Our 180-year-old iconic Congregational church building is nothing like the sleek, white-with-stainless-steel box that is the Apple store. Yet there amidst the array of phones and monitors, I discovered inspiration for the church in the 21st century.
My husband and I entered the store early on a Saturday morning, just minutes after it opened. The place was buzzing – there were people everywhere. The ten employees I counted were busy talking with customers, offering demonstrations, and enthusiastically showing the capabilities of their products. When was the last time any church was crowded with twenty- and thirty-somethings? Or crowded at all?
We were directed to a woman holding an I-pad (of course) who took our name and promised to quickly find us some help. As we waited, I scanned the staff. I’m willing to bet that few congregations mirror that scene. Young. Multi-cultural. Equal numbers of men and women. People with varying physical abilities. All brimming with enthusiasm about what they had to offer with the conviction that life is better because of it.
When a cheery young man approached my husband to talk computers, I drifted away to glance the displays. It was the church equivalent of someone looking at bulletin boards during coffee hour. Surrounded by people, I didn’t know anyone. I was a bit bored, felt a little out of place, and had no one to talk to. But unlike the experience of many church visitors, I was swiftly approached by a pleasant young woman. She welcomed me and invited me to sit on in a class being held in the center of the store.
As I pulled up a stool, trying to slip into the small group unnoticed, the man leading the class stopped his conversation. Long dreadlocks swung around his face as he flashed a bright smile. “Hi! Welcome. My name is Rashid. What’s yours?” When I answered quietly, a bit embarrassed that I had interrupted the session, he told me he was glad I was there and assured me that I could ask any questions I might have. How many times do folks visit our churches without ever being approached and welcomed?
Rashid returned his attention to the other women sitting at the table, patiently answering questions while detailing basic knowledge about the world of Apple. This was information he must have shared hundreds of times before, yet he spoke with a passion about how these tools benefit his life. His compelling first-hand account made me wonder how many church members have that same enthusiasm when asked, “What does the church do for you?”
Throughout the store, millennials engaged older generations on their technology journey. Many were hesitant, even afraid, to dive into this foreign world of apps and home buttons. Voices of resistance – “I’m not sure I can learn something new,” were met with calm encouragement. “No worries,” the wheelchair-bound employee said, “we’ll take it step by step.” What wisdom does the younger generation have for the church? Are many churches lacking anyone under the age of 40 because we aren’t listening to the knowledge they have to offer? What if the church wondered about new ways to approach old problems?
I love my centuries-old church with its traditional beauty and treasured traditions. This is not an “either-or” scenario. It’s a question of making room for something new and trusting that God can breathe new life into the Body of Christ. We just need to be open to a new vision of what the church can be – and be willing to learn about that in unusual places.