We Gather Together

Choosing Church in the Age of Leaving

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
September 10, 2023, Rally Sunday

Scripture: Matthew 18:15–20

In the last few months, my email inbox and social media feeds have been flooded with articles and studies about the steep decline in church attendance and participation. In response, thousands of people have taken to the comment sections to tell their stories about why people are leaving churches, why they are personally staying, or why they left long ago. One book has referred to this current religious phenomenon of falling church attendance as “the great de-churching” of America. The claim is that America is de-churching, not solely out of animosity or loss of belief by the leavers, but also because families are unsure what role the church plays in work and family life.

Just last week, a Presbyterian minister wrote a widely read and circulated article about leaving his church as pastor, enumerating several reasons he did so, including burnout, conflict, and the consumerist rather than spiritual behavior of church members. I lost count of the articles, think pieces, and social media hot takes written in response to that one article. The back-and-forth of ministers and laypeople debating one man’s unique perspective about his reasons for leaving church continues with no end, so I had to disengage. I think so many people weighed in on the article because it forced them to confront their anxieties about the dramatic changes in the church. All of this discussion, debating, and worrying about the church highlights a truth, often unspoken or, at least, overlooked in our nostalgic, apologetic commitment to the church: It is not easy to be the church. That is the reality surrounding our choice to gather as the church in this place and the challenges we encounter in our attempt to be faithful. It is not easy to be church.

It should bring us some comfort to know that our Scripture text demonstrates that it was not easy to be church even when Jesus walked among the faithful. In his encounter with the actual lived experience of the people he served, Jesus knew that human beings would hurt one another. We fight, fuss, and feud. We mistrust each other. We fail to be gentle with each other. We are susceptible to feelings of envy, resentment, and even hate for one another. So, Jesus offers a means by which to remain gathered rather than pulled apart over the reality of inevitable conflict. This process for accountability, reconciliation, and forgiveness that Jesus lays out to the disciples comes after the demonstration of their messy humanness. This teaching comes after they discuss who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, after Jesus taught them to display the humility, powerlessness, and marginality of a child as the mark of true greatness; after Jesus cautioned his followers not to cause anybody to stumble; and after Jesus told them the parable of the shepherd who loves a lost sheep so much that they would sacrifice everything to regain that which was lost.

So Matthew reports a saying of Jesus about how to deal with the inevitable moment when we sin against one another in the context of the Ekklesia, or church. I think it’s worth pointing out that Jesus refers to the faithful as a church even though they did not gather in the kind of houses of worship like the one we’re sitting in today. Whenever and wherever they gather, Jesus emphasizes that the church must continuously operate with a posture of repair, reconciliation, and restoration so we can remain church when we inevitably hurt and disagree with one another. This process for direct dealing, making things right, forgiving and making amends, and seeking to reconcile is a recognition that we have to work at being church. It is not a given. Our life together is about accountability and forgiveness so that we can be reconciled.

It is less about conflict management or best practices for healthy confrontation than discipleship shaped by the spirit and posture of repair, reconciliation, and restoration. A church that prioritizes repair, reconciliation, and restoration amid potential discord and disagreement is a church with divine authority, recognized and ratified by God, and a place where God is present and where people in a conflict, violent, and polarized world may want to be. If the church can be a place of accountability and forgiveness, I believe people will choose the church. If we live, work, and serve with an orientation that reflects the covenantal commitments of God, who loves, forgives, and reconciles with us, people will choose church.

Now I know this biblical reconciliation process has been misused to shame, belittle, and excommunicate people because of their divorce, because they have an LGBTQ child, or because they disagreed about some issue. This text has also been misused to quietly sweep under the rug sexual abuse and assault, financial malfeasance, and ministerial misconduct by arguing for a closed process that makes transparency and accountability impossible. But whatever the wrong done in the church, our every act should be to make the community whole, expand and sustain the circle of care and concern for the offender and the offended, and show love, mercy, and forgiveness for those who decide to leave the community just as Jesus shows love, mercy, and forgiveness to the Gentile and the tax collector.

What is lost in all the talk about people leaving the church, the church’s future as we know it, and the status of the familiar organizations and collectivities we now know is the idea of, desire for, and the inevitability of community. The only question is what kind of community we are going to be. That was the question that the community surrounding Jesus, following Jesus, and learning from Jesus had to keep uppermost in their work and witness.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu had a word for this orientation toward repair, reconciliation, and restoration: Ubuntu. According to Tutu, “It is the philosophy and belief that a person is only a person through other people . . . we are human only in relation to other humans. Our humanity is bound up in one another, and any tear in the fabric of connection between us must be repaired for us all to be made whole. This interconnectedness is the very root of who we are . . . Ubuntu says, ‘I am incomplete without you,’ and whenever possible we must do the hard work to rebuild right relations with one another. Enemies can become friends, and perpetrators can recover their humanity.”

There is timelessness in the wisdom of reconciling with each other and restoring those who may become estranged from beloved community. Embodying and enacting the love, generosity, and forgiveness that God shows us is the surest way to make the Divine presence manifest whenever and wherever we gather . . . Whether here in this sanctuary, on the southern border with immigrant families, in shelters, food shelves, or encampments, sites of protest and resistance in the public square, or in halls of power and centers of commerce, Perhaps, we live in an age of leaving because we haven’t been the kind of church oriented toward repair, reconciliation, and restoration. People will choose us if we are that church.

9 a.m. service

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