Horses know that old hay is no good. Why do we hoard old, moldy hay like it was more precious than gold?
Even Churches Die. One change to my writing is that Yoast SEO likes it if the “slug” the name of the blog post, appears near the start of the post. It makes the software happy. The software also has opinions on what makes my work easy to read. The software and I disagree. It wants a style of writing taught in Freshman English 1A. Yeah, so . . . sorry, no. If I comply I am promised more eyeballs, a good thing. Yes, even churches die. It’s not something that we want to think about. We want our churches to be eternal. We don’t want them to die.
They do die, though. The church dies and is reborn. This cantankerous rebellion started by a martyred carpenter from the ghetto in Nazareth follows the narrative of its founder. It dies and is reborn. If the first death were the end we would not be over 2,000 years into our dispute with Judaism. Over two millennia and we can count billions as followers of that no-account, troublemaking rebel who overturned tables in the temple and chased people with a whip. Although churches die Jesus of Nazareth continues to attract new followers. Crucifying him just made it go viral.
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This story was fact checked by the Journalistic Integrity Committee of the Peoples United Democratic Free Anarchist Republic of Berkeley and rated, “pants on fire”.
There are two services at my church. The early one is a traditional service like I grew up with. The hymnal contains nothing newer than a hundred years ago. It is Catholic Mass denuded of everything the Protestants believed was not Biblical. It is the liturgy of my youth. I have no truck with it. It’s fine.
The other service, the contemporary service, would have my Puritan ancestors declaring us apostate. There is *dancing* and singing and short skirts and boys in tight t-shirts, practically naked by 17th Century standards. At full song the service is hot and sweaty. We have amplified voices, electric guitars, electric pianos and a trap drum set. It is the furthest thing from what my ancestors considered to be pure faith.
There is a stark contrast between the earlier traditional service and the later contemporary service. I went to the 9:30 service two weeks ago. It felt like an unending dirge mourning another moldy scarecrow buried. Weddings among this clique are rare and wakes are frequent. Compare the early service to 11:00am when we raise the roof. There is life. There is noise. People pray loudly. I’ve seen friends fall out full of the spirit. There are new people showing up. New kids trailed by young parents. It is as alive as the earlier service is morbid.
We have an awesome building. Our pastor is everything we wished for when we called him. The associate pastor is awesome. We have great music, do the worship thing well. We do all the things you expect and yet our membership is declining. We are dieing. The traditional service is not gaining new members. Something has to give or we are dead.
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Northminster Baptist Church was a fixture on the Richmond religious scene for over six generations. Old in this country is anything older than a generation. Six generations is positively immortal. Northminster Baptist Church died. It is no more. What killed it? A wealthy, dedicated minority who controlled the leadership and vowed to die before they allowed necessary changes. They kept their vow. They and the church they led is no more.
Every Sunday at 10:30am at 3121 Moss Side Avenue in Richmond, VA there is raucous worship.The Northminster Campus was a sorry mid-century corpse until it was given to Atlee Community Church. Today it is reborn. The old pipe organ was given away to another church that wanted to appease scarecrows insistent on remaining Orthodox Baptist. Where the pipes were are large flat panel televisions. The pews are gone, donated to still another church that has a majority zombie leadership. In their place are stackable chairs. There is a rock band. There is that revival feeling to the worship service. They do an altar call at every service. It’s a completely different church. It is alive. It is disruptive, seditious, temple table turning crazy for the scarecrows and zombies. I love it.
More crucial to me are the reasons Northminster died. Northminster scarecrows were old money Democrats who built a legal fortress around their church to protect themselves from intrusion by outsiders. The deeds to the houses had red-lining clauses in them preventing the sale to anyone not part of the inner circle. These wealthy Baptists were a fountain of evil against a city that is one corner of the slave triangle and was once one of the largest slave markets in the South. Underneath all that holy ghost stuff was racism of a truly ugly sort. They survived long after Kennedy was shot. For them, nothing would change until they died. Yep, that’s how it went.
Today in the room they protected from outsiders there are colored folk of every stripe learning how to get a job. Most of them are exactly the kind of undesirables that the old guard kept out. Mind you, these are the good Baptists who have done everything right, went to good schools, graduated from good colleges, had the usual upper-middle class professional careers. They ran the PTA and the boy & girl scout troops. In every respect they are the heart of the country. Except . . . their NIMBY created a deeply evil racist attitude toward their neighbors exactly against what Christ taught. I’m glad they died. It was time.
That room is filled with the sort of “go fishing together” local missions deeply resisted by the scarecrows. Missions was a two week trip to Central America to build a chapel and save souls. The rest of the year it was another check written for the special offering that week. Locals needed to get themselves to the altar and beg for a fish. They were a Feedmore.org distribution site. Missions was something done to others so they could signal their virtue. They had the ability and felt obligated to fulfill perceived needs.
St. Giles is at a crossroads. We are Northminster about a decade before it died. We have enough scarecrows in key leadership positions that making necessary changes is hard. Our scarecrows have threatened to leave us and take their money with them. We don’t know how we can pay our bills without them so the threat carries some weight and we still do things to appease them that put us in compromising places.
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We don’t know how this ends. Jesus was such a threat to the church of this day that they had him killed by the Romans. At the start we were an annoying band of dissidents who seemed to be of no-account to Caesar. Four centuries later Constantine was so desperate to win a battle he offered himself and the Empire to God if God would grant him this victory. Constantine got his victory and the Empire was never the same. Everywhere scarecrows try to hold on to last year’s dessicated hay as the only hay they will fill themselves with. Jesus is holding the gates of heaven open and burning the the old hay. Jesus has never stopped being a change agent, a maker of new hay.
I hope the scarecrows die off. We can’t survive as a church with them and we are afraid we won’t survive without them. The one certain thing is that they are old and musty and the hay that stuffs them full is moldy and decaying. They will die. We won’t have them or their estates forever. Nothing is immortal.
St. Giles is younger than Northminster by a half century. We are over 75 years old. We are old enough that our founding members are going home to Jesus at an increasing rate. The memory of why we left Grace Covenant Church and much later, why we joined the split from the Presbyterian Church of USA is so yesterday. We are not yet zombie old. We are close, though, and our scarecrows seem set on having their old ways, old hay even to the death of us.
To be Christian is to agree to let die the aspects of ourselves that are out of kilter from what Jesus taught. Death to this world is a part of life in Christ. This means that the old scarecrows, if they are to have their church, must find ways to recruit new, young members and hand over the reigns. This is never easy. Those rascally youngins want all this change and innovation and there is always tension between tradition and necessary disruption to the old order.
Time will tell. We might still be a church if we are able to let the old scarecrows die, if they will surrender to inevitable change. If not, we will join the many churches that once had a heyday and now are legend and ruins.