least that’s when we will celebrate our birthday.) Much has changed since 1727. All around us. And in our church too.

“Covenant Ministry” (in which you all entered with me, and now we are in the final of 3 years) calls to intentional change. Rather than just hoping our faith community will adapt successfully to a changing environment by some less-than-conscious process, we’re challenged to take charge. To direct our evolution. To deliberately bring Old First’s current incarnation into effective and productive relation to the dynamic world in which God has called our current generation to minister.

Bob Schneider, our professional church historian, points out that this institution’s genius consists of an ability to reinvent itself. With the march of time– new sociological settings have prompted Old First to become something new… over and over again.

This can be seen physically: in our three buildings that existed on this site and the two other buildings at 10th & Wallace and 50th & Locust that we have called home. When some older structural iteration no longer worked, we just tore down the building and rebuilt, or sold and moved to a completely new neighborhood. The book, Philadelphia’s Historical Sacred Places, calls Old First the “most peripatetic of faith communities.”

Looking closely over our long history– at who we were, how we defined our mission, how we served, you can see a progression of different incarnations. We have aimed to be different things at different times. Not just with the buildings: sometimes we worked at becoming a different kind of church, while staying in the same building.

Certainly, adapting to a world changing around us is a standard for any institution that survives long enough. An institution either keeps up with — or at least doesn’t lag too far behind– changing circumstances or it becomes obsolete. (I don’t often sing its praises, but one might say, capitalism can be a productive economic system because it pragmatically keeps business on a short leash. — “either adapt quickly to changing business environments and continue to realize a profit or perish!”)

What is notable and unusual about Old First? This institution has with grace and relative ease (at least in hindsight and comparatively) been able to decide on and maneuver through significant transformations without too much unsettledness. Or to put it bluntly– without self-destructing!

Sometimes church systems, defining themselves too completely as the purveyors of sacred traditions. With such a self-definition, adaption is anathema. Their inability to change becomes their death knell.

I like then that THIS Sunday– though we can’t claim to have planned it this way– offers both continuity and change:

Continuity: we will celebrate 284 years of faithfulness (with our former pastor, the Rev. Geneva Butz, back as our guest preacher– our a visible sign).

Change: we will become founding member of P.O.W.E.R., and embark on new work with other faith communities from across this city, attempting to change the political culture of Philadelphia… making ours a city that works for everyone.

That same graceful dymamic, –OF continuity that offers room, even support for change– is perhaps what we celebrate and practice best around here:

~ Look for the Worship Standing Leadership Group coming to the congregation soon with some suggested innovations.

~ One of the links on this E-pistle, “Church without Walls,” is news from the Revitalization Task Force: they’re challenging us to a bigger step forward– getting beyond these hallowed four walls to re-present Christ to a new day. We can’t just wait to God to bring people to us!

Old First, at its best, asks the same of each of us personally– to be settled and sure of who you are in deep ways that, almost ironically, enable us to change, stretch and grow.

We’re doing so as a community. We’re doing so as individuals. Thanks be to God. That’s worth a celebration!

See you in church on Anniversary Sunday,


P.S. Last Sunday, friends of mine from Arcade, New York, worshiping at Old First, reported we were a most welcoming and friendly church.

The same day, an Old First member, who hasn’t been in worship for a spell, but has stayed active in leadership & fellowship, was asked to sign the guest register when he showed up for worship.

Ah, no system is perfect; hospitality takes a artful touch, AND we’ll keep trying!

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