Preface: There was a time in my ministry where I wrote about Austin too much. I will admit this. The city and the seminary had transformed my life. I was so enamored with and full of stories about Austin that I needed to ration the Austin references in my sermons and newsletter articles. It would be too much otherwise.
A few years after I graduated, I was asked to serve on the alumni board and then as its president. Between the board meetings and Midwinter Lectures, there was a season where I visited Austin three times a year. That has not been the case recently. Prior to my recent trip, I had not been to Austin since 2020, immediately before the pandemic began. Sick children and a root canal prevented trips in the intervening years.
I write all of that to say, you all are lucky I do not talk about Austin more!
Generations of Austinites have bemoaned how the city has changed. Practically from the founding of the city, residents have spoken harshly about those newcomers that just arrived there while their family has been there for 20, 50, or a 100 years. I was reminded of this reality on a recent trip to Austin Seminary for the Midwinter Lectures, the annual homecoming for Austin Seminary Alumni. I was reminded because I ran over a nail as I drove near the seminary and then made an offhand remark about all the construction to the manager of the tire repair shop where I stopped. “My family has been here since 1922,” the gentleman behind the counter said before giving me his family history in the town. I am not sure if he was being defensive or proud for being there before others, but the outcome was the same: Austin was changing, and he was unhappy.
I think we encounter a similar dynamic in the church. The church (and world) has changed so much in recent years. The pandemic and technology have accelerated that change. We may embrace or, at least, use it, but we also bemoan the change and look longingly and nostalgically to the past. In some places, the church is so obsessed with the past that they neglect the present and future. A church I knew in Oklahoma City had an entire room dedicated to displaying its history, ministry, and all the churches they had started. In my mind’s eye, the room was gilded, but it might have just been the lighting and reverence shown to the space. I always wondered what happened to that space after they tore the church down.
What I noticed in Austin on this visit is that the city has grown enormously tall and broad. For years, there was a law that prevented buildings from being taller than the State Capital Building. With that law removed, dozens and dozens of skyscrapers now dwarf the Capital and reach to the clouds. Downtown Austin has invaded quiet nearby neighborhoods, and suburbs seem to start in Waco a little over an hour north. The city is immense and growing overpopulated.
The city has also grown smaller. The essential character of Austin has always been its neighborhoods, the local bar or restaurant, the parks and green space, and the infinite number of homegrown businesses. As much as Austin has gotten bigger, it has gotten smaller too: different but essentially the same, as well. At the same time Austin has grown more into what people hate – a swarming city of transplants, it has become more of what everybody has always loved about the city – a quirky, weird, mash of people living in a beautiful corner of God’s creation.
There is a lesson in there for the church today. Instead of bemoaning change, resisting change, or actively preventing change, can the church change by becoming more itself? Can the church live differently (perhaps, better) into the identity that makes us the church and this Presbyterian variety? Instead of worrying about the past or future, small or large, can the church be more local, more aware of community needs, more concerned about the lives of the individuals that surround it? Can we preach exactly the same old good news our community needs today?
Rev. Tim Blodgett