This article appeared as the “Keep the Faith” column in the Worcester Telegram on Saturday, April 24, 2021.
A prominent Christian pastor recently observed that every decade of his ministry the number of Americans saying they no longer affiliate with a church has doubled. Here at Trinity, from the 1950’s when nearly 1,000 Swedes attended Sunday worship, our worshipping attendance has declined roughly by half every two decades. Christians across denominations wonder if the disruption to congregational life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate these trends and lead to the demise of local congregations and even some denominations.
The factors leading to these downward trends are complex and multifaceted. One factor I believe needs exploring, however, was offered recently by Reverend William Barber. Writing in “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019” Barber proposes that the growing number of people unaffiliated with religion is due to “an increasingly diverse America tired of old slaveholder religion.” Barber defines “old slaveholder religion” as Christianity that has blessed white supremacy, doubled down on the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, endorsed racial terrorism, blessed leaders of Jim Crow, and endorsed racist policies in the guise of “traditional values.”
How the church’s historic and ongoing complicity in racism affects its demographics is not easy to measure, but it is sobering and shameful.
In light of these trends, Reverend Barber points a way forward. Barber’s essay in “Four Hundred Souls” pays tribute to David George, a Black free man who established the first Black Baptist church in the United States. Barber suggests that David George’s ministry was about “demonstrating the potential of a freedom church to interrupt the lies of slaveholder religion”as he preached God’s love for all people revealed in Jesus Christ.
Barber’s imagery of the contrast between old slaveholder religion and freedom church captures my imagination. In what ways, rightfully so, are people repulsed and disgusted by religion that has been complicit in, and benefited from, racial hierarchy? Barber’s insight convicts me and leads me identify and repent of the ways my congregation and I practice old slaveholder religion today. It also leads me to wonder what Freedom Church looks like. What are the signs of Freedom Church alive, breathing, and ministering? What are the lies, systems, and structures Freedom Church is called to interrupt today?
Maybe Freedom Church looks something like Worcester Interfaith’s leadership in the Voting Rights Lawsuit against the City of Worcester. In unanimously deciding to officially join the lawsuit challenging the process of electing the Worcester School Committee the board recognized some sobering realities. Even though 70% of students in the Worcester Public School students are people of color, 100% of the School Committee is white. Though candidates of color routinely run for the School Committee, only one candidate of color has won election in the last 36 open seat elections over the last decade (and failed to win reelection after raising issues of importance to communities of color). Candidates who earn the highest votes in Worcester’s ten most diverse precincts routinely fail to gain enough votes citywide to win election. The present system seems stacked against representation of communities of color on the School Committee, and thus communities of color are not part of the decision making about their own children.
Recognizing Worcester Interfaith is an interfaith organization with members across faith traditions, and mindful of harmful Christian hegemony that normalizes the Christian experience, I see Freedom Church transcending religious boundaries and open to anyone and everyone inspired by the central creed that all humans deserve respect, dignity, and inclusion. Freedom Church isn’t about professing religious dogma, but committing to partnerships, collaborations, and coalitions that expose and root out all public policies that discriminate. Freedom church insists instead on public policies, actions, and decisions that proclaim the worth and dignity of all people.
Freedom Church is not about filling pews on Sunday morning. In facilitating honest and painful conversations, in disrupting comfortable and established systems, and in calling those with power and privilege to share with those who have been historically, intentionally, and strategically left out, it will likely be off putting and offensive to those comfortable in power.
Freedom Church is based, instead, on the belief that more important to God than filling pews on Sunday is filling our city with justice every day. More important that sitting in a church is standing for inclusion and equity. As a disciple of Jesus in God’s love for all people, and starting with confession and repentance, I choose to affiliate with Freedom Church. Will you join me?