And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
—Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
During my homily last Sunday, on our first winter worship service of the season in Old South’s parish house (where worship is a little more informal than in the sanctuary), I was talking about stars and signs. It was Epiphany Sunday. What sorts of signs do we perceive? Do we welcome them and pursue them, as the magi did? Or do we see them as threats, as Herod did?
At some point, I made a reference to our most recent Christmas Eve service. It was a beautiful and meaningful service, but attendance was at an all-time low. Attendance for that service has been, in fact, on a slow, steady decline since the 1980s. What sort of sign is that for us? Is it something to welcome or something to fear? Shall we pursue it or treat it as a threat?
As I was talking about the Christmas Eve service I saw one woman in the small congregation fall neatly and thoroughly into a state of sentimental nostalgia. I could see it. At one point, she uttered in a voice of deep longing, “It used to be that you had to get here so early just to get a good seat.” I could see her slipping into a state tantamount to sinking into to a comfy couch or recliner, ready to settle in for a good long trip down memory lane. I remember thinking that I should yell out, “Don’t sit there!”
But I didn’t.
Nostalgia and sentimentality. They threaten the life and wellbeing of the small, struggling church. It’s not that memories themselves are bad or even the occasional short stroll into wistful reminiscence. But, when memories turn into an intense yearning for a condition that only the past can deliver, that nostalgia may feel like a big comfy recliner, soft and reassuring. But it’s really a cancer. That sort of settling into a longing for the past (that very likely wasn’t even as great as all that) feeds upon itself, like abnormal cells that grow uncontrollably in the body, forming a tumor.
So, don’t sit there! Don’t sit in that seat that looks so alluring, so comfortable, so familiar. Because it’s really the place where nostalgia suffocates what’s happening now, and how the church, and its members, are being guided for the future. That seat stifles the movement of and our connection to the Holy Spirit.
Don’t sit there. That’s a difficult thing to say, though, and even more difficult thing to do. For when we are looking at stars and signs, the ones that are so clearly present can feel threatening and ominous. Lower attendance and an aging congregation full of people who would like so desperately to hand over the reigns of leadership to the next generation who are now simply not present: these signs feel threatening. Who can blame the church member who retreats to the comfy recliner of memory and nostalgia, when church was what and how it was meant to be, or how they think church was what and how it was meant to be? Christendom. The glory days.
Yet, there are signs and stars that offer hope. At Old South, we maintain a strong commitment to mission. We have a wonderful and talented, though small, choir. Ministry is more widely shared. It’s wondrous to behold someone serving communion for the first time in their life, well into older age. It’s wondrous when someone who is normally so shy and reserved volunteers to lead the beginning of worship. It’s wondrous to behold a Worship Team meeting where we talk about and sing new hymns and work together to strengthen our weekly worship service.
These signs and stars do not point to a larger congregation, nor to they point to a church that will exist well into the future. But, they do point to the abiding presence of the Spirit in our midst. Along with all of the things that seem and feel ominous, there is new life, faithfulness, love and hope—a living out of our trust in the presence of Christ among us.
While it is tempting to sink into that comfy chair of nostalgia and sentimentality, to try to surround oneself with golden memories of the past, we must find the courage to open our hearts and minds to the Spirit and the grace to do as the Spirit beckons: “Don’t sit there!”
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.