Membership is falling in many mainline denominations. In 2011, National Council of Churches reported that there was a decline in church membership by about 2% in denominations such as the Lutheran, Episcopal, PC (USA), and Methodist confessions. With this kind of statistic, what is the future of the mainline denominational church? How can we survive and be meaningful and relevant to a society where the importance of belonging to a church has been forgotten or dismissed. Is church membership going to continue to drop because the churches lose the ability to assist those who have been pushed to the margins of society? What can we do to help our churches grow and survive?
This past spring semester, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. visited Lehigh University and Moravian College and participated in two public lectures called, “A Conversation with Rev. Jesse Jackson” moderated by Dr. James Braxton Peterson and myself.
The conversations were lively, energetic, and prophetic. At the end of each session a 30 minute Q&A period followed. A Lehigh University student asked Rev. Jackson, “What is your greatest achievement and why?” Rev. Jackson had a smile on his face and swiftly and unexpectedly responded “surviving,” to which the audience clapped and roared with laughter. After the audience calmed down, he quickly gave a moving, serious, and more elaborate answer to this question by telling a story from his childhood about his father and his brother. The fuller answer to the question was very moving, but it was the first impulsive, quick, and unanticipated one that caught me off guard and has stayed with me to ponder.
Reflecting on his answer that ‘surviving’ was his greatest achievement, it seems astounding when you consider that Rev. Jackson has worked on and continues to work on his fight for justice and equality. Rev. Jesse Jackson is well known for civil rights, racial justice, economic equality and many other issues of our time. He realized early that the economic, racial, gender, sexual, and social structure of society needed to be changed. For the past 50 years with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and later with his own organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, he has continued this important work.
Perhaps there is some wisdom in Rev. Jackson’s quick answer and that ‘surviving’ is, indeed, one of his great achievements. After all, the impact of Rev. Jackson’s activism has been felt both across the nation and around the world. His fight for freedom and his work with progressive grassroots leaders has endured and been very fruitful. And it all stems from his survival.
With all the problems and difficulties of doing “ministry” in this environment, he has managed to survive all the criticism, racism, and systemic problems that society imposes on those who challenge the status quo. At Rev. Jackson’s 70th birthday celebration at Georgetown University (Nov 7, 2011), Dr. Eric Michael Dyson described Rev. Jackson by quoting Shawn Corey Carter, that “there has never been a guy this good for this long.” Yes indeed, he has survived.
Presently, we have come a long way from the 50’s and the 60’s but there are still many obstacles that block us from achieving our full humanity and moving forward to the next generation of churches. In certain ways, the church has played a major role in maintaining the status quo rather than being a prophetic voice to challenge it. The same churches blessed slavery, when they should have spoken out against it, stayed quiet during the slaughter of 6 million Jews when it should have stopped it, stood by during the invasion of Iraq when it should have sought peace and kept women in “their place” when it should have empowered women. Churches have excluded people who are different, marginalized and not part of the majority or the ‘norm’.
All these things leave me with the question—how are we to survive as a church that becomes a beacon of light and hope in this world—a world full of injustices, poverty and inequality. How can we reimagine the role of the church so that we can also welcome everyone to the table; to join in the fellowship and communion of all believers-whether we are rich or poor, men or women, radicalized or not, gay or straight. How can the church welcome all people to the table so that the church can be a place where people can encounter God and feel God’s love. How can we survive as a church so that our membership will not decline but actually grow and flourish?
I also need to ask myself, “how can I survive” as a person of color living in a racialized society embedded in racism, sexism, and colonialism. There are lots of battles to be fought and I do hope that I can somehow “survive” them and encourage others to do so.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women's Christology(Pilgrim Press).