My husband and I began attending FPCH in 2014, shortly after we moved to LA from Scotland. In May of last year I became an elder. In this post, I’d like to reflect on why we became members, some things I’ve learned about FPCH since getting a view behind the curtains, and some things I think we should be doing now for our church home.
Modern life being what it is, it was for less than romantic reasons that Jeff and I joined FPCH. We knew we had to find a church that was in close driving distance from our home or we simply wouldn’t have the discipline to attend on Sunday mornings. That left a handful of churches from which to choose. Reformed as I am in my theology, I, for one, preferred to find something like the Anglican service we experienced in the UK. You see, I research and write about modern Christianity—that’s my vocation—so the more I can feel the culture of a particular church, its American-ness, say, or its Methodistism, or its Californianess, then the less I can concentrate on higher matters. I get distracted the more moving parts there are to a worship service because I start analyzing them and move into a more critically-minded state of mind. For this reason I prefer a more liturgical service, like the one we have on Sundays at 8:30 a.m.: the predictability better enables me to be present and focused.
Now, since becoming an elder I’ve become more aware of FPCH’s place in American church history. (This is partly because I’m helping organize our wonderful collection of historical documents.) Did you know that in 1949 our congregation was featured in Life magazine? (You can find the full article with a Google search.) At that time, apparently, FPCH was the largest Presbyterian church in America and, in the journalists’ words, “a prime example of vigorous, successful American Protestantism.” The 61 years between that moment and our own has witnessed enormous change in US society. It’s true, our church was filled to the brim with people in 1949—membership was 5,353 and growing fast—but it was also benefitting from a time when church-going itself was the thing that middle-class, white Americans like those attending FPCH at that time did. Obviously, attending services was an act of devotion genuinely felt, but it was also a cultural reality of post-war, expansionist, optimistic America. Looking at the spread of pictures of FPCH in Life magazine from 1949, I’m happy for that moment. I’m happy for all those people coming together to be a community. But, honestly, there are many reasons that I’m also grateful to be living in my time and not that one, to be attending the church of our day and not the one from 61 years ago. For one thing, as a woman I wouldn’t have been allowed to serve as an elder then. Today, as in 1949, our church reflects the city around us—though we should strive to do better to welcome the full spectrum of people in Los Angeles. Our moment is a very different one in American Protestant history but one no more or less challenging than any other, I suspect. We just have a new set of challenges to face, within ourselves and within the wider culture. For all its navel-gazing and anti-intellectualism, and for all its cynicism and violence, I wouldn’t trade our own day for my grandparents.’ I wouldn’t go back.
I put it like this because I think there is a tendency at a place like FPCH to pine for the past. At times like these, when we are in-between permanent head leadership and facing uncertainty, it is tempting to long for what we—especially those of us who have been here many years—remember as easier, better times. Friends, we must check this tendency in ourselves. I’d go so far as to call this longing as dangerous, even evil. God did what He did in the past, and we should be grateful for it. But we have no right to think His best work at FPCH is behind us. It’s like an insult, like saying He doesn’t have it in Him to bring life to the world of our day, or, worse, that He doesn’t care to. Furthermore, when we pine for the past I think it prevents us from bringing our full selves to the present. And right now that is exactly what we need to do.
To that end, I challenge each of us to do two things. First, ask someone in our church that you don’t know very well what they value at our church and listen to the answer. Second, use your imagination for God. How might we serve the Lord and Los Angeles in a new way? That’s what our past members and leaders did and now it’s our turn. Dream big dreams. God expects nothing less of us.