Golden Calf or Golden Opportunity (Part 1): E-pistle 08.18.11

In the Alban Institute’s magazine “Congregations,” Amy Butler writes about moving her local church towards revitalized worship– a service that could focus her congregation’s current calling as a faith community.

As a new pastor, she worked carefully, slowly, gradually, but diligently– baby steps… at first, like tuning the piano, dusting the sanctuary, proofreading the bulletin! Over time she won her people’s trust and increased their flexibility.

At last the appointed day came! She prepared worship wherein the faithful, after hearing a healing miracle of Jesus, would have the palms of their hands anointed with oil and the sign of the cross. Way outside her congregation’s tradition. Change! For her church, radical. She could hardly wait.

That morning was going perfectly: the liturgy flowed, the music sounded beautiful, the worshipers were engaged. One of those services when you could feel the energy. Until the end of the sermon.

As she introduced the healing ritual, the faulty fire alarm in the old building (a building prone with age to glitches in ancient heating/electrical/plumbing/generator/air conditioning/sound systems) went off. Everyone had to exit immediately. A 90 year-old had to be carried down the stairs. The fire department arrived. No fire, thank God, but also no healing that day.

Her 140 year old congregation inhabits a much-too-large and increasingly needy facility in Washington, D.C. Once the grand Baptist church in the District, the place where “Everyone” went to church. But the city has changed. The suburbs called. So do Sunday brunch, the NYTimes and Sunday morning sports practices! For most people, other uses of their time have become the preferred alternative to church.

The few people left in the pews feel they have no choice but… to be twice as determined to get things back to the way they used to be.

Amy summarizes well the challenges facing many historic, urban churches:

~ 2000 years after the Holy Spirit blew through Jerusalem and the first disciples’ pre-conceived ideas, our churches are often full of nothing but pre-conceived notions!
~ It’s a good thing we have buildings now– big, underutilized ones– a repositories for all our old stuff!
~ And the constitutions and by-laws.
~ And old church records and dusty shelves of books in the church library that somebody’s father’s uncle donated because he was the minister of another church (we don’t know which one). No one reads them, but if we threw them out, the world would end.
~ We have the way our pastor of 32 years used to do things. (He retired in 1971, but we still talk about him at every Church council meeting… as if he were still among us.)
~ We have four generations of one family who are members of this church (though none of them attends anymore). Last we heard, all are now living in foreign countries!
~ We have too many memories of how it used to be, even more rules about how we’ve always done things: a captivity really… how the sanctuary held an overflow crowd and how there was never a fight, much less a disagreeable word (despite schisms that divided the church three different times?). Oh my word, how everything used to be perfect!

Big, downtown churches like Amy’s dot the North American urban landscape. They come in all mainline varieties (and some other flavors as well). Amy Butler writes pointedly about 3 burdens/blessings facing these sorts of congregations:

1) Years of tradition vis a vis a changed and ever-changing (read “dynamic”) urban environments leave downtown churches facing in extremis the need to be willing to change. She writes, it’s “a fundamental exercise of discipleship to follow Jesus faithfully and to hold our traditions loosely.”

2) Drawing their congregations from diverse walks of life, not to mention miles of metropolitan circumference, downtown churches have to be seriously intentional about what they do, why, and how they do it. This can offer them a leg up in a gift rare for the contemporary church: clarity of current mission, vision, and identity.

Old First, thank God (and probably also thanks to two of our former pastors, Daehler and Geneva) isn’t described too closely by the picture that Amy Butler paints of the downtown, urban church on the brink of demise. But her image is not so unfamiliar that we can dismiss it! Perhaps “tangentially,” it’s enough of a challenge that reflecting on it might be humble, wise and helpful…

Next week’s E-pistle, “Golden Calf or Golden Opportunity? (Part 2),” will share the third of Butler’s insights, the one, I believe, that is absolutely crucial for us at Old First.

See you in church,


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