During a keynote in Holland, MI, last month, I made a passing comment about the Nones and the Dones—”the religiously unaffiliated and the religiously exhausted.” A remarkable article I read this week speaks to what “being the Church” means from the perspective of the Dones.
Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is a psychologist, theologian, professor, and author who recently left her congregation. In the months after she left, she also released the guilt she’d been trained to feel about ending her weekly church routine.
In a follow-up article for Collegeville Institute, Walker-Barnes writes about her attempts to keep serving and leading in local congregations—communities that come with their own schedules, demands, and social politics—while honoring her commitments to just social action and her preference for spaces where she doesn’t have to dim her Blackness or womanhood to fit in. She hasn’t found local communities where she can be all these things at once, and so, at least for now, she’s stepped away.
There’s a lot about that that I can empathize with. As I explained in a recent video, spiritual community and fellowship are important to me, and I was raised among people who experienced community and fellowship primarily through local church life. As an adult, I also spent several years being hyper-involved in congregations, and I’ve participated in a local church in every country and town I’ve ever lived in. I still do. I’m probably a “joiner” by nature, not just by practice: someone driven to affiliate and create with others, not someone who will likely achieve enlightenment in a 1-person cabin deep in the woods. (But I do love the woods!)
Over the last week, thanks in part to a conference I spoke at in Jamaica, I’ve been reflecting on the question of what it means to be the Church rather than to merely attend a church.
Who may speak for The Church™ and what qualifies them to do so? Who will people beyond our pews perceive as the Church and why? What makes our speaking and doing credible to those who watch the denominational drama circuit from safe distances and wonder whether we can be trusted to co-labor with them in this world?
Local social fellowship in any brick or coffee shop community is not the same “church” as the national, regional, and/or global corporation that a denomination will register with its governments. For me, these different levels of church experience mean at least three parallel systems are operating at once: the social church, the network of interactions between members; the legal-managerial church, the scaffolding of roles and policies and the paid practitioners that execute them; and the theological church, the mystical reality that church theologians attempt to describe and which I often tag as Capital “C”-Church). There are differences between the church I attend, the church corporation that some of my peers work for, and the Church that we collectively are.
Church workers, those who staff and draw paychecks from churches, directly participate in all three of these systems. The rest of us directly participate in the social and theological realms, and even if we contribute financially or otherwise to the legal-managerial realm as well, we leave direct organizational management to the administrators.
I’m fine with that: it’s a form of role specialization that allows artists and musicians and doctors and cooks and the rest of us to spend our days laboring elsewhere in the world—all in trust that our respective work supports the Church in living into the beauty of the Beloved Community and teaching others to live into it as well.
Role distinction becomes awkward, though, when the interests of the legal-managerial church don’t align with the interests of the social church or the ideals of the theological Church. Last week, for example, Christians from several denominations—some senior clergy, some engaged laypeople like me—came together to review the impact of global LGBTQIA criminalization, as well as church histories, civil law, pastoral counseling norms, and personal narratives from LGBTQIA people and those called to minister to them.
When local Adventist administrators “distanced” themselves from that event, it took me back to a similar summit in 2014 that Adventist church administrators hosted in South Africa, the first nation in the continent to include a comprehensive ban on discrimination in its constitution.
As the “In God’s Image” summit on gender and sexuality began three years ago, a senior General Conference vice president told the Adventist News Network, “The goal is to make sure that what is done here reflects the corporate thinking of the Church.” It wasn’t clear to me back then whether he meant “corporate” as in “legal person” or “corporate” as in “Body of Christ,” but I was clear that “Body of Christ” included me and any others rendered Other, even if some members of the legal-managerial realm wished it didn’t.
There’s a difference between the church that people might go to and the Church that they are. If Paul’s metaphor about the members or parts of the Body holds, the pancreas is as much “the body” as are its hands or eyes; the widows are as much “the Church” as are the apostles. All parts of the body morph as the body grows, the entire body suffers when a member suffers—and where one of the members shows up in the world so does the Body with her.
Divine sufficiency compels me to imagine a world of enough, where flourishing isn’t zero-sum and attempts at abandonment or dissociation aren’t the last word. Even people with completely specious presumptions about me and my communities are included in my vision of a world of enough. I admit that sometimes this annoys me very much but that there’s enough room for all of us is still a faith tenet that I can’t shake.
No matter the gossip and slander, no matter the statements and votes, and no matter our collective failure to manifest the Beloved Community so far, it’s still a vision that resonates for me and one I believe is worth holding coherently across time and across lines of difference too.
[Religious liberty] is vital to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. While we are a rapidly growing denomination around the world, the church often finds itself in the religious minority, and consequently, understands the importance of ensuring that all voices be allowed to speak.” —Adventist.org
Listening, I said three years ago, is a holy act, and not listening isn’t sustainable. This might not be the year that the legal-managerial church learns that lesson. But last week at the University of the West Indies, I watched the Church practicing it: story, history, heckling, and all.
And it was sacred.