Extraordinary times call for extraordinary churches.
In America and in much of Europe, right-wing politicians backed by screaming mobs of white nationalists are taking power. The anger, fear and hatred are so strong that democracy itself might not survive.
In America, life is about to get rocky for many. The elderly face cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare. Women face renewed pressure on reproductive rights and a prevailing attitude of misogyny. African-Americans face overt racism and police brutality. Immigrants face deportation and public assaults. Muslims face repression for their religion. Jews face overt anti-Semitism. Homosexuals face retribution for gains made in recent years. In moves that will surprise those who voted for the incoming president, working class whites will face loss of what few safety-net benefits they have, as well as unrealized promises on jobs.
That’s a lot of people heading into rocky times. Except for congregations serving the 1%, some of these people will be sitting in our pews, looking to us for hope. Many more are beyond our walls. They are our future.
In a time of extraordinary hurting, churches will need to get beyond “business as usual.” Here’s what would an extraordinary church should be doing in the years ahead:
1. Look radically outward. Stop trying to make everyone inside the walls happy. Stop focusing communications internally. Stop allocating resources to serve the membership. Instead, see people outside our walls, recognize their needs, and gear up to respond to them. Understand it as love in action, not as a membership strategy.
2. Move beyond noblesse oblige. Stop playing “Lord and Lady Bountiful.” Stop seeing other people as “problems” needing to be solved through handouts. Instead, see them as neighbors. See “them” as “us.” Stop the once-a-year charities. Invest in people and in relationships.
3. Ratchet down spending on self. Stop spending so much on Sunday worship and pastoral care. People need food, jobs, shelter, health care, safety, education – not better and better Sunday worship. To paraphrase JFK, ask not what your church can do for you, but ask what you and your church can do for a broken world.
4. Form action-based partnerships. Stop hanging out only with your own kind. Extraordinary times make for strange bedfellows. Cross the boundaries that separate us. God doesn’t care who gets the credit, only that the work gets done.
5. Strengthen faithful resolve for the resistance. Build up courage, build up determination, build up a faith that dares to be non-conformist in repressive times, build up voices that will speak when speaking becomes dangerous. Cut through doctrinal and denominational baggage, and form the oneness that has been God’s goal all along.
6. Provide practical help. Stop the public displays of right-opinion. Stop symbolic actions. If people need jobs, help them to find work. If seniors need medical care, help them to find it. If immigrants need sanctuary, provide it. If women need ways to escape abusive men, open a shelter.
7. Stop fighting. Just stop it.Stop worrying about who’s in charge. Stop pressuring your clergy to do your bidding. Stop settling old scores. Stop trying to hold on to power. Stop using church fights as a way to keep God small. God doesn’t need us to be right, God needs us to do kingdom work in a troubled world.
This is a lot to ask. Being an extraordinary church would stretch us in ways we have wanted to avoid being stretched. Faith is hard work.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns.