Nothing sets the mind racing more than when someone asks, “Do you remember when . . . ?” It enables us to transport ourselves back in time as if we were accompanying Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future.” The fascinating aspect of moving backward in memory is that the past, especially if it is the more distant past, has more than likely changed its hue to become much rosier than when it actually happened. This seems to be the case for people of faith of a certain age (and I would include myself in this group).
Growing up Catholic and converting to Protestantism as a teenager in the 1950’s and 60’s, my memory bank is full of experiences that make those days seem so much better than they actually were. As a part of an active youth group, the church was the center of my social and spiritual life. Nothing seemed more important to me than making sure I was in attendance at every youth event at my church. And because I was Baptist and my faith did not approve of dancing, I found an outlet for that at the Presbyterian teen dances every Friday night. Life was all about church and church functions. Sunday morning Sunday School and worship services, Sunday evening Training Union and evening services, and Wednesday church suppers and prayer meeting. Life was full of opportunities to get a perfect attendance pin that was a highly coveted token of how dedicated a young person was. There were extra points if a teen participated in the Sword Drill competitions (I was the Mississippi champion one year). Those days seem far away but so full of happy memories.
This past Sunday during worship service at the church I attended, there were no youth. The congregation was primarily older adults with s scattering of two or three toddlers and one set of young adult parents. During the service I fought the urge to super-impose my teenage experiences in the church of the past on this struggling congregation. My observations however, pushed me to contemplate the reality of many congregations today and attempt to put my own past into perspective. Truthfully, that is not an easy thing to do.
Recent polls tell us that churches are losing followers in large numbers, and the decline is most significant among youth and young adults. An initial reaction might be to make a comparison between the past and the present, but the truth is, there is no comparison. How can one compare then and now? As a youth in the 60’s, there were fewer options from which to choose. We had no cell phones, no Internet, no social media, no computers, television was limited to the big three channels, most youth had only the family car to borrow, and church and school provided most of the social opportunities. There is no comparison to those days of the past and the present. Yet all too often it seems easier to attempt to recreate that past than to create a new future.
My 19-year -old grandson typifies this generational problem. On my last visit to spend some time with him and his family, I invited him to go to a local church with me on a Sunday morning with the promise that I would treat him to lunch after. The service was very typical of most congregations – familiar hymns, certain rites and rituals, and a twenty minute sermon. It seemed so similar to the church I had grown up experiencing. But when I asked him what he thought of it, he rolled his eyes and said, “That was the most boring thing I’ve had to sit through in a long time.” Perhaps a part of his response was because I asked him to turn his cell phone off and he was unable to text his friends during the service or check his email or see what was happening on Facebook.
So what does all of this mean? Simply this. The church of the 1960’s is in the past and must be kept in perspective. As the old saying goes, “The times they are a changin’!” Congregations that spend too much time trying to hang onto that past and do not put it into perspective are not busy creating the church of the present or the future. When we close our hand into a fist and attempt to hold the past too tightly, our hands cannot be open to receive the blessings and joys of the present. It is indeed true that all life experiences are about perspective. The problem is often that we have failed to keep the most meaningful parts of our own spiritual development from our own past in perspective. Could it be that the church of the 21st century needs to stop staring into the rear view mirror and pay more attention to the road ahead? Perhaps then we might have more young people who want to come along for the ride. To steal their phrase, “Just sayin’.”
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