We in the church are often older than the average population. Many of us have been coming to church since we were infants. And we know how things ought to be. Just ask us. But here’s the thing we forget: the people before us made way for us, as evidenced by the fact that we’re still here. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here. It really is that simple. So too must we make way for those to come after. Or they will not come.
So – you say you want young folk. And they aren’t here. And you wonder why.
This list is not intended to say that we never get it right. We know when we get it right. It’s obvious. What is not obvious is when we get it wrong. Hence this list.
1. Insist that things remain as they have always been. This was
the error of the Roman Catholic church at the time of the Reformation – to insist that nothing change is to lose those for whom change is essential to their participation. . . it is to fail to recognize that the new voice may just be the voice of God come with a new or renewing message to the faithful . . . Jesus did not come as a statue at a frozen moment in time . . . he came as a living, breathing, change-bringing human being . . .
2. Resent the change new folks bring with them. The fact is that whenever a new person walks in, things change – literally, the identity of the group is changed whenever a single part of that group is changed . . . so with the loss of some and the addition of others. Change thus understood, is inevitable. Sensing this do many resent rather than embrace new folk, understanding the change their very presence brings as a threat rather than an opportunity.
3. Complain . . . a lot . . . insist that words to the hymns never be changed (treat the hymns as if they’re scripture) . . . voice your confusion when familiar tunes are put with different words (refusing to learn – learning, studies show, is actually promoted by changing things up a bit) . . . treat your customary seat as if it has your name engraved upon it . . . frown whenever someone new missteps on your (unknown to them) sacred cow of how things are “supposed to be” . . . snarl when young children fuss, or better, tell young parents how your children never acted that way in church . . . bitch and kvetch instead of offering solutions to new things being tried (such as recorded music because you can’t understand the words – rather than suggesting we might include the lyrics to help those who don’t hear so well anymore) . . . Whine about missing the choir, refusing to see that there aren’t enough voices to sustain a regular choir anymore and that this preacher is not a musician. And absolutely do not volunteer to organize one yourself.
4. Blame others for your own changing limitations. You don’t hear as well as you used to. Standing and sitting are not easily done. Sometimes you may find yourself more irritable, especially in those pews, which are not user-friendly to your aging body. When that happens, be sure to blame your discomfort or limitation on the preacher (why does she make us stand so often? Why doesn’t she leave the words to the songs alone? Why is the sermon so long?), the new folks with kids (I can’t hear what’s being said over that child), the bulletin (squinting at the regular-sized order rather than taking one of the large-print ones lest someone know you can’t see as well as you once did and think you weak, less than), and so forth.
5. Refuse to learn anything new. When a new song is introduced, refuse to sing it; refuse to even look at the words; revert to #3 and let the complaining begin. When the preacher starts a blog, refuse to read it because you do not read blogs (declared as if you were announcing that you, a vegetarian, do not eat meat or you, a law-abider, do not break into other people’s homes). When a new service is introduced, never attend, because it’s not your cup of tea.
6. Misremember your own past. You were change to another generation at one time in your life. Refuse to remember that. Refuse to recall how others before you made space for you and your ideas and new ways. Or how it made you feel when they didn’t.
7. Insist that church is your house (my house, my rules). Actually, church is God’s house and we are all the guests. The rules are God’s too. Pews are not bible-mandated (read it – if we wanted to be biblical and literal about it, Sunday would have me as the preacher sitting rather than standing and the rest of you sitting on the floor or standing around me as I taught). Participation and ownership are not the same thing. One is inclusive; the other is not. Isn’t it time at this point in your life that you understood that?
8. Insist that children are interruptions, better seen than heard. Here’s the test to know if this is you: when an old folk makes a remark from the pew during the sermon, do you laugh? (We do at my church). Or do you complain that she should be quiet? Of course you don’t. Well, if she is able to ‘participate’ from the pew, why cannot the babies and little ones? Jesus reserved a special anger for those who would keep the children away (presumably being the ‘distractions’ that they often are). If it displeased Jesus, why would we think it would be all right for us to do it? More importantly, why would we think the only message we’re to get on Sunday would come from the front? (And remember, I’m the preacher in these scenarios). Why would we not understand that maybe, just maybe, the ‘interruption’ was the real reason we were there? That the child had something of God to teach us?
9. Insist that one’s apparel is the measure of one’s dedication to God The testimony of a man I heard years ago at my home church makes the point better than I ever could: John (I can’t remember his name, so we’ll call him John) had a great epiphany when young, making his own profession of faith in a family member’s home just after he had sat in his van on their lawn with beer and joint in hand. A brand-new Christian, he decided to come to church the next day. Still having what he called a rebellious spirit, he came wearing his dirtiest clothes and no shoes. He mentioned the clothes and one of the elders of the church shouted out to remind him that he was barefoot too (yes, people noticed). Laughingly, he said, “you’re right – I’d forgotten that.” Then he went on to say how everyone in that church made him feel welcome and made no comment on his appearance and how much difference that made – their loving him (or if you prefer, loving him anyway) – to his walk. Some folks don’t have anything but work clothes. Some are simply indifferent to their physical appearance. Some are wearing their Sunday best and it just happens not to be quite as good (in our eyes) as our Sunday best. And some are testing us, to see if we really live what we proclaim. The whole idea of dressing up for church probably stems from rituals of purity (such as washing one’s hands or feet) before entering the house of the Lord. But Christians have, by and large, not retained such rituals, understanding Jesus the Christ and his death on the cross to have achieved for us our ‘cleanliness’ before God. So if it’s veneration for The Holy One you want, you might be better off to put a washing sink outside the sanctuary than to insist that men wear ties and women wear hats.
10. Always insist that worship is about you. Forget that you have already had a lifetime of wonderful worship experiences. Overlook that you have the skills to experience worship walking down the street. In other words, refuse to make way for worship geared to those less sure in the faith than you. Don’t participate in that worship. Do not lend your support to it. Make it always and only be about you and your needs, wants, desires. Do not share. Henri Nouwen, in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, challenges us older Christians to remember that the parable has three main characters and that we are not to remain prodigals or older brothers, but rather are called out by God to become the father in the story (that’s right – we are to move towards taking on the role of God) – to become the one who runs out in greeting, the one who kills the fatted calf and celebrates the long-awaited return, the one who explains to the resentful older brother why it should be thus. It is an important reminder: we begin our journey as prodigals or older brothers or even sometimes as both. But we are not to remain there. As we progress in our walk, we are called out to become the very face of God to all the other prodigals and older brothers, to understand that it isn’t all about us and live out that redemptive love and in so doing, change a world. Or not.