During a particularly dry spell in my spiritual life characterized by a good-sized dose of cynicism and an overdose of institutionalized religion, I walked into the middle of a church service and found faith again. There was corporate song, public address, and ritual action, but none of it took place inside a sanctuary. No, this was not a hip church start or a trendy new experimental service. It was a protest.
Protests and assemblies have always played a crucial role in American history, but recently have taken center stage. This development did not begin with the Women’s March or the airport protests, but in the Black Lives Matter movement. The assemblies in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown shook the country with unanticipated force. Subsequent marches for the litany of black victims of police violence paved the way for the mass demonstrations that appear poised to characterize the Trump era.
Protest movements always adopt cultural liturgies that mirror those of institutionalized religion. Hymns and anthems are replaced with chants and solidarity songs. Sermons are delivered from megaphones outside capitols, prisons or major landmarks. Vestments come in the forms of poster board signs and specially made T-shirts. Invitations and altar calls morph into sit-ins and occupations, which often end in sacrificial and symbolic arrests rather than church membership. The protest is a religious service.
These observations are not important as a matter or trivia or substance for a dissertation. The connections between more institutionalized religion and the organized religion of protest speaks to a spiritual dimension in these dissenting assemblies. During the first few weeks of the new presidential administration, countless Americans have testified to calling their representatives and senators, attending community organizing meetings, and marching in protests all for the first time in their lives. These kinds of actions speak to something of an awakening in the United States, one that American churches can either despise, ignore or join.
Our churches should pay attention to the impulses that are leading Americans to act in unprecedented ways as far as their own lives are concerned. People in all corners of the political landscape have mobilized for different causes in the past two weeks. Many evangelical and mainline leaders alike were motivated by a concern for refugees. Students, parents and teachers rallied to oppose a nominee for the secretary of education in such force that it overloaded phone lines in senatorial offices. The Women’s March saw a confluence of different streams of political life to the point that it engendered internal strife. There is something happening in the United States, and churches should pay attention.
Churches should explore their roles anew in a new American life that sees public assembly as central to its life. That will look different from congregation to congregation depending on their people, but there is a great range of possibilities. Clergy and laypeople alike should consider joining community coalitions on issues their churches care about. All leaders, ordained or not, should attend community organizing meetings and sessions of the local city council. Churches should be in conversation with their communities about what role they could play in the neighborhood ecosystem — a role that is more positive than simply acting for the sake of self-preservation.
If they haven’t already, churches should consider taking these steps not because churches should be more partisan, but because there could be a revival of civic life in America on the horizon. Politics, after all, at its best is just finding out how to live together — and our churches should be involved in that kind of work. For decades, we have retreated into our enclaves of similarity and hyper-individuality, caring little for our community specifically or even our neighbors generally. A potential byproduct of the devastating shocks to American life in the pipeline could be a renaissance of public life and churches should try to find their place in this new order of things, whether that be as a community’s conscience, hub for organizing, center of prophetic action or numerous other possibilities.
If churches fail to make these considerations and act on them, the rest of the community will move on without us. Churches that ignore these shifts and new developments in public life will forfeit their witness. Our communities will gather (remember, church means assembly in the New Testament) whether or not our congregations host or show up. Church — assembly — happens at protests across our country all the time, and church will go on with or without us. There’s an awakening happening in the United States and God may or may not be a big part of it, but we need to show up and keep showing up if we want to find out one way or the other.
It’s not about casting the church’s lot with one political party or another. It’s about being in solidarity with the community our churches find themselves in, making all of our neighbors’ interests, troubles, fears and needs part of our own. Churches can choose to maintain course, ignore whatever awakening is happening and continue with business as usual, but I believe they do so at their peril. As the lectionary Gospel this week reminded us: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”