While I was waiting for Sunday School to begin, I sat in class and tried to imagine what would be going on in my former church and how it was different from this one. In my former church, the vast majority of the congregation were elderly men and women who had retired long ago. The rest were somewhat younger, in their forties and fifties. The millenials were unusually well represented with four; two of which being the pastor and his wife who were also responsible for all of the kids at church – which happened to be their own. But now that they’ve left that church, two millenials and the whole youth group are gone. The hallways would likely be silent or an occasional steady and slow tap-tap-tap of a cane or walker helping it’s bearer to find their way to their usual seat. Aside from the chit-chat about various events that had happened in the last week, mostly beginning with “Did you hear about so-and-so?” or “So-and-so told me …”. The rooms are all unusually clean and usually empty.
Perhaps more important is what was missing: the echoes of laughter from dozens of little children as they run out of control up and down the hallways, the cheesy jokes between middle-schoolers or quiet conversations between teenagers. No discussions about the latest movies from young adults. Even young parents weren’t there to talk about how their week went. Or somewhat older adults that are just slightly past young but nowhere near old enough weren’t there to chat about how things were going. No – it’s just an unsettlingly quiet old building, silent each and every day on the week – not much different on a Sunday than it is on a Monday. My guess for it’s future is that over time, it’s elders will pass away. Over time the cost to maintain the building will be more than the remaining members can sustain. Eventually they will have little choice but to sell the building to try to pay back the debt that they piled up trying to keep it running.
My current church has more people, more younger people, and even more youth – so odds are good that they’ll be able to keep their doors open a lot longer – but something the pastor mentioned does have me concerned. He mentioned that European churches used to have the monopoly on the status quo. They could sit back without changing because they knew that there was no alternative. So they didn’t change. And people didn’t attend. A friend of mine once mentioned that his church had not changed anything in four hundred years. He also admitted to there not being many youth or regular attenders. Once their obligations were met, most just didn’t come back. American Churches in this region are currently making that same mistake. They don’t change. Young people don’t show up. They build bigger and better buildings. Young people don’t pay up the expenses. They sing hymns as they always have and young people flee from them.
It seems that so many churches are far more concerned that the building be preserved, that there’s no running in the halls, that there’s no messy arts and crafts or gooey snacks being served. That there be an atmosphere of quiet reverence. Take it from one who knows, quiet reverence is a hop, skip, and jump away from an abandoned church. One whose doors never opens again. One whose halls no longer echo with praises or passages of the Bible being read. Such churches are all over the states. Between 4,000 and 7,000 churches permanently close down each year (that’s a conservative guess, the reality is that far more actually close in the course of a year). That’s hundreds of churches each month and about a dozen each day.
It might not be enough to attempt change though – like the aforementioned church. Some of the people tried to do something different, but the ones paying money into the offering plate were less than thrilled. They believed that their church was being taken over by a young pastor and a young worship director who had no love for their beloved hymns. So when it cam time to sing the ‘new songs’ they didn’t. The atmosphere of the room changed to reflect the tension and anger they held in their hearts. But when it came time to sing the ‘old songs’ they relaxed, but the young people were the ones that tensed up – or at least, I did. Ultimately, the elders won and the returned to singing all hymns. But the church lost – it lost two millenials and their children, one woman who had quite a few kids that she never was able to convince to come to church, and all the members of my family – in other words, pretty much every ‘young-ish’ person in the church and it lost it’s distant future to the power of the present. That’s what worries us about trying to get hymns started in the new church. We don’t know where to begin and we’re not really keen on dividing the church in half. It’s just, we’re not the elders and we can’t ‘do church’ the way they do church. It’s not an easy fit to pretend that it works. It’s tiresome and draining, really. We long for rest and peace … and maybe a little contemporary music.