Remember Tomorrow land? The year was 1978. The place, Orlando Florida, Walt Disney World. I will never forget the first time I saw The Magic Kingdom. I was with my grandmother, mother, sister and aunt.
We were standing in line….waiting… waiting… waiting…eager to see what tomorrow was going to look like, and then finally, it was our turn. We stepped onto the conveyer belt inside “The House of the Future” and began our ride into the odyssey of the mind of engineers from Monsanto Corp, and the Walt Disney World “Imagineers”, as they are known.
The conveyer moved slowly through the rooms. First we saw “The kitchen of the Future”. It had features like ovens that cooked food in a matter of minutes, later called microwave ovens, phones that were attached to a screen that you sat in front of so that you could not only hear, but actually see the person you were talking to, later called webcams, Skype, and Face Time. We saw a room with a “super computer” that took up every inch of space, which we all know eventually turned into a PC, a lap top, a notebook an I-Pad, an I-Phone (and soon) an I-Watch. This was such an amazing experience, getting a peek into a future that would eventually turn out to look like my own!
This got me thinking, what if I could jump back on that conveyer belt again? What if this time the conveyer carried me through our church? What if this time we were the Imagineers?
Not long from now I will attend the annual conference for the New England Association of United Church Educators, NEAUCE for short. Two years ago the President of Eden Seminary came to deliver the key note address. He asked the group to raise their hand if their church was big (he was talking about square footage). I raised my hand. He asked the group to raise their hand if their church was centrally located within the community. Of course I raised my hand. He asked the group to raise their hand if their church was big, white, had a tall steeple, was centrally located and was now too much building for their shrinking Congregation….I raised my hand. He talked about the strain that a physical structure put on God’s people trying to do God’s work. He talked about how God’s people could free themselves from such a heavy burden. I could barely believe what he suggested, but I won’t tell you what that suggestion was, at least not yet.
I couldn’t wait for our next staff meeting to share his radical idea with the rest of the staff. As soon as I did I knew right away that this was not the first time they had heard the idea. I could tell they thought the idea was solid, it was the implementation that they were stuck on.
Fast forward to the hiring of a new Church Administrator. Right away he starts asking questions. How come this building, which is real estate located in the heart of the community, is so underutilized, he asked me. I told him that this would not be the first discussion I have had on this topic. It had crossed the minds and lips of every staff member since I have been employed here, I explained. A few times I told him, I had even written about the subject on the church school page of the Messenger. Once as I watched the contents of the brick church building on Court Street get emptied, and a “For Sale” sign put out in front of it. Another time when I studied our church school attendance books, past and present, and realized how few children come to church any more on a regular basis. Still another when I began cleaning out the files in my office and found old directories with the pictures of so many people who once filled the pews here. The discussion ended with me saying that the President of Eden Seminary in his key note speech said that Christianity is a shrinking movement. Ours is a shrinking movement that is housed in a building that feels expansive, and expensive.
Have you ever met people who won’t take no for an answer, especially when they feel like no should not be a choice? So our Administrator begins contacting groups who have similar missions that might be interested in being housed here.
So I promised I would tell you what the President of Eden Seminary suggested as the answer to ours, and many other churches like ours, specific problem. Brace yourself. He suggested we put a “For Sale” sign out on our front lawn. That we buy a piece of property, and build a church on it that we can afford so that we can stop serving the church and start serving God. Wow. That’s a lot to sit with. What about our history? What about our identity? What about our parishioners who were baptized here, confirmed here, married here, memorialized here? What about the white church on the arm badge of every Keene police officer, on so many “Keene” t-shirts, in so many photographs of the idyllic little New England town with the widest Main Street in the world? WHAT IF… we were not located at 23 Central Square? Ask yourself, and be honest. Ask yourself, and be brave. Ask yourself, and be Christian in your search for the answers. For now we are here but don’t stop there, start there.
Enter the pro-active era of a church filled with devout followers of Jesus, of optimists, of hard-workers and hearty souls. We shall overcome. We will rise up. We won’t back down. We will persevere. Step up and help out? YES WE WILL!!!
So the STP Committee, that is the Steering Team for Planning, or as I like to call them, our “Imagineers” is born. Nine dreamers on a mission to move our church back toward sustainability and get the rest of us to open up our minds to the possibilities. Nine people who need our support and our prayers as they take on additional work and responsibility toward the greater good.
For now, as you hop on the conveyer belt for your ride around our church of tomorrow, it might look like a reconfiguration of space inside the big white building at the head of the square. It might include that building opening up its doors to an organization that is steeped in mission toward the betterment of humanity. It might look different, and take some getting used to, but I would ask you to sit with this. Get outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to disagree. Don’t forget that from God’s Grace comes endless possibilities.
May God bless you and keep you in this season of change.