CHURCHING AT THE GUARD RAIL
The Right Reverend Designate
Matthew L. Brown +
Howard Thurman, famed theologian, author, educator, civil rights leader and philosopher said, “Often, to be free means the ability to deal with the realities of one's own situation so as not to be overcome by them.”
Holy Week 2021 was distinguished by a multiplicity of events and challenges. Holy Week of 2020 was shocking and presented in the zero sum moment of all its tragedy. A year ago, we were adjusting to a global virus along with a synchronized display of awakening and reckoning. Oddly, a year later, a presidential election, special election and a new administration later, we are faced with similar challenges with a glimmer of optimism that by the end of the year we will be better positioned to manage this chaos. Holy Week 2021 provided for me, as well as other Black church leaders, the opportunity to experience the passion of Christ in the context of our own epistemology and spirituality. I found myself needing to deal with the realities of my own life and faith situation.
I was interviewed by a doctoral candidate for their dissertation, engaged by emerging leaders in the living room of their podcast, and immersed in intentional and robust conversations with colleagues and fellow thought leaders about the state of the Black church. Holy Week by design is a season of philosophical, theological and introspective reflection as Christians (within the context of our blackness) reflect, relive and rehearse the passion of Christ.
The COVID-19 global virus, America’s racial reckonings, congressional and state political dysfunction, random mass shootings, Asian American/Pacific Islander hate crimes and continued Republican voter suppression, in addition to the trial of ex-police officer and alleged murderer of George Floyd, placed Holy Week for me in symbolic, demonstrative, and purposeful spaces. Jesus died several thousand years ago with the world in a state of confusion. Roman-Judaeo conflict was in a state of flux and human rights suppression was overlooked. Senseless murdering and insurrection against the government was in plain sight while the religious entities of that day conspired to kill innocence with governmental consent.
I have been asked time and time again, in light of our current context and our religious observation of this sacred time, “What is the state of the Black church, what would be the response of the church, given the plethora of challenges both internally and externally, and how do we navigate through these nuances which shape these present threats to the life, sustenance and survivability of our Black church today?”
As I deal with the realities of my own thoughts, thinking deeply and reflectively as to why we seem to ask the same principled questions, decades removed from the civil rights struggle… centuries removed from enslavement and colonialism, I have crafted an experiential retort.
As it relates to the question of the Black church, I am not sure what the answer may be. My years of ministerial, theological, ontological and spiritual investment is leading me to a personal resolve, in that, I am not sure there is an answer. Theologians, Biblicists, church professionals and academicians, who are more in depth than I will ever be, will opine and diagnose the symptoms and causations of the Black church, but cannot answer with specificity the question of Generation Z. The conundrum of any applied reason to the obvious inquiry is, that if answered, it raises additional questions, and unquestionably, it unleashes more disappointment and pain.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” James Baldwin
Baldwin’s personal and political outlook, in most cases, mirrors the rage of Black church goers who for generations placed incalculable stock and trade in the idea of a spiritual creation extended to the earth for the purpose of transforming the world into a counterculture of Christianity. Imagine the internal rage and stinging disappointment to the ancestors and architects of, what is called, the Black church that could rightly be charged for theological omission and religious fraud. Explaining the Great Commission’s mission to an actively woke generation will sound woefully confusing and irresponsible.
Generation Z will ask what were you told to do with the church? What did you do? Why was it created, and why doesn’t it work like it was designed? Who can honestly face the raw inquiry of today’s teenagers and explain the purpose, context and historicity of Jesus’ church from Holy Week up until today? Will the church of the enslaved, suppressed, marginalized, politically anemic and economically struggling address their needs of having a thousand likes with social media but not having one friend?
We must, for this generation and the generations to come, be brave or naive enough to redefine and qualify for Generation Z what the church is, specifically the nuance, culture, tradition and history of the Black church. This is the non-church going, lacking church experience or memories generation who has never heard of Charles Harrison Mason, Charles Price Jones, Richard Allen, Henry McNeal Turner or William J. Seymour, along with a host of admirable women like Lizzie Woods Robinson, Lillian Brook Coffey and Charlene McKinnis, who helped pioneer the Black church.
These screen-agers are far removed from our lofty fluidity and nostalgia of bygone-eras. We must, as Thurman asserts, deal with the realities of one’s own situation so as not to be overcome by them.
Today’s generational seeker has a much more refined biblical and theological pallet. Decentralization of ministry content is their church attendance. Purpose driven mindfulness is their credo worship. Capture their attention by addressing the world’s needs and showing up for the world’s ills is their mission statement. Living in circles (community) is their preferred missionary expression, not filling pews. They will not church at the guard rail; they would rather jump the rail and dive off the cliff into the creativity of God (which produces results) than attend services which stimulates emotions, but doesn’t activate the soul.
I propose that the church is a spiritual theory, experiment and agent created as an extension of the Father, manifested in the bodily Godhead of Jesus Christ, for the purpose of redemptive transformation of the world. I equally believe that, as God created human-kind in Genesis 1:27, then formed man in Genesis 2:7, and ultimately breathed on what He had formed to activate what he created, similarly Jesus creates the church from revelatory truth (Matthew 16:18), forms or houses it within His disciples (Matthew 16:19), and ultimately breathes on it on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
Likewise, I believe Jesus follows the pattern of creation by acknowledging that the revelation of Him being the Christ is similar to the creation of the church and underscores my theoretical definition of the spirituality of the church as spirit housed in unlearned and unsophisticated bodies awaiting the breath of Pentecost to activate them for the purpose of redemptive transformation. My theoretical definition is devoid of race, ethnicity, social, economic or geographical meaning, and it’s meaningless that it is meaningless. The Church, like created Human, is spiritual!
