I came across this photo of West Union Baptist Church in West Union, Oregon. Organized in 1844, it is the oldest Baptist church west of the Rocky Mountains. The simplicity and beauty of the building is a sight to behold. Looking at this picture, I can’t help thinking about who might have attended there through the years. Oregon isn’t typically thought of as Baptist country, and any church that has survived for this length of time is worthy of recognition.
Most of the churches I’ve been associated with have been considered “older” congregations, based not only on the number of years in existence but also the ages of the people who attend. There are interesting dynamics in play when you consider how many 80 year olds are still participating in their churches. I’m sure it has to be quite a reality check for them when their pastor is about as old as one of their grandchildren! This is a statement I’ve heard more than once through the years, and usually it is offered in endearment. I can’t imagine staying in one church for my entire life, witnessing the changes in staff and church members. Usually the reality of church’s aging is seen in the number of funerals that take place more frequently than they used to be.
There are different approaches to “church growth” and I’ve read just about all I care to about the subject. What I do find interesting are descriptions of the generations who are now attending our places of worship. I’ve read that we have four and maybe five generational types involved in the church. The older members have experienced the depression, wars, and are committed to the institution of the church. These folks tend to stay in one place for the long haul and are considered good workers. The younger members have different life experiences and don’t understand what it’s like to sacrifice and “go without” like many of their older contemporaries. Yet, the younger guard are more open to change and recognize the value of creativity. I won’t go into all the details, but suffice it to say there are challenges to keeping all philosophies and worldviews in cooperation with each other.
I’m amazed at the knowledge and devotion of our people, but find it even more remarkable to learn about their life stories. Having multiple generations in the church creates a family atmosphere and this needs to be nurtured. The old adage is true: “You can’t help growing older, but you can help growing old.” As I transition through the mid-40s and the perils of mid-life, there is a recognition that what you do with people rather than buildings are the things that last. I’ve been fortunate to have had good role models who encouraged my spiritual development. Many of their life stories intersect with my own and I’ve been enriched by them. I can only hope that sharing life with its joys and challenges strengthens the body of Christ.
While recognizing the church is really the people, I do believe that places of worship can have meaning especially when connected to special events. Sometimes members tell me that “this is where my mom and dad used to sit” or “this is where I was baptized” or “my husband and I were married in this room.” Hearing these stories gives the impression that you’re standing on holy ground. There is a charm about old churches, and a quiet strength that comes from being in God’s presence on Sunday morning. I appreciate efforts to reach a younger generation, specifically the contemporary movment’s preference to church buildings that look more like generic office buildings. This isn’t for me, and that’s okay. I also believe that there is a hunger among college students and young professionals to experience God and older churches can assist with that.
Seeing this photograph reminded me that it really is what we do for Christ that lasts. Sometimes churches are critized for their unwillingness to change with the times. I wonder if this critique can be interpreted as a compliment to some degree. Many people are looking for consistancy in this changing world, and the church can offer stability for spiritual formation. It is possible to observe the tradition without becoming traditional in our approaches. We need to be “in the world and not of the world” while at the same time offering ourselves as “salt and light.” This has been the challenge for centuries. Let’s continue to make the effort.