The Mountain Stream Record Shop
Mark 2: 15At Levi’s house, many tax collectors and other sinners—Jews who did not keep the strict purity laws of the Jewish holy texts—were dining with Jesus and His disciples. Jesus had attracted such a large following that all kinds of people surrounded Him. 16 When the Pharisees’ scribes saw who shared the table with Jesus, they were quick to criticize. The Scribes said (to His disciples), If your master is such a righteous person, then why does He eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners, the worst among us?
17 Jesus heard them and replied, “People who have their health don’t need to see a doctor. Only those who are sick do. I’m not here to call those already in good standing with God; I’m here to call sinners to turn back to Him.”
21 These are new things I’m teaching, and they can’t be reconciled with old habits. Nobody would ever use a piece of new cloth to patch an old garment because when the patch shrinks, it pulls away and makes the tear even worse. 22 And nobody puts new, unfermented wine into old wineskins because if he does, the wine will burst the skins; they would lose both the wineskins and the wine. No, the only appropriate thing is to put new wine into new wineskins.
Here’s the truth when it comes to the American church. For the most part, as the data shows, one is either a large church, a megachurch or close to it, and thriving, or a small church like ours, struggling to get by.
For small churches, declining or stagnant membership, volunteer burnout, and financial concerns are the new normal.
To be brutally honest, I don’t see it getting any better.
The issues at play in the decline of the mainline church and all churches now, really, these issues are systemic in nature and decades if not centuries in the making. One big example of a systemic issue is the nationwide fusion of politics and religion, a fusion that has turned off a whole generation from the church. This fusion, what sociologists call syncretism, goes way back, a century or more it goes back in America. Even though the fusion of politics and religions has been extremely prevalent on the Right in the past 30 years, even churches not on the Right or not political at all, are tainted by it. Like it or not, many young people look at even UCC congregations and see toxic partisan politics.
There’s very little a small church like ours can do to counteract this kind of systemic issue except maybe not play that same game of fusing politics and religion.
So, we can do everything right but still, because of the systemic issues, lose members, not have enough volunteers, and struggle financially.
It is a new world, folks! As Jesus reminds us with the examples of new, unshrunk cloth and new wineskin, the new and the old don’t coexist easily. This new-minded world and we old-minded churches are not getting on well.
Let’s review some history. The hey-day of the mainline church was the 1950’s into the 60’s. In 1960, everyone went to church. On Sunday mornings, it was square to be somewhere else. Churches thrived on every block.
Thinking, like humans do, these happy days will last forever, congregations built big additions to their old structures in downtown neighborhoods. Congregations built bigger churches in the suburbs. Churches added staff and furniture and art and offices.
Things began changing as 1970 came around. Decline in the mainline church began. That decline hasn’t stopped. As we see now, churches are closing, being sold and in almost every town becoming houses or hotels or even stores. The rest struggle to get by.
Indeed, this is a new world for the mainline church.
I’d like to use an analogy.
The mainline church is akin to the vinyl record 20 years ago before vinyl experienced its recent revival.
At one time, vinyl ruled the roost. Vinyl was IT! We bought them in loads, carried them to parties, were proud to play them on our personal record players. Who my age or older doesn’t have fond memories of playing and dancing to 45’s on your little Victrola?
The hey-day of vinyl was the 1960’s and 70’s, and record stores were everywhere.
But then along came the cassette tape. It was smaller, easier to play in the car, and you could record stuff, a huge benefit compared to vinyl. You could make mixed tapes. You could get free music, too. Remember having your tape recorder ready when a favorite song came on the radio? You’d hit record and start your own playlist sort of like Spotify.
And then came the Compact Disc and the world of digitalized music.
By the time music streaming services like Spotify came along, records shops either were closed or they embraced their niche market status and somehow survived.
That is where mainline churches are. We are facing the reality that in effect we are a small record shop in the neighborhood. Will we embrace that reality, is the question.
To mix in another analogy, despite the mainline name, we are no longer mainstream when it comes to the overall population and culture. We are now becoming more a beautiful stream off the beaten path than a big river running through town.
We need to embrace this new mode of existence.
We must become new wineskin holding today’s new wine.
We must find pride in being who we are – a beautiful stream off the beaten path. A small, wonderfully eclectic record store on the corner. A small church doing creative things in Plainville.
This does not mean we’re ruling out growing as a community. We’d love a revival like the one vinyl records are seeing. But that revival can only happen on the basis of who we are, not by ignoring it or by trying to be what we are not.
This new reality is not a bad thing, friend. There are a lot of benefits to being a niche market. It gives us a lot of creative freedom and flexibility. We can try new things. We can play and experiment and embrace innovation.
An example of this has been a couple services we’ve had in the past few months. Outside of baptisms and special services like Easter and Confirmation, we usually do not break 50. We average around 40 people on Sundays. At the end of April, we had a special Sunday service that used what I called a “Radio Show” format. That service brought more than 50 people.
Another example was from just a few weeks ago. The Communion Breakfast service was a brand new thing we tried. It too brought more than 50 people and such a great spirit of togetherness and liveliness.
These are examples of CCP embracing its mountain stream off the beaten path status.
To close, I speak not to just CCP here but to the mainline tradition as a whole. We must resist the temptation of relying on tradition – the ways we’ve always done things – to be our default setting. Creativity and innovation must become the new default setting.
I realize this is hard. We want Sunday mornings and other church events to be our constant, a bulwark in the face of change. We want our Order of Service to be nice and orderly. We want what we’ve always had.
But niche markets rely on doing things the ways we’ve always done them at their own peril. Grasping onto traditions that worked with some churches in the recent past, I think of contemporary praise bands, even this tradition should be questioned.
Yes, maintaining our one constant – the truth of the Trinity – is non-negotiable. But we must not confuse our only true constant with what’s involved in worshipping that one, true constant. Confusing God and tradition is not helpful to the task before us - embracing a new way of being church in a changed, post-Christian society.
Honoring tradition? Yes, this must happen. Keeping the traditions that speak to us and those new to us? Absolutely. But worshipping tradition and holding onto it at all costs indeed is costly. What are we willing to pay?
In other words, a Golden Gate-like bridge over a mountain stream off the beaten path is too much, not feasible, nor will it help growth.
I leave you with some questions – how do you envision us as a mountain stream off the beaten path? Or a small record store in the neighborhood? How do we become that? What needs to go and what must stay?Your takeaway is to ponder those questions this week and in the coming weeks.