Giving the Church a New Look with Old Eyes
“Technically, it’s called presbyopia,” said the ophthalmologist. “Starts about age 40, so you’re pretty much on target. Most people just get readers.”
“Yeah. It means –”
“I know … old eyes.”
As a lifelong Presbyterian, this is the only other word I’ve heard with the Greek root presby, which means “old.” Technically, Presbyterian refers to a church governed by the elders of the faith, but who cares about a technicality? It’s time for glasses because I’m old. And the Presbyterians have a reputation for being old as well. Demographically, it’s a church that trends older. Some Presbyterian congregations are among the oldest in the United States, and quite a few close every year. The connotation of the “wisdom of the elders” has long since given way to just being old.
And yet there are presby (old) traditions in some of these churches that seem quite contemporary and cutting edge. When NPR reporter Deborah Amos pursued information about the “Refugees Welcome Here” sign in front of Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, she uncovered a fascinating story about how this congregation is resettling a Syrian Muslim refugee family in the face of no small amount of community backlash and criticism. It’s an old tradition: the faith community has been actively settling refugees—including Cubans, Vietnamese, Bosnians, Iraqis, and now Syrians—for more than 50 years. In fact, when the church volunteers took a refugee from Syria to begin some much-needed dental work for the damage he sustained in a mortar blast, the dentist turned out to be a Bosnian-American who had been resettled by the same church when she herself was a refugee 20 years ago.
Nassau Presbyterian Church was founded in 1766, so it’s about as presby as they come. For its members, refugee resettlement is just something you do, if you seek to live out ancient biblical teachings that emphasize helping people in need—especially ‘strangers in a strange land’ or ‘aliens’—and making an extra effort to aid those whom others shun or reject. The church’s volunteers spend a lot of time together doing this work; it’s communal and not individual. One of the team leaders confessed she’s spending more time with the resettlement team and the refugee family right now than with her own grandchildren. But she said it with laughter, not regret.
Just as those New Jersey Presbyterians see the Syrian refugee crisis and respond, “Bicycle Bob” Sieczkowski saw a need and an opportunity in a broken bike left by the side of the road. After picking it up, Bob repaired the bike and donated it to an organization that serves the homeless. Soon enough, bike repair became a hobby and earned him his nickname in the community. It also linked him to a church, and he joined the bike ministry at Grace Presbyterian Church in Spring Hill, Florida. There, a group of older men gathers every Wednesday morning in a garage behind the church to repair bicycles. They donate 50 to 60 bikes a year and have fixed over 1,800 since they started in 1998. Bob simply says working in the Wednesday morning bike ministry gives him something to do. It helps take his mind off missing his wife, who died last year.
At the other end of the age spectrum, today’s younger adults are unlikely to see the church as a place to take their minds off their troubles or help those in need. Writer Elizabeth King asserts that for herself and most millennials, “therapy is our new church.” Therapy offers a way to grapple with the big questions, and it often leads to change and growth. In therapy, it’s not only OK, but important, to ask difficult questions and to navigate life’s “gray” areas. Pushing back is encouraged, and the freedom to think critically and be honest about doubts have made therapy “transformative” for King. In her mind, therapy stands in direct contrast to church, which she has experienced as a closed-minded, black-and-white institution that peddles binary thinking, shame, and harmful ideas about gender.
Given that choice, therapy is surely the right call. Churches that stifle thinking, damage the sense of self, and fail to embrace life in all its complexity are rightly rejected.
Yet I can’t help think that for me—and I suspect for many other older Presbyterians at places like Nassau Presbyterian and Grace Presbyterian—church has offered some of the very things King gains in therapy. It has encouraged me to think critically and explore non-binary aspects of existence, including the soup of faith and doubt that threatens to boil over when life offers no easy answers. Choosing to resettle Syrian refugees in the current US political climate certainly is not a black-and-white experience. Working in the bike garage week after week, year after year, surely leads to nuanced reflection on the complex gray areas of poverty, homelessness, and Christian teachings of justice and mercy.
There’s something special about the community that forms among people who share not only in work, but in the faith that undergirds it. Elizabeth King acknowledges that therapy doesn’t really provide community when she quotes Chicago-based therapist Rachel Kazez. When you’re seeing a psychologist, Kazez says, “‘you’re working towards an end, you’re working on being done with it.’” And that’s different than when “‘you go [to church] your whole life, you know the people, [and] you become friends with them.’”
Many adults in their 20s and 30s are seeking ways to make a difference. Therapy doesn’t meet the human need to be part of a community. Might our old churches have something transformative and meaningful to offer a new generation? Maybe. Maybe not.
When we myopically focus on aging demographics and statistics about declining congregations, we risk missing out on wonderful stories of deeply faithful, life-changing activities that are taking place in garages and church basements that, to the naked eye, just look old. But scratch the surface of who’s making a difference and making meaning at the same time, and you’re bound to find living examples of vibrant communities and individuals who are embracing and embodying the ageless wisdom of Christianity’s most ancient tenets: Welcome the stranger. Help the needy. Put your attention on someone besides yourself. And don’t worry if you need glasses.
Editor’s Note: Wendy developed this post as part of The BTS Center’s autumn 2016 online course, “Spiritual Stories for a Wired World.”