Last week, Old South—the church I serve in Hallowell, Maine—experienced two deaths—one was a man who had moved to the area a few years ago and enjoyed singing in the choir until his health began to decline a few months ago, and the other a woman who had attended Old South for a while after her beloved church in a nearby town closed several years ago. For those who are faithful members and friends of Old South, it seems like we are in the midst of a very long drama of loss.
After years of relatively stable attendance and membership, we find ourselves in a more vulnerable place. Last year was an especially painful year, with five deaths. And, last year and the year before also featured a significant number of people moving away. In the midst of all of this loss, we don’t have much on the “gain” side. Even though we have a steady stream of visitors, no new members have joined, nor have many of the visitors become regular Sunday morning worshippers.
It may be difficult to say the word, but we are definitely feeling vulnerable. And, truth be told, it’s not just in the new empty spaces in the sanctuary, next to old empty spaces, places that were, until recently, occupied regularly by a good friend of the church, we are also seeing it in our finances.
Pledges for 2013 are below what we had hoped for, but when you look carefully at the numbers, it’s not hard to figure out what the deficit is all about. It’s not that people are giving less; we have real loss of actual people who, until they died or moved, gave faithfully—and generously.
We are in a vulnerable place, yet it is difficult and challenging to acknowledge that word, or even articulate it. And, it is yet more difficult still to embrace it, to focus on it, keep it in prayer, and to wonder what it means for the future.
For most of the long-time members of Old South, they still clearly remember the good old days of Christendom, when Old South was a vibrant part of the community, when the mayor attended the church, and when one had to arrive extra early on Christmas Eve to get a seat for the service.
It’s not easy to let go of those perceived good old days. For many, it is impossible.
But, our strength is not measured by the number of people who fill the sanctuary, nor is it measured by the money in the offering plate each week. Instead, our strength is more likely to be found in those moments when we are able to speak of our deep concerns and worries, when we find the grace and courage to acknowledge that we feel vulnerable.
One of the long-time members of Old South has recently started to remind people of the church of a long, long time ago, back in the earliest days, when followers of Christ met in homes. So far, she isn’t getting much traction. She shares her hopefulness that even if, one day, we must relinquish the buildings, we will still be “Old South,” meeting in the homes of members and friends. Old South will still be Old South, whether worshipping in its lovely sanctuary or in someone’s living room. Her words so far, though, don’t seem to be of much comfort to anyone. Nor has she found anyone willing to join her. But, my hope is that that will change, that people will find something much less scary and “defeatist” in the thought that we can still be “Old South” without “Old South,” and instead live in the midst of that very hopeful and faithful notion that the church is not the building, the church is not a steeple, the church is the people.