You've heard this joke:
Question: How many country music singers does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: 12. One to screw in the bulb, and 11 to sing about how much better the old bulb was.
I'm starting to feel like a nostalgic country-music singer myself.
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For some reason, probably age, I find myself waxing nostalgic more and more. Last week, I wrote about grieving for family and friends I've lost.
But in addition to mourning the dead, I find myself mulling over the past generally, comparing it to the present.
Sometimes the present actually is better, yet I look back.
This week I reminisced, not for the first time, about the various rural Baptist churches I attended as a kid, and considered how different church is today.
I still attend a rural church, but it's Pentecostal rather than Baptist, and it's independent rather than part of a larger denomination. It's almost nothing like the congregations in which I grew up.
Part of that is the inherent difference between Baptists and Pentecostals. But a larger part is a transformation in Protestant culture generally during the past half-century.
This isn't my first stab at identifying these shifts. I wrote a similar, lengthier essay back in 2011 for The Daily Yonder, a website that explores rural issues.
Here are the things I've been considering (again):
■ Music. When I was a kid we sang from hymnals, accompanied by a piano and, occasionally, an organ. The hymns were 100 years old, at least. Now we have no hymnals — or hymns.
Lyrics are projected on a screen. The songs are new. We have no organ, either, and in addition to the piano, we've got drums, guitars, a bass and a saxophone.
I enjoy modern worship music, and despite some curmudgeons' complaints to the contrary, I find the lyrics as theologically sound and complex as the words of the old hymns. But some Sundays I ache for Rock of Ages or How Great Thou Art.
■ Women's roles. In those old Baptist churches, women largely ran the show — they taught the kids' Sunday school classes, organized church dinners, taught Vacation Bible School, raised money. But inside the adults' classes and the sanctuary, they were barely allowed to speak, much less teach or preach or lead music.
Today, in our congregation and many others, women can openly lead, at all levels. Our music director is a woman. The majority of our deacons are women. Women preach. You name it, it's open to them. Why omit 50 percent of your talent pool? This is one arena in which I don't mourn the good old days at all.
■ Smoking. The men used to stand around on the church's front porch between Sunday school and the worship service, puffing cigarettes and talking about their crops. When the main service began, they'd flip their cigarettes over the porch's railing and amble inside, grinning and joking.
This doesn't happen anymore — partly because hardly anyone smokes. Certainly I realize smoking is terrible for your health. I don't smoke myself. But I loved the smell of the men's cigarettes and their gentle camaraderie.
■ Clothing. Used to be, people dressed up. Women wore dresses. Men wore suits and ties, or at least pressed khakis and button-down sports shirts.
Today, it's come-as-you-are at church: cargo shorts, jeans, T-shirts, flip-flops. The only things I haven't seen are bikinis or Speedos; I do hope it doesn't go that far.
But I'm in favor of dressing down. There's hardly anything short of a colonoscopy I hate as vigorously as I hate putting on a tie. This is another arena in which I'm tickled the good old days have turned into the better new days.
■ Parishioners. Members of rural churches once lived within a short drive — or even a short walk — of the building. Many were farmers. Mainly they were natives of the area who'd known each other's families for generations. Mainly they hadn't traveled too extensively, more than, say, a jaunt overseas while in the military during World War II, or a rare vacation to Florida.
In my congregation now, hardly anyone lives within, say, two miles of the church. Some live in other counties. Hardly anyone farms. They may hail from places as far-flung as Washington state or California. They travel to Europe for recreation.
They are, on the whole, better educated and better informed. They're plugged into Facebook and Twitter and Roku. They practice yoga. They eat Thai food.
They don't even carry Bibles to church. They carry smart phones, and double-check my biblical citations through Google — as I'm preaching.
I face a very different audience than my dad used to face as a Baptist pastor. His congregations enjoyed a deep sense of community. Mine lacks that, I'm afraid, but is long on social sophistication and multicultural experiences. This one's a wash.
There's a lot more I could say about the ways church is different today. But I guess that, as people often have noted before, life is change.
Here's what I think hasn't changed in 50 years: the core message of the Christian Good News. It seems the same as ever: "For God so loved the world."
And that's what really matters. The rest, I suppose, is mere packaging.