Back when Brethren balladeer Andy Murray was making the denominational concert rounds, he was best known for songs that told the stories of forebears like Anna Mow and Ted Studebaker—songs that still resonate for many generations of Brethren. But he also often mixed in some fun songs about things as random as school buses, watermelon juice, and chickens.
In that latter category was his own creative take on the classic “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which he intentionally threw off its normal cadence by singing the usual tune but starting out on the second word instead of the first. Every word in the song thus fell a note earlier than it usually did, leaving an unresolved note hanging as it ended on the rousing “old ball game.”
It messed with my head as a youth, but that Murray melody has stuck with me. Even now, those lopsided lyrics will occasionally echo in my brain during the seventh inning stretch of baseball games.
They also came to mind recently in a less-expected environment, while talking about current church realities with a local pastor. Like others I’ve heard recently, they mentioned how different things feel in the church these days, as many congregations experience decreased attendance, a lack of children and youth, the difficulties of navigating hybrid worship, tight budgets, shifting models of pastoral leadership, and other challenges.
The general shape and pattern look familiar from what we’ve known, but our cadence has been thrown off. We’re trying to sing the same song, but the notes often don’t feel like they’re falling in quite the right places.
An article on the music site FretJam observes that unresolved chords in music create tension, and those places leave you “with a hanging feeling, as if there’s no closure” to the sequence. And in a 2018 American Psychological Association article, German psychologist Tom Fritz said, “Permanently dissonant music is really hard to bear.” He connected hearing it to a German expression that translates to, “It tears my socks off.”
Perhaps that’s what we’re experiencing as a church. It feels like an era is ending, and that unresolved note is a hard place to be. But as my pastor friend observed, that also gives us the opportunity to help shape the next stanza of the church’s story. What do we want the church to be? The new rhythms that emerge—perhaps jarring at first—can also entwine themselves in our hearts and communities over time.
Where do we begin with that? Some congregations are already taking steps in that direction: Having hard but meaningful conversations about their future vision, selling physical buildings to enable ministry elsewhere, looking more outwardly into their communities, reviving new takes on our “house church” heritage, calling pastoral leadership teams from within, and more.
Our youth could also help point the way for us. At National Youth Conference this past summer, small groups were asked what they appreciate about their congregations. Answers included “never feeling like an outsider,” “having role models,” “the pastor,” “authenticity,” “singing together,” “a welcoming culture,” “a family feeling,” “generosity,” “open to questions,” “service,” “loving people,” and “a sense of community.”
Some form of those last two, in particular, came up again and again. One respondent put it all together, saying they appreciated “how the congregation loves Jesus, each other, and the people in our community.” Not a single answer included the sermons or Sunday school or church boards or specific programs, but it seems the caring pastors and leaders and mentors and others behind those things are essential, with Christ weaving through them all.
We need loving communities. That’s what Jesus consistently modeled. And if our youth value that so highly, odds are others do too. Our cadences in the coming decades will likely need more of that, as well as creativity in how we “do church,” letting go of some conceptions of what church should look like.
The Spirit keeps singing, even in our dissonant places. But finding our way to the next song might tear our socks off at times until we get there.
Walt Wiltschek is at-large editor of Messenger and District Executive Minister for the Illinois & Wisconsin district of the Church of the Brethren.