What makes for a Christ-witnessing, mercy-making, soul-impacting, life-saving, disciples-forming, justice-insisting, enemy-loving, peace-pursuing, boundary-crossing, joy-abounding church today? I can’t speak for others, but I can speak to what animates the Christian witness of one church: Old South Church in Boston.
Over the past 10 years Old South Church has grown and flourished in measurable ways – membership, attendance, additional worship services, Christian formation, financial stewardship, outreach, lay leadership, social media, baptism (including adult baptisms) and, not least, in the production of babies!
Less easy to measure, but palpable in our life together: We have grown more evangelical, inspirited, bolder in our ministries and deeper in discipleship.
How? Why? Is there a formula for realizing an inspirited church? I think there may be.
First and foremost, our Christian life is animated by a shared conviction that what we do matters – urