I was in 1st grade when the Pastors fired our church organist. And I wish I could say I felt bad about it. I knew she was a retired lady, I could tell from her wrinkled skin and huge plastic glasses, the kind Elton John used to wear. I had spent my childhood watching her dyed curls slowly nod along to painfully slow hymns. My Dad explained to me that electric wires ran from her keyboard, under the carpet, through the walls, and into the massive 30 foot tall pipes. Each one reverberating with noise closer to cheezy sci-fi sound effects than anything I considered music.
My Dad told me getting rid of the organ was just phase one of the Pastors’ plan to bring young people to church. A plan that resulted in what many Christians have come to refer to as a “Worship War.” Like many Euro-American hymn singing churches, our Membership had been falling for a long time, and with an aging congregation they felt something drastic needed to be done. The church is in an affluent suburb with a good school district, so it attracts a steady stream of new families. But when these younger families would visit they didn’t connect with the old Euro-American hymns and found the organ and choir as boring as I did.
The church was losing an entire generation of young families raised on Christian radio. So the Pastors waited until they had enough votes on the elder board and then ordered a church wide re-boot.
A year after the organist was fired the choir was disbanded. But it was easier to forget about the organist than the choir. The Janitors just pushed the organ to the side of the stage…out of sight out of mind. But the choir loft was physically built into the sanctuary. For 60 years the choir had sat behind the Pastor, most of them taking sermon notes, their study Bibles on their robed laps, like they were back in school.
As a little kid I could rarely understand what the Pastor was talking about, but I never questioned the importance of his message. How could you when a hundred old people were taking the time to write down everything he said?
But after the choir was disrobed some left the church, and those that stayed sat in the pews like the rest of us. And I watched the Pastor pace back and forth across the stage, the wooden choir loft empty behind him, leaving a void that the Powerpoint Projector was never really able to fill.
Then came the praise band. The Pastors hired musicians to play Bible camp songs each Sunday morning. When my Mom told me we were getting a praise band I was excited. I usually had to wait all year to get the Holy Ghost goose-bumps but now I could get them every week.
But when I got to church it was clear that little had changed. No one did any of the actions, no one raised their hands, they didn’t even turn the lights off. The guitars were too quiet and the drummer was barracked into a plastic igloo like contraption to keep from irritating the elderly couple that sat in the front row (they were big givers).
After a few weeks, I realized the praise band was just as boring as the organ and choir, except that now week after week I was disappointed. Because a praise band and camp songs are supposed to be fun…a choir, well a kid expects a choir to be boring.
“You can’t expect a Swedish Evangelical church to change overnight” My father warned me when I voiced my concerns at our Sunday family brunch.
Clearly the Pastors felt differently. Because within 2 years the praise band leader got fired. And so did the next one. And the next one. And it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized why. The old people were complaining and there wasn’t enough new young people coming to prove that the Pastors’ plan was working.
Day after Day the Pastors sat in their office with older folks who explained that they didn’t know any of the new songs and the amps were messing with their hearing aids. They wanted the choir to sing once in a while but the praise band leader didn’t know how to direct a full vocal choir.
So the Pastors started an early service with a part time organist, but the younger families didn’t migrate with the older folks. And without the kids, and families sitting next to them, the older folks thought the early service felt too…well old.
So they started leaving the church.
Now I’m not blaming the Pastors for bringing in the Powerpoint and the Praise band. But every decision, no matter how well intentioned, comes at a cost.
The Pastors repeated over and over their commitment to the older generation. These were the people who had built the church, literally and figuratively. Many had spent their whole lives sitting in the same pew, serving luncheons, and changing diapers in the nursery. There were many people whose family lived out of state and after the death of their spouse; the church was the only family they had around.
But despite Pastoral assurances, the older folks believed that the Church had been taken in by the American mantra: “Out with the old, in with the new.”
You see, old people are keenly aware of America’s obsession with youth. They watch anti-aging cream commercials just like the rest of us. And most know that it’s just a waiting game until their family’s get too busy to take care of them and sends them off to the nursing home.
American culture has fewer and fewer places that honor the old and slow.
The Worship War eventually pushed away most of the older generation. Friendships that had lasted decades disintegrated after the choir disbanded. There were fewer and fewer potlucks and by the time I left for college, there were only a few grey hairs left in the back rows. The people who stayed had grandkids to consider or they lived in the nursing home and the driver would only take them so far.
Now I’m 29 and I work at the Lutheran Church across town with a three story tall organ and a choir made up of mostly grey hairs. And every Sunday I watch them sitting in their robes, nodding along to the Pastor’s sermon.
Occasionally I’ll see people from my childhood church and get the latest church news. Rumor has it that the Pastors’ plan eventually worked. Now the sanctuary is almost full every Sunday with a fresh generation of young families. The praise band gets the people’s hands in the air and they even let the drummer out of the igloo.
But whenever I imagine the sanctuary I am still haunted by the ghosts in the empty choir loft. And I think to myself that someday these new members will get old and slow. And the songs they love will feel tired and dated.
Sometimes I think about calling those new members and warning them, “If you’re thinking of building a stage for the praise band…make sure it can be easily disassembled.”