One of the four BIGs (Bold, Inspirational Goals) that the Collegium, the 5 officers of the national setting of the UCC, presented to the recent General Synod as an aim for our denomination for the next decade was a bigger public voice.
(The other three are: 1) reachable and welcoming congregations; 2) engaged discipleship; and 3) excellent and diverse leadership.)
Ben Guess, the executive for Local Church Ministries, provided examples of where our denomination might have a louder prophetic role in the public square: environmental stewardship, marriage equality, just immigration policies.
To truly be church, we must speak effectively beyond our four walls. We have something to say that’s needed, different and not always said by others.
First, because we are to share the Gospel. We have a basic responsibility to offer others the promises and invitation of God’s love. Especially in our time when many people never darken the door of a church. Or don’t look towards the church as having anything to offer. So if our message never gets beyond the church’s four walls…
Some people respond when they encounter the poetry of faith — the words of Scripture, or an explanation in a sermon, or people praying together. Their door into the church is God’s ancient promises of grace, personal redemption and the afterlife.
But for others, those promises aren’t, at least at first, intelligible. They sound like wishful thinking. Or just empty and meaningless.
But sometimes this latter group of people start to take notice… are even moved when they see the church’s material ministries. Food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, shelter for the homeless — social justice work becomes the door to the church for people who suddenly see and understand and believe that church is about more than poetry and wishful thinking.
But, as importantly, we must speak extramurally because we have something to say to a world most of whose inhabitants will never be Christians. Because the church has a prophetic role beyond the faith community, a role beyond the faith it shepherds.
The church is called to stand up for what is right and good and true. It’s that “love your neighbor” teaching of Jesus’, even when your neighbor is a Samaritan! We are called to out and work against what is wrong, evil and hurtful. We are Protest-ants after all!
What does God require of us, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly! Faithful service isn’t just personal or private. The Gospel also has social implications. So ministry is also about using our authority and resources, putting the church on the line and taking risks, because, like Jesus, only in giving away life do we truly begin to live.
Or, one might say, the church, becoming like the Holy Spirit herself, must be an advocate… for how God means the world to be a good home for everyone, down to the last and least. If we want to be the church, we must stand for justice, respect, fairness, equality, peace, and caring.
The national church’s move to make the church’s prophetic voice more effective registered for me in part because I have been feeling we at Old First have been doing a better job of it.
I was surprised by how many people responded to Beth W.‘s note from General Synod about the church divesting from fossil fuel companies. (Here’s a link to the outcome of that resolution.)
Someone said to me at church last Sunday, “Michael, we really need to divest from fossil fuels.” I responded, “I’m in full support of pushing our culture so that fossil fuels and automobiles aren’t the center of our lives. But I’ve heard a long list of difficulties with the fossil fuel divestment resolution.” Before I could elaborate, I was cut off. Dismissing the political complexities I wanted to discuss, the person replyed, “I used to not care that much about the environment. But because you keep talking about it, now I think it’s really important. WE JUST HAVE TO DO THIS.”
It’s good news to hear people are listening and hearing and wrestling with new issues or ideas or expectations because of church! In this case, it was even surprising news– because I don’t think of myself talking about the environment all that much. Perhaps my non-driving is statement enough!
We are, I think, doing a better job of practically engaging the world around us — the world that God so loves! — especially its bigger, systemic concerns and problems. I have always loved when Jean Drake prays for something far astream — whale pods for example. In so doing, she’s bringing the bigger world into our intimate interaction with God. She’s carrying our spiritual conversation beyond our own, more immediate lives and our corner of 4th and Race Streets.
More and more, we are regularly seeing and serving people and concerns “farther out” in the world:
~ We’ve got over 100 doves flying in the front courtyard, a consistent witness about the scourge of gun violence and all the lives senselessly lost.
~ The gardens are greening the east side of the property; there’s a compost pail in the kitchen; and compost stewing out back — reminding us and everyone who uses our building that what we eat and what we do with our refuse is about caring for God’s world.
~ Delilah wants us to pay some attention to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington– what was accomplished and what is left to be done. (Her wish has become more poignant since the Supreme Court’s striking down part of the The Voting Rights Act.)
~ POWER’s education and jobs campaigns have also brought us out beyond our four walls, to people and experiences and situations that were not a part of our church life before. We have engaged proactively and fruitfully in complex issues and detailed policies that are creating the poverty that sends people week after week and year after year to our saturday cupboard and winter shelter.
Of course, on all these issues, let’s be humble. Crises in the world around us have often prompted our responses. Changing weather conditions are driving home the effects of our over-production of greenhouse gases. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary made it too hard to ignore the weekly death toll right here in Philly. There are more homeless than we can house and not enough affordable housing options. The prayers of our church for the last couple of months have been filled with tearful petitions about the schools’ financial crisis and how bad the next school year could be.
But I find it hopeful and promising: we are finding the spiritual room, creative faith and energy for these problems to find their way into and become a part of our church life. And wrestling with them as church members, we’re finding ways back out into the world to work on them.
For me, this has made our church life larger. Church is helping me get out into the world… taking me to deeper concern for “my neighbors.” Our mission field has expanded. And rather than squeezing me spiritual life, my whole life is getting bigger, more holy.
And people “on the outside” (outside our community) looking in can see we aren’t just a faith community that prays and asks God to fix the broken places. We understand that God means to work through us. We believe and care enough to roll up our sleeves and get busy…
I have shared before that I understand too much politics can impinge on church. When the realities of the world, particularly the harsher ones, come into the sanctuary “the wrong way,” they can make worship feel more like a community forum, instead of an encounter God. And they can make it harder to for folks seeking sanctuary from life’s hurts to find help.
I was interested when Wellspring leaders proposed using cellphones in worship to message politicians about the education funding crisis. I agreed with the cause, recognized the catastrophe our schools were facing. But I wasn’t sure how the congregation was going to take to a new “techno. advocacy” from the pew? Would it meet the same kind of mixed response that powerpoint or pre-recorded music sometimes do?
The people I heard from were excited about the innovation. They didn’t find it intrusive or distracting. But maybe not everyone felt that way, and I just haven’t heard from others?
And I ask more broadly and specifically:
Have you experienced our church taking on a wider concern for the world around us? Are we bringing more of the world, in faith, into our embrace of God?
If so, has it felt faithful… helped you to wrestle with God and what faith means in your daily life and the whole wide world? Are you thinking more about what it means for you to be Christian?
How do you think we are doing at having a bigger public voice?
I would love to hear your reactions and thoughts and suggestions…
See you in church,