You could hardly devise a plot more complicated than the one facing the church of Jesus Christ across the globe. A pandemic of mammoth proportions has touched every nation. Churches and pastors have had to devise new, creative, and unfamiliar methods to continue the mission of God while protecting the people of the congregation and community from the ravages of COVID-19.
In the process, many churches are facing financial pressures that are unprecedented. In some locations, many in the congregation have been out of work or severely limited in their earnings. Local churches are struggling to meet the needs of their people for food, shelter, rent, and other vital concerns, while struggling to meet the financial responsibilities for pastoral support, utilities, and ministry funds.
I have been deeply moved by the creative efforts of many of our congregations and pastors. Some local churches have become food distribution centers where the needs of their community are being addressed by the sacrificial efforts of the people of the churches. Connections with community food banks, medical clinics, and other resources have been established. Some churches have been more involved in helping address needs in their communities than they have been in decades, if ever.
And then came the crisis of widespread social unrest over the tragic deaths of young Black men. Suddenly, layered on top of the ongoing needs imposed by COVID-19, communities were filled with rage and frustration. In the midst of a divisive political climate we seem unable to manage with civility, we also find ourselves facing the tension of demonstrations, riots, and further division and anger.
The church of Jesus Christ is under stress. The culture is afire with tension, uncertainty, and division. Even within our churches there is tension over the appropriate response to the crises we face. Many of our pastors find themselves in a situation where they do not know how to address the political and social divides that are tearing away at the fabric of the nation and the globe, and affecting relationships within the congregation.
Perhaps it is time for the church to take a deep breath, step back from the tension, and refocus on who we are as the body of Christ.
Perhaps it is time for the church to take a deep breath, step back from the tension, and refocus on who we are as the body of Christ. This is not a time to ignore or downplay the depth of the issues facing the world. In fact, it is likely that we are facing some of these issues now because we were not willing to face them in the past. But we must be sure that we are facing the issues as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, as Wesleyan-Holiness folk who believe, at the core of our being, that we reflect the holy love of God in action, attitude, relationship, and purpose.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
To the Philippians he wrote, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Ch. 2:1-4).
For the follower of Christ, these verses are not mere options. These admonitions are at the core of what it means to be the body of Christ. These are our marching orders, our living guides, the way we are to “be” in the world today.
And this is true in the face of the realities in our culture. Racial tensions have simmered for centuries. This is not new. But the church is having to face a reality that is uncomfortable and unpopular. We may well be able to benefit from the discovery of a vaccine that will mitigate the dangerous spread of COVID-19. When we do, the economic impact of shuttered businesses and the disruption of closed schools and entertainment venues will be relieved, though not altogether ended. But there will be no vaccine to mitigate the damaging, long term, and divisive effect of racism and social tension that results. That will take the courageous and determined commitment of people of faith who will say, “No more.”
Dr. Ivan Beals, late Assistant Editor of The Herald of Holiness (now known as Holiness Today), published a book in 1997 entitled, Our Racist Legacy: Will the Church Resolve the Conflict? It was published by Cross Cultural Publications and was a thoroughly researched and carefully written account of the racist legacy of the churches of Western Christianity, especially in the United States.
In his concluding chapter he writes, “The best future hope remains with those Christian groups and congregations working to resolve the racial conflict within their own minds and relationships. Paying the price of self-sacrifice, they strive to bring reconciliation through Christ’s compelling love. Salvation and reconciliation will never be purchased by political maneuvers, economic ploys, or led by legal guides. It awaits the increased and faithful effort of Christians truly following Christ, taking up the cross of self-sacrifice, to learn, to accept, and to love as He would have them do” (p. 190).
The church is under stress. But the church is not without hope.
The church is under stress. But the church is not without hope. The church is under stress, but it dare not assume that it can move forward without facing some difficult truths. The One who said, “You love each other the way that I have loved you,” expects and enables us to face the stresses with conviction, selfless love, and intentional action to break down barriers to the full inclusion of every person, whatever their race or culture.
It just may be that the church will lead the nation out of the morass of broken relationships and cultural contempt. It is time for the church to say to a wounded, confused, and frightened people, “Come, follow us as we follow Christ.”