When the Institutional Church Dies, What Comes Next? | Sojourners

When the Institutional Church Dies, What Comes Next?

Pamela Lightsey. Graphic by Tiarra Lucas/Sojourners

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

While I was attending seminary, I came across a book outside of our assigned texts that would help transform my thinking on LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church. The name of the book was Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, and the author of the book was womanist theologian Pamela R. Lightsey.

Up to that point in my life, I had been taught that being a Christian while also proudly identifying as a member of the LGBTQ+ community was impossible. But Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter challenged those preconceived notions as she argued for full LGBTQ+ celebration within the universal church. I began to realize that my discrimination was not only hurting LGBTQ+ people, it was also hindering my ability to imagine a world in which all people could be free. The lesson I took away from that book was this: If we don’t have the capacity to imagine a world in which LGBTQ+ people are free to be fully themselves, then our imagination of liberation is truncated.

Lightsey is intimately familiar with truncated visions of liberation, and she is committed to helping people free themselves from discrimination so that they can imagine a more inclusive future. As an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, which is currently embroiled in disagreements around LGBTQ+ inclusion, Lightsey is deeply involved in critiquing homophobia within her own denomination and the larger church.

I sat down with Lightsey to discuss her book, the United Methodist Church, and why she thinks the institutional church is dying.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Who are you and what do you do?

Pamela Lightsey: I’m the academic dean at Meadville Lombard Theological School. I am also the associate professor of constructive theology there.

I’m an ordained elder in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, and I’m currently serving part-time at a local church that is connected to Urban Village Church.

I served on [former Chicago] Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Advisory Council on LGBTQ+, which continues with the new mayor, Mayor Brandon Johnson. I serve as an advisory council for Johnson, which means that I get to do activism in the political sphere.

My family were sharecroppers, and I grew up at the end of the Jim Crow era, the early part of the Civil Rights Movement.

I’m also a mother. I have two children, a grandson, and a goddaughter whom I helped raise. And she has children also, so I have a full family. I’m a girlfriend to someone, the love of someone’s life.

Tell me a little bit about Urban Village and some of the church ministry that you do.

Urban Village is a multi-site church affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

They’re not yet a charter church; they’re thinking through that. With currently four sites in different areas of the city — one of the sites is in Edgewater, one of the sites is in River Forest, another site is in Wicker Park — and the site that I pastor is in Hyde Park Woodlawn, located on the campus of Chicago Theological Seminary.

Urban Village sees itself as an inclusive ministry that is open and affirming to the LGBTQ+ community. Secondly, it’s unapologetically Christian and unapologetic [in its belief] in Jesus Christ. These are things that we don’t shy away from.

What compelled you to write Our Lives Matter?

Two things: The repetitive harm that we were seeing and continue to see ad nauseam committed against Black people and people of color by the use of excessive police force [and] corrupt policing. And I’m being intentional when I talk about corrupt policing, excessive police.

That really concerned me because I came out of a generation where Black people were agitating to ensure that Black people could be part of the police force. My uncle was a police officer. I remember the yearnings of Black people in our community who said, “These white officers come in our community and they don’t know us and they do harm to us. We need someone who was from our community to help us.”

[And the second thing:] We were not, as womanists, having full throttled conversations about Black women’s sexuality as is seen in Alice Walker’s definition about womanism, women who love other women sexually. The non-sexual part was not a problem; we were doing the research, getting narratives of women who, for the most part, identified as heterosexual. [But] there was little to no research in womanist sectors on queer women, queer Black women.

You emphasize in your work that we’re all children of God, no matter who we are. Say more about that.

In the work that I do, I try to always remind people of the humanity of us all. I talk about trying to avoid hatred — which seems to me to be such an easy thing to do — but I actually think it’s a hard thing to do.

You have to walk over so much of God’s love, so much of what the spirit of love has poured into the world, to get to the point where you hate one another. People spend hours being taught to hate. I just really try to place an emphasis on humanity and the common denominators between us all. Doesn’t mean that I like everybody, but I certainly don’t carry a bitterness in my heart against people.

And I do think if we can get into that posture of remembering the sacred worth of human beings, I do believe that our world — our nation — would be a better place.

For people like me who previously held discriminatory positions against LGBTQ+ people, what responsibility do we now have to help people liberate themselves from those discriminatory, hateful positions?

I think having a relationship with someone who is not like yourself helps you to experience someone outside your context. But it also helps you to understand [those commonalities.] It’s these common denominators between two human beings that really helps us to sit down and begin to rethink some of the hateful things that we’ve been taught. I really think that what people must do is be willing to be in relationships with persons from outside their context.

What do you make of some of the setbacks in terms of the United Methodist Church taking an oppositional stance to same-sex marriage and then also ordaining LGBTQ+ clergy?

I’m hurt by any practice in the institutional church that harms people — especially the communities that I’m a part of.

I don’t know that I think of them so much as setbacks; I think of them as a revealing. I was just lecturing, and I said this and I knew it was provocative: The church must die. And I believe that to a certain extent. Let me unpack that: The institutional church is dying. You can look at the statistics, you can look at what’s going on across our country. Why is the institutional church dying?

I truly believe that the church of Jesus Christ will live, but the institutional church is undergoing a total breakdown. And I think young people are saying, “We got to do church differently.” Darling, never fear. The Holy Spirit is going to make sure we do church different.

When you say that some of the decisions that the United Methodist Church has made around LGBTQ+ issues are revealing, what do you think is being revealed exactly?

The bigotry within the walls of the church. The way some of the institutional leaders held biases and prejudices in their hearts. We have seen some of our bishops turn in their credentials to lead the United Methodist Church and become a part of what is called the Global Methodist Church. We’ll know the conclusion of the entire matter next year. [Hopefully we’ll find out what] direction we’ll move in at our next general conference.

[But the other] things that are really being revealed is the tenacity and the courage in the denomination by so many more of its members who truly want to love mercy and walk justly and love the Lord.

I’m very glad about the LGBTQ+ community [and] about the thousands of people who are holding on and remaining in the church who are committed to our liberation.

What do you view your role to be as an ordained minister? And what is your hope for the future of the church?

I’ve been in a lot of the conversations within my denomination about the impending schism of the church and what we hope will be the [UMC] in the future. I plan on continuing to be part of those conversations.

As you watch something change, there’s always the desire to reinvent what was. And I just don’t think you put old wine in new skins. I often hear people say we need to do something totally different and they get started in ministry and at the end of the day what they’ve created looks just like everything else.

There’s this desire for something new, but can we really create it? And I think it’s possible to do that with the help of the Holy Spirit, but we have to be willing to let go.

It surely seems as though the church is coming to an end, but what exactly the future of Christianity and the future of the church looks like is not quite clear to me. I’ve been encouraged by churches coming together to pay off people’s medical debt or churches doing community gardening. And so if you’re telling me that is part of the future of the church, I think that’s very practical and that makes a lot of sense. I think that it’s important that churches meditate on practical things that they can do to move away from institutionalism as we currently know it.

I believe that the church as we know it will no longer be housed in the building.

I could see church being a gathering of faith believers for a work. Not necessarily led by a preacher, but coming together for a work, a goal to help improve the world in which we live. So, church may be the gathering of those persons who really believe in the value of farming, of growing crops, and they gather together on Sunday or on the Sabbath.

And offering could be taken, but that offering would be received to help replenish the crops and to do the work. To me, that’s a viable ministry. That’s church, that’s beautiful church. ’Cause there’s so many people in our world who are hungry.