On Sundays you will usually find me in a church somewhere talking about issues of Christian faith. What I talk about, while the details change, is usually along the same theme: God’s love is inexhaustible and that love – demonstrated in Jesus – is the crux of our faith, not all the stuff that has been added to it. While my theme is fairly consistent, where I speak is not; and I don’t mean simply the location. I speak in churches that are conservative and those that are progressive; churches that are anchored to a denominational tradition and those as independent and free as the air; churches built of stone capped with spires, and those churches that meet behind the tinted glass of rented storefront space.
The diversity of these experiences is magnificent. I see, almost weekly, that the church is a variegated garden of color and expression from Christians who meet in living rooms to those who meet in cathedrals – as it should be. Undoubtedly, some of these churches lack the marketing punch to attract today’s “church shopper.” This too, is as it should be.
Not long ago I was in an inner-city church that had a shortage of the enticing ecclesiastical bells and whistles. There were no fog machines, Broadway-worthy children’s programs, shredded-blue-jean-wearing-worship-leader with an acoustic guitar, young-hip-spike-haired-pastor, and no in-house lattes, projection screens, or live Twitter feeds (I’m not against any of these things and particularly enjoy acoustic guitars and lattes).
This church occupies a large, stately building that was once part of a large, stately neighborhood; a neighborhood filled with young, working, ladder-climbing families. Those families, rather monolithic in race and culture, have grown older and moved to the suburbs. This church is now the conglomeration of Caucasians, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians – a reflection of its now multi-cultured surroundings.
The church has made a very intentional decision to remain where it is, and not beat a hasty retreat to the suburbs where it is a bit easier for “hip” churches to gain traction and grow. Again, I’m not against cool, suburban churches; but in some cases these churches are transplants from the city, because transitioning with the neighborhood is simply too difficult.
They move out and away from the communities in which they were incubated because they are now strangers in those communities. So it’s easier to raise the war pension required to purchase land and build new shiny buildings out by the new bypass and mall, than to do the excruciatingly difficult work of changing. Evacuation is sometimes just easier than evolution.
I understand. I’ve “been there and done that,” and was even the young-hip-spike-haired-pastor (was, that is – formerly young and formerly spike-haired). In a world that measures success by the number of people in the pews and copious dollar amounts in the plate, it’s hard to stay put as the building empties and the coffers dry up. “Go to where the fish are biting,” as one leading church growth expert puts it. And that’s exactly what happens.
That’s why this inner-city visit was so refreshing. They weren’t eschewing all the cool stuff that churches do because they are against all things marketable and groovy. They are simply concentrating their time and limited resources differently.
This church, under the leadership of a very capable pastor who could be in most any mega-church anywhere, is doing its best to blend together the sweet, old, blue-haired ladies with the young immigrant families; the wizened, cane-dragging men with the African-American teenagers; those life-long members now passing from the scene with the new, diverse seekers coming into the fold.
So what if the facility is dated and smells a bit of liniment and stale coffee. So what if the gears of the church creak and groan under the herculean transformation now shoved upon it. So what if there are some Sundays with more empty seats than filled ones. This church hasn’t quit on its community or its attenders – as diverse as they are – and they haven’t quit on one another. This is as it should be.