Thursday, November 17, 2011

Church Growth, Presbyterian Style

The goal of every pastor, pretty much without exception these days, is to "grow your congregation."  We train and attend seminars and pray earnestly that the Good Lord will see to bless our efforts with an abundant harvest of eager new pledge uni...I mean, disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.   We talk about new buildings, and salivate over that great plump bunch of unchurched bipeds that seems to dangle ever beyond our reach, like we're Tantalus in Church Planting Hell.

Well, that's the case for pastors outside of the oldline churches, at least.  Y'all either have nice new buildings radiant with big screens and parking and a great honking mortgage, or you're renting and dreaming about it, or you're still flailing away with the same dozen folks in that Bible study/praise circle that was supposed to be a megachurch already, dagflabbit.  

In older churches, there is yearning for more folks, but less earnest entrepreneurial evangelism.  

And we Presbyterians, we're, well, older.  We've been around longer.  We move at our own pace, sonny.

Yesterday, I gave a group of local pastors a brief tour through my rumpled, comfortable, and well-worn church.  I showed them our warm little sanctuary, built in 1847, which is easily the smallest church building in our small town.  I walked them through the building containing my office and the classrooms.  That aging structure was built in 1827, and feels every one of those years. 

One of the pastors, the Baptist, noticed the glassed-in bookcase in my office.  "Wow," he said, perusing the ancient tomes.  "Look at this!  These are really, really old catechisms!"   I told him I'd been meaning to look at them, but the case appeared to be locked.

After they left, I decided to explore the case further.  I fiddled with the lock for a moment, then realized the bookshelf wasn't locked at all, but held closed with an interior clasp.  I gave it a bit of a tug, and the door opened.  The smell of dust and must was strong, but I began to peruse the objects within. 

They were, almost without exception, ancient.  There was a silver bell, undoubtedly used to bring a classroom or meeting to order, that still sounded a tone so bright and clear and sustained that I half expected to look around and find myself in Narnia.   Many were old hymnals from the first decade of the 20th century.  Many more were books that had once been part of a Sunday School, readers and stories and collections of lessons that little groups of children would have had to memorize and recite.

There was, as seen above, a neatly maintained roll book for the Poolesville Presbyterian Sunday School.  Lists showed the names of every child who'd attended school, and whether they'd completed their assignments, and whether or not they'd checked a book out of the library.  It covered the years 1883 through 1885.

At the top of the case, I found a book of Session minutes.  The Session, for if you're blissfully unaware of Presbyterianese, is the group of Elders who are charged with gettin' the work of the church done.   Our board, basically.  As I had a Session meeting coming up in the evening, what better time to peruse Session minutes?   I wiped the dust off off the cover, dust that had gathered over what had clearly been many years, and cracked open the book.

Inside, the minutes began with a record of a meeting of the Session of Poolesville Presbyterian Church on July 12, 1885.   It was written in ink, possibly with a quill, and was in a neatly angled handwritten cursive, precise and meticulous.  This clerk of session---that's the person charged with maintaining the records---really cared about his work.  

He chronicled the decisions of the church, the folks who were seeking to join, and the activities of the pastor, who barely missed a day, except when the weather was most severe or he was called to preach the Gospel elsewhere.   He noted, in a reflection section, that Poolesville Presbyterian Church was not prone to outbursts of the Spirit, as were so many others, or prone to manifesting charismatic gifts.  But they were nonetheless, he mused, doing just fine.  Sounds oddly familiar.

As I read, my curiosity was piqued.  If this was a Session book...of a Presbyterian Church...then it would have the statistical records and accounting.  It would tell me just how big my church was back then.  I flipped through to where that would be in a current book, and lo and behold, there it was.

Total membership of Poolesville Presbyterian Church, one hundred and twenty six years ago?  

Seventy One.

Our current membership lies at around eighty-four.

I guess that means we're growing, by, hmm, what is that, almost 20% every one hundred years.   

So we're on track to be a thousand member church by, hold on, let's do the extrapolation, the Year of Our Lord Thirty Four Hundred and Two.

All part of the plan, my friends.  All part of the plan.