Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why don’t we still have stables at the church?

The first church I served was founded in 1844, but the Union army destroyed the building during the Civil War. At war’s end, the people bought another tract of land and built a new church. It being 1865, they built a stable and carriage shed in the rear to protect horses and carriages from the elements when the people were at church.

The stable and shed are no longer there.

The sanctuary originally had narrow, wooden benches with no backs, a common feature of churches back then. In the early 1900s, high-backed pews were installed, decreasing seating capacity by almost 100. Soft pew cushions were added about 25 years ago.

No one knows what happened to the benches.

The church was originally lit by oil lamps. It was not electrified until FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration gave assistance. Since the mid-1930s, the church has used electric lights.

The oil lamps are nowhere to be found.

A man in his 80s told me he used to come early on winter Sundays as a lad to light the coal heaters in the sanctuary. A few years after getting electric lights, the church converted to electric heat.

The coal heaters are long gone.

The transoms over the stained-glass windows could be opened for ventilation when they were installed in 1916. Decades later the church added air conditioning.

The transoms were then soldered shut.

Some years before I arrived, the church converted a Sunday School room to a nursery. Before then, mothers were expected to look after their small children at church or stay home with them.

Though the stables had long disappeared when I arrived, the church had no parking lot. It did have a small, graveled-over area that was itself overgrown with grass. People parked on it and on the lawn.

One especially soggy November a woman visitor pointed out to me that she had apparently ruined her shoes walking through the mud from her car. I related this conversation to our lay leader, who was a woman also, but she replied that muddy shoes were a small price to pay to worship God when the early Christians worshiped at risk of death.

The problem is, of course, that there were dozens of churches in the community where one could worship just as well without ruining one’s shoes. Not long afterward, the church built a 100-space, paved, curbed and lined parking lot with a sheltered drive-up.

Each one of these changes - electric lighting, central heating and cooling, adaptation to autos - was, in its time, very controversial among the members, some of whom resisted them vigorously.

Would you like our church to take out the cushioned pews, uninstall the air conditioning, disable the microphones and return to kerosene lighting? Of course not – but it’s important to realize that what we think of as normal and common-sense practice was once widely seen as radical, new-fangled, faddish and unnecessary.

They are universal features now because churches learned that if they did not adapt, people would go elsewhere. When a significant percentage of churches began to accommodate cars instead of horse and carriage, people who drove cars went to them. Churches that held onto stables either closed or made the shift. Same with efficient cooling: people migrated away from open-window churches to air-conditioned ones until the holdout churches understood they’d have to get cool or close.

Today, the “textual generation” is being replaced by the “audiovisual, web-connected generation.” The former learns mainly by reading. But people not much younger than me learn mainly by looking and hearing. The younger someone is, the truer this is. People in their teens and 20s also expect to absorb information by more than one means at a time and interact with one another while they are doing it.

Today, churches are turning to use of multimedia during worship at a rapid pace. Overall, this is less controversial than tearing down the stables was. But like stabled churches had to do, we have to realize that this is the way that society is moving. Churches must adopt this technology or the next generation will simply go elsewhere.

I find this an exciting opportunity, not a daunting challenge. For the first time in literally all the centuries of the Christian era, we actually have a new means to connect the Good News of Jesus Christ with people in ways that have never been possible before. This should fill us with enthusiasm, not timidity!

Update, Dec. 2011: The Baptist Press says its surveys and studies show that American churchgoers are just as "digitally engaged" as the general population.

As long ago as 2007, three-fourths of churches reported that they "regularly use some kind of visual enhancement" of their worship services.