When They Don’t Come to Us

Old Hallowell Day is a big deal in this little city just south of the state capital. Every year, on the third Saturday of July, Hallowell swells with, it seems, just about everyone who was born here or ever lived here. At the Saturday morning parade, local dignitaries, including the “Citizen of the Year,” along with local businesses, organizations and neighborhoods, and the usual fire trucks, slowly make their way down Water Street with large crowds of people on both sides of the street. In this small, mostly sleepy, kind of place, it’s quite the sight.

Like many other organizations in town, Old South tries to find some way of making its own mark over the course of the weekend. This year, we decided to march in the parade and then to do something we’ve never done before: hold an open house in the sanctuary building for a few hours in the middle of the day. We gathered a few volunteers to greet visitors and we served refreshments.

For me, this seemed a great idea. It was not too great of an effort for our small church. Plus, it was a good way to feel that we were taking part in an important day in the community. I wasn’t expecting any huge crowd, but I thought it likely draw some old friends who wanted to visit—just what Old Hallowell Day is all about.

During the course of the open house, though, I discovered that the others who were helping out with the event had grander ideas. Perhaps people who have been harboring a curiosity about Old South would now feel that they could visit, and then they might want to come to worship. Perhaps our open doors would attract newcomers who were looking for a new church.

During the course of the three-hour event, we had a slow, but steady stream of visitors. Many of the small groups that came were led by someone who had gone to Sunday School years ago. That person had long since moved away, but was eager to show off the church to family members and friends.

The few volunteers who helped out that day were disappointed. There were no clear new visitors who would soon join us for worship.

This is part of the problem for old mainline churches like Old South. We still have that old sense that just the right program, the right event, will turn the tide, and will attract new people. We just need to keep trying and at some point, the miracle will happen. Everything will change. And we’ll be saved from having to do the work that we don’t really want to do, the work that makes us squirm: evangelism.

The basic fact is that there is no one event, no one program, that will change anything. The basic fact is that the old mainline must stop thinking that people will somehow start to figure out that they want to come to church. Instead, those within the old mainline, like Old South, must figure out how to go out—out into the community, out into the neighborhoods. And, still be the church—sharing the love of God, responding to needs, bringing hope and love.

We must stop thinking that there’s some magic thing that will get people to come to us. Rather, we must be willing to go out, taking Christ with us, allowing Christ to lead us.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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