Old home week: Witnessing vibrant institutions

The churches that thrive are bearers of tradition, laboratories of learning and incubators of leadership.

This summer I spent consecutive Sundays attending services at the two churches that formed my faith life as a youth and then as a young adult, one in Illinois and one in Kentucky. This was not a planned attempt at an “old home week,” but rather a happy coincidence. Both Sundays were a whirl of dear faces, warm hugs, intense-but-too-short conversations and a flood of memories.

Despite the challenges that churches face today, here were two vibrant local congregations that are still thriving. These two churches continue to be what Greg Jones describes as “bearers of tradition, laboratories of learning and incubators of leadership.”

How do people manage to keep on being faithful to one another? Was I just lucky to be a part of two great churches? In part, yes. But these congregations and others like them aren’t simply collections of good people doing good things.

Christian institutions give form and structure to our convictions, enabling us to cultivate thriving communities to be signs, foretastes and instruments of the reign of God,” Jones writes.

What form and structure did I witness on those two random Sundays that are helping these communities to thrive?

Bearers of tradition: I witnessed faithful clergy and laypeople continuing to do quietly what they’ve always done: nurturing the young, the old, the lonely and the sick, and connecting the Good News to those whose lives are in need of comfort and nurture. I heard about opening the church to the homeless, starting a shelter for battered women and taking the Gospel seriously enough that one church hired a convicted felon on its staff.

Laboratories of learning: I witnessed a church staff working patiently and faithfully to bring creativity, life and integrity to worship. One church has opened weekly worship team meetings to anyone in the congregation who is interested, in order to share creative ideas and invest the worshippers in the worship. In the service I attended, a retired biology teacher had drawn beautiful pictures of an egg, then a caterpillar, a chrysalis and finally a butterfly. A youth member climbed up to the baptismal font every 15 minutes during the service to change the poster image on an easel. The images illustrated the theme of transformation in both the sermon and the testimony given during worship.

Incubators of leadership: I witnessed thriving Christian education programs that teach people to study, pray, rejoice, mourn and grow together. One church has a K-8 school as a primary ministry. The other has adult and youth Sunday school classes that not only hold people together through their lives and form the core of their faith experiences, taking formation seriously year-round. Both churches offer leadership roles to youth in the life of their congregations and facilitate leadership opportunities for them in outside organizations.

Finally, I witnessed the mentors that formed who I am as a leader, still mentoring and working in the church. I saw my 8th grade teacher, my principal, my choir directors, my former pastors, my adult education teachers, my friends and my parents’ friends who supported me through milestones like marriage, child birth, illness and jobs.

This great cloud of witnesses reminded me of the ways in which God continues to sustain Christian institutions like the church.