In 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.