Yeah, I know, we’ve always done it this way…

By January 16, 2018 Journal

(Link to photo credit in the footnotes.)

Yesterday I went to Bennington’s Martin Luther King, Jr., event. A couple dozen people gathered at the four corners and sang protest songs by candlelight, and then we processed down to Oldcastle Theater for a reception and to listen to some speakers talk about building the “Beloved Community,” and to sing a few more songs.

It was a lovely event, and there were about a hundred people there. And I don’t doubt that the groups that put the event together, including the Interfaith Council, will celebrate it as a success. And they should. Because it was a success. A hundred people came together on a cold night to sing, and to listen to our neighbors talk about what the Beloved Community means, and to sing songs that remind us the the work of the Beloved Community is not complete.1

It was joyous, and Spirit-filled, and it bore witness to Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community while naming the truth that the Beloved Community is not yet a reality. I was proud of our community for representing Dr. King’s lofty ideal and celebrating his legacy.

There is only one thing I could have wished for the evening…

I looked around the room and I estimate that there were maybe eight people under the age of 40. And while those old protest songs are powerful, and moving, the young people who were there weren’t doing much singing.

I’m not saying they are socially or culturally insensitive, or that they didn’t support the event or its purpose. But they didn’t know the songs. A few of the songs I didn’t know, either!

One of the reasons I always include a variety of hymns in my worship services is that our hymns are how people without theological degrees participate in theology together. It’s the same with these songs. Songs, protest songs, are one way that people participate together in social evolution; how they stand together against injustice. Voice mingled in song are how we demonstrate that we are of one purpose, even as we are of one voice.

So does it matter? Does it matter that the eight people under 40 didn’t know the songs, because there are only eight people? Or were there only eight people because they knew a large part of the event would be awkward for them? Haven’t we seen this in the church for generations? Why bother to do more contemporary things, when the average age of the church is 65? But what if the average age of the church is 65 because we don’t bother with contemporary things?

What if the reason so many young people don’t participate is because we’re not teaching them how to participate in a way that is relevant to them?

“We’ve always done it this way.”

“It’s worked for generations, so why change it?”

Church lingo 101.

But it was the perfector of our faith, Jesus himself, who called b-s on that.

And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” [Mt. 13:52, NRSV]

Yes, there’s a way we’ve always done things, but it’s as effective as it once was. A hundred people at an event both promoting the Beloved Community, and naming that it is not yet complete. It was a great turnout, and a wonderful event. But less than 10% of those people under the age of 40. We have churches with a hundred or more people coming to worship, but probably the exact same age ratios, probably also the same rate of participation in mission and ministry.

Largely because we’ve always done it a certain way, and change is hard. For everyone. Change is hard for us all. Even those of us who recognize that change is both necessary and inevitable.

I love Sunday mornings. I love worship. I love a lot of the great old hymns.

But I am building a church here, in Bennington, now, in 2018. And I can almost guarantee that church isn’t going to look and sound like that here. Because if we don’t create something that is relevant to this time and this place, and the people who are seeking faith in an environment that rebels against the traditions of faith and the perceptions (real or false) that go along with those traditions, then we might as well not waste our time. Our task isn’t to build a church for a decade or even a generation, but to extend the Kingdom of God by building a community that is part of the kingdom for generations to come.

References   [ + ]

1. Here’s a link to the Bennington Banner article for the event, and this is the photo credit as well: http://www.benningtonbanner.com/stories/beloved-community-focus-of-mlk-event,529553

Author Pastor Steve

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