“Rummage Sales & Fixer-Uppers: The Protestant Church turns 500”

Several years ago, the late Phyllis Tickle wrote an influential book called The Great Emergence. She had this idea that that every five hundred years or so, the Christian church goes through a period of upheaval and transformation. To help us better imagine the experience of such transition, we used an image familiar to many of us: the rummage sale.

Every five hundred years or so, she suggested, the Christian church has a rummage sale. Theological basements and liturgical attics are cleared out to make room for something new. It’s an interesting metaphor; and it has become very popular among church folk trying to come to terms with the enormous – and not altogether positive – changes the Christian church in Western Europe and North America has faced over the past three or four decades. Looking at declining attendance, increased scarcity of resources and a general loss of relevance and enthusiasm, church leaders jumped on the image as a way of articulating what we all seem to be experiencing: and to offer a sense of hope as well, taking comfort and assurance in the fact that the church has been here before and survived. We just need to get rid of the old stuff and go shopping for something new.

All will be well.

While I like the image of the rummage sale, it has its limitations. First of all, the Christian church goes through significant periods of change and transition far more frequently than every 500 years. People old enough to remember Vatican II know well the tectonic shift in Catholic life and practice it occasioned. That was 50 years ago. But there is something in the image of the rummage sale that suggests that things must go because they are old and have lost their sense of utility in contemporary life. They need to be replaced with something newer, more polished, better.

Many of you will know the HGTV program Fixer Upper. If not, here’s a quick summary; a couple in Waco, Texas help new homeowners fix up older houses, adding new layers of utility, charm and usefulness onto the solid foundations of older buildings. The hosts and the homeowners spend a lot of time and energy tearing old things apart but the bones of the house are left intact. Then, they imagine together what might emerge out of the rubble and mess. As popular as the rummage sale metaphor has become, here’s another possible way of looking at contemporary church life.

Like any other institutions, the church can do with a periodic spring cleaning. There are things that need to go; but attics and basements—metaphorical or otherwise—need to be explored with care and discernment. And instead of rushing to sell the old stuff off, we might be better served with a little rearrangement, some new color, a coat of more colorful paint;: and – to extend the Fixer Upper metaphor just a bit.

The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is not cause for wholesale change: not an occasion to sell off all the once-cherished items gathering dust in our attics. Some may need to find a new home, but not all. Because there is good stuff in our history; there are treasures still to be found in our traditions and practices that offer so much of what our world yearns for today.. So what is essential for the church in our time – and for the First Congregational Church in our setting – is to pay closer attention to what is going in the life around us; not what only to what our neighbors are doing, but what it means for us to be a good neighbor in a world struggling to find authentic expressions of community.

That is what we are called to discern together; to give our church a greater sense of utility and purpose, and to meet the world as we find it.

Yours in Christ,

The Meetinghouse News
The First Congregational Church of Madison
November 2017