I just got back from the Rotary Club, where I enjoyed a delicious breakfast and spoke to some fifty members of the West Henrico chapter. As I prepared my speech I tried to think about what a Baptist preacher could say to a group of business people that wouldn’t sound too “preachy.” I ended up talking about a favorite subject of mine, and that is the way the church has responded to the changes in culture over the last forty to fifty years.
I told the Rotarians how, in each church I served, there had been a “legendary” pastor, the one everybody still talked about. In my first church it had been Bill Hull, in my second church Dewey Hobbs, in my third church Ed Pruden, and here in Richmond, of course, it had been Ted Adams. What didn’t occur to me early on in my ministry is that each of those pastors had served those churches during the 1950’s, which was a unique time in history. The war was over, soldiers and sailors were coming home, marrying their high school sweethearts, settling down, having children, and bringing them to church. I believe the churchgoing “boom” precisely paralleled the Baby Boom (1946-1964).
So, I talked to the Rotarians about that, about how the culture at one time had pushed people through the front door of the church and how now the culture seemed to be dragging them out. I talked about how the church had responded with a sort of widespread panic as it watched its pews and offering plates emptying out, and how the church growth movement has been a desperate bid to get those people (and their dollars) back. “It’s not only churches,” I acknowledged. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been difficult to attract new members to the Rotary Club. ‘Service Above Self’ (their motto) isn’t all that popular these days.”
After breakfast a number of people came forward to tell me that it was true: membership in their club was in decline. Several others told me stories about their churches—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian—and the way they had been struggling to keep the lights on and the doors open. I had tried to leave all of them with good news. I said that in times like these its important to return to our roots, to remember who we are and why we’re here. I told them that at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we are turning our attention toward the clear commands of Christ, who is Lord of the church, and trying to get serious about what he asked his followers to do. Maybe the Rotarians, likewise, will look to their founding principles and get serious about those. Maybe they already have.
On the way back from breakfast I remembered a song by David Wilcox that has always made me think about the church:
Summer lasted a generation
A generation – and then the winter wind
The bounty harvest that seemed so endless
It seemed so endless until it gave what it could give
Prosperity will have its seasons
Even when it’s here, it’s going by
And when it’s gone we pretend we know the reasons
And all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.
This is my prayer for the church of Jesus Christ in this dry season: that its roots will grow deeper, and that instead of worrying so much about how to fill pews and offering plates, we will drive our roots down into the deep places, and discover the living water that quenches our deepest thirst, and becomes in us a spring of water gushing up to everlasting life (John 4:14).