By Jeff Brumley
Merianna Neely Harrelson was watching President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night when it struck her: someone should do a state-of-the-church address.
Then Harrelson, pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship in Lexington, S.C., thought that someone should be her. So this Millennial mother, wife and part-time publisher took at a shot at it — with the gloves off — on her blog Wednesday morning.
“The state of our churches is weak,” she declared.
That reflects both the ongoing trends of church decline and what she described as an internal fear-based atmosphere within congregations.
Pastors are susceptible to that, too.
“We are scared to challenge people to do better and to be better because either we ourselves are scared of that or we are scared of losing our jobs,” she wrote.
The need to keep the lights on and pay salaries can also influence decisions, she added.
Harrelson, 30, said she’s felt that fear in her own ministry, but agreed to share more of her thoughts about the state of the church with Baptist News Global.
Is there an inescapable tension between the life of the church and the work of being in Christ? If so, how can that be overcome?
There is an inescapable tension between the life of the church and the work of being in Christ, but I think too often churches claim that this program, or a new bus or even at times a new minister, will solve this tension. Rather than trying to solve the problem with programs or buildings or adding positions, maybe if churches were more in touch with their communities and communities’ needs, then they would be able to achieve both.
You said the cost of doing church is extremely expensive and that it’s costing us our lives. What do you mean by that?
I know a lot of ministers who are losing themselves in churches where they feel like they can’t speak their minds because they will lose their jobs. This is a terrible reality. If someone is called, and that person is called to a body of believers and then forced to become someone else by hierarchal leadership models or the threat of losing their jobs, then we’re doing something wrong.
You also write that churches aren’t challenging people to do better and be better. Why do you think this is?
Because they’re scared. Churches are scared of the changing dynamics of church life. Churches are scared to address issues like the LGBTQ issue. Churches are scared of declining support, declining attendance and declining importance. It’s that fear that has frozen our churches and made them exist in competition rather than collaboration with each other.
Could your vision be somewhat idealistic? Or do you believe there was a time when churches operated the way they really should?
Maybe my vision is ideal or maybe this is the vision of how Christianity started in the first century by welcoming the stranger in and providing a safe haven for the refuge. The followers of the Way in the first century wouldn’t recognize “church” today.
You write about hatred and prejudice in your article. Are you referring to hot-button issues like immigration, refugees and Muslims?
Yes, certainly there is a hatred concerning these issues. But more than that I was referring to the way we speak to each other. As a woman minister, I can’t tell you the number of insults and pure hatred that have been tossed my way and somehow in our society that is deemed OK. I believe Obama’s call last night … for “rationalized, civilized debate” is one worth striving for in our churches, too. Go to any church business meeting and you’ll understand the way our rhetoric, when we disagree about subjects, has digressed to personal attacks. Or look at the comments section of websites. It really is appalling how we address other creatures who we say we believe have God’s divine breath.
Are there congregations which are doing church differently?
I have to say Emmanuel, where I am pastoring, is the bravest group of individuals who are doing church together that I’ve met. Over the last year, we … decided to reduce our physical space to a fourth of the space we had before, so that we could be the hands and feet of Christ in our community. … We’ve had to decide whether to honor the request of a black lesbian couple to get married in our church. Through tough discussions, we decided to honor their request because they were a part of our fellowship. … We also called a young black former gang member to be our intern for the summer.
How much of your state of the church reflects your own situation, your own church?
I’m not immune to the pressure of being a minister in the current cultural context …. I’ve had minister friends advise me against … welcoming all because I would lose my job or I would taint my resume by being too liberal or too progressive. And at times I have been quiet about what we are doing at Emmanuel because of my own fears. But in reflecting over the state of our society and the incredible violence in 2015, I have to put my fears aside and be a minister called to change and transform, called to deliver the good news to all people regardless of age, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or gender.