After we are bold enough to consider the possibility of seeing the church differently, we can, in turn, expect the church to function differently. If the Black church is spiritual, then there must be an expectation of it to be spiritual within its context of culture, anthropology, theology and history!
The identity should move from Black, White, Evangelical, Pentecostal, mainline, non-denominational, etc., to simply The Church. Our labeling of the church has limited its capacity to be an extension of God’s grace to the earth because it is manipulated by labels and definitions to serve its brokers and not its broken. This diminishing by label weakens the strength of the spiritual entity in the earth purposed to bring reconciliation between the Creator and creation.
Our labels of Black church… conservative, liberal, progressive, traditional, woke, denominational or non denominational… are descriptions and monikers we tagged the church with in order to maintain our identity and relevance. Psychologically, it is the need for religious exaggerated visibility. I think our need to identify with tags and labels is borne from our racial, social, economic, cultural and psychological places and spaces where we believe ourselves invisible.
Calling the spiritual entity of God, designed solely for the salvation of man, anything other than the church is manipulative. The poly-church wants control of the turf they influence by creed, history, politricks, gender, culture or agency. Honestly speaking, the fill-in-the-blank church doesn’t want to be identified with Jesus, it wants Jesus to identity with them.
Holy Week has become a sham of religious piety. We are bending the cross to our comfort, instead of stretching to it by sacramental sacrifice! Washing feet, serving one another, preferring one another is the Church of Jesus Christ without social, cultural, political, ethnic, racial or economic labels. Christ is known by unfathomable love and incalculable sacrifice, and so should His church be seen.
Equally, our tagging the church is the graffiti of our carnality on the church wall, signaling to our righteous gangs and racist pulpiteer thugs that this is a home for the selected, not the sanctified. We mark territories of our emotional deficits, deep neediness and idiosyncratic weirdness, while painting a portrait of God in the way we see Him, and errantly presenting Him to a hurting generation.
God’s church allows us to chase His creativity without fear or limitation. His church does not stop at the guard rails of tradition, formation, structure or culture. To do so would suggest that the religious guard rail is the believer’s destination. Churching at the guard rail of limited thinking, fear, manipulation and control of divine outcomes is inconceivable to a believer who hears the deep calling to the deep! Today’s guard rails of the church are manifested in the places and spaces in need of renewal, revitalization and revival. We’ve placed guard rails at the Covid Church, the geriatric church, the war-torn power struggle church, the ex-neighborhood church and the church of omission to signal this is as far as we can go without falling off the cliff. Guard rails are intended to reduce the risk of serious accidents. Churching at the Guard Rail is a limited experience and sickening definition which the nominal church has created to reduce the risk of experiencing a limitless God. Our labels confine our faith, stifles our God-fidence to achieve what eludes us, and causes us to live in crippled obedience.
It is as though we believe that God has lost sight of us, and tragically, we’ve lost sight of Him. Jesus says, “I will build MY Church.” I believe He didn’t tag it with limitations because the church is limitless in its sovereign potential. I argue that the church is neither sleep nor woke. It is not racial or social, wealthy or impoverished; it is not progressive or liberal. Those political terms applied to the spiritual place of God in the earth are downright offensive.
The Church that Jesus built is relational and relevant. We haggle over shapes and sizes, ideologies and preferences, and have lost sight that, because we can’t label it, invariably, we can’t control it. We don’t know what it is or who we are in relationship to it.
The Church, I contend, if lived out in simplicity of faith and intentionality of being relational and relevant, would eliminate all of the labels and the strife which accompanies them.
So, I conclude, we are churching at the guard rail. Man-made Christianity which warps the intentionality of God’s purposefulness of His Church creates guardrails at the cliff to dissuade man from walking off the cliff of what’s known into realms of the unknown and unexperienced. The Church, relational and relevant, should never have a stopping point or reduce the risk of stepping out on nothing as though something is there.
Individuals, clans and tribes who refuse to church at the guardrail are labeled as progressives. Traditionalist or institutionalist are the power brokers who erected the limitation of our faith walk, induced fear, created a theology and rationale that this is as far as God goes. “Let’s be happy churching at the guard rail.” This form of churching is what one writer describes as the crisis of faith! The place where everything I believe about God and everything I have experienced in life collide. Instead of struggling through it, we place guard rails to reduce the risk of a generation not knowing the Christ of the crisis.
Why? The agency of the institutional, organized, cultural and racial church that is culpable of collusion of race based religion require guard rails to maintain order, keep the peace and discourage generations from dismantling the errant apparatus of biblical misinformation, harming the firm that is known in the circles of manufactured religion as the church.
Churching at the guard rail is irritating for visionary passionate leaders who have been desensitized by the habitual-ritual-rut of organizational sameness. These visionary leaders are facing the challenge of today’s church by decentralizing the content of ministry so the masses of the world will hear the gospel as opposed to the “my four and no more” weekly congregants. Leaping over the guard rail is not progressive, radical or maverick. It is the cry of emerging generational faith leaders to squeeze faith from fresh ministry wineskins, rather than traditional and historic uninspired faith and dispassionate creativity.
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” -James Baldwin
Churching at the guard rail for an emerging generation is painful and needless. Instead of guard rail politicks of denominationalism, affiliation and institutionalism, which breeds blind loyalty to personalities and not the Deity, we should introduce cliff worship! L.E.A.P. faith - lifting expectations to accelerate possibilities! Our cliff worship piques our faith filled curiosity as we plant our feet in His safety and yearn to L.E.A.P. into the abyss of God’s possibilities and revelation.
Jesus says to Peter, launch out into the deep and let your nets down…there’s more out there…it’s past the guard rail.