“It [is] the best of times, it [is] the worst of times, it [is] the age of wisdom, it [is] the age of foolishness…it [is] the spring of hope, it [is] the winter of despair, we [have] everything before us, we [have] nothing before us…”
The First Church: Queens, NY
It was a bright and sunny but cold day in February. A young woman stood in the back of the church until she was finally able to take her seat in the middle of the large sanctuary. She was tired, it had been a long week. But here she was in church, even though her body was screaming, “Go to bed!”
She was told that this place was home and she did somewhat feel at home. The building smelled the same, she recognized quite a few faces, and the bulletin she held in her hand looked as it always did. It hadn’t changed in thirty years. The “bulletin” was actually more of a large booklet that held page after page of announcements, Ellen White quotes, and more. It took her a while to find the page with the order of service.
The worship service started right at eleven o’clock. However, the worship part didn’t start until twelve thirty. The young woman questioned why she had endured over an hour of announcements, commercial breaks, sidebars, and random babbling. It was boring yet at times entertaining.
When the service finally ended at two, she was exhausted and starving, annoyed yet comforted. This was how church was and how it always would be. She felt the nostalgia and understood the resistance to change.
But things had already changed. The familiar faces were much older than the young woman remembered. When she looked around, the youth and young adults that had once filled this church were now missing and only a few were left behind. Where did they go? Had they run away from the meaningless tradition? Were they tired of three hour services that left them the same as they came? Maybe it was time for intentional change. They could at least start with the thirty year old bulletin.
The Second Church: Philadelphia, PA
A young woman circled the block for the fifth time. She had done her research, the church website said there was parking here. Why couldn’t she find it? The grocery store across the street had a sign directing customers to a parking garage. She gave up on trying to find the church’s “parking”, and drove to the garage. She wondered why the store had better signage than the church?
The young woman walked into the building thirty minutes after service began. There was a middle aged man sitting on a chair in the foyer. He looked up for a brief moment, “Happy Sabbath,” he mumbled before looking back down at his phone.
She was startled by his nonchalant greeting. Couldn’t he tell she was a visitor? “Um, happy Sabbath…Where’s the sanctuary?” she asked.
The man didn’t bother to look at her again and simply pointed up the stairs. So, she climbed the stairs of the beautiful historic building. Years ago, this church had been absolutely stunning. But now, like many church buildings, it was starting to show its age.
The ushers made her stand in the back of the sanctuary until an “appropriate” time to be seated. The bulletin was printed on a large sheet of paper that was folded into thirds. She scanned the order of service and laughed when she saw that the members still repeated the fourth commandment as their “affirmation of faith”.
As she looked around the large sanctuary, she realized the majority of the people there were over 60. The congregation was obviously not made up of people from the community. This was an older black church in a young, white, and recently gentrified neighborhood. The young woman glanced up into the balcony and saw maybe seven people sitting up there. There was at most 75 people in the entire sanctuary. Wasn’t this supposed to be the oldest and most prestigious church in Philadelphia? What happened?
During prayer, the elder spilled the church’s secrets. “Lord, we’re praying for a change because we know there needs to be one but we don’t know what to do.”
The choir sang an interesting rendition of a popular gospel song from the 80s and that’s exactly where this church was stuck. The young woman waited for the right moment and then quietly slipped out. The stench of a dead church was overwhelming and too much for her to bear. She only paid for an hour of parking.
The Third Church: Mount Pocono, PA
Two young women got out of their aunt’s SUV and shuffled through the snow behind her. As they approached the white house, one of them mumbled, “This should be interesting.”
The two young women were cousins. One had grown up in church, the other only went for weddings and funerals. The cousins had lived two very different lives but they were close and both understood one thing: this was weird.
They walked into a small room at the back of the house. There were two folding tables in the middle of the room and six chairs on either side. The room was filled with religious paraphernalia and off to the side was a small bathroom. The small group of believers were already gathered around the table. The cousins sat across from each other, towards the back of the room.
The one who had grown up in church observed the hostess go into the bathroom and come out with a steaming cup of coffee a few moments later. The hostess then asked her cousin if she wanted a cup. Thankfully, she was able to send a warning text. The young women wondered who the heck was getting a coffee edema.
The small group of twelve sang together, prayed together, and read scripture together. Their ages ranged from five months to 65 years. The young boy played with puzzles during the “service”, his mother felt comfortable enough to feed his little sister right at the table. Everyone was engaged and the fellowship was genuine. The gathering was over by twelve thirty.
The cousins agreed- it was nice. This seemed more like what church was supposed to be. It was a rebirth of sorts. Maybe they would do something like it again- hopefully next time there’d be better coffee.
Transformation is possible. Humans do have the capacity to change. But sometimes tradition needs to die to make room for something new and better- something genuine and authentic. That however requires sacrifice.
Many see and understand the need for change. They just don’t want to. Others, are so caught up in tradition, they don’t realize it’s only accelerating their expiration date. But tradition is comforting and familiar, it’s home. Of course it’s hard to leave. But what does that mean for the future?
“It [is] the best of times, it [is] the worst of times…it [is] the epoch of belief, it [is] the epoch of incredulity, it [is] the season of Light, it [is] the season of Darkness…we [are] all going direct to Heaven, we [are] all going direct the other way.”