By Justin Pierson
When I lived abroad after undergrad, I worshiped with Farsi-speaking refugees who escaped violence and war. During an immersion trip sponsored by my seminary, I listened to the stories of Salvadoran children whose family members had left the country due to violence and poverty. Earlier this year, I shook the hands of refugees stuck in Bosnia as they came upon closed borders and were unable to continue their journey towards a better life. All around us are stories of oppressed and suffering people.
But on Sunday mornings, in churches all over the U.S., I don’t often hear those stories told. The experience of the oppressed doesn’t seem to be a part of God’s story that we tell. Instead, I hear of the anxieties and insecurities the American church is facing in our current culture.
What do we do with decreasing numbers? Why is it so difficult to attract young people on Sundays? What should we do about our decreasing offering?
It’s not that I think the American church’s problems aren’t important; they simply seem trivial compared to the massive need millions of people in the world are facing. Yet, when pastors do try and address these systemic issues and attempt to speak on issues of race, poverty, and justice from the pulpit, they are often accused of being too political or divisive.
I understand that the church needs to be a place where all are welcomed and encouraged, but it seems that understanding the church to be a safe place has somehow evolved to the church being a comfortable place, ultimately making it an apathetic place.
I often wonder at how this came to be. Why it is so difficult for us to speak boldly about God’s call to care for others? When we want to raise money for a new church sign or the restoration of the sanctuary windows, it seems that there are more than enough resources to go around, but when it comes time to sponsor dinner for single mothers, or to speak out about systems of injustice in our communities, or to open a temporary shelter at the church during the coldest months, or to protest racist policies, people flea.
I speculate that this lack of empathy and compassion is partly to blame for the decline of the church in America. Obviously, there are many reasons for decreasing numbers in the church, and no single reason can be to blame, but it seems that the church could be guilty of not abiding by its core mission: to love God and to love neighbor.
I can’t tell you exactly where we went wrong, but it seems that our budgets, sermons, and the majority of our leadership discussions are wrapped up in bureaucracy, financials, and church politics rather than how churches can speak on and act out love for others. I often wonder what is preventing us from doing just that.
I don’t have a specific answer, but amidst my frustrations, I see glimpses of hope in my own context. I see people creating new ministries to our neighbors in crisis. I hear youth talking about how our communities can be more diverse and inclusive. I see local churches rallying behind a new initiative to help refugees all over the world. I hear my pastor preach on the sinfulness of racism and injustice. Hope is not lost.
God’s call is for us to love God and to love neighbor. I believe pastors leaders will live in to that call, and revitalize their congregations in the process, when they include the voice of the oppressed and marginalized into the story of God. Our churches are not meant to be places of apathy to sit comfortably on Sunday mornings, but should be communities of God that challenge us to do good in this world.
So please, let’s stop making church comfortable and start living into our calling to speak and show love to our neighbors.
Justin Pierson is a CBF Leadership Scholar. He works at Richmond’s First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., working with people in crisis, refugee outreach and young adult ministry.