Hypocritical. Judgmental. Homophobic.
For decades, the so-called mainline church has been in decline in part because those who leave it use these and other adjectives to describe their experience with Christianity. Now, as Christendom looks itself squarely in the mirror, it faces the reality that up to one-in-three millennials do not claim a religious affiliation.
What kind of future do these trends suggest for the church at large?
But, what if?
What if churches confessed the ways Christianity has earned some of those labels? What if they created spaces where all are genuinely welcomed, engaged, heard and invited to lead?
What if a congregation formed its identity as a widely diverse “hospital” for the wounded and the weary who have been hurt or marginalized by the church — LGTBQ women and men, people of color dispossessed in the wider society, believers who’ve been let down by the church and seekers who want to grow in faith, but question strict doctrines and dogmas? What if these and others were surrounded by loving, committed allies?
Such churches and congregations are forming on the leading edge of the progressive church. You might call it “the intersectional church,” a place where a range of people on the margins come together for deeper mutual understanding across differences, where believers and seekers find mutual support and advocacy, where hope emerges out of hurt.
In the Presbyterian Church (USA) for example, a small handful of intersectional churches are finding new life in major cities across the country. Most of these congregations were once large, prestigious, urban, affluent and white flocks that suffered decades of decline to the point of near death. Now they thrive with new life and vibrancy in places like New York, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Denver and, yes, even Charlotte.
These welcoming congregations are defined by a commitment to social justice. They aren’t afraid to practice new styles of lively and less-formal worship. Leadership is often bottom-up rather than authoritative and top-down. They are deeply mission-minded, devoting their money and their volunteerism first to serve the hungry, homeless, the poor and the oppressed and others Jesus called “the least of these.”
They aren’t immune to disagreement and conflict (no congregation is), but they are committed to reconciliation and long-term relationships amidst the trials and triumphs and constructive tension that come with authentic diversity.
They practice ministry and outreach that is innovative, agile, experimental and entrepreneurial. They take risks and joyfully express their faith journeys in worship and in service to the city and the world. They draw members, visitors and other participants from across their cities.
These intersectional churches are on to something powerful, transformative and redemptive.
“We have a gathering of people who embody the beloved community of God more than any other place in my life,” says one Presbyterian pastor. “We learn empathy and perspective.”
You will see some churches that look like this at Charlotte Pride 2017, joyfully singing and marching in the parade and offering a warm welcome at their booths. Why not take a chance and try one out?
info: Rev. Dr. John Cleghorn is pastor at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in the Elizabeth neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C. Caldwell invites all to visit them, as well as to The Third Place, its non-profit coffee shop and venue space. For more information, visit The Third Place on Facebook at facebook.com/TheThirdPlaceCoffee/ or the church website at caldwellpresby.org.