On December 17, 2014, my small More Light PC (USA) congregation, in the middle of Advent, hosted a service of prayer, poems, preaching, and music. Over 150 people came; normally, this is a pastor’s dream: People are coming to church!
But the people gathered because the purpose of the service was to address the lack of justice for Black and Brown victims of violence; the widening gulf between the police and the community; and the undeniable truth that all citizens do not have equal protection under the law.
I was sensitive to my role as a White pastor; I provided some opening remarks to set the proper tone (we gather in honesty, but not to demonize police; we will emphasize that Black lives matter, but also embrace a view that all lives matter), and then proceeded to hand over the pulpit to a wide-ranging group of persons, a vast majority of whom were non-White. Our local interim Police Chief spoke; a representative from the Ohio Student Association, who have been at the Justice for John Crawford movement spoke; local poets offered powerful, heart-wrenching pieces addressing the fears and experiences that make them weary and wary. It was a powerful event, and a local choir provided music that brought the people to their feet. Hugs abounded, and people lingered in the sanctuary having conversations and planning future actions together.
Sitting in my office 12 hours later, with strains of Christmas carols streaming from the church secretary’s radio, I began thinking deeply about why most Sunday’s attendance is one-third that night’s. Church, when it is done correctly, imbues people with a sense of ownership, of community, of belonging, of purpose. But so many people see religion as superfluous or unnecessary in their lives. Yet, they hunger for the very things the Gospel promises: justice, love, compassion, mercy, and grace.
The twelve days of Christmas have passed us by, a season in which we come face-to-face with the mystery of the Incarnation. God made flesh. The Emmanuel; God with us. Are we showing that in the Church? Are we living as though God dwells in us and among us? Or are we scurrying off to our separate corners? If we are worshipping, do we dare worship with those who do not look like us or think like us? Do we acknowledge the inherent racism, misogyny, homophobia, and able-ism of our music and worship? When we confront the Incarnation, do we think only that God looks like “us”? Do we understand that the Incarnation means that God looks like everyone we see? Do we comprehend the incredible diversity of the Body of Christ? When we look in the manger, do we ask, “What Child is This?” and see every child, every color, every gender, every orientation?
I hear so much about the dwindling numbers of congregations. I have attended more workshops and roundtable discussions, more seminary courses and pastor’s retreats on the subject than I can count. Yet, the answer seems clear. The role of the contemporary Church is not to proselytize; it is not to put butts in the pews; it is not to rack up baptisms and membership numbers. The role of the Church today is to throw open the doors, to invite people in, and provide them a space to speak, to be heard, to be loved, to be included. For too long, we have segregated ourselves in the Church, by race and denomination, by theology and mission. And people have grown tired of it. What I saw that night shows me that people want more than Facebook posts with #blacklivesmatter; they want connection, discussion, and honesty. This is where the Church must be: at the center of these conversations; this is what the Church must do: act like we really believe the things Jesus said.
I’m looking at this thing we call ministry, and I am asking what child is this? What is the good news we proclaim? What is the hope we offer? Who is this Jesus we present, we emulate, we love, we follow? Dearly beloved, if he is not a champion of justice, a lover of people, a listener of stories, and a preacher of hope, he is no longer relevant. But we know better, because that is exactly who Jesus is; let us have the courage to be so as well.
The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, currently serving First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, a More Light PC (USA) congregation in Ohio. An academic, Aaron has taught at numerous universities and is best known for his book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. He is passionate about social justice, GLBT rights, and multifaith dialogue. He also serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College.