An unusual thing happened to me in the week following January 6, 2021. Not one typically struck by pictorial vision, I was chopping onions in the kitchen one evening when, ensconced in our newly militarized neighbourhood near the US Capitol, an image of a large, unbroken circle of people quietly holding candles around the National Mall installed itself in my brain. I had been feeling restless in the days since the attack, the event’s historical importance, spiritual disturb, and (for me) local nearness pressing for a response. There were rumours that the violent actors might return on Inauguration Day. Might there be a coordination of the peaceful majority to serve as a protective membrane around the upcoming transfer of power?
It was a ridiculous hope that thousands of people could get their act together to gather in pre-political witness in one week’s time. But pent-up exasperation that the only able coordinators of collective action in recent years seemed to be fearmongers and bullies pushed me past self-consciousness to make an open call. Hundreds of people responded, many with concrete offers to help, some with caution. “Are you really trying to organize a group of citizens to stand between two armed actors, one of whom is the state?” “Have you read Gandhi’s autobiography or studied the methods of nonviolent protest?” I raced to self-educate and curtail my naïveté. I knew the invitation was foolhardy (when does peace ever look more muscular than violence?), but I was desperate for people of faith and goodwill to organize and show themselves as more than pleasant quietists.
One week and dozens of conversations later, the dream petered out. My own inexperience, the lack of time, and what was then still the Covid trickiness of meeting in person overwhelmed my “vision on the mountaintop” in the kitchen. Pastors were appreciative but lacked the bandwidth to galvanize their congregations. Civic leaders needed more advance warning to corral institutional will. I bowed my head in surrender to forces deeper and vaster than this particular crisis and returned to my lane.
Anemic at the Wrong Time
The memory of trying and failing to activate my local civic ecosystem has lingered in the years since, in part because the experience crystallized a question that I haven’t been able to shake: Church, where are you? As much as I’d hoped that DC’s social fabric would prove flexible and sturdy in a time of need, I was more deeply craving evidence that churches had been among its most generous weavers. I was shocked by how little interconnective material seemed to exist between local religious institutions and other sectors of civil society. In addition to the social distrust that Washington (like many American cities) bears between its wards and its racial groups, I discovered few channels between the spheres. Surely churches in their love and twenty-first-century discernment had taken the lead in building genuine friendships between pastors and police officers, business leaders and social service providers. Surely they had collaborated across their differences to nurture a shared moral imagination for the city.
But this cross-sector irrigation system did not, it became clear, exist. Churches, rather than nurturing the surrounding social architecture, were themselves being torn apart by the same forces that were rending our body politic.
The church is a body of people redeemed by Jesus Christ who are caught up in the life of God, not a social service organization. Still, one would think that its divine life would make it uniquely equipped to bring oxygen to the starved arteries of contemporary life: Concerned about how little we seem to understand each other across class and cognition, generation and politics? The church, in theory, should break down such walls. Concerned about artificial intelligence and a technological age spinning rapidly beyond our grasp? The church, in theory, should keep us grounded in sacred rhythms, embodied relationships, a robust moral imagination, the stuff that keeps us human and reminds us that God remains God. Concerned about the overpoliticization and undermoralization of our public life? The church, in theory, should be cultivating leaders sensitized to the lines between good and evil. Concerned about a culture that sets up irredeemable battles between friend and foe? The church, in theory, should have what it takes to model how we respond to our enemies with love.
It’s as if the church is the missing puzzle piece for precisely this moment. But she is caught flat-footed, mired in her navel, lacking vision and supernatural power. And so we lay people rove, finding succour to supplement her thin gruel. We experience “thy kingdom come”—God acting—in the rigour of our vocations, in monasteries pervaded by silence and prayer, in church-like communities of our own making, in focused reading, and in relationships characterized by boundary-crossing care. We find it in neighbours’ needs where sacrifice is required, where the way is demanding yet beautiful. We find it in communities that have required a big yes at the cost of a lot of other yeses, that haven’t cheapened themselves into yet one more program, one more bit of noise. For despite every cultural nudge that seduces us into thinking we need lives of optionality to be happy, deep down we still crave a home that is trustworthy enough, believable enough, vibrant and countercultural enough, to lay down our defences, to be our full selves, and to submit. Sadly, the average North American congregation, at least for the next generation, appears to have ceded that floor.
In this winter twilight, Comment wants to encourage you to pause and ask two questions: Church, where are you? And, Church, where am I in you?
A Church in Hiding
Relying on this supra-ecclesial ecosystem is not ideal, and it’s certainly not sustainable. The church is the only place given authority by God to take us through the journey from guilt to healing, from sin to freedom. I’m hopeful that the frustration and pain I hear from so many quarters is a temporary time of transition. But in this winter twilight, Comment wants to encourage you to pause and ask two questions: Church, where are you? And, Church, where am I in you? We’ve sought out authors who can see the symptomatic dysfunction for what it is and probe deeper into the forces underlying it: the overwhelming rush of modern time; the problem of freedom and autonomy; the difficulty of maintaining a community’s coherence in an ever more fractured, mobile, and individualistic age; the constantly shifting reductionism of language that makes us numb to God’s action in the world; the fear that keeps us from enmeshing ourselves in relationships of risk. These are not abstract bogeymen fit only for a Charles Taylor seminar. They are real challenges felt by each of us in our day-to-day lives, and while they are besieging nearly all institutions right now, they are especially challenging for the church, which has a special calling to be a unique presence in the world, a presence that reverberates with a different kind of staying power, intrigue, beauty—a doorway to eternity.
I want to end with one window of hope. Much of my vocation has been graced by the invitation to see and describe the individual and communal transformation so often seeded by the sacred sector: rehab communities for addicts and criminals, Christian colleges charting new business models for higher ed, faith-filled police officers reforming the culture of their department and reframing the debates around mental health and racial bias, interventions addressing homelessness that inspire regular people to shelter the unhoused and expand their block’s understanding of who a neighbour can be. The examples are legion, present in every region, led by people who, while they may be insufficiently nourished by their local place of worship, are nonetheless putting into practice the conviction that the gospel can yet redeem any reality and change our world. These are my heroes, those who give me a picture of cruciform power and remind me that, for all the church’s failures, God is still at work in his people, often in startling and unexpected ways, and that the church is often catching up with what the Spirit is doing in the world. The question is, should they be more intentionally connected to one another? And under what kind of canopy might they find their public voice?