Megachurch? Traditional brick and steeple? Generational differences abound
By Sue Washburn | Presbyterians Today
A 3-year-old I’d baptized as an infant was coming back to visit after his family had moved to a different state. There, unconstrained by family tradition, his grandmother and mother found a church with a good kids’ program and a band. They occasionally come back “home” and join us for worship.
“Where are we?” the little boy asked when they pulled into the parking lot the last time they were in town. He didn’t remember his early days with us.
“We’re at church,” his grandmother said. He was skeptical.
“That’s not church. That’s a castle,” he announced. His grandmother laughed and told him that the traditional red-brick, white-steeple building was indeed the church.
“Is there a band?” he asked. “No,” she said, “but there is music on something called an organ.”
As they walked into the sanctuary, he asked where his class was. His grandmother patiently explained that he wouldn’t leave for class; he would stay with her. So he settled wide-eyed into a pew for worship.
At 3 years old, he already had a working understanding of what church is — and it’s nothing like mine. I know that Jesus prefers pews and organ music and that he loves me when I put on my Sunday best, including a robe and stole. I know that one hour (no more!) of pensive, reflective time with Jesus is true worship. But the little boy knows something different.
For people like him and his 20-something mom (and maybe even his grandmother), church comes with a new set of images. The buildings that house congregations are no longer distinctive and set apart. They are storefronts and coffee shops and warehouse-style buildings with mall-sized parking lots. The steeple has been replaced with branding graphics that point up to heaven on the Twitter page.
Church names themselves are meant to evoke feelings of spirituality. New congregations don’t just number themselves (First, Second or Third). They’ve discovered what real estate professionals have always known: Inspiring names attract more people. In fact, my friend Laura and her sister have an ongoing game where they try to guess if the majestic yet peaceful names they see on signs in a rapidly growing suburb are churches or housing developments. Mountain Bliss? Serenity Place? Paradise Park? Majesty Garden?
The church I serve is named Reunion, a historical name recalling the reunification of split factions in 1869. A split had occurred when the New School adopted some of the characteristics of the Second Great Awakening and emphasized revivalism, including the importance of a conversion experience, expressive worship and higher moral standards. The Old School was sure that the popular revivalism presented a threat to the church’s decency, order and integrity.
I can’t help but think that we are in a similar split today. We are thinking long and hard about our buildings and mission, the kind of music we sing and how active we should be in working for God’s justice beyond our walls. The church of the last hundred years will not be the church of the next hundred.
I look at the children in the congregation and wonder what church will look like when they are my age. Will the “castle” that has been on Main Street for 150 years still be a church when they are 20 or 50? Or will it be converted into a flea market or brewery or boarded up? Will the children we serve today be in pews as adults? Or will they be in Majestic Heights, singing songs that haven’t even been written yet? When they are 50 years old, will they be like us, wondering what church will look like for their children?
Sue Washburn is the bi-vocational pastor of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania.
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