In the dim light of late afternoon and amid the crushing movement of countless, busting human beings, the large “store closing” signs adorning every window of a very large building didn’t seem all that extraordinary. I was just trying to stay upright and to make sure that my family unit of four stayed close together so we wouldn’t lose anyone. At some point, my husband paused and asked if I wanted to take a picture. Picture of what, I wondered. Then, I realized what I was looking at.
It was Black Friday and we were in New York City. My family and I had spent the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then decided to take a long walk toward our temporary New York City home in Chelsea. After leaving the Met, we walked along the edge of Central Park until we arrived at the corner of 5th Avenue and 59th Street. There, we took a little break and enjoyed Belgian wafels from the “Wafels and Dinges” cart.
Then, we continued along Fifth, into Black Friday hell. Yes, we could have avoided the whole thing, but we had done this before and it seemed like a good epic quest. How long could we survive the crowds?
We paused to enjoy the holiday light show in front of Saks. And, then we continued to make our way amid the multitude. Along the way, we came upon the large building with its very large “Store Closing” signs in every window. It was the Lord & Taylor building.
I don’t have any special attachment to Lord & Taylor, and no particular regard for its Fifth Avenue store. But, it was one of those moments when I felt a certain kinship with a dying institution. I’m part of one of those too.
While there are significant and crucial differences between large department stores and churches, I can’t help but feel a little bit of connection when I see the unmistakable signs of decline in others. My church is not alone.
I suspect Lord & Taylor, just like other large department store chains, has employed a whole bunch of people at great expense, to try to keep its brand relevant and thriving in our changing times. It hasn’t been altogether successful—at least not in terms of its flagship store that has proudly stood on Fifth Avenue for over a hundred years. So, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about the decline we are feeling at Old South, where we have not employed a great number of people at great expense in the effort to stay afloat. The church that I serve has been around longer than the Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue. It doesn’t have large closing signs in every window. We aren’t thriving, but we are not on the brink of oblivion—at least not yet.
Things are changing, and sometimes changing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up. I have no doubt that the Church will continue on, but the shape and form of its existence is changing. No doubt about that. Churches of the old mainline are struggling. Denominations are finding that brand loyalty is no longer an important aspect of how people live their lives or connect with faith, if they connect at all.
There is considerable sadness, and angst, and anger with the changes that are afoot. But, I can’t help but to be hopeful too. Perhaps in the new ways of being church, there will be less of those things that have plagued the Church in its current format—like clergy abuse, denial and cover-up; and buildings that can seem more important than mission.
The decline of the form of church that has been meaningful to me, and those who gather at Old South (and churches like ours) is difficult to witness from the inside. And, it can lead to certain forms of recriminations—maybe it’s the pastor’s fault; maybe it’s because we are Open and Affirming; maybe it’s because there are sports practices for kids on Sunday mornings; maybe it’s because people are just immoral, narcissistic ne’er-do-wells.
Somehow we don’t say the same things about the closing of Lord & Taylor. Instead, we manage to recognize that life is changing, has changed, and continues to change. And certain aspects of our current, and past, existence are just not going to survive—like the Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue, and Sears, and typewriters, and landline phones.
Through our decline, our focus must stay on our faith, and on our experience of God’s love for us and for others. Our “success” as a church is not measured in the number of years we have managed to stay in business, but in the ways through which we have endeavored to share God’s love and hope, peace and joy. When it is time to hang up the “closed” sign, we ought not feel that we have failed. Instead, we should continue to hold our mission at the forefront, and to know that, even in our decline, we hear the ancient words of the Lord who gathers us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”