Do congregations have the capacity to respond to the social needs of our time? The general consensus is that congregations and their clergy are overwhelmed: they lack the energy to do more than keep their people together and keep up with the new demands of digital community.
Yet here and there, congregations of different stripes and sizes creatively engage the chaos of these days. When everything’s up in the air, some find freedom to do a new thing on the ground.
A congregation outside Philadelphia contemplates selling its property in order to pursue a vision for affordable housing closer to the need and essential services.
A San Jose church reimagines an empty parking lot as a safe overnight spot for people sleeping in their cars.
A lay leader in Rome, Ga., lights up at the prospect of repurposing her church’s underused kitchen as a prep and storage facility for food trucks and catering businesses.
If you’re not picking up on the power of “contemplates,” “reimagines,” or “lights up,” then I’ll make it plain: There is energy, and it is abundant.
Of course, people respond to crisis in different ways. Some withdraw in weariness, some engage with fire. Some despair, some go higher. I feel all of that myself, and often in one day! Yet the general consensus I referenced, which is the dominant narrative of institutional religious life now, is just one take on energy: There is not enough.
Why this exclusive frame? Who tells that narrow story and to what purpose? How might we acknowledge both the weariness and the will in these difficult times? I honestly want to know.
My guess is that religious institutions, following the larger culture, valorize one version of caring — caring as sensitivity and sympathy. Yet the fullness of caring, which the world desperately needs, includes empathy plus solidarity, and creativity, and calling, and accountability to share our skills, our resources, and, when it returns, our energy for the world we desire.
Martin Luther King Jr. told the story of preaching in the nighttime mass rallies that followed each day of protest in the Montgomery bus boycott. One evening after speaking, a woman known by the community as Mother Pollard came up to King and asked him what was wrong. He said everything was fine. She didn’t buy it. She sensed that King was weary or despairing. So she assured him that he was not alone, that others were with him, and, most of all, that God would sustain him. King heard her certainty. And, he recalled, “As she spoke these consoling words, everything in me quivered and quickened with the pulsing tremor of raw energy.”
May we too be quickened in these days by such energy. For there is work to be done, and we have the capacity to respond.
Daniel Pryfogle is cofounder and CEO of Sympara.