Rector's Blog: The More You Love
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On my 10th birthday I got a CD player and my first two CDs. They were pop phenomenon Paula Abdul’s debut album, Forever Your Girl, and glam-rock band Cinderella’s Long Cold Winter. Thus began my obsession with collecting CDs. For the next 25 years, I would buy CDs any chance I could get. New, used, box sets, greatest hits, albums, singles – I even joined one of those CD of the month clubs. It very quickly became important to me to have a lot of CDs: the numbers mattered. I remember hitting 50 CDs, and then 100, and so on.
Of course, I loved music, but somehow the number, the size of the CD collection became just as important as actually listening and enjoying the music. I assumed CDs, which supplanted both vinyl records and cassette tapes, would last forever, and that my collection would grow along with me and last me a lifetime. And then, of course, the iPod happened. And then streaming services, and everything changed. Up until very recently I was incredibly resistant to the new ways of listening to music. I still have a CD player in my car – and I still use it! I still love CDs to an unreasonable degree. And my daughter recently got a Discman (I have no idea how) and has been dipping into my collection.
But something has shifted in me in the last couple years. I don’t think about the numbers anymore. I don’t think about collecting. I just listen. In some ways this digital development has freed me to be obsessed not with CDs, but with music itself. As a result, my palate has expanded, and I’m branching out and trying new things – allowing new kinds of music into my ears and heart. I find myself appreciating genres and artists I wouldn’t have given a chance before.
There’s a book on my shelf that says on the cover, “The more you love music, the more music you love.” I have found that to be truer and truer since letting go of the numbers game.
Since becoming a parish priest, I have been obsessed with church growth. I have been obsessed with attendance numbers, with membership numbers, with pledge numbers. These have historically been the markers of “success” for a congregation and I, of course, want to be successful. And our church – Church of the Redeemer – wants to be successful too. We want to grow.
We even put it in our Vision Statement! And to our credit, for what it’s worth, we were growing in the years leading up to the pandemic: In attendance, membership, and giving, we were growing. We were successful.
And then the pandemic hit.
It’s not just that our numbers aren’t the same anymore, it’s that we have no idea what numbers matter or how. This isn’t like records being replaced by CDs, this is like streaming music showing up and completely altering the landscape. This is a seismic shift in our understanding of ourselves and our church community. We have fewer people in the building each Sunday than we had two years ago, but we have more people engaged with the church than ever before. How do we measure that? Are the people who participate in our Bible Study from Tennessee, Colorado, Vancouver, and Cleveland each week members? How about those who listen to our podcasts and share them with their friends? Are the hundreds of people who stream our worship service “attending” Church of the Redeemer? What counts? What is growth?
We’re not going to change that part of our Vision Statement, by the way. Because when I go back and read it, I believe it is more relevant now than it was when we wrote it: We said we wanted to see our church community “Growing with people of every age, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic situation, and political persuasion.” This is not a mere growth in numbers: We are talking about growing in our understanding of who we are. We are talking about the spiritual growth that develops when we are willing to expand the definition of “we.”
During the pandemic, Cincinnati Public Schools changed their bussing system. As a result, a whole group of high school students at Clark Montessori, who used to have busses pick them up at the school, now have to walk down Erie Avenue to wait for the city bus at the stop right next to our church. We heard that some neighbors were annoyed with these students for, you know, walking in front of their houses. Our Youth Minister, Tym House, was not annoyed – he was energized. And he led us to open up our doors and offer up our front porch to these students. Now, every school day we have dozens of young people hanging out with each other and with us at Church of the Redeemer. We offer them lemonade and water when it's warm, and tea and hot chocolate when it’s cold. They charge their phones and make Tik Tok videos, and they’re loud and funny and kind and ridiculous – which is to say they remind us why we’re even church in the first place.
Is this Youth Ministry? We’re not taking attendance. We’re not catechizing them. We’re not recruiting them to become acolytes. It’s not even on a Sunday! Does it count? Is it growth? You know the answer. People who never would have known us otherwise are experiencing God’s love and care through the Church of the Redeemer community. This is what growth looks like for us right now.
Growing with people of all different types - and growing in our understanding of how we connect, how we engage, how we belong to each other is a seismic shift. When I let go of needing to own and count and measure music, I could simply listen and love. And my relationship to music grew. When I let go of needing to own and count and measure success with our church, I can do the same: I can simply listen and love. Listen to the people who are finding us, listen to the people who are rediscovering us, listen to the people who are calling us home again and those who are calling us home for the first time. The more you love music, the more music you love. Likewise, the more you love people, the more people you love. We are here to grow in love.
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