My former boss dropped a jewel on me one day. She said, “Bill, there are two ways to quit a job. You can quit and leave. You can quit and stay.” I quit church.
My undergraduate years at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University were formative and foundational. I luxuriated in the intellectual energy on campus in the early 90s. I was among the brothers and sisters preparing diligently for corporate careers. I was among the Black nationalists and revolutionaries who sought to dismantle corporate hegemony and build a community centered on Black thought and Black joy. A war was going on inside of me. I was deeply troubled. I was unspeakably exhilarated.
I abandoned the beautiful, well-equipped School of Business and Industry for modest Tucker Hall, where religion and philosophy courses were taught. Professor Liburd baptized me in the hot water of James Cone and a critical reading of scripture. Professor Stephen Angell plunged me into the fierce beauty and stunning brilliance of the early Black church in the United States. My college years happened at the intersection of praise God and WTF.
I quit church during those days. On most Sundays, my body was there. But my mind was in the classroom. That’s what college is supposed to do, right? It was tough. I knew that I needed to be more. I knew the church needed to be more. But how?
On my sabbath, I wake up to the disgusting image of #ProudBoys ripping down a #BlackLivesMatter banner from my church. Will #Trump , who held up a bible in front of a church, bless not condemn this racist vandalism against Metropolitan AME Church ❓ @ap pic.twitter.com/yHy3N4X5rq
— Cornell William Brooks (@CornellWBrooks) December 13, 2020
Hi, my name is Bill and I quit church. Maybe you have, too. Why? Because something is missing. Churches struggling to be faithful to God’s gospel strive to be deeply spiritual and deeply connected to the world. We quit when our spirits and the church’s spirit are not deeply connected to the Divine life and light. That connection cannot be faked. It cannot be manufactured by preaching and slick production. We know when we are connected. We know when the church is connected. And we drift when the connection is severed.
The church is called to be connected to the world. The issues that challenge human beings and creation must also challenge the church. We quit when the church, in its proclamation and its ethics, pretends like what’s happening in the world ain’t really happening. That kind of ministry is an open door. And people like me will walk out.
Fellow dropouts, there are reasons to drop back in. I know it’s easier to sleep in and meet friends for brunch a little later. But I also know that even the best mimosas, bloody Marys, and bellinis can’t keep you from yearning to create a community committed to revolutionary love and radical hospitality. I know that most of you want to be a part of something that does the slow and steady work of justice. The right church can be that place. The right church can give you the opportunity to mentor young people, to work with food pantries while also fighting to end poverty, to support the mental health of those who need it, to fight for living wages, and to insist that every person has access to safe and affordable housing. This is the work of the gospel and the work of churches committed to the beloved community.
The church is committed to following the way of Jesus. The path can be arduous. It requires living into the rhythms of work and rest, of serious engagement and holy playfulness. On Dec. 12, the communal rhythms of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., where I am privileged to pastor, were violently interrupted. Our property was violated by people who do not believe what we believe, who do not long for the world for which we yearn. That incident dazed me, then enraged me, but the overriding emotion I feel now is joy. I am in no way joyful about the violation. My joy arises from my deep knowledge that God and the ancestors have called you and me into the ongoing struggle, the beautiful struggle, of co-creating a new heaven and a new earth. We will not retreat. We will not be paralyzed. This spirit-strengthening, world-changing resolve is nurtured and nourished in some churches. Those are the churches that I believe you seek. They will welcome you.
The church cannot thrive without your gifts. And the church remains a powerful life force in our communities, animated by our ancestral hopes and our present dreams. There are churches that are committed to the life of the spirit, the life of the mind, and transforming the status quo into vibrant, flourishing human community. Your spiritual hunger can be satiated in the right church. Your intellectual curiosity can be nurtured in the right church. And you can help to demolish inhumane systems and build thriving communities in the right church.
I have no interest in you going to church just to go to church. I am encouraging you to seek a church that is deeply spiritual and deeply engaged with the world. People of our generation search for so many things. Why not search for the richness and transformation possible in that kind of community?
I am not so good at quitting church. I have been a pastor since 1999. And whenever I want to quit, I remember that I am umbilically connected to the prophetic Black church. My health and the church’s health are bound together. The occasional thought of leaving cannot compete with the grand call to stay.
Give it a chance. The church is open for reenrollment.
This op-ed was written by Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor, Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.