In a recent e-mail conversation with a good friend and colleague, I found myself reflecting on the good old days, specifically, the past golden era of my church.
My congregation, like many, in terms of attendance and financial support, has seen its better days. There has been, unfortunately, a steady decline in our congregation the 16 years I have been her pastor.
It has been disheartening at times, frightening at others, and yet somehow affirming on occasion.
However (let’s be honest here), it really wears at one’s self-esteem and ego to realize that every attempt to pull a church back into its prior significance is met with resistance and indifference.
The building booms of the ’50s and ’60s have left us with more facilities than we can effectively manage. We have been burdened recently with the need of replacing roofs ($250,000-worth in the last two years) and air-conditioning cooling towers.
Our fellowship hall and entrances are badly in need of updating, a dining table hides the indelible stain on our parlor carpet, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam.
Next year, we will celebrate the centennial of a church that, for its first 60 years of existence, was a thriving, growing neighborhood congregation.
People walked to church back then. Hence, we now have inadequate parking. But, boy, did they come! In the early ’60s, given the opportunity to relocate out west on a nice plot of land donated by a church member, the congregation voted to stay put.
And why not? Had God not blessed us here in this historic neighborhood? But many, if not most of the folks who committed the church to remain where it is, due to increasing affluence, relocated themselves – yes, you guessed it – out west. The days of a neighborhood church were over.
Ironically, the old houses in our neighborhood now command much more per square foot than anything out west.
Following the lengthy stay of the pastor who oversaw the church from 1942 to 1971, the church witnessed the comings and goings of four pastors before my entrance in 1996. The bleeding had started, and I haven’t yet figured out how to stop it.
Yet, we are committed to being a missional congregation, and we have done some significant (might I say, even outstanding) ministry in the time I have been here.
The people are open and affirming, and those who commit themselves to our church and ministry tend to stay because of the deep fellowship we experience.
In truth, we have become the alternative Baptist church in a town that doesn’t necessarily appreciate the alternative.
But we’re tired – really, really tired – because we keep going to the same old well that is running out of water.
Back to my conversation with my friend.
Would I, if given the opportunity, want to go back to the ’50s and ’60s and live in that golden era of Southern Baptist life? Not in a heartbeat, and here is why:
While I sometimes envy those pastors who lived and worked during that time of growth and prosperity, hindsight tells me their approach to theology and polity was somewhat one-dimensional, and their mission orientation was simplistic and lacking.
They defined what it meant to be cultural religionists, and all of this may very well have contributed to what would become our current 21st century malaise.
Is that a severe condemnation on my part? Maybe, but I don’t really think so. It means simply that they were products of their time, and, admittedly, so am I.
In a few generations hence, those who follow may say largely the same things about me, and about our present generation.
The situation in which I find myself is not isolated. Every day, I hear of other churches quite similar to mine. We minister in a post-denominational age that is quickly taking on the appearance of a post-Christian age.
Why doesn’t that realization (rationalization?) make me feel better?
The challenges of pastoral ministry today are astounding, to the extent that another friend and colleague, whose father pastored during the post-World War II golden age, tells me that had he known when he started in this profession what he might expect, he probably would have chosen another path. Amen, brother.
If you’ve stayed with me this far, it may be because you’re in the same boat as I and have found my comments to be somewhat cathartic.
Writing down these thoughts has helped me realize that if I will put my faith where my mouth is, I might then understand that the One who “is the same yesterday, today and forever” is still, and always will be, sufficient to see us through.
When I need encouragement, I think on these things.
Randy L. Hyde is senior pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark.