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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

"First" Presbyterian

Have you ever noticed how many Presbyterian Churches are named "First"? Perhaps they are trying to say, "We got here first!" Maybe they are anticipating a disagreement and split, and trying to make sure from the start everyone always knows, "We were the first!"

For a season, when Jill and I had two (then three) young children, we attended Fourth Presbyterian in Greenville, SC. First Presbyterian was severing from the denomination over national, social, political, and biblical interpretation issues, especially LGBTQ inclusion. Second Presbyterian had long ago severed from the denomination over social and biblical interpretation issues, specifically desegregation and the ordination of women. Third Presbyterian had been functionally abandoned and was eventually sold to an interdenominational community. So, we went to Fourth.

I really appreciated that congregation. Fourth was mostly traditional... stained glass, organ, hymns, pews, men wore ties, and no coffee in the Sanctuary, please. I preferred guitars, comfy chairs, not having to wear a tie, and a warm cup of coffee to sip in worship. But wow, my preferences weren't as important to me as hearing good theology and feeling welcomed, understood, and served.

When we entered, as a youngish couple with small children, they knew what we needed. They didn't see us as fresh young volunteers to help the church, to serve on committees, to boost the budget, or to finally take on tasks older ones were tired of doing. They saw us as exhausted parents who needed a break. They say our three small children as a gift to know and grow, despite all their fuss and mess.

Our kids were welcomed in worship and encouraged to stay if they could or leave if they needed, and volunteers made sure Jill and I could stay without worry. Jill and I were invited to groups on marriage, parenting, finances, or Bible and theology, and childcare was always provided. The church even set up "Date Nights." We'd drop off our children at church and go out as a couple or maybe as a group, then pick them up fed, tired, PJ-ed, and ready for bed.

Our children didn't always want to go to church, and neither did we. But when we did, we found the teachings, connections, and care worthy of the name of Jesus.

There's a risk of being a First Church. Over time, first churches forget how to play, serve, laugh, or experiment. They forget to try new things and evolve habitual things. They often try to protect what they have, instead of risking it all for Jesus' type of community where the oldest, youngest, and weakest are special. When I think of the many First Churches who have suffered this fate, I remember a graphic where a lighted sign reads, "We're Number One!" Then a few lights flicker and extinguish, leaving, "We're Numb."

Thankfully, this congregation was not named First Presbyterian. I wonder, what will our next (second? third? fourth?) iteration be like?

May God bless us and support us as we honor the rituals and traditions that embody Jesus well, defer our preferences, and risk sacrificing and serving those in greatest need of care and support.

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