I’m always surprised when I count up the years. These days, what feels like yesterday was really decades ago. That may be because we are just plain getting older. All of us.
The U.S. Census Bureau released data that confirms this feeling. The median age of folks in the U.S. is now 38.9, a significant increase from decades ago, which means we are facing trends of an aging society.
I refuse to lament growing older. I hold that privilege tightly and have my sights set on emulating the gray-haired matriarchs who keep hard candy in their purses and fire in their bones.
I thought about them this week after the demoralizing actions of the Southern Baptist Convention. I know the trailblazers ahead of me sometimes cannot believe we are still questioning what women can or cannot do. Some have named the way I feel: I left the SBC behind a long time ago.
Was the departure so far back that we don’t feel it in our own houses when a door is slammed shut for women next door? The reverberations have many of us questioning and looking in the mirror. How long has it been that we are willing to amplify some calls for justice but ignore many marginalized voices?
As I gather with other members of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship this week, I know it has been too long. But what do we need this year?
More than a piano playing “The Servant Song,” I hear the notes of songwriter Kris Kristofferson, one of my favorite psalmists. His “Pilgrim’s Progress” sounds like a summons: “Am I young enough to believe in revolution? Am I strong enough to get down on my knees and pray?” Am I?
I remember the first general assembly I attended 20 years ago. In 2003, my husband Jake and I stumbled into Charlotte, North Carolina, knowing almost no one and unsure of what kind of Baptist we would be. I would bet that in 2003, there were things the organizers wished had been different. I am sure there are things they got wrong. But it mattered.
We were there in the back row, believing in revolution and prayer. Some of the best ministers and lay leaders I know were in that same room. Few of them minister unscathed today; several claim to be “barely Baptist” anymore. They might be asking the pilgrim’s same question.
I imagine that someone may wander into this year’s general assembly. They have an open invitation after all. If that’s you, here’s what I hope you will do.
Start by looking around.
Pay no attention to the nostalgic. You’ll know them when you hear them. They’re okay; don’t worry. They have enough stories of when it was better to keep them company. If those fail, they keep complaints in their pockets like a fidget spinner.
Move right along, friend. Instead, see where you find these people.
Find the snarky sideliners. They have thoughts on all of this. You’re going to laugh with them, because they tuck the truth right into the middle of their inappropriate but hilarious comment, whispered (tweeted) during the sermon.
Don’t believe the facade that they don’t care about the church. They actually do. They jab and pick apart the efforts at denominational brand management because these snarks are really, at least once upon a time, the true believers.
Watch for the open-hearted. They will hug people and hold on. They’ll be singing like they mean it. They will close their eyes and let their tears fall when we sing a hymn.
You might not get it, and that’s fine. It is a mistake to dismiss them. The sooner we make space for emotion in these gatherings, the more wholehearted we will all be.
Listen to the gift bringers. The learning labs are chock full of knowledgeable experts. We are better for their gifts.
Notice the networks that do profound good outside of church walls. What can we learn from the people who have left behind the guest services desk of a congregation and stayed near the broken places in our world?
Find the learners. Hear from the interns and students. Imagine what the church could be if we amplify their stories with resounding affirmations.
Get near the disrupters. There is an unspoken but expected sense of style and decorum among this gathering. Pay attention to the ones who disrupt it. Invite their unique look, their neurodivergence or their largess into your imagination.
Maybe they will be among the noisy children in the playground. They’ll probably use profanity in a learning lab. Maybe they will be the people with disabilities naming how a meeting room is not accessible. Beloved community is incomplete without them.
Lean in for the truth-tellers. Some will be at pulpits, sure. Most of them will show up in late-night conversations at the bar a couple of blocks away.
They will ask things like, “Who is not flourishing in our circles and how are we participating in that? Which minister friends need holding up right now? How can we embrace our friends on a deconstruction journey? How far do our welcoming and affirming practices reach, and what are we missing?”
Old and young, I hope we can finish the pilgrim’s song together: “I’d be crazy not to wonder if I’m worthy / Of the part I play in this dream that’s coming true.”
A minister, writer and director of media and engagement for Three Minute Ministry Mentor, Erin and her husband Jake enjoy parenting their four young children in Macon, Georgia.