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A Letter from Pastor Mary



Dear Friends and Family in Christ:

Younkers is closing. It is the end of an era.

Originally founded in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1856, as a general store, Younkers has a 162-year history in our area as a rock-solid department store where a person could find clothing, shoes, household goods, and sundries of all types and sizes. With its moderate prices, it has been for many families a launch pad into the school year and holiday seasons.

What happened? I’m no business analyst, but I would imagine that even with all the mergers and reorganizations that businesses are going through these days to stay afloat, Younkers didn’t strike the right formula with shoppers to keep it in profitability. Stores are evolving all the time – look at how much the local giant HyVee has changed over the years – and they are forced to adjust to new styles and demands all the time.

Time changes things and human institutions have to keep up or they will fall by the wayside. Even the church.

It’s no secret that church membership and participation have been on the downward slide for the last sixty years. Some churches have closed. Many of people are hurt and upset about the ever-changing landscape of religious life.

My livelihood is wrapped up in the church, so I obviously am watching the trends closely. But I try to follow Biblical advice as dispersed by angels: do not fear. For one thing, the gospel isn’t a human institution; it belongs to God. And it rings as authentic and as necessary as it ever did. The gospel will endure.

Secondly, we are in the midst of a long historical trend. The trend is on a downward slope, I know, but it will bottom out. All will not be lost. And if we are faithful, we will endure, too.

Our oldest members can remember when churches that were full and overflowing because of an anomaly in history: World War II. After the war, people went to church in unprecedented numbers because church gave a coherence to life for the first generation of human beings that actually had the power to destroy the world with the nuclear bomb. Church became an integral part of community life, and Christian norms and customs set the social agenda and the school calendars for the whole country. Almost everybody went to church. It was not just a place of worship or social cohesion; it was also a place to see and be seen. Church and society were almost interchangeable.

The turmoil of the sixties, Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution, Women’s Rights’ Movement, and other historical events meant that church’s ascendency was under pressure. Young people were questioning what their parents took for granted. The rules and strictures that gave their parents comfort after the war felt oppressive to the rising generation and church attendance began to fall.

As that generation raised children, in the eighties and nineties, the new social pressures were success and affluence: college, career, home ownership, business ownership. Kids began to have more opportunities at school and in clubs. Everyone overscheduled. Back when I was in school during the 70s and 80s, Wednesday nights were reserved for church nights. Today, even school sports are scheduled for Sunday mornings. The church has lost its socially privileged place. Even 9/11 only brought people back to church for a few weeks.

But it’s o.k. Nearly everyone who is in church on Sunday morning wants to be there. I celebrate that fact. No one cares what anyone is wearing. Whew! What a relief! I’ve listened to other pastors complain ad nauseum about low attendance and I long ago decided to be grateful for every person in attendance! It feels counter-cultural at church meetings not to complain.

I am not worried about “selling” the gospel, because the gospel speaks for itself. I am worried about being true to the gospel, and most especially about demonstrating the central Biblical value of hospitality. My primary concern always has been and continues to be that our church is a welcoming place – that everyone who comes through our doors will find an authentically warm welcome, and that everyone who leaves should have heard at least once that God loves them. I aspire for visitors to believe that if they should choose us as their church family, that we will love them, too.

I’m not alone in this regard: “I don’t see the church disappearing, I see the church changing radically. Churches who are able to invite, include and celebrate the diversity of humanity, those are the ones that are going to survive. The ones that can’t do that, the ones that continue to make church about boundaries and who’s in and who’s out – those churches are going to become relics, on the fringes of our society” [Deborah Jian Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus].

Showing hospitality isn’t easy, especially for introverts. I do understand that. But imagine the courage it takes to go to a new place, to walk in the door, to not know what to expect, but to hope for a human connection. All it takes from us is a smile, a hello, an introduction, and a question: Would you like to sit with me?

We’re in this together! I hope you will join me in this sacred conspiracy to welcome the whole community, and to let them know: God is love. Maybe it will change someone’s life. Maybe it will even be ours!


Yours in hope of a great future,




The Rev. Dr. Mary N. Pugh