In an era when church membership and finances are overall in decline, it’s too easy — and unhelpful — to let our sense of church life pale in the shadow of “yesteryear’s glory days.” In the congregation I served in Brooklyn, one of our oldest members would wistfully remark, “I can remember when the 1500 person sanctuary was standing room only for both services on Easter.” I think she was going all the way back to when the church roll was 9000 members in 1952. Sigh.
I’ll always warn us about oversimplifying “the good old days” — they were never good old days in all ways or for everyone. And horse races making too much noise in front of Old First, the 1837 occasion of the building of our current sanctuary, remind us that even in the 19th century not everyone was in church on Sundays.
Church life in North America has changed. And is changing. There are not the financial and human resources the mainline church once knew. Our generation is face with doing ministry in an era of ecclesial contraction. We are feeling the squeeze not just in the local church, but throughout the system — in the Associations, the Conferences and at the national setting.
But the news is not all bad. Our side of the church has made some wonderful strides forward — particularly in recognizing how important 1) a non-triumphalist respect for other faith traditions (and for folks whose faith is not “religious”, and 2) a gracefully welcoming inclusion are to a loving interpretation of the Gospel, and working out many of the implications of celebrating diversity in real commitments in the ministry and mission of our church.
Curiously at Old First, with such a relatively young congregation, the shadows of a different past do not loom over us so much. We, wonderfully, continue to see a surprising number of young adults finding their way into the life of our church. And we, uncharacteristically for a church body, are relatively free to let go of the past so we can move forward. As we self-describe on the bulletin board out front, “an historic church, but not afraid to do new things.”
But, like other churches, we are also needing to figure out how to do church differently in… and for… a different time. Not just leaner because our situation is tighter, but also in ways that help neighbors today make sense of who we are and what we offer to their lives and the world.
Gatherings like the National Youth Event are always helpful for ministers. Not just for the event’s specific purpose, in this case witnessing the church at work with its young people, but more broadly, they offer a broader glimpse of the church than one’s attention to one’s own congregation affords.
For me, alongside of all of the teenagers, I also got to speak with other pastors (some of whom I’ve know for 20+ years), lay leaders (in particular ones I know from NYConference), and a number of Conference Ministers.
And I heard a whole range of different perspectives and different pieces of news. While it is clear that the squeeze is really being felt throughout the whole church, some people think we are rounding a corner, that the decline has plateaued. I’m not sure if the optimistic ones believe this steadying is happening because of changes we have made in the church or changes that have happened in the society around us. Or if they have any idea, or care!
Mike Denton, the Conference Minister of the UCC’s Pacific Northwest Conference, suggested that we might do well to figure out a different metric for evaluating the church. Simply put, the size of our membership rolls and our budgets is not the only measure. His point is an important one: while the audience one speaks to is one way to think about how much is heard, we might also be speaking to those beyond our pews. As well, the sheer numbers may not adequately evalutate the quality of the message we are sending. For example, a standing room only church for a sermon that neither heals nor challenges might not be any better than the most prophetic sermon to an empty sanctuary.
Mike suggested that the banner we have at the corner of 4th and Race, about “Being the Church” might do more than describe the church in new ways for outsiders’ imaginations. It might also be an evaluative tool, deeper than just quantities, getting us to consider the quality of our work.
I like this idea, especially in a week when John O. told me that he has encountered people who identified Old First as “that congregation with the rainbow message about what it means to be the church.”
How might we feel about church if we asked how we are doing:
~ protecting the environment?
~ caring for the poor?
~ forgiving often?
~ rejecting racism?
~ fighting for the powerless?
~ sharing earthly and spiritual resources?
~ embracing diversity?
~ loving God?
~ enjoying this life?
At Old First, we have been working intentionally at figuring out how to do church effectively today. We are more deliberate about trying to explain what church is about for people who may not know or understand. We are trying to open the door of the church wider that we might welcome in more than just the “usual suspects.” And we are committed to being real at church, so that we might receive, honor and minister to all folks in the complexities of their daily lives.
We are not afraid to admit that we are going to have to change, and our community might need to be different yet in order to do what God is asking of us, for individuals and for the world. But maybe we’re needing to slow down for a minute, take a breath and undertake some evaluation — talk with one another — to begin to see where we are doing well and where we could do better.
See you in church,