I joined Westminster Presbyterian Church in 1981, 40 years ago. While this anniversary is of no significance to anyone but me, it has prompted some reflections on the changes in church life over the last four decades.
I joined Westminster in my mid-20s, having just moved to Auburn from Albany. I remember walking into the church for the first time to attend a funeral, and being immediately struck by the Tiffany rainbow window that reminded me of the beautiful Tiffany in my church in Albany. I returned the following Sunday and was warmly welcomed. I had found my home.
In 1981, mainline churches were fairly stable, although nothing like their heyday in prior years. The congregation was older, and they seemed thrilled to welcome a young professional woman. The membership at the time included a lot of white-collar workers, and programming was geared toward nuclear families (mom/dad/kids). I was attracted to the challenging sermons and lively, intelligent congregation. I was quickly invited to become a deacon, and grew to love my new church family.
Our three children were born in the late '80s and early '90s, and I got to know many other young families in similar stages of life. We became close in our shared experience as parents. Our kids were active in a midweek program called “Music and More,” learning Bible stories through music, crafts and pageants. Our little ones attended Westminster Nursery School, and we parents (especially the moms) served on the school’s board. I taught Sunday school, which met the hour before worship every Sunday. Our family was deeply involved in the church and I learned alongside the kids as I became more involved in Christian education programs.
In the '90s, the congregation continued to age and church attendance competed with many secular activities. I was a member of the session (the church board) by then, and I remember many discussions about how mainline churches faced a dire future if they wouldn’t change with the times. But change was hard, as many longed for the “good old days” when everyone went to church, youth groups thrived, and financial giving was robust. It was easier to blame society than make changes ourselves. While looking to the past for solutions, we tinkered with programming to try to attract new members.
Westminster held its own. Its congregation was loyal, active and generous, if not large. We referred to ourselves as a “small church in a big building.”
In the new century, the church pursued ecumenical partnerships, offered challenging educational and cultural programs, and became a more welcoming, inclusive congregation. We engaged in a self-study to shift our perspectives to focus on the world outside our walls rather than on ourselves. This began a shift toward a new future. We focused less on membership growth, and more on spiritual growth. And, surprisingly, people started coming. We worked toward being an inclusive church, welcoming everyone as children of God. Our congregation is now more diverse — economically, culturally and socially. We still have a long way to go, but we reflect all God’s children more now than we did before.
Four decades of slow change accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic. For years, we talked about starting an online ministry, being a church without walls, welcoming everyone and bringing the love of God to the whole community. When forced to adapt, we started online worship in one week’s time! Now, we have as many people worshiping with us online as we do in person, all fully involved in worship, whether joining from a pew or from a living room couch. We stopped doing things we found we didn’t miss. We are more willing to let things go, and are focusing on new ways of being church.
God is a constant, but churches can and do change. The common thread throughout church history has been sharing the love of God with others. Churches are vehicles for doing that. We don’t worship the church. We worship God.
I personally have experienced God’s love in the faith community of Westminster. It has shone through when I was a newcomer in Auburn, a young mom, a busy professional juggling teenagers and aging parents, a doubter, a questioner and a seeker, and now as a retiree and grandparent. Others would describe their experience differently, which is the miracle of God’s presence. May our churches continue to change and grow, bringing God’s love to all who need it. Which is ... everyone.
Jill Fandrich is an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 17 William St., Auburn, where she edits the newsletter, church website (westminsterauburn.org) and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.