My wife and I are getting ready to move out of our apartment. Transient millennials that we are, the three years we’ve spent here is the longest I’ve ever lived in one place since childhood. I’m excited for a new place but, as I look around, I confess I’m daunted by the task of moving. Piles of cherished memories, useful tools, assorted miscellany and, frankly, garbage surround me, demanding to be sorted; I hardly know where to begin.
I can’t help but feel that the Church is similarly situated. It’s no secret that we’re living through a period of dramatic ecclesial change. Old patterns of ministry, the habits of what it means to be a church, are proving insufficient—evidenced by emptying pews, dwindling coffers and an increasingly secular culture. Few people I speak to doubt that radical changes need to be made if mainline Christianity is to matter, or even survive. And yet, surrounded by traditions accumulated over centuries, the prospect of sorting what we bring with us, and what we leave behind, can be paralyzing.
Make no mistake, there are things we will need to leave behind: Perspectives of ministry more concerned with institutional viability than following God’s call into the wilderness; theologies and customs that negate the full humanity of our LGBTQ siblings; patriarchal God-talk that sinfully conflates masculinity with divinity; prioritizing the comfort of white congregants over confronting the endemic white supremacy that rots our social fabric. And these are just some of the big things. The transition from where we are to where God is calling the Church will no doubt also engender myriad smaller casualties—customs and practices that will naturally become obsolete as we move into new ways of being church.
I don’t say this simply to be iconoclastic. There are also traditions we’ll gladly take with us: Old hymns that, for their years, haven’t lost the power to gladden our hearts; Scripture that still retains its power to stir our souls and prod us to act; the love that has always characterized communities that truly commit themselves to Christ. Still, despite these deservedly cherished carry-ons, we ought not lie to ourselves—this moving process will not be easy. Change is often painful, especially the kind of radical change upon whose precipice we find ourselves perched.
We should, however, take solace in the knowledge that the things we will leave behind were never what it meant to follow Jesus. Even in times when these habits seemed beneficial—when they “worked,” in the sense that they brought more people through the sanctuary doors on Sunday—they weren’t any more essential to the enterprise of being church than the art show flyer I’ve inexplicably kept for two years was to making our apartment a home. Churches need people and a deep commitment to following Jesus’ call to spread God’s love and justice. Everything else is ephemera.
And so, daunting as it may be to sort through our collected Christianity, we should not greet this task with trepidation; it’s simply time to sift through the clutter. We already have everything we need.
Ben Perry is the Assistant Director of Communication and Marketing at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.