We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

An End & A Beginning in Syracuse

First Presbyterian Church United, Syracuse
A recent news posting entitled, "One of Syracuse's oldest churches closes on Easter," on Syracuse.com, reports that the historic First Presbyterian Church United, Syracuse, will hold its final worship service this coming Easter, April 8th.  Once a congregation of over 1,000 members, it has now only 85 members and can no longer maintain its facilities.  It hasn't had a full-time pastor for five years.

But something is happening at First Presbyterian, Syracuse, which is happening in other places in the U.S.  This dying congregation is giving birth to a new, as yet unnamed, congregation that will operate out of smaller, more humble facilities and focus on developing a ministry to the urban poor begun by First Presbyterian.  Roughly 30 of the remaining members will join in non-traditional worship and pursue a vision of renewed life devoted to the service of its neighbor hood.

For two generations or so, the churches of the future have been evangelical churches including most notably large independent churches, which have experienced explosive growth.  The rise of modern-day evangelicalism has witnessed a parallel, continuing decline in mainline (a.k.a. "oldline") churches such as First Presbyterian, Syracuse.  This is something like the transition millions of years ago from the age of the dinosaurs to that of mammals.  When the transition started the (mainline) dinosaurs were huge and dominant while (new age evangelical) mammals scurried around in the underbrush.  Now, the evangelical megachurches have become the dinosaurs, and the remnants of the declining mainline churches more and more are like the scurrying mammals of our metaphor.  Perhaps, something new is happening again, and we are witnessing the early stages of the next stage in ecclesiastical evolution.  In Britain, a church renewal movement called, "Fresh Expressions," has led to the establishment of numerous alternative congregations.  Here in the United States, the "Emerging Church" movement provides a variety of models for developing new congregations in ways adapted to contemporary society.

The process we're watching is an evolutionary one.  As older forms of the church fail to adapt to rapidly changing contemporary society, they decline.  But those older churches had (and many of them still have) spiritual vitality, which finds new forms of expression more fitting to new times.  It is a messy, jumbled process as a variety of these new forms "compete" to see which are most likely to be vital churches useful to the Spirit.  Today, we have vital historic churches.  We have vital evangelical congregations.  We have emerging churches that are fresh expressions of church life.  In all of this, there is a huge amount of spiritual vitality expressed in the faithfulness and creativity of new generations of Christians.  And that is cause of hope.

It is sad, of course, to witness the passing away of what was once itself a large, vital part of the body of Christ. But...but...but, it is also exciting to consider the prospect of the new church First Presbyterian Church United, Syracuse, is birthing.  Amen.