Old South’s Sunday School experienced an extraordinary surge of growth in the 1950s. By the mid-1950s, the number of children enrolled exceeded 200. How to respond? Build a building, of course!
And, the Parish House was built and opened in 1957 on the lot across the street from the church building. That’s still where the Sunday School meets, though the numbers enrolled in the Sunday School now are tiny compared to that number from 1957 (on an average Sunday, we have between 4 and 6 children and youth). The church offices, including mine, are also located in the Parish House, as is the primary kitchen, and a fellowship hall that we use for committee meetings and church gatherings.
When the church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Parish House in 2007, we sifted through a lot of the materials that were saved from the process, the building, and the opening of the new Parish House in 1957. One of the things in all of those materials that were put on display that struck me was the vote to authorize the building of the Parish House. The Sunday School was enormous and the pastor back then a huge proponent of the building project, yet the actual vote to make it all happen was remarkably close.
I’ve often found myself wondering: What did the opponents to the building see? Did they object to the expense? Were they concerned about the sustainability of the numbers in the Sunday School? Did they, in some way, recognize that the sudden burst of growth needed more time to show itself as permanent or temporary?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the notes from the meetings back then, but I find myself wishing that those in opposition had been able to gather just a little more support. Like other churches that built up or added on in the 1950s, we are hampered by a physical plant that is now too big for us.
This is especially poignant, and unsettling, when we realize that the great surge of growth of the 1950s really didn’t last long. Even in the very next decade, the evidence of decline was already apparent.
In our now too large spaces, we have a hard time recognizing that the amazing growth of the 1950s really had less to do with us, than it had to do with was happening around us in the culture of the United States. When everyone “went to church,” we didn’t find a way of sustaining that sentiment. My more cynical side wonders if we were spending too much time congratulating ourselves.
The big question that remains is: were we doing God’s work or the world’s work? Is it possible for those of us who remain to wrestle with the concept that maybe what happened in the fifties was actually not a very good thing because it drew us away from the work of Christ?
These are questions that must be considered, prayed over, thought through. They are critical to how we understand who we are and to whom we belong. Is our mission simply to fill our parking lot or is it to do the work of Christ, even if that means moving out of the buildings we can no longer afford?
Who are we and what is our purpose? This is the essential question, to be asked as if it’s never been asked before, and to see where it leads, how it lead us closer to the One we say we wish to follow.