Perhaps you’ve felt this way at one time or another about your church? I suspect that most of us have, and I think that is perfectly normal. Churches are made up of people and, as the times change and people change, so does the nature of a church.
Just like people, churches have a youth, a middle age, and an old age. These stages may not be quite as clearly defined as they are in people, but they are common none the less. And, interestingly, both very young and very old churches often have trouble making ends meet and filling the pews. For the new church it is often because not enough people know about them. You know, “Remember that old hat factory on Murray Street? Well, someone turned it into a church. Really? When? About three years ago.” Being new, they don’t have much of a profile in their neighborhoods. It takes time to build up the kind of reputation that draws people in, and this can be a dangerous – and certainly difficult – period for any church.
By contrast, old churches often have trouble drawing enough people in not because too few people know about them, but because too many people know about the church. It is the church you use to direct your friends to your house. You know, “turn left at the big old church on Pine street, and we’re the first house in the second block.” It’s the church your grandmother goes to, or went to, or would go to if she didn’t live in Tampa. It’s the church that plays all the hymns on the pipe organ. This chapter in a church’s life can all too often be their final one. When it finally closes down, somebody will buy it and turn it into a hat factory.
But there is another way and, I believe, a better way.
The old church and the new church could join together to form a new church, a ‘blended’ church. You can mix the rich traditions of the older church, and the experience and wisdom of the older members with the vibrancy and (sometimes uncontrolled) exuberance of the new, young church. If a majority of members in both churches are willing to give it a go, you may end up with an exciting yet solidly grounded church. What a blessing that could be!
My opinion isn’t just a dreamer’s wish, either. I have several personal experiences that have brought me to believe this. Perhaps they will help you understand better what I mean.
To start with, I grew up in Otego, NY, and my father, Clarence Jones, was pastor of a small church there. That meant I was going to church every Sunday; it was never a question, and I have benefited from this. After all, going to church is a commandment in scripture (Colossians 3:16).
Each month we would have a potluck game night at our church. There a very young Grace Fabian was paired up with the oldest man in the church, Will Sheldon. At first I was sure we would lose since he wasn’t just the oldest man in the church, but he moved like the oldest man in the church. But my mother, who led the games, wouldn’t have it any other way. She insisted that the kids be involved with the games just as much as she insisted the old folks also join in. And wouldn’t you know it? That old fellow and I had so much fun! It was a great night, and I remember it clearly across all these years.
A bit later, when I was a teenager going through my “rebellious” stage – which mostly involved me going to church with a scowl on my face because I’d rather be at home – I had another powerful experience. I was heading into church one day – grumbling – when I saw a car pull up right in front of the church. A man got out and went around the car to help a bent old woman out of the car. It was clear to me right away that she was suffering greatly, but here she was, struggling out of the car and stepping into church. I held the door for her and watched in silence as she walked by. She wasn’t grumbling as I had just been; she was grimacing in pain. In that moment I realized that I was missing something. If this woman would suffer so just to come to church, if she would endure such pain to be here, something very important must be happening inside. Her pain was the spark that re-ignited my passion for Jesus, and the woman who bore that pain was such a blessing to me. In the bloom of my youth, I learned such a powerful lesson from a woman probably five times my age or more.
Later still, when I was an adult and my father the pastor was living out his last months in a retirement home, my son Kurt and I visited him. He was hard of hearing, with weak eyesight and a failing memory, but even then he studied his Bible daily, and it was open before him when we walked in. We had a lovely little visit with him, nothing special, and then left. As we walked out of the building, I noticed tears on Kurt’s face and I asked him what was wrong. He said “I just realized what a wonderful legacy I have been given.” During that visit, he was very aware of my father’s Bible laying open in front of him, and Kurt understood how important that book was to my dad. That day God had used a 99 year old man to teach a 20-something how important the Bible – and his legacy – was. It was powerful.
So now my grandson, Isaac, and his girlfriend, Lauren, are at the center of a blended church, and I am thrilled. In West Reading, PA is a beautiful old stone church, St. James. It is the “old church”, and its devoted members have been facing a future where the doors were closed forever.
Across town a bit was a vibrant new church – my grandson’s church. The Reading City Church (RCC) was young, vibrant, and growing, but they were meeting in a movie theater. It wasn’t an ideal situation for them; they were hitting a sort of glass ceiling, and they weren’t quite sure where to go.
Isaac became a part of the bridge, and through him God made a way where none had been before. Two churches with uncertain futures decided to join, to blend together. To the storied sanctuary and historical halls of St. James, the RCC brought a large group of exuberant young people. Their first unified service was this past Palm Sunday. The local newspaper, the Reading Eagle actually ran a front page article on this in their April 21st 2014 edition, titled “A Marriage of Churches”.
I think anything that separates the young from the old body of Christ is a loss for all. I don’t like seeing churches fade away from a lack of youthful interest, and I dislike young churches failing because of a lack of stability. For the record, I also don’t like “youth church services” or “children’s church” where the young are taken out of the regular body to worship by themselves. We need to stand together before Christ, young and old. This is also in scripture: Psalm 145:4 “One generation will commend your works to another, they will tell of your mighty acts”. You never know how God can use the mixing of young and old – as he did for myself and for Kurt – to bless you or someone else.
Of course, change can be hard. Very, very hard. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that I truly understand this. But I encourage all of you, in your separate faith-communities, to look for places where we can come together, young and old, and through God bless each other.
By the way, if you find yourself having a problem accepting the changes in your church, I would recommend the book Who Stole My Church by Gordon MacDonald.
I leave you the way I greeted you. A sort-of quote from A Tail of Two Churches.”It is a far, far better thing that we do, than we have ever done; it is a far, far better church that I go to than I have ever known.”