Moving the Church into the streets.
"All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become."-- Buddha
One of my favorite movies has always been Meet Me in St. Louis, as much for the memories of watching it around Christmas with my grandmother as the plot which traces a year in the life of a family in the early 20th century. I love the quirkiness and glimpses of a world far removed from the 21st century. One scene has mother looking for the youngest daughter – Tootie - who is seven. No one has any idea where she might be, but rather than looking, mother decides she is fine and must be out on the ice wagon. The next scene is the little girl riding around with the man delivering ice. It is a reflection into the past just as many churches today remain a glimpse into our nation’s religious past.
Christian scripture states that in the marriage between Christ and the church, Christ is the head. We have set our religious practices up in a way that allows Christ to soar free from the church but leaves the church members inside the walls serving only those who already belong. We wait for people to “discover” the church rather than the church venturing out to find people where they live, work or play. The majority of Jesus’s own ministry and his command to the apostles to carry on his work seeks to extend justice, end oppression, and serve the needs of the poor, the sick, and the yearning. This work is not found on a pulpit or on the cross hanging above the altar – it is found outside the church. Unless we find a way to tear down the walls – to move the church into an existence that emphasizes the work in the world – the church will remain lost.
Above - Meet Me in St. Louis with Margaret O'Brien as Tootie and Judy Garland as Esther. from wikipedia
One thing that must be part of this work is a rejection of the belief that there is only one pathway to a loving God. If God is loving, and I believe Jesus’s ministry makes it clear that they are, then God seeks always to create pathways to a closer relationship. As the twenty-first century advances and moves the world closer to religious pluralism, it is critical to name the separation or distinct borders for each faith tradition, but to then move toward a theology that is informed and considers other beliefs.
Neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar has spent his life studying the how religious belief affects the brain and the way that people move in the world. He sees many religious traditions attempting to create synthesis, trying to create a religion of like-believers, and that leads to eternal conflict among communities of believers. The Bible is filled with the stories of these interactions – reflections of the religious conflicts between the ancient Israelites and the Canaanites and others. These stories can help inform a response to the religious conflicts of today. Naskar sees compassion regarding difference as critical to that resolution, and he says that when we elevate our specific religious beliefs over those of others making them into more mythology than spirituality, it leads to fracturing of the larger community.
“Such myth-like systems have paramount impact over every part of your lives. Every brain on your planet generates its own beliefs. Just imagine, around seven billion human brains are generating seven billion unique beliefs at this very moment. Now imagine, what would happen, if all of those seven billion humans start imposing their own beliefs on each other,” asks Naskar? “The only thing that is going to come out of such inhuman attempt is chaos and eventually mass extinction. So, the only way to avoid such a catastrophic consequence is to be more compassionate about people’s beliefs. You need to understand that your brain simulates a virtual reality of the universe and represents it to you in a way that is most suitable for your own needs of daily survival. And likewise, beliefs of other people are shaped by the way their brain perceives, thinks, remembers, and experiences the reality around them. It is personal, not universal.”
Religious diversity is not new. The Bible itself is filled with stories of the many other cultures and people that the Jewish people encountered in their migrations through the Middle East. Sacred texts across religious tradition all share a similar call to individual relationship – right relationship – with divinity, but few recognize this call as the rejection of the eternal human quest to create a uniformity of belief.
In Christianity specifically, this desire to create a world where all believe the same has led to the greatest failings of our religious tradition to live up to the teachings of Jesus. The Crusades; colonialism; the rejection of Jewish people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that led to the holocaust in the twentieth; the modern conflicts over Black Lives Matter, immigration and LGBTQIA+ rights, and too many other world events began with Christians coming to consensus that their way was the only way to believe. Christians are not alone in this – groups like the Taliban and Al-Queda also demonstrate this rejecting and restricting system of belief, this way of othering people based on their faith. Othering is a term used by sociologists to define the mechanism humans use to diminish individuals or entire groups of individuals as lesser members of the larger societal group. For Christianity to become the faith in practice that Jesus (and God) envisions and describes in Scripture, it must move into a public theology that centers a living faith living into actions we take in the world to end harmful legacies like racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.
Religious belief can too easily slide down the slippery slope into simply proselytizing rather than becoming an agent of change. “At its best, public theology is done by people in the margins,” Shanta Premawardhana notes. “They are the ones most in need of, and they are the ones most eager to challenge and change the status quo, from the structures that oppress to those that liberate.”
Denominations - both progressive and conservative – are shrinking. Some of those shrinking churches are afraid of the future – knowing that they cannot keep up with aging buildings and failing infrastructure without a huge financial commitment. This sometimes leads reactive fear instead of finding new ways to thrive again as a community. One pastor recently posted on social media to pull everyone into the pews. The message, no matter how well-intended, felt like shaming people who did not regularly attend as people who needed to prioritize faith. While it did not use the language of good versus bad, the message was clear in its message that you were a bad Christian if you didn’t attend more often. Worse, this was a church that has declared they are inclusive to LGBTQIA+ people who often carry trauma from the collective weight of the -isms in their lives. Many people have been traumatized by churches in the past. For example, one of the key parts of conversion therapy practices is compulsory worship attendance. When a church advocates for some arbitrary number of services people can miss before becoming a bad church member (or by extension – Christian), some people with histories of church harm will simply walk out.
Additionally, a message like that one slams the door in the face of people managing mental health or physical health concerns. I have been the person in a church parking lot, still in the car, never able to enter. When you claim to be an advocate for a community with large numbers of people carrying trauma or if you claim to be fully inclusive to people with disability or mental health conditions, sharing messages that shame people for trying to survive lacks the compassion we are called to greet one another with each day. Instead of posting messages like this – churches need to find new ministries that will provide support through shared commitment not shared compulsory attendance. Worship is important – just do not make it more important than loving one another.
Changing the way churches operate will not be easy. The Church we inherited had two thousand years to grow up. We need to figure out how to stop being the church hiding in our sanctuaries and to become the church that practices a radical public theology that provides sanctuary to all who need it in the streets. Buddha teaches that we must first envision what we want to be before we can become. It is time for the church of the past to become the church of the future.