All of the buildings where I lead worship were built in the days before electricity was an option for small congregations. The original lighting would have come from candles and oil lamps. Because the buildings were designed as houses of worship, they were built with high ceilings to give a sense of grandeur and awe—people in those days didn’t seem to worry about heating costs or efficiency.
Eventually, electricity was discovered and wires were strung and after some initial reluctance, the churches wired their buildings. The candles and hanging oil lamps were removed and replaced with electric bulbs, generally hanging down from the high ceiling. The installers made a couple of assumptions that plague our churches to this day.
Assumption one was that since light bulbs last almost forever, it wasn’t necessary to think about how to replace them. That assumption lead people to do away with the system in place for the hanging oil lamps—a rope and pulley system that allowed the lamps to be lowered for cleaning, refilling and lighting. Those new electric fixtures were hung from the ceiling on a chain or wire at the same height as the oil lamps—well beyond the reach of even a star NBA player.
The second assumption was that the church would always have a significant number of young, athletic and risk-taking members who would love to take on the challenge of replacing the burnt out light bulbs. Over the years, there have been some truly interesting and dangerous methods utilized to change the bulbs—but young people don’t care about the danger and it was part of their way of expressing their faith.
However, some things have changed in our churches. The light bulbs are still in high and inaccessible fixtures and still burn out. However, we no longer have the young, energetic spiritual athletes in our congregations. We tend to ignore the burnt out bulbs for as long as we can—and since most of our worship events happen during the day time, we can ignore them for years.
But in two of our buildings, the situation got so bad that we can’t really ignore it any longer. We have to change light bulbs. That reality has sparked more discussion and consternation than our budget shortfall. None of us is all that comfortable with heights—aging seems to heighten the awareness of the things that can happen when the human body makes an unexpected vertical drop of that height. Also, aging knees and ladders don’t always work all that well together.
So, the congregation struggles. There are those who demand that something be done about the lights. There are those who might have done it years ago who are happy to describe the process but whose increased maturity makes it clear to them how bad a solution it really was. And then there are people like me who figure that the light on my tablet is fine for most stuff and when I really need it, I have the flashlight app on my phone.
In the end, we will replace the bulbs. One building has already been taken care of—I helped design a relatively safe process that was too high for me but one of the other men was comfortable climbing. In another, well, we are pretty sure a son will take care of it on his next visit home—we can wait for that one. In the other buildings, at this point the bulbs are all still working so we are fine for a while. When we include the time we allow ourselves to ignore the burnt out bulbs, we probably have a couple of years or more in them.
This sounds like a silly and even frivolous problem, especially if you are reading this in the context of a church whose building has people to care for these things. But these are real problems that some of us have to deal with. Fortunately, small churches are adaptable, flexible and enduring. We will find a way to deal with whatever we have to deal with, whether it is burnt out bulbs, serious financial problems or difficulty finding a pastor willing to work part-time for low pay.
We may sit in the dark for longer than we should but eventually, we will take care of things as we continue to discover how God can still use us aging people in the work of his Kingdom.
May the peace of God be with you.