Congratulations on the new organ. I think it is wonderful that you have an old building with lots of history. You have a legacy and have had a physical fixture in town for a century. These are important parts of your saga and it is good to remember them. You have a long memory and a wonderful tradition as a critical member of the town.
But you are dying.
I saw the wonderful people of your community aging and holding on to that legacy as they should. They have the longest memories of your house and its tradition to pass down to the younger generations. It is they who will take their place as the elders of the community. But as I sat in your pews, I saw one young person for at least every three of your elders. A legacy cannot be passed on if there are no recipients of your memory.
Who will hear your stories to tell their children and grandchildren?
Sociologists have been telling us that church attendance is decreasing due to a simple demographic fact. If a society does not replace itself by about 2.1 persons for each generation, it will die out. Some factors that affect mainline denominations is that families produce fewer children if at all. Their evangelical counterparts do a much better job of making babies and raising them in the church.
You don’t have enough people to sustain your beautiful physical architecture. More importantly, you don’t have enough people to receive your spiritual wisdom and witness to the Good News.
If the population is unsustainable because you don’t have enough kids who have been brought up in your church, you must have more immigrants from other cities, religions, and people who are longing for something greater than themselves.
There are people all over the world yearning for a spiritual experience. There are people who want to be part of something bigger and more magical than the mundanities of life. People are isolated in jobs they are unhappy with, stressed from too much homework and after school activities, going through divorce, recovering from addictions, facing bankruptcy, and struggling immigrants literally looking for a place to call home.
Many people have this yearning totally unaware of the message that we are healed, we will be OK, and we can help each other make it through what seem to be unmanageable conditions in life. People truly do desire spiritual healing and a sense of the divine. People are seeking purpose and how to make all of life more meaningful.
Even if the media shows how nasty people can be, and they certainly can, the goodness we see from ordinary people is astounding. Running up into burning buildings, serving soup to the homeless, driving drunk and high people home to keep them safe, spending time with disabled kids or those without families are common actions by the people of this society. Deep down people want to be good and want to be part of a society that helps them to be good and helpful to others. But for those who struggle to help themselves manage their own lives, helping others seems like too much to ask.
This is where you can step in. You don’t need a new program or ministry of outreach. You don’t need brochures or fancy websites. You don’t need door-to-door proselytizing. People don’t want more marketing. We have all been conditioned to associate marketing and advertising with lying. With the American legacy of televangelists and hateful messages delivered by so-called Christians, marketing will repel those you want to invite.
These are all just facts of our society you just can’t control. You cannot change any of this.
What you can change is to be a place where people can find help and healing from the travails of life. Listen to others and talk about how you found peace and healing in the church. Give people phone numbers and then call them. Call not to invite people to church, but just to see how they are doing. Send a note or two. Not a note with a mug, brochure, newsletter, and envelope for giving. But a note to acknowledge that you saw them, remember them, and are happy they are alive.
We are naturally attracted to both charisma and to those who we feel are responding to our needs.
I write this because I entered the doors of one of your churches this morning. I came in with my two boys. I fit the role of a single dad. My kids were restless. It was a new place and they may have been intimidated. I brought them there because the service would have been familiar to them. We were immigrants. We were looking for a room, a place to stay. No one said hello to me or them. I grabbed what I thought was a bulletin and the only words spoken to me were, “That’s the church history, this is the bulletin for today.”
I pulled my boys out of the church because they were making too much noise. You watched me have a “team meeting” with them in the foyer where the greeters ironically stand. I had come through a different entrance where no greeters stood. You didn’t even hold the door open for me as much as hold it so it did not make noise when it shut. I came back in and my boys started laughing before getting restless and cranky again. Quite a ruckus. You looked at me a couple of times and smiled. I was starting to get frustrated and realized I could not control the situation. I left the building with them. I may never come back.
The irony is that you were celebrating your 100th anniversary and rededication of the building. You shared a story or two of the church’s early days in 1913 and used the same order of worship from back then. Nicely done.
But you missed the point. I am not sure if you talked about looking forward at all because out of necessity, I missed most of what you had to say.
I am writing this to tell you that the future was in my arms. Those two restless boys are all you have left if you want another 100 years of life.
I may never come back. If I don’t, I am taking a part of your possible future with me.
A simple “Hello, I can help you with that” would have attracted me for another week. Instead I was invisible and felt only apathy.
Perhaps what you celebrated wasn’t a 100 year anniversary
I may have witnessed the beginning of a long and drawn out funeral.