Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Boutique or Department Store?

We were wondering who we were as a congregation.  We had been a large church with a cadre of local and national leaders, people of wealth and power and prominence.  That had shaped our identity through the 1950’s.  We could no longer could claim many people who regularly got their names in the newspaper. 

We had been one of the first churches in the community to integrate in the early 1960’s.  Our church sign read:  “An Integrated Church for an Integrated Community;” at that time this was noteworthy.  In the early 1990’s this went without saying among most of the churches in the community.

We knew who we had been; we were not sure who were now.  We appointed a “Committee on Church Renewal.”  We could have named it “Committee on Sorting Out Who Are We.”  During one tedious session when our conversation seemed to be going in circles, a woman said:  “We are a boutique church.  We provide things you cannot get anywhere else.”  It was a revelatory moment. 

Throughout our more than 100 years of ministry, we had been a “department store” church; we had something for everyone.  We no longer had something for everyone who walked through the door, but we had some things it was hard to find other places.

We were an overwhelmingly African American congregation with a one hour worship service.  We had a warm heartfelt faith coupled with a good dose of personal piety but could tolerate, even celebrate, a diversity of convictions and beliefs.  We were a thinking yet feeling family.  Women were full partners in ministry, but we had great appreciation for women who felt more comfortable in traditional roles.  We had a wide range of fashion on Sunday mornings, from hats to slacks, from suits to t-shirts.  We supported the education of our young people with vigor, and we had special appreciation for and gave attention to parents raising their children in a one-parent household. 

This image of a boutique church helped us to focus on those people who would find what they were looking for among us, and it helped us to realize that there were folks who would find what they were looking for at another church.  Twenty-five years later, it is likely that different image would better fit the church today.  Identities change; they must remain fresh.

The Second Baptist Church of Germantown (Philadelphia) will celebrate its 150th anniversary in October; I will be there.  Many of the people will not recognize me, and I will not recognize them; this is a sign of health.  The church has changed in the last two decades.  God is always calling congregations to become someone they did not used to be.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State