By J. Hogan
-Gains & Gleanings-
Five years ago, I got a strange and exhilarating request.
At Faithbridge we’ve long had a great working relationship with the Baptist Resource Network. Their director, Stan Smith, called to ask if I would be the keynote speaker at their annual convention.
“Don’t you have one of your own guys, someone from out your way (Harrisburg), that’d like to do it?” I asked. “Why me?”
“Hogan, I’ve wanted to have you do this for years, but it would have most likely cost me my job,” Stan said.
“What’s different now?” I asked.
“They can’t fire me,” he said, chuckling. “I’m retiring right after the convention.”
“OK, so what are you looking for?”
“Just be you. That’ll shake things up. Your multicultural approach, your methodology, how you folks do things, we need folks to learn to think outside the box,” Stan said, adding, “bring your band, too.”
So we went.
I wouldn’t let our music worship leader choose old hymns that would speak to the gathered, but rather included in the sermon how changing our music style to appeal to half black and half white community was critical in fomenting the proper spirit of worship for our context here in McKees Rocks.
I talked about food banks and cookouts, furniture donations, and touching the lives of folks we otherwise might not meet.
Theology and doctrine are firm. That leaves methodology as the creative ground upon which churches can devise opportunities to engage with the community, so I talked about that.
That all went over pretty well… then I upset a lot of folks.
“I hate to come bearing shocking news, but some of your churches need to decide to die with dignity.”
When I said it, one could’ve heard a pin drop. I plunged ahead.
“What I mean by that, is that some of your dying congregations own beautiful, paid-off properties in towns that have changed drastically over the years. You're down to a couple dozen elderly members, and folks do more complaining about how no one wants to come to church than they do building relationships within the community.
“You love the hymnal and the organ, and have no interest in changing music to reach a younger generation. Your church has dwindled over the last decade, with many funerals and few weddings, and you hear people saying ‘no one wants to get to know Jesus anymore’ about the culture.
“Across town, there’s a young church plant. They’re paying rent on a storefront for a place to meet. They’re bringing in Christian rappers to lead worship or entertain at picnics. They’re building relationships and reaching young people. They’re reaching the poor, folks just getting started in life, and that rent drains their finances… and here you are with a beautiful, paid-off property built to the glory of God.
“You can hold on to that building until the last member dies off and it’ll become a microbrewery or a wedding hall… or you can be proactive and invite that young church to come join you on that property.
“If you’re smart, you’ll spend a season supporting them, having their service and yours. Eventually you’ll give them the prime time slot. Maybe some of you will decide to tolerate their ways and join their church.
Eventually your ground-laying church will fade away… and that young congregation, with your foresight and generosity as a firming platform upon which to labor, will grow and flourish and God’s mission will continue.
“This would close a chapter, but the story of God’s work goes on. The world has enough microbreweries.”
Stan, I’m sure, caught some grief. Lord knows I heard about the folks I’d upset, but the principle stands.
This upcoming Sunday we’re baptizing 10 people at Faithbridge, and I’m not getting in the pool.
Two young ministers, both of whom take turns preaching at the church, will be doing their first baptisms at the church.
Why? Because I’m in my 50s and preparing the soil for the next generation makes sense… even if part of me wants to push back against time and stubbornly hold on to the reins until my horse keels over.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.