by Matt Sapp

Central celebrated its 121st birthday this week. Our church was founded in 1897, the same year as the Boston Marathon. When Central first began meeting for services, you could buy a ladies’ blazer at Bloomingdale’s for less than $3.

In 1897, William McKinley was inaugurated as the 25th president of the United States; Jack London moved to the Yukon where he would write great tales of the Klondike Gold Rush; and Queen Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee.

And, in 1897, the Cleveland Spiders baseball team signed a full-blooded Native-American, Louis Sockalexis, to play in the outfield. Fans started calling the team the Indians. The name stuck.

Central’s wasn’t the only birthday I celebrated last week. We also celebrated my son’s first birthday. The day he was born a blazer from Bloomingdale’s would have cost you $400 or more. When Hudson was born, it wasn’t Queen Victoria, but Queen Elizabeth who had passed the sixty-year mark in her reign. And the Cleveland Indians are still around, but we’re trying not to use that word to refer to Native Americans anymore.

Though separated in age by 120 years, Hudson and Central are a match made in heaven. He loves coming to church. He loves the people and all the attention he gets. He loves climbing the carpeted stairs outside my office. He loves to make a big mess at Wednesday Night Supper.

He loves church so much that most people at Central think he’s the happiest boy in the world. I don’t tell them that he isn’t always as easy to deal with at home.

Central has been welcoming and raising children for well over a century. What is it about the church that keeps it vibrant and engaging and welcoming to new generations of people for decades on end?

Let me suggest three things the church offers.

A Spirit of Togetherness
There’s not much togetherness out there anymore. Too many people have found too many ways to make too much money from exploiting the things that divide us. Somewhere someone learned how profitable it could be to disabuse us of the notion that we’re all in this together. As a result, national and cultural unity has suffered to the point that I sometimes wonder how we’ll be able to hold it all together.

But the church is different. At least it should be. At church we understand that what divides us pales in comparison to the things that unite us—one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (Ephesians 4).

If new generations are to find a genuine spirit of togetherness in their communities, it will most likely be at church.

A Commitment to Higher Principles
Selfishness, greed, ambition, competition—the need to be first, to have more, to win. These are the principles that drive our culture. And, in proper proportion, they have their place in our individual and corporate lives. They lead to innovation and improvement and progress.

But at church we are shaped by higher principles: faith, hope and love—kindness, generosity, and forgiveness. At church, we are taught the nobility of being last, the blessing of having less, and the virtue of losing—even dying to self—so that God might be more fully revealed.

If new generations are to understand that the greatest of all will be the servant of all (Matthew 23), they will learn it at church.

The Presence of God
There are no other institutions committed to being the presence of God in our community like the church is. I hope the people who run the bank are godly people. I hope the people at the newspaper, the courthouse, city hall and the car dealership are, too.

But no one goes to the bank in search of God. No one goes to the courthouse to fill an emptiness in their soul. We don’t go to the newspaper office seeking comfort in times of grief. We don’t turn to the government with questions about eternal salvation.

But we come to church for all of those things. If new generations are to understand the power of God’s presence in our community, it will be because of the church.

Unity, a commitment to higher principles, and places committed to acknowledging God’s presence—all are in short supply today. Yet everyone I’ve ever met has an innate desire for each of them.

Decade after decade, the church promotes these things. That’s how the church continues to be vibrant and engaging and welcoming to new generations.

I’m grateful that we have them all in spades at Central.

See you Sunday.