By Ed Thompson
“We change in order to preserve what we value.” I think that quote comes from the Kenyon College Alumni magazine. (That’s my daughter’s alma mater. I suppose they keep sending me their magazine in hopes that I’ll send them more of my money.) I scribbled the quote down on a business card because I found it so striking, but to be honest, I’m not completely sure of its source. I think it came from a student who was talking about how the campus was changing with some older buildings being torn down; others being gutted and refitted with new windows, wiring and HVAC; and a few new buildings being constructed.
In some ways, that quote probably applies to the church. It helps explain why we get new hymnbooks that feature more modern hymns as well as hymns from other countries. It helps explain why we use new translations of the Bible that take into account older manuscripts as well as our changing language. (It’s interesting to read the introduction to the King James Version of the Bible. Its translators were also trying to convey the scriptures in words that people could understand. That’s a neverending battle as newer words are constantly being introduced into our language and older words are taking on new and different meanings.) It also helps explain why we do Vacation Bible School and maybe Sunday School differently. Flannel boards and filmstrips may have been cutting edge technology back in the day – and perhaps they can still be used on occasion – but technology has changed, as have the expectations of today’s students.
We make these changes because we value vibrant congregational singing, we value understanding the scriptures, and we value teaching the faith to our children.
In other ways, though, the statement doesn’t apply to the church. Sometimes, I think we value the wrong things. We value the close friendships and the feeling of family that exists in our congregations so much that we ignore visitors. We value the way we do things so much that we fail or refuse to make the changes that might appeal to younger families. We value organ music so much that we don’t realize it’s an oddity for many people. It’s something they hear only in church. Even fans of public radio, a small but significant niche that includes many Presbyterians, probably hear more dulcimer music than they do organ music on air during the week. I’m afraid that for some people, especially those in younger generations, organ music may even be a barrier to being a part of the church and thus hearing the gospel. Another quote I read more than 20 years ago still haunts me. “We have to convert people to like organ music before we can convert them to know Jesus Christ.”
What do we value? Sometimes, I think we value our buildings more than we value our Lord. We spend more money and time preserving our buildings than we do sharing our faith. We spend more energy on getting people to come to our building than we do on teaching them the gospel once they get there. That, of course, assumes people will come to the building. Maybe we need to spend more time and effort going to where the people are instead of trying to get them to come to us.
As I travel around the presbytery, I find faithful people doing incredibly creative things as they live out their faith. I am overwhelmed by their generosity, commitment, love for their church and love for our Lord. Sometimes, though, I just have to shake my head. Sometimes, I hear people wonder why the church is dying. Not that it’s a bad thing to die. As people who believe in resurrection, we look forward to life after death. Maybe that’s what we can look forward to, that there will be a new life, a resurrection life for our church, after our old way of doing church and being church dies. But maybe we’re dying because we’re killing ourselves as a result of our misplaced values and resistance to change.
What do we value? What are we willing to change? What are we willing to change in order to preserve what we value? Those are questions we need to wrestle with as individuals and as a church.