Prime of life

I was speaking at a meeting for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington recently, and we were thinking about different generations and the church. One priest—he was in his thirties—reflected, “I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and it was the center of my life, just as it was for former generations. But the thing I always heard about was how great it was back then. From the time I began attending church, I knew that I was a part of declining church.”

I nodded my head in agreement. I remember this feeling in seminary, when everyone seemed to be in an institutional mid-life crisis. I was in my twenties, and I didn’t want any part of that longing to look back.

Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at our histories, but the yearning to turn our heads backwards, wanting to be the church of yesterday, always made our denomination seem like a washed-up cheerleader, getting out her old glossy yearbook, placing it on her much-wider thighs, stroking it, sighing deeply, wishing that she could be eighteen again. Wondering how she could relive those magical high school years.

We’re no longer in high school, and actually, the yearning to become something that we are not drowned out as I became a pastor. There was too much planning and excitement going on in the local church that we didn’t have too much time to sentimentalize those bygone decades. The times I am reminded of them now are at denominational meetings, when someone stands up with the newsflash that the Mainlines are now on the sidelines.

The pastors that I typically hang around with are working in interesting churches, and trying out all sorts of new things. They are frustrated with congregations that want “those young families,” but don’t trust the pastor enough to do what would attract them. And they are irritated with congregations that have all of their customs in place, so that there’s no openness to any new ideas that those young adults might have. This can be irritating for any church leader, and it’s particularly frustrating for church leaders who are under the age of 45.

We’ve grown up in a world where innovation is rewarded over history and tradition. We are an entrepreneurial generation, so to put us in a system where everything was decided fifty years ago and there’s no room for creativity can be highly annoying. The tensions are real and strong. And, I’m very thankful for them. They are the sign of life and vitality.

The other signs of life are new church developments. There seems to be a common thread with Presbyterians. Often, when we talk about new churches, people automatically look at the failure rate. NCDs are seen as a bad investment.

I’ve been working with church development committees for years, and I know about the failings. I know about the “new” congregations that have been holding steady with 25 members for the last 10 years. And yet, (as Seth Godin points out) new churches grow the fastest. When we look nationally, we know that the congregations that are getting bigger rather than smaller are often the new ones.

If we’re looking at the investment of our resources (and as more churches close, there will be more resources), it seems that we should invest those resources in the one area of our denominations that are growing. As we engage leadership that wasn’t alive in the 50s or even the 60s, it will be important not to keep them trapped. We can, instead, let their innovative energy flourish in new ways.

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10 thoughts on “Prime of life

  1. William Sloane Coffin said this in a sermon quoting Harry Emerson Fosdick:

    “Fifty-six (now eighty-six) years later, we still have the intellecutal problem, of how to incorporate the latest thinking into the old faith, of as Fosdick put it, ‘how to believe both in the abiding stars and changing astronomies.'” (Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin, vol. 1, page 88)

    I guess the good news and the bad news is that pastors have felt the same way about “the yearning to turn our heads backwards, wanting to be the church of yesterday” has been going on since time immemorial.

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  3. I’m over 45, about to begin an interim, and would love to see the congregation embrace some changes–the seeds of a ‘younger generation’ are in place for them. How to bring the current mindset to the ‘aha’ moment where change can happen is the challenge. btw, enjoyed your presentations in East Iowa Presbytery two weeks ago!

  4. I am starting to feel this a bit. And even worse, I am being told not only are the mainline churches dying, but PCUSA is being pulled apart at the seems over ordination issues. It’s quite disheartening.

  5. Yes, I am an Austin Grad, Class of ’05. Michael was Academic Dean when I graduated, but not before I took a couple of classes from him.

    As Dean, he hooded the class at graduation. As I walked up to the chancel he winked. I don’t know (or care) if he did that for everyone or just me. It made my day and I still fondly remember it.

    As for hope and being disheartened, Coffin said, “To make room for the Savior, we have to be rid of all illusions that we can save ourselves or anyone else in this world. For hope to be born, optimism must die.” (Collected Sermons, v. 1, page 138)

    We can’t save oursleves or the church, but we must have hope that God redeems what we do, regardless of how messy we make it.

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