LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A while back, the author Phyllis Tickle floated the idea that every 500 years or so the church goes through a true upheaval, a spiritual rummage sale in which old ideas land on the curb to make way for something new.
On April 11, pastor Mihee Kim-Kort lead the Worshipping Communities Committee of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board in a discussion of what that might be like – what Presbyterians hold onto, and what they might be willing to give up. This board meeting has a focus on young adults, so there’s been some discussion of generational theory – how, for example, Millennials differ from Gen X and baby boomers in outlook, cultural references and more.
But this group found some common ground in their reactions to the idea of letting go of old ways of being church to make room for something new.
Andrew Barron, a young adult and a teacher from Minneapolis, said he understands the difficulty of giving things up. For the last decade, he’s moved almost every year – internationally, cross-country, across town. “Each one of those moves means packing up all your things, getting rid of the things you don’t need,” finding a new worshipping community, finding new friends, Barron said.
Marilyn Gamm, from Wisconsin, said that as a boomer, she was raised to both challenge and value traditions – and was taught to value the legacy of things that were passed down through the generations. Now, her house is full of antiques she’s not sure she even wants, and she feels “eternally torn” between hanging onto valuables and letting them go.
Kim-Kort, the committee’s chair, asked what some things are that Presbyterians may need to learn to haul to the curb.
Marianne Rhebergen, transitional presbyter for the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse, told of one congregation, down to 35 members, which literally had a rummage sale – and where people now “have much more freedom to innovate and be different,” worshipping now on Saturdays instead of Sunday morning.
Heath Rada, of North Carolina, said he understands both the need for giving things up – and the pain that can bring. He spoke of retirees who want to give more to the church, who may tithe, but whose limited income makes it difficult for them to give as generously as they used to. His home church in Virginia, where his parents both were elders and where he was ordained, is getting ready to close its doors.
“That building has an enormous emotional place in my heart,” Rada said. “It’s right to do it, it’s right to give it up,” but it hurts. So he reminds himself “that change is a good thing, an opportunity.”
Barron sees some parallels between the financial struggles of retirees and young adults. Many young adults are willing to leave behind what they have created, and “it comes from a place of necessity,” he said. “We have learned that to be marketable or for our employment, we have to do these things” – to change careers multiple times, to go back to school or learn new skills, to move away.
Arlin Talley has seen the legacy of “a church in every small town” dwindling – “not only a church but a pastor in every church in every town.” His presbytery in northern Minnesota now is down to 19 teaching elders, with most of them moderating a session at more than one church. They’re grabbing the legacy of an older time – that of circuit riders – and moving it forward.
David Shinn, a pastor from Michigan, said people from different generations may have different values regarding church. The people in his congregation “do not carry Bibles to church,” and his session does not understand why anyone would want to spend money on print Bibles or hymnals (that’s what iPads are for) or expensive organs. “The values are different,” Shinn said. “Even the faith is passed on differently.”
Committee member Vicki Garber takes a practical approach.
“You can take just about anything and set it on the curb,” Garber said, “as long as it’s not the faith.”