~Longevity, Sincerity, and Bearded Hipsters~
“I, the Lord, do not change…” ………….~Malachi 3:6
Dear Members and Friends,
Longevity is a beautiful thing, and most people look for it. Yes, yes, I know. We Americans have a notorious craving for new things: a new car every five years, a new house, new clothing, and furniture, and gadgetry. But take a closer look. Even the trendiest of bearded hipsters has an innate respect for things that have stood the test of time, whether it’s a colonial-style ale or a venerable old college with mock-English architecture and centuries-old renown. (Who wouldn’t choose a degree from Carnegie Mellon over the same degree from The University of Phoenix?) Before taking chances on an upstart law firm or catering company, people will typically look first to see if the well-established ones are doing anything relevant to their needs. The Huffington Post cited a November 2010 study finding that people had a consistent preference for things that have been around longer. For example, those who were told that acupuncture had been practiced for 2,500 years expressed more favorable attitudes toward it than those who were told that it had been practiced for 250 years. Two groups of people were shown the same exact painting; some were told that it was created in 2005, and others were told 1905. Those who believed the painting was older were more likely to find it beautiful.* Simply stated, people assume that longevity means goodness.
There’s a reason Doogie Howser, MD, was funny. Despite our culture’s absurd bias against the elderly, we really do hold a “standard of longevity” for people, too. Would you follow marriage advice from a newlywed, or from a spouse of sixty years? Forty-five might be old for an athlete or entertainer, but if you’re a doctor, or a politician, or a clergyperson, forty-five is just the dawn of your two best decades. Crow’s feet and hair loss add to your credibility. When I was in my mid-thirties, strangers used to look past me and ask, “Could I speak with the senior pastor?” (I’ve always been the only pastor!) I’m fortunate to be in a profession where age inspires confidence.
The appeal of longevity can work in a church’s favor, too. Yes, the media is constantly trumpeting the decline of traditional religious institutions. I believe that some in our denomination secretly relish this decline because it allows them to say, “We told you so. If you disagree with us about the Bible, and marriage, and sex, then you’re bound to fail.” And yet, decline has overtaken evangelicals and biblical literalists, too, despite their emphasis on evangelism and proselytizing. Even “Sister Act,” with her drums and electric guitars, has not proved to be a long-term solution for church decline. And yet, churchly longevity is still a powerful draw whenever a person goes looking for spiritual guidance and wisdom. As long as that “longevity” doesn’t look like an empty performance.
What people want in a spiritual path—and in a church—is the same thing they want in every other area of life: genuineness. They want sincerity. They don’t necessarily want a seamlessly executed liturgy (though I do want that!) and they don’t necessarily want a foot-tapping time. They want something that will sound an echo in their hearts and strum an old, familiar chord in their spirits. They come to us seeking sincerity and…truth. Longevity might be a draw, but it’s not enough. All of us crave genuine relationships, genuine sharing, genuine connections with other people and with God.
As the introspective season of Lent deepens around us, and as the glory of Easter draws near, with its joyful message of resurrection, I invite you to ponder these questions about our church, and also about your own life: In what ways does longevity work in our (or my) favor? How does it work against us (or me)? How do familiar old forms bring me (or us) into more genuine relationship with God and others? How do they hinder?
Lenten blessings to you in Christ, ~Brian