By Frustrated Layperson in Kentucky
I went to church a couple of Sundays ago in my hometown church. A beautiful, traditional church in small town America where the music was good and the people were friendly. There was a guest pastor that day who spoke on “Dream Big.” A perfectly lovely sermon topic referencing Nehemiah and rebuilding the wall. He was pleasantly surprised to find, and promised that the pastor had not put him up to it, that it was the Sunday that the Church was unveiling its building renovation plan. Because you know … wink … God knows these things.
I don’t remember much after that because all I felt was an emptiness inside. I knew that there was a broken, suffering, hurting world outside that door and that I was going to have to go back out there in a very short hour. As most of us know, the Order of Worship for almost all Protestant congregations is built around the idea of gathering us in from the world (the gathering), filling us with the love and power of Christ Jesus (songs, prayer, sermon), before sending us back out into the world to ease a small amount of suffering and bring others to Christ (the sending forth).
But once again I knew that this worship service was not going to do any of that. It was going to spend an hour ignoring what was going on in the world and then not prepare me to do anything when I walked out of that door. Maybe I would be uplifted but with no real practical knowledge, advice, or encouragement regarding what to actually do.
So Pastor, here is what I needed you to do ---
Call out specific acts of hate that went on in the world this week and make us pray over them. It would be particularly helpful if they would include local, national, and world events across a broad spectrum of nationalities and faiths. If I recall correctly, Jesus loved everyone even if they were not white or American. Make these acts part of the prayer requests that the congregation prays over each week in addition to parish concerns. In fact, you could have a whole prayer team devoted to world events and social justice issues. Maybe you should put this on the Administrative Council agenda to discuss.
In addition to encouraging the congregation to take care of each other, encourage them to build community outside the walls of the church. Challenge them to find where God has planted them to build community. Is it at work? Is it in their neighborhood? Is it at swim team practice? John tells us that God gives us certain people to pray over. Encourage us to ask God who those people are and then challenge us to pray over them and seek ways to serve them.
In the sermon, talk about how God sent Jesus to reconcile the world to him. This necessarily means that we are to love and outreach to everyone. Even the people most different from us. Even if those people are hard to love. Even if it is scary to get out of our comfort zone. It might be helpful to have Sunday school classes or Wednesday night programs that would help us learn about social justice issues so these ideas wouldn’t seem so foreign to us. I am pretty sure that we can all agree that the Bible tells us to help the poor, the orphan, the widow, the prisoner, and the alien – over and over and over again. I think we should spend a commensurate amount of time learning about those issues and doing something about them.
So does the church have ministries that address these issues? If not, why not? Your congregants need to know how many kids are in foster care in the area and what can be done to make sure that kids don’t have to enter foster care. Speak and encourage your congregants to be foster and adoptive parents and support foster/adoptive ministries.
Same for issues regarding the elderly. What are the issues and how is your church meeting them? And no, I don’t mean that your retired part-time pastor visits the shut-ins. That’s nice and all but what are you doing about issues regarding the elderly across your city, nation, and the world? Are there any elderly that are hungry, lonely, homeless, scared, without medical care? OK. I sense a mission field.
What do you and your congregants know about the criminal justice system and mass incarceration? Educate yourself and your congregation about those issues. Encourage your congregants to visit jails, assist the families of those incarcerated, and help returning citizens reenter society. The church should make it a practice to hire returning citizens and encourage the congregants who own businesses to do so.
Same goes for the poor and the marginalized. Every meeting and every sermon should touch on how we are serving the poor and bringing Christ to the marginalized. I need you to do that.
And I don’t even know where to start with the alien – while the Bible is clear on our responsibilities, America has somehow gotten it all twisted around. I need you to help me wade through the issues and find where God is speaking. I am pretty sure we are called to assist people running from war, famine, drug and human trafficking, and seeking to make a better life for their family. I am pretty sure it does not include breaking up families. I need you to show me the way and if you can’t – I need you to be on the journey with me.
I need you to also demand that your staff and all of those employed by the church are paid a living wage and have health insurance. I need you to model every day and in every meeting that we are commanded to live simply, be gentle with the earth, and show mercy. I need you to be constantly pushing me in my personal and professional life to live this way.
It could start with Fair Trade coffee in the Fellowship Hall and mandatory recycling. We could move to permeable pavers in the parking lot and finding ways to use the massive church building and the bus that sits unused 6 days a week as a way to serve more people. Instead of hording the property, the Trustees should be tasked with finding ways that more people can use the property. Instead of an Endowment, we could invest in the community.
In short, I need you to make me uncomfortable. Is that too much to ask?
P.S. In addition, if you are a United Methodist pastor and you are not discussing with your congregation the upcoming decisions facing the United Methodist Church, what the issues are, what the Discipline says, what the Bible says, what all of the opposing views say, whether there will be a split, the different ways a split could happen, what ministry would look like on the other side of a split, what a split may do for attendance, budget, buildings, pensions, retirement, and ordination, and hearing your congregations concerns and preferences – SHAME ON YOU! Ignoring it will not make it go away. No matter what your views – your congregants deserve better.