Like an Ostrich Egg Through a Boa Constrictor

1950s20church20pic1In each of the churches I have served there has been a “legendary” pastor.

In New Castle, Kentucky, it was Bill Hull.  People would talk to me about how things had been back in “Bill Hull days,” when they had 300 people in Sunday school (a lot for that little church) and had to put folding chairs in the aisles to accommodate the crowds on Sunday morning.  I was a seminary student at the time, doing all I could to build up the membership of that church, but we didn’t have anything like 300 people in Sunday school.  The numbers were usually under 100.  I knew Bill Hull.  I admired him.  But every time someone mentioned his name I cringed at the comparison.  They didn’t say it out loud but they must have been thinking: “Bill Hull used to pack them in.  What’s wrong with you?”

At my next church it was Dewey Hobbs.  People used to tell me how things had been back when he was pastor, how they built the new educational wing to accommodate all the people who were coming to Sunday school and how, on Sunday mornings, they used to put folding chairs in the aisles (what is it with these folding chairs?).  I got to know Dewey Hobbs while I was there and liked him a lot.  I could see why people remembered him so fondly.  And yet there was some part of me that was relieved to move on from that place, knowing I wouldn’t have to hear his name every day.

I had been at First Baptist, DC, about ten minutes when someone asked me if I had heard of one of their former pastors, Dr. Ed Pruden.  Yes, I had, but over the next seven-and-a-half years I heard a lot more.  Dr. Pruden was pastor when the church built its magnificent new sanctuary.  He was pastor when Harry Truman used to come to worship.  His portrait hung in the church parlor and the pulpit from which I preached Sunday after Sunday was called the “Pruden Pulpit.” 

There is no doubt that each of these men were gifted and able pastors, but only at my third church did I realize that each of these men had served during the 1950’s, a time when going to church was—for so many people—the “Sunday morning thing to do.”  When someone asked Dr. Pruden how he was able to grow such a large church he replied, “In those days it was a matter of opening the door and getting out of the way.”

It’s not that way any more.

The churchgoing boom coincided almost exactly with the Baby Boom (1946-1964).  Couples wanted their babies to grow up in the church just as they had.  They came by the hundreds, by the thousands, and soon churches were scrambling to find enough nursery space, and then enough Sunday school space for all those babies, all those children!  And because all their parents were coming to church too they needed bigger sanctuaries.  They built them, and for a little while at least those sanctuaries were full, or nearly.

Sometimes when I am driving through the rural South I will see three church buildings along the highway.  One is the original sanctuary, built sometime in the 1920’s; next to it is a much larger sanctuary, built sometime in the 1950’s; and next to that is an educational building, built sometime in the 1970’s.  When you look at the three of them in a row like that you can see how the Baby Boom moved through the church like an ostrich egg through a boa constrictor.  I would guess that the Sunday morning crowd these days could easily fit inside that original sanctuary building.  I would also guess that those people are telling the current pastor how good things were back in the 1950’s.

My guess is that it isn’t the pastors who are the problem, usually.  My sense is that pastors these days are working harder and smarter than ever before.  But the culture has changed in ways we are only beginning to understand, and the forces that once pushed people into the church are now pulling them out.  “I can’t come this Sunday; my son has a soccer game.”  “I can’t come next Sunday; we’re going to the beach.”  “I can’t come at all; I have to work on Sunday.” 

So we sigh, and shake our heads, and look back to the good old days, when churchgoing was the Sunday morning thing to do.  And there are some in our congregations who still hold on to the hope that if we could just find the right pastor, if we could find another Bill Hull, or Dewey Hobbs, or Ed Pruden…

… it would be 1955 again.

8 thoughts on “Like an Ostrich Egg Through a Boa Constrictor

  1. I wish it was 2000 up to April 2008 and I was attending First Baptist at that time. Jim you don’t have to put yourself beside anyone but you. The Bill Hull, or Dewey Hobbs, or Ed Pruden was a day gone by. And also they will not hear “Well when Jim was pastor….” I hope when the day comes I could say “Well that was the past and we need to look forward.”

    Thank you for your sermons on the Podcast.

    Your Friend Will

  2. For 6 months before you arrived, when people were saying Dr. Flamming couldn’t be replaced, the staff and search committee members were all saying,”Wait until you meet our new Pastor. He’s everything you have grown to love plus so much more.” In less than a year: you have expanded our television congregation vastly because of your sermons; you have endeared yourself to everyone you meet by your accessibility and your desire to know everyone personally (a herculean task); you have greatly expanded the Wednesday night program with your storytelling and teaching; and with all of the above available through our Media Services, your outreach is endless; and, your personal outreach to the homeless, street people, peoples of all faiths and backgrounds has people now asking, “If anything happens to Jim, how will we ever replace him? My prayer is that you will not burn yourself out before God is finished with you. You are loved.

  3. Jim,

    As Marge Fore has so eloquently crafted in her comment above, I would like to echo every word of it. I hear nothing but wonderful comments about you and all you have done and are doing. Remember, I worked as the Pastor’s Assistant for 10 years! You are more than on target! And, as she said, my prayer is that you will not burn yourself out before God is finished with you. YOU ARE LOVED AND ADMIRED, as well as everything one could hope for in a Pastor!

  4. Wow, if only our choices could be illustrated as clearly as the curbside observation of the evolution of three church buildings. Today’s world – perhaps largely driven by the baby boomers- have created a “cafeteria of choices” (often too many choices!) in every realm. To be part of a Christian community working to further the Kingdom is now lumped by many into the myriad of choices. As a good friend in Sunday School (Kelly) has said on more than one occasion, there are “lots of good things out there,” but that doesn’t mean we can do all of them. I hope that choices do not drown out that still small voice that is discernment. We’re blessed that God gives us freedom to choose, but He so hopes we choose the joy of relationship with Him. I’m reminded of an eye-opening caution I’ve heard repeated over the last few years – that we may not be defeated through our bad choices, but there is one who celebrates when we are distracted from living and loving like the one true example, not a human one (no offense to all good pastors!), but Jesus!

  5. You are the right pastor!
    Watch this video if you have time and then you will understand why I say, “olay to you!”

  6. Jim – all of your blog entries are outstanding – but this is one of the best yet! It should be required reading for deacons & church leaders everywhere. Sometimes it’s so much easier to keep looking to the past instead of wading into the uncharted waters of the future, but yet if the church is going to survive and be relevant that’s what we must do. Thanks for a very insightful reminder of the problems we encounter when we try to linger too long in the “good old days.”

  7. I agree with Marge and Beverley, and others. As far as I am concerned, YOU and the staff/members at First Baptist are creating some of your/our own “good ole days” right NOW. Life is just not as simple as it used to be. And, like Theresa mentioned, there is a “cafeteria of choices.” Keep doing what you are doing, and yes, I pray that you do not burn yourself out. (By the way, WHEN do you rest?) I tell almost everyone I talk to, that I found a great church home and I mention your name and they say, “Oh, I’ve heard of him.” I even talked to a friend in North Carolina who knew of you, and he described you in one word – “Authentic.” I agree. “Kind” is another one, and I/we could go on and on . . .

    I also remember your “apology” of sorts last summer, when you were planning a vacation after being the new pastor for just a few months. I believe that others would agree with me – you deserve a break with no apology necessary. Just remember to come back! 🙂

  8. Bravo.

    The bubble, as they say, has burst. Praise God for the pastors of the 1950’s and praise God for the pastors of the 2000’s.



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