A recent thread in a Lutheran clergy discussion page caught my attention. It was about people who are territorial about the place they sit when attending church. We tease about it, and get discouraged when the “owner” of the space gets upset, but this is just an aspect of human nature. Over the years I have encouraged faithful members to be hosts of their pews, so that visitors might get the royal treatment of welcome that we Christians are known for. This has met with mixed results, but has been (mostly) effective.
This reminded me of a story that a classmate of mine during my D. Min. days told me. He was serving a Pentecostal church and they were building a new sanctuary. They had outgrown the old, traditional church, and needed to have space. An elderly lady – pillar of the church for 70 years – stopped coming to worship, so he visited her. She was upset about the move, and she told him why. She said that when she sat down, she felt like her deceased husband and children (who had moved away) were still with her. She sat in the same place because it brought her comfort, and a new church would mean the loss of that feeling.
My friend is excellent at what he does, and very caring. The new, shiny, ultra-modern church was built, and in the spot where this woman sat was the pew from the original church. Her joy was overwhelming. It turns out – coincidentally – that this woman of seemingly meager means had lots of money, and when she died a year or two later, she left the church a large donation. My friend had no idea, and it wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) matter anyway. We need to listen to why people are concerned and not dismiss them.
I know that I get tired of “We never did it that way before”, but there are times when the thing people seem to be upset about is not really the thing at all. Losing connection to the past is a great fear for all of us – just ask anyone with Alzheimer’s disease. So while we need to move forward, we also need to recognize and honor the traditions that still work. We need to sing old songs and new songs – try older styles of outreach and evangelism while we step deeply into the digital age. Change is constant – and sometimes change means looking to the past for new innovations. Let’s mix it up – as I often say to folks in my congregation, we sing songs from every age so that everyone has something they might hate, and something they might love. Peace!
Pastor Steve Ohnsman has served Calvary UCC in Reading, PA, since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an MDiv from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a PhD in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).