Patti Duckworth, Associate Executive Minister A friend I have made who works at our local Barnes and Nobles told me recently of a woman in her neighborhood who decided several years ago she wanted to run in marathons, the full 26.2 mile marathons. She had never done much running before and so had to learn to do a number of things differently in her life. The two amazing things in this story are this woman started running and competing when she was about 60 years old. That was over twenty years ago. She is now in her 80s and still running in competitions!
In “An Avoidable Future” (www.abcnw.org/an-avoidable-future/), I described my experience in January of seeing churches over 500 years old. Some are now simply museums and others, while still having worshiping congregations, house shops and are concert halls. I as walked the city and began to get a sense of their history and culture-shaping events, I also wondered about the response of Christians to those events. I doubt the leaders of the church several hundred years ago, much less fifty years ago, would have included the ideas of “museum” and “shops” as a part of what they believed their church should be about. In the weeks since, I have found myself wondering what might have caused them to become distracted from the purpose Jesus has given to his Body: seeking the lost to offer salvation (Luke 19:10). Had they just become too old to fulfill the Lord’s purpose?
Is a church ever TOO old?
Looking at those massive and often empty Amsterdam church buildings has caused me to reflect on our own situations in the Northwest today. After all, the statistics say our culture is becoming more secular, perhaps headed the way of The Netherlands where prostitution and marijuana are controlled (and taxed) “recreation” and “entertainment.” And we could even fall into thinking old churches cannot reach any new people with the Gospel. If that were the case, the English Reformed Church (Begijnhof, Amsterdam) I attended in January would not be full on Sunday mornings.
By all current thinking, they are getting it all wrong. The building is OLD (built in the 1390s and rebuilt after a fire in the 1490s). There were old grave slabs in the floor! (The remains were re-interred elsewhere a number of years ago.) The present congregation as an organization is old: it was founded in 1607 and has held public worship every Sunday at 10:30am since its organization. The building and open yard in which it sits was REALLY hard to find because it lies inside a ring of buildings and is accessible only by walking through a passage between two of the buildings in the ring. A three-foot tall folding sign on the street marks the passageway between the buildings. The entrance into the church is exactly what it looks like from this picture – barely enough room for a single line of people to enter or depart. There is virtually no technology used during the service. For the Sunday worship I attended, only a piano and an organ were used. The pastor (a short-term interim) also led the congregation in singing a cappella during his sermon.
But there were a lot of things that were right. They have a systematic means of connecting people with each other during the week. There were families with children. Youth and children were involved in the worship as well as in the after-worship refreshments. The mix between men and women seemed fairly even. People who stayed after worship for refreshments were actually engaged in conversation. At least 3 different people engaged me in conversation. The sermon was Biblically based and applicable to everyday life. They had adopted a hospital to support as one means of outreach.
The result? A growing, warm, inviting multi-generational, multi-ethnic fellowship of over 200 hundred in worship. Did they have it all figured out? No. Were there some potential barriers to continued growth? No doubt. Were they reaching people with the good news of Jesus? Yes.
As I experienced worship and fellowship with these sisters and brothers, I realized one thing they had not done. They refused to think of themselves as “too old” to be outward focused, growing and sharing Christ with people in one of the most secular cities in western Europe.
Closer to home, one of our sister ABC-Northwest churches has also rejected the excuse of “too old” to grow and bring people to Christ. This fall First Baptist Church of Boise, Idaho, is celebrating 150 years of ministry. It is probably the oldest, continuing congregation in the ABC-Northwest. Yet under the leadership of Pastor Bruce Young, it is engaged in expanding ministry and outreach. While they are taking time to celebrate their long history of witness and ministry, they are continuing to actively pursue Christ’s mission of seeking and saving the lost. Their video on their website reminds us, “When we think of a church, we often think of wood and steel and blocks. A church isn’t brick and mortar; that’s a building. A church is a body of believers in Jesus. ... We are here to live out our God-given design and to sharpen and encourage one another to be the people God has called us to be. … We are moving from ordinary to extraordinary life change through a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” Check out what this congregation that has refused to give into “too old” thinking is doing today: http://fbcboise.org/
Is a church ever too old? First Baptist Church of Boise has come back with a resounding “no!” But what does it take to keep from slipping into “too old” thinking and behavior? In Part 2, we will look at some of those key elements.