Yesterday, after 26 years as its pastor (and almost 49 years of ordained ministry), John Buchanan preached his final sermon at Fourth Presbyterian Church. It was a stunning and emotional day. Indeed, it was the end of an era.
Over the course of three worship services, over 2600 people filled the pews for this historic moment. The demographics of these congregations say a lot about how Fourth has changed in a quarter century. At the final service, we packed a good group of youth into three pews right in front of the pulpit. Other youth worshiped with their families at each of the three services. At two of the services, numerous Sunday School children crowded the chancel to thank John by reciting some of his favorite Bible verses. Families were everywhere; young adults, too. It was a visible sign of life and vitality in a time of struggle for mainline Protestant churches.
For years, Fourth Church has bucked the standard story of urban mainline churches. While others have diminished and faded, during the pastorate of John Buchanan Fourth has doubled in size to become something quite rare: a progressive mainline megachurch located right in the middle of a major city.
Yesterday represented for me everything that is good about the mainline Protestant tradition:
- a cathedral-style sanctuary packed with people of all ages
- classical music and traditional hymnody executed with excellence
- a masterful preacher proclaiming the gospel with clarity, sophistication, and intellectual integrity
To be sure, there is a lot about mainline Protestantism that I find incredibly frustrating and in need of revision or abandonment. But yesterday reminded me that there is much about this tradition that is worth holding on to. Rarely have I felt as Presbyterian as I felt yesterday. As the future of mainline Protestantism emerges, and in whatever role I may play in it, I will carry these memories with me. They will inspire me. We don’t have to be a dying and increasingly irrelevant relic of the past. We have something vital to offer the world.
In the end, John’s final sermon was a simple reflection on Micah 6:6-8 and Luke 10:25-37. He framed it with words he often uses in prayer before sermons and in benedictions at the conclusion of worship. “Startle us”—because we must not let the gospel become boring or too familiar. “Hold to the good”—because ultimately, what God desires of us is simple: love each other.
For one last time, in front of 2600 people, John proclaimed his message of inclusivity and missional concern for all of God’s children. The Chicago Tribune nailed it in the second sentence of their story on John’s final sermon: “The retiring pastor called on congregants at Fourth Presbyterian Church to love their neighbor regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, economics or politics.”
I’m proud to serve a church that sounds like this to the world. And I’m grateful that so many people, including the youth I work with, had one final opportunity to hear this good news from John Buchanan.