When I was ten my parents bought a 150-year-old house across the street from my dad’s parents’ farm and next door to my mom’s parents’ house. It had been a rental for a while, so it needed work. Also, it was 150 years old. The foundation sloped so far my parents could stand on opposite sides of the living room and look eye to eye in spite of their six-inch height difference. There was so much work to be done, but they envisioned their future on those three acres and looked beyond the fake-brick siding, breezy paned windows, and narrow, tacked-on kitchen to the proximity of family, work, and farm, cousins within walking distance, space to set roots and grow. This place would become home.
Looking for a church is so much like shopping for a new house. We ought to have church realtors, agents who assemble a list of possibilities in your range and then show you around when the current homeowners aren’t there so you can make an objective decision about the place and imagine yourself living in that space. We came to our current church like house buyers assessing whether the place would fill our needs.
It didn’t. And wouldn’t. Between the gray- and white-haired ladies and old men in suits and no Sunday school classes and no toddler room, there was no way this would work. We took selfies with the old folks from the back pew and snuck out with quick handshakes after.
But our requirement for finding a church was picking one within our own community. We’d done the commute to a big church before and felt the intimacy of the community church, and we preferred the latter for our season of life. Before we left, the pastor knelt down next to our pew. “I know how this looks,” she seemed to be saying, “but a new pastor and his young family will be serving here soon, and they are already planning a joint vacation Bible school next summer! So, come back, maybe? When there’s at least one other family in your age demographic?”
We have now attended our little Methodist church for more than a year, partnering with the pastor and his family in an attempt to reenergize the church, to help it become new (and young) again. We quickly developed a friendship and partnership with Erik and Amanda and their four-year-old son, proposing “What if?” questions to one another. What are we doing? How are we doing it? How can we move this place forward, or bury it gracefully?
We planned a major renovation: remodel the order of worship, add on a new worship leader, redecorate the altar space, transform the spare bedroom into a Sunday school room. As the dust settled, the congregation accommodated the change and tolerated the new paint smell. And because of that our church service looks a lot different than it did a year ago.
And still the young people have not come. It turns out that, if you build it, they don’t always come.
So why are we still here? That’s a question we throw around week to week. Why this community? Is it just because we can leave five minutes before service and arrive in the sanctuary to log our hour with the Lord each Sunday? Is it just because we feel some obligation to a place, the same way these people have spent decades attending services in their church building? Why church at all? That’s another question we have asked and probably will ask again.
My original assumptions about the people were inaccurate. The old people, it turns out, are just people. Some are very old and some are not as old. Some are very wise and some are not as wise. Some are very tired and some are not so tired at all. In the year we’ve been there the artificiality of our titles—old, young—has worn thin, bare down to the heart so that now we can see each other clearly, the joy and grief and loss and love, the hope and faith and doubt and need in each of us.
When we gather on Thursday nights to talk about forgiveness, both the old and the young need practice forgiving. Both the old and the young have unforgiven hurts, old wounds, hard scars, and deep insights into the practice of living. I take the Bible’s lovely contradictions about the older teaching the younger and Paul’s insistence to Timothy not to let anyone look down on you because of your youth and see there’s room for both: old learning from young and young learning from old, if we only have ears open, eyes open, hearts open.
When people from opposite sides reach across the divide and choose to work together, it’s a beautiful thing.
When I take my losses and grief to these men and women, they are able to offer a lifetime of experience. They know loss and grief. They have felt the weary spinning of the days and years and now spin slower, offer the backward-looking perspective that provides context to my immediate anxieties, and remind me to stop worrying and look after the matters of today because today is all we are currently promised.
My parents could not have addressed the serious and complicated challenges of renovating their house without being able to see one another, hear one another, and love one another. Love keeps a place warm and makes a place grow, and my parents made a home our extended family and friends wanted to spend time in—not because it is beautiful architecturally, though that helps, but because they serve laughter and love everlasting.
I’ve found I have to love others well, love the ones I’m with, to make church a place where people come to expect to be loved and welcomed. Community is always a two-way street, a risk we take. We’re still missing younger families at our church. We could use more hands in the Sunday school room, a space for a nursery, more funding to keep things running. We will always have more needs. But I have not found a good enough reason to stop loving these people.