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Lately, as I traveled the country towns of central Kentucky, I’ve noticed a gradual shift in the names of the churches along the highways.
I’d come to expect the usual litany of saints names on the Catholic churches, and the Protestant churches usually named after the location and the denomination. But I began to see names like New Beginning, Open Arms, Solid Rock, Greater Works, River of Life, Soul’s Refuge, names that made me wonder why there is a shift from the older patterns. We southerners love our churches; the changing pattern of names made me wonder what people were searching for and what makes a church bring people back every week.
My brother tells the story of a trip to the Mississippi coast after hurricane Katrina, where he and a group of friends offered carpenter assistance and cleanup and repair to anyone who needed it. When they stopped at houses and offered their help, the first question often was “What church are you from?” In the Bible belt south, when they said Catholic, they were met with distrust and suspicion. So, when they began to call themselves “The Get It Done” church, they were immediately accepted.
Considering the ways we relate to our churches, I thought about what makes a church community important to its members. Is it the buildings and the activities offered? As church congregations become larger with gymnasiums and multiple social services, is that a sign of a vibrant community? Are the mega churches over 1,000 people the church of the future?
As Christmas draws near, I think of families drawn back home from all over the country, to familiar faces and customs known from childhood. It seems to me that our church life at its best, the enduring church, is an extension of family, with the same nonjudgmental welcome and acceptance, always loving, supportive and familiar; a dependable warm embracing world that acknowledges a common heritage and values, the same network that makes a sustainable community.