The small rural congregation that I now serve a few times a month is aging. The youngest of us is in her fifties, and the majority are in their seventies or eighties. In recent sermons, I’ve been asking the question of legacy. What legacy does this congregation desire to pass on to the future generations? Will there even be a future generation?
Previous generations found ways of transferring a sense of purpose and mission from one to another. Never a large gathering, the congregation has served it’s members and the community faithfully and well for over a hundred years. Will there be another hundred years to come? It’s a good question. The town isn’t growing, but it isn’t declining either. Local conservative Evangelicalism has given a generally bad name to church life, so the number of “none” in this church filled town continues to grow. It isn’t simply that the “none” have failed to choose a denomination; most of them have only the vaguest idea of what Christianity is even about, however much they might claim a belief in something akin to God as we understand God to be. We cannot assume that there is a pool of easily catchable fish out there ready to swim into our denominational nets.
I think there is another, more important, stumbling block than a growing number of “nones”, aging members, or the demographics of the community, and that is the century long tradition of serving members and the community. What about a tradition of serving God? The long standing mission statement of the congregation is to know God and make him know, but when serving members and community becomes the measuring stick, the God part becomes invisible.
To confess and follow God as made known in Christ Jesus must come first, and then the serving of members and community will take on the powerful, Spirit driven energy of doing God’s work through the church, rather than the church doing its own good work with an occasional reference to Jesus. And that brings me to the question of legacy.
Many families are passionate about wanting to honor the good name that their parents and grandparents had bequeathed to them, and even more passionate about wanting sons and daughters to do the same. “Remember who you are.” “Be proud to bear our name.” “You have an obligation to uphold the traditions of our family.” Whether for weal or woe, it’s a common theme. So what about our congregations?
Shouldn’t the legacy we have received, and the one we want to pass on, be to remember who we are as followers of Jesus Christ, stand proud to bear the name of Christ, and take seriously our obligation to uphold and pass on the best of two thousand years of tradition? Do we want to become a small handful of old people worshiping behind locked doors until the last one dies? Or do we want to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ no matter how old or few we become?
Our little church building and the congregation that worships in it will be remembered, but for what? That is the question.