Last month I took you on a whirlwind trip down memory lane. We looked at some of the highlights of my 34 years as your pastor. Looking back was an enjoyable exercise in nostalgia. But I don’t want us to get stuck in the past. We need to spend some time assessing where we are right now. Aristotle, the famed philosopher, once said, “ The unexamined life is not worth living.” Mother Teresa, someone a little closer to our time, said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” It would be another worthwhile exercise to honestly take account of our current situation as we serve Christ in Camp Springs in 2021. What are some of the challenges we face at our doorstep as a congregation trying to be faithful to our mission and purpose?
There are so many issues that face the contemporary church but let me focus on a few that are impacting us. Bethany Christian Church was born in 1909 in southeast Washington, D.C. For all of its history, and into the present time, Bethany has mainly consisted of white, middle-class Protestants. Every congregation has a dominant identity and make-up that often reflects its community. Over time, the community we drew folks from has changed from a majority white population to a majority African-American population. We no longer reflect the community in which we serve. It makes it that much harder to do evangelism and our efforts through the years have led to very sparse results. I’ll leave it to the experts to debate all the reasons this is so (and there are many). I just want to point out that Bethany has its work cut out when it comes to establishing communication with our community. There needs to be ongoing dialogue and understanding if we are going to meet the needs of the people who live in our neighborhood. We must be an open and inviting church, one that finds differences among people to be exhilarating rather than an obstacle.
Another issue confronting us is that we are now an aging congregation. I am not referring to the fact Bethany has existed for 112 years but rather that our membership is graying. Much of our leadership is above 60 years old. We love the experience in church work these folks bring to the table but at the same time we need an influx of dedicated, even if inexperienced, young adults. This most certainly is a problem not just for us but across denominational lines as church struggles to be relevant for younger generations. We need to affirm the youth in our church and give them places of responsibility to gain the experience they will need in leading us into the future. Ready or not, they ought to be challenged to step up. They are worthy, and we should listen more to, and take action on, their thoughts and ideas. It is time for them to make their mark on the course and direction of our work for Jesus.
One of the most glaring issues facing us is the aging facilities that house our ministries. Bethany was built in 1966-67. Though we love our building, it is showing clear signs of age, of wear-and-tear. The sanctuary roof is fading and close to the end of its warranty. The flat roof is now beyond the warranty period. We have a few air conditioning and heating units that are ancient by today’s standards and others that soon will be so. There are foundational cracks that have never been fully addressed. Where we used to have plenty of volunteers to help with maintenance and up-keep, we now rely more and more on paying contractors to do the work. There is no doubt that we have beautiful grounds, but it is becoming harder to handle all the needs of keeping it that way. Warren Swaney, our Property Chairperson, has often taken on more than he can be expected to do. Just cutting grass on a regular basis and weeding can consume hours and hours. I realize there is no easy fix to this situation but I can’t state strongly enough that we must address the fact the building and grounds will continue to demand more resources.
Lastly, if COVID taught us anything it is that we need to fully enter the 21st century. Our utilization of new technologies has lagged behind other congregations. As I write this article, our Church Board just decided to move forward with setting up streaming capabilities in our sanctuary. With new electronic equipment in place, we will be able to stream worship services through our website so that those who have connected with us over Zoom this past year will still be able to do so as we return to an in-person experience. The possibility exists that we can increase participation and evangelize beyond our locality. I see this as a first step in taking advantage of new tools for ministry. My hope is that we embrace it and look for ways to extend it.
There is so much more I could say. I didn’t even mention our financial situation. None of the other things I have mentioned, or could have mentioned, will matter if we don’t commit fully in our giving to the church. Now I don’t want you to be overwhelmed by these challenges. See these things rather as opportunities. The church has adapted to new realities throughout the centuries. Bethany can, and will, find workable solutions to all of these challenges. I know this because of who you are as faithful Christians. I know this because of the God who never fails us, who will lead us through this moment in time. Take heart, God isn’t finished with us yet!