Like many congregations, mine has a library. It’s near the office on the first floor of the church building and is named in honor of our first pastor in 1865, Timothy Hill.
(No matter what my picture looks like here, I’ve never met the Rev. Dr. Hill.)
At times in recent years, the Hill Memorial Library has seemed more like a columbarium or mausoleum. Oh, now and then a few folks wander in and read The Outlook or check out a book by using our old card catalog system.
But the shelves have carried books that haven’t been touched by human hands for decades, along with scores of video (VHS) tapes, cassette audio tapes (no 8-track tapes that I’ve found) and reference books that Google, Yahoo, Bing and other search engines have long since made nearly obsolete.
A year or two back, even our long-standing and faithful library guild gave up the ghost. So oversight of the library fell to the Faith Development Committee, which I’m chairing this year.
We’ve been working this spring to clear out unneeded resources, move others to more useful locations (Why not have children’s books near their Sunday school rooms?) and rethink use of the library space.
In some ways, this process has struck me as a metaphor for how mainline churches as a whole have dealt with change. Instead of recognizing change as it’s happening and adapting to it quickly, many of our congregations — and, indeed, whole denominations — have let our metaphorical libraries (by which I mean our worship, evangelism, mission and much else) slide toward obsolescence.
It’s been painful to watch.
But it need not continue. While maintaining an interest in our past and even honoring our history, we can bring the church into the 21st century to meet the needs of people who now read e-versions of books on Kindle, draw their music from the cloud via Pandora, watch whole TV series on their iPads or laptops and set up flash mobs and massive protest demonstrations via Twitter.
For no matter the technology, these are people who, like us, are “stained and broken,” in the words of a spring sermon series at my church, and who need the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’m not telling you anything that consultants (such as the now-shuttered Alban Institute) haven’t been saying for years. But sometimes the reality of mainline decline strikes me in new ways, and that’s what our library work has been doing for me.
Well, that and restoring some memories of people who once were part of the congregation but who have died or moved away. As I look inside books at the check-out cards, I find names of people I first knew when I joined our church in 1978 — and often the books haven’t been checked out since then.
They were wonderful, influential people in my life, but it’s time to head out into the mission field outside our walls — the whole purpose of the PC(USA)’s 1001 worshipping communities effort — and meet today’s wonderful, influential people where they are. And that’s not in our church library.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at email@example.com.