Why I’m Among the Unchurched Today

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In his Nov. 9 analysis, “The Church Is Losing Its Way,” Rob Sellers outlines the numerous ways in which the church is failing. In addition to Sellers’ list (irrelevance, unchallenging, unaccepting, and, most interestingly, unChristlike), I would like to add this reality from my vantage point. The church has failed to lead on the most important social issues today: racism, economic disparity and the intersection of the two.

I should own my position on this subject from the outset. I am part of the 25%, part of the unchurched to which Sellers refers. I am not bragging about that. In fact, I grieve it. But I cannot figure out how to be a part of the church when most that I have visited in recent years remain silent on most social issues about which I am passionate.

I was raised in the church. My father was a Southern Baptist pastor, one of my brothers is a Southern Baptist pastor, and another of my brothers is a church music director. I have church in my blood and in my being. I have served as a hospital chaplain, and I was an ordained deacon at a church in Mississippi, the very state Sellers cites in making his point about the disconnect between Mississippi’s political leaders’ language and the actual state of that state.

So why am I unchurched today? The truth is that I listen to a service most Sundays because I need and want to. Sometimes I listen to my brother; sometimes I listen to a pastor I’ve never met but whose messages I welcome; and still sometimes I log-in to the church I served as deacon more than 20 years ago. But I do not engage in any of those services. I listen. I sing along. And then I hang-up.

Nothing in my adult life is more disappointing to me than where the church, particularly the Baptist church, is today.

The predominantly white denomination was mostly silent on Black Lives Matter. Worse yet, as Sellers mentions, the church has landed on the wrong side of current debates about Critical Race Theory. Of course we should be teaching about systemic and institutional racism; we should absolutely be honest about racism in the history of the church.

More devastating to me, still, is the failure of the church to speak up on the economy. The church has, instead, treated capitalism as somehow God’s plan. The church has substituted some parts of the “prosperity gospel” in place of the actual gospel. Where is the church’s voice on the meek, on the hungry, on the poor?

At the intersection of these two issues, race and economics, is the overwhelming racial wealth disparity, a theological issue if ever there was one. While my frustration with the church is, admittedly, beyond its failure to lead in this area, I am not without hope that the church still could step up and step into this work.

I recently have begun working with Faith+Finance, a group helping churches, communities and individuals remember that how we use our money is an expression of our faith, that we are all called to help create God’s economy. Indeed, we are called to be the Church with our entire beings, including our wallets.

The most impactful work that Faith+Finance is doing is community-based work, particularly addressing the racial wealth gap in this country. A quick audit of my own bank statement shows me what I value the most in this life. I’m trying to realign my spending with my values daily. I’m also increasingly aware of the waste for which all of us are responsible, and I also wonder about the church’s waste. Just look at all of the assets that could redefine the work of the church.

Many of the churches I’ve attended have commercial kitchens that are used once, maybe twice a week; yet those same churches are often surrounded by hungry people. Many of the churches I’ve attended have large buildings that sit empty during the traditional 40-hour work week, yet those same churches could support Black entrepreneurs by providing workspace to start-ups. Many of the churches I’ve attended wonder why they are still segregated on Sunday morning, yet those same churches do not know the diverse populations in their communities, let alone invite them to the table to discuss how the church can lean into its mission.

I agree with Sellers’ sense that the church has lost its way. And I also agree that there are numerous ways forward that can be healing. There are ways forward that will make the church relevant, challenging, accepting and even Christlike.

For me, at least, that way forward can and must take seriously the message of the gospel, that there is enough at the table for everyone. Jesus did not just say there was enough food. He and the disciples fed everybody. Jesus did not tell people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Jesus leveled the playing field for everyone.

The church need not be failing. If the church connects its finances to its faith and uses its resources in ways reflected in the gospel, the church might just be revived and bring many of the unchurched along with it.

Paula Garrett serves as professor and chair of English after serving for a decade as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She previously served as a deacon at Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss. She and her partner have one teenage son.

Originally posted in Baptist News Global.