By Dr. David Talcott
Anna and I spent eight years in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s a university town, where more than 1/3 of the total population is students. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the town was far more transient than most places. Not only were students only there for a few short years, but employees who were staff, faculty, or in support services were constantly turning over. A faculty member would come, but would leave a few years later for a different university. A grad student would come, but would leave to take a job. Someone would be hired to run some university center, but a better offer would come along a few years later and they’d leave.
Our church was a mix of town and gown – “town” folk who had grown up in the area and were going to stay in the area regardless of their job situation, and “gown” folk who were only there for the university and would be gone as soon as the university gig ended. One year while we were there the associate pastor did a study of the church membership. He found that in any given 3 year period, we would turn over roughly half of the regular attenders. If you left the church and came back 3 years later, nearly half of the faces would be ones you didn’t recognize.
As you can imagine, this made the place pretty dynamic. The pastoral staff knew they might only have a year or two with any given person, so they were very intentional to try to train and help them in that short time frame. Because a lot of people were students or in the early stages of career and family they were going through major life transitions. At times like these we’re often unsettled and anxious, needing to see afresh how God is faithful in guiding and caring for His people. There was a lot of growth.
That amount of turnover is not ideal, and I would not wish that pace of change on anyone. But, having some change is important for health and growth. For time-bound creatures, survival and flourishing requires change. Living things don’t stay healthy by staying still. A mountain can stay still, but a pine tree cannot. Year after year it has to grow, put out new branches and new needles. Lower branches eventually wear out and are replaced by new ones. Growth requires change. To stop moving is to die. Those who have had a major injury and have gone through a serious recovery process know that one of the first things you have to do, once the acute danger is past, is to start moving. The longer you stay in bed, the harder the recovery is going to be. Muscles and bones need to be used in order to stay healthy. By lifting weights we strengthen our bones. By swimming we strengthen our hearts.
I say all this because our church is currently in the midst of this kind of growth. We are both sending and receiving, and this is good and healthy. The sending is hard; we will miss the Byerlys and the Shumans just as we’ve missed the Ragonesis, the Rizzutis, and many, many others. But, the receiving is also real. At our last elder’s meeting we discussed 6 different families who are regularly attending and either interested in membership or who should be encouraged to consider membership. I don’t know if you’ve looked around recently, but we continue to have a lot of visitors, even though there’s only a few open seats! It’s part of a healthy church that people will come and go. As a recently re-released movie puts it, it’s “the circle of life.”
But, it is more than that. It is part of God’s mission. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. You can’t fill the earth if you don’t move to different places. Humanity has been on the move since the beginning. The people of God have been on the move since the beginning (think of Abraham’s calling to a strange land, or the apostle Paul’s multiple missionary journeys). As you might know, I’m not personally fond of moving. I don’t like it (and I think in general people move too much – we need to recover the significance of place). But it’s part of human life and in many cases is absolutely the right thing to do.
As the people of Covenant Presbyterian Church, we have a role in that natural and divine economy. We need to be a training ground, raising people up and sending them out to whatever vocations God has prepared for them. Whether to the mission field, the ministry, industry, commerce, education, homemaking, or whatever vocation God gives, we need to equip people to carry out God’s work in that sphere. Given our location, we’re likely to have more than our fair share of young families (people moving out of the city when they have kids, or people moving into the area with kids). Sometimes these families will move on because of a job situation. Other times they will move to be closer to their extended family. In each case, we should give them our blessing and help them in every way possible. Let’s pray for them, that God would prepare for them fruitful ministry, good friends, and a healthy church. Let’s make it our ambition to send out future elders and deacons (and pastors and missionaries and Titus 2 women) to as many churches as we possibly can. Let’s pray for God’s kingdom to come.
And as we see friends leave, let’s be on the lookout for who God will bring to us, remembering that God can restore everything that He takes away. When new folks come, we should embrace them and welcome them, making them our friends. It’s hard to be a visitor, and it’s hard to arrive at a new place without friends and family. We continue to have the job of bringing in new parts of our spiritual body, growing in strength and vitality. If you can only see the downside of people leaving, consider Job, Abraham, and so many others in Scripture who were called to lose their lives for God’s sake, so that they might find them in the end. Let’s live as people who hope in our great God.
Lord, renew our confidence that you are adding people to your number daily. Renew our zeal, that we would proclaim your good news to our neighbors, our friends, to any who are weak and weary who we happen to meet with in our lives. Help us to look to the future in hope, anticipating and awaiting what You will do and what new brothers and sisters you will bring into our church.