Hand-me-down Church

This year, the hand-me-downs are downright thought-provoking.

Last fall they made me sentimental, because it was the first time my younger daughter fit into clothes that used to be her older sister’s, whom we adopted as a (tall) 2-year-old. Now as our pre-schooler tries on warm weather clothes from her older sister, it’s not just about misty-eyed remembrances for me. I’ve been “bridging” (read: filling in during a holding pattern) for a congregation that is awaiting a pastor re-developer. They are at that point in decline. The “hand-me-down” church they wished to pass on to the next generation does not fit, and in fact, even their direct descendents refuse to show up in it except for funerals.

Some of my daughter’s hand-me-downs have stains that have only come to light after years of being packed in boxes in the basement. Did I notice them when I first packed the clothes away? I can’t recall. Or maybe some of them, (like I learned baby spit-up stains can do) show up yellow after awhile of being out of laundry circulation, since they haven’t been in use for awhile. Church wounds can be like that too. Maybe we had no idea someone was still clinging onto something alienating a pastor or church member said to them years ago, but if it has been packed away and never dealt with, the stain may actually have taken hold deeper than it looked originally. And that’s why they are not here, but we will never know.

Also, my two daughters have bodies of different proportions and personalities. Our eldest grows out of the length of clothes long before anything becomes tight around the waist. For our youngest this is not the trajectory. Also, our first rarely has opinions about what she wants to wear or not, but our second throws over items if she struggles the slightest bit the first time she tries it on, or decides a half hour later it is intolerable and WILL NEVER BE WORN AGAIN. So I am glad they were hand-me-downs anyway. The same clothes look differently on them, or may be judged as “not right” for various and sundry reasons. Showing up for church dressed comfortably for yourself, with children behaving how they naturally behave, could lead to stares. Going to church to simply listen, when younger generations are accustomed to the pace and participation of social media, may seem to some like a waste of an hour or a silencing of their voices. They may not have a ready opinion until they try it on, but then feel like it just doesn’t fit them.

Most of our hand-me-downs are not precious. If they were mine as a child, saved by my mother, I don’t give them away. But the vast majority could be interchangeable with other clothing that fits within my parameters, whether it shows up in photos of my older daughter at this age or not. That’s the least sentimental way I feel about buildings or congregations with a long history. If there are congregations in a few mile radius or even closer to your home than this one, I acknowledge they are not the church of your long-standing memories, but they could become the congregation of your new ones. Memories are not a reason to keep setting out clothes no one will wear.

In a way, I am very much pro-hand-me-downs. It means less shopping (which I loathe) and less expense. It seems like good use of our resources, and the world’s resources, to reuse instead of buying new. But I don’t know that I feel the same about congregations. There may still be enough money and a building – resources that should indeed be used for good – but are the established culture, the tight-knit group that perceives belonging, and the history of that congregation ever going to fit a new generation? Is there a point of decline past which it is better to put the hand-me-downs out with the recycling instead of putting them on another child? I do that with clothes when I am too embarrassed to pass them on in the state they are in, to our friend’s daughter one year younger than my youngest. How do we determine that point for a congregation?

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