My friend Paul had a post earlier this week about Christmas Day 2022. That’s the next time the holiday falls on a Sunday. Some churches, for what seemed to be good reasons I am sure, cancel their services when December 25 is a Sunday. Paul’s words got me to thinking, and I wrote this post as a reflection on the topic. He ran it earlier this week; I wanted to run it here today.
They have been sitting just a few blocks from each other on one of Ottawa’s main streets for more than a century. The little red-brick Baptist Church, founded in 1888 and it’s beautiful stone Presbyterian counterpart that started 14 years previously.
By the mid-1970s, both congregations were past their glory days. The Baptist sanctuary could hold a couple of hundred people if they were really friendly with each other, but average Sunday morning attendance was closer to 80, most of them elderly. Obviously a church on its last legs.
The Presbyterians weren’t in much better shape. They had a bigger congregation, but the church always seemed empty with their 900-seat sanctuary. Their 12-speaker audio system produced more echo than sound.
It had become the custom, probably through a friendship that had developed between long-serving pastors, for the churches to have joint services in the summertime. In July the Presbyterians came to the Baptist Church while their pastor went on vacation. In August the traffic went the other way. The system worked well for years, with the churches saving the cost of pulpit supply, and the people of the two congregations discovering they were pretty much alike. Greying and not quite sure how to make the Christian message relevant to the age.
Then there was a change at the Baptist Church. The new pastor wanted July off. He was told what the arrangement with the Presbyterians was, and wasn’t thrilled. The church board consulted their Presbyterian counterparts and a compromise was reached.
The Baptist pastor would have to take his vacation in August that first year. In subsequent years however they would alternate months. He was agreeable to having every second July for vacation, and apparently his counterpart was also. Everyone seemed pleased that the long-standing arrangement would continue.
In the second year the Presbyterians informed the Baptists that their pastor would be taking his usual July vacation, previous arrangements notwithstanding. The Baptist pastor’s family plans were already made. His board knew it would not have been right to ask him to change.
Being budget-conscious the Baptists turned to their congregation. Men (naturally) were asked to preach while the pastor was on vacation. People discovered gifts they didn’t know they had. The calibre of the lay preaching was pretty good. At least, the Presbyterians thought so. With their pastor on vacation their church just shut down for a month. Many in the congregation joined the Baptists in worship – that was what they were accustomed to.
Almost forty years later, that little red-brick Baptist church is still struggling. It still has an aging congregation and perhaps even fewer people most Sundays.
Three blocks away the story is quite different. That church is bustling, lots of young families, you can feel the excitement. It is so different than when they chose to shut for a month so the pastor could take a vacation. So much has changed in forty years.
I guess the biggest change has been in the use of the “P” word. Today’s congregation is Pentecostal. The Presbyterians closed up shop in 2008. The building sat empty for a couple of years, then this new Pentecostal congregation looking for a home purchased the magnificent structure at a bargain price.
I would argue that deciding to shut down that month back in the 1970s, in deciding there was no necessity to hold services, that Presbyterian congregation was laying the groundwork for the church’s demise.
A Presbyterian theologian might have said it was predestined. A Baptist would reject that.