Anthony B. Robinson: The ‘Ain’t It Awful Club'

It’s satisfying to kvetch. It’s wiser to mourn and pitch back in.

“It’s easy to join the ‘Ain’t It Awful Club’,” the late Browne Barr used to say. “And spend all our time complaining about just how bad the whole thing -- church, ministry, life -- is being handled by the next generation(s).”

It’s an understandable temptation. Change is rapid. Things aren’t like they used to be. Some hard-earned wisdom seems neglected. Still, it’s not a club to which anyone should wish to belong.

Membership in the “Ain’t It Awful Club” is hardly limited to clergy. As I work with a variety of religious congregations, the phenomenon seems increasingly common among people in their 70’s and 80’s and is now reaching into the older boomers, those who are in their early and mid-sixties.

The refrains are familiar: “All the church (minister) cares about are new (young) people. No one cares about us.” “People don’t appreciate what we’ve done.” “We’re excluded.” “Why do there have to be so many changes?”

There are probably some legitimate issues there. But they get lost in unhelpful forms of communication. “Some people are saying . . .” “Many people, not just me, are feeling . . .” Often people cast onto the church issues and losses in their own lives which they aren’t addressing.

Is there anything to be done to keep membership from the ‘Ain’t It Awful Club’ from soaring?

Lately I’ve taken to calling people on it, but gently. I tell the story of some recent changes in our family and how hard I found them.

We have two sons and a daughter. Both our sons were married in 2009. In preparation for the first wedding, which I was to officiate, my wife had prepared a slide show with pictures of our son from infancy on as well as his fiancé. On a plane ride, my wife handed me her laptop, saying that it was now complete and I could view it. I hit the button.

And tears started to flow. I don’t cry easily. But sitting there in the coveted middle seat, I was a sobbing mess. I would have wailed aloud and torn my clothes, but you know how people on planes get these days. My wife looked over at me and said, “Geez, you better pull yourself together.”

I was totally unprepared for my reaction. I suddenly realized that a time, a chapter of life, was over, done, fini. I was no longer the father of two young boys. I wasn’t going into the backyard to toss the football. I wasn’t taking my kids camping. I wasn’t going to be sitting in the stands at their games. It was over and I had some long-avoided grief work to do.

Here’s the thing. By the time I watched this slide show, my sons were 35 and 31 (our daughter is younger, 22). In truth, it had been a long time since I had been the father of two little boys.

When sharing the story in a church setting, I conclude by saying that moving forward means letting go. It hurts. But there are gains too. We have two wonderful daughters-in-law and our first grandchild is on the way. Moreover, it’s just the way it is. Change happens. Loss happens. We have to deal with it.

Many in the builder generation and some boomers are struggling with the changes in the church. The time of American Christendom, with the quasi-establishment of Mainline Protestantism, is over. Churches are changing as they adapt, often in fits and starts, to the post-Christendom reality. This doesn’t mean some traditions and values aren’t carried forward into the new time. They are, though selectively and sometimes in “re-traditioned” forms.

But the truth, as for me with my boys, is not only that this era is over, but that it really ended quite a while ago. We have to grieve and move on. The feelings are real, but whining won’t help.

William Bridges, who wrote the classic study, “Transitions,” notes that, “Every new beginning starts with an ending.” It’s time for us to make an ending of American Christendom and move on.

Tony Robinson is a United Church of Christ minister and consultant to congregations and their leaders. His most recent book is “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations” (Eerdmans). You can catch his comments on the weekly lectionary texts here.