I’ve been meeting with a group of seniors at Richmond’s First Baptist Church to talk about all the change that has taken place in the church in the last fifty years. I got the idea from a book called “Who Stole My Church?” by Gordon MacDonald, loaned to me by Lynn Turner on the recommendation of David Powers.
The subtitle of the book is “What to do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century.” It’s written in narrative form by a loving pastor who makes some changes in his church that do not sit well with the seniors. Instead of telling them to find another church he calls them together to hear their concerns, and through regular meetings over the course of the next few weeks they share their frustrations, work through the issues, and reach a rather remarkable consensus.
You’ll have to read the book.
There has been some change at First Baptist Church since my arrival, and that’s to be expected. Pastors are change agents, and if they are doing their jobs some things will change. There has been some resistance to that change, and that’s to be expected, too. It’s not that people resist change: people resist loss. With every change there is some loss, and with every loss there is some grief.* So what sometimes sounds like a bunch of grumpy old people saying, “We don’t like all this change!” might really be a group of God’s beloved saints saying, “We’ve lost so much!”
That’s why I called together some of our seniors at First Baptist: to see if we could put our finger on the source of loss and grief, to name the changes that have occurred in the church not only in the last few months, but in the last fifty years. The people I called didn’t seem particularly grief-stricken. In fact, they are some of our most active and involved members. But I thought they might be able to help me grasp some things I wouldn’t otherwise understand.
At our first meeting I brought a copy of “The Open Door,” that big, beautiful book that tells the story of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I opened it up to Part Two: 1955-2005, and began to turn the pages. Whenever I came to a picture I would hold up the book and say, “Do you remember that?” and most of the people around the table would nod, often talking about the people in the picture or sharing their memories of the event.
Most of their memories were fond ones of happy times and good friends. Some of their memories were painful (there was that terribly divisive business meeting in 1965, when the church was trying to decide if two Nigerian students could be welcomed as members). Some of their memories were sad ones, as they remembered those they had loved and lost.
And then there were the white suits.
Early on in that section of the history there is a picture of Dr. Ted Adams (pastor from 1936-1968) and two of his associates dressed in matching white suits. I asked for an explanation and someone said, “Oh, Dr. Adams always switched to a white suit in the summertime.” “Really?” I asked, trying hard to believe it, but everyone around the table nodded matter-of-factly. “Lots of people used to wear white in the summer,” someone explained. “You know, because of the heat.”
Because of the heat. The heat not only outside but inside the building. And suddenly I could picture the people of First Baptist Church sitting in that big, stuffy sanctuary, wearing white cotton and linen and hoping a breeze would waft in through the open windows. That’s probably not how it was in 1955, but there must have been a time when it was like that and traditions (the white suit tradition, for example) die hard.
You may have heard the story about the woman who used to cut the end off the roast before putting it in the oven and when someone asked why she said, “I don’t know. That’s just the way my mother always did it.” When they asked her mother she said, “I don’t know. That’s just the way my mother always did it.” When they asked her mother (who was, fortunately, still living) she said, “Because my pan was too small!”
So, when I got together with that wonderful group of seniors the next week we made a list of all those things we used to do in church but don’t do now, and the first thing on the list was “white suits.” “Why don’t we wear white suits in the summer anymore?” I asked, and was pleased to hear someone answer, immediately, “Because we have air conditioning!”
There are a lot of things like that in the church: things we don’t do anymore because of advances in technology, changes in culture, etc. But not everything has to change. As we talked about those white suits someone remarked, “You know, they really were cooler,” and then someone else said, “I think I still have my white suit,” and then someone else said, “I not only have mine, I think I’ll wear it to church next Sunday!”
Who knows? Maybe it will catch on. Maybe it will start a retro trend and everyone will begin to wear white suits to church in the summer, so that when the new pastor of First Baptist Church is looking at our history fifty years from now she will ask, “Why did everyone wear white suits in the Summer of 2009?” I hope someone will be around who can explain: “Because they were cool.”
Just like that group of seniors I’ve been meeting with.
*The idea that people resist loss rather than change comes from Leadership on the Line, by Martin Linsky and Ronald A. Heifetz. I learned that every loss involves some grief from John Claypool in a seminar at the College of Preachers in 1995.