A couple weeks ago, while on vacation, I went to worship at the church of my youth. It's an important place for me. Much of my faith was formed and nurtured there, and two significant events in my life, confirmation and ordination, took place there. That Sunday, I found the familiar: the chill of a foggy morning in the summer, the sanctuary built atop a high hill, and longtime members like my mother who have worshiped there for decades and recognized me instantly.
But I was surprised by how much was unfamiliar. The fireside room had lost its fireplace and wall of banners, replaced now by large television monitor and dozens of eight-by-ten photos of members. The view of distant valleys and hills from the Sanctuary was blocked by towering trees that served as backdrop to a new rock garden and labyrinth down below. And most of the congregation that day were people I'd never met and whose names I may never know.
And that felt very good.
Had everything been exactly as I remembered years ago, this church today would be like many others: dead or dying, if even it still existed. But I have changed over the years of my absence, and so has my home church, transformed by new members and new ways that have brought vibrancy and vitality. I know it didn't come easy. It took plenty of prayer, patience, and perseverance. As I left that day I told the minister, "I love what you've done with the place!"
The instinct to preserve is strong, especially in the church. Every church, whether declining or not, knows the change-talk, but still resists it. Even whole denominations acknowledge that change is inevitable, but moves toward it inexorably slow.
In the UCC, there has been lots of discussion about the emergent church, unified governance and alternative futures, and we go through exercises of developing strategic plans, creating blueprints for change, and building in adaptive responses. But change remains elusive because, I believe, we are yet trying to preserve what we have, as they are, and, we hope, forever will be.
Preserving our buildings, structures, traditions or livelihoods may be a projection of our fears of the future, as well, I think, as our fears of placing full faith in God. As I read the scriptures, I find that when God's people are asked to preserve, the focus is always on life and persons rather than institutions and structures. The prevalent message in the Bible is a call to persevere as the latter are threatened, weakened or destroyed. And as we persevere, we are assured that God's steadfast love will endure forever (Psalm 136); the word will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8); and Christ will be with us always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
To preserve or to persevere is always the choice, whether for the church or in our lives.
Just before service started that Sunday at my home church, one of the familiar faces shared with me how she was considering moving from her large home where she now lives alone to a retirement community. She was resisting the thought of having to leave the place where family and memories had been created and nurtured. But she knew she couldn't easily or much longer stay where she was.
I only listened, not for lack of things to say but because service was about to start. During worship, her words of anxiety stayed with me, and they became a dialogue with an inner conversation about how this church and the people had changed so much from what I remembered. Somewhere in that conversation, three words popped into my head, a message, I am certain, from God. These were the words that a messenger from God offered to another woman long ago—Mary, the mother of Jesus—who was facing an inevitable change in her own life.
After worship, as I said good-bye, I shared those three words with her: "Be not afraid" (Luke 1:30). I don't know if that helped or meant anything to her, but to me it was a most definite assurance that if we can relax our grip on what we know and hold so dear, God will grasp our hand and lead us through the uncertain future. Faith in God will help us move from preserving to persevering.
The Rev. Charles C. Buck is the UCC's Hawaii Conference Minister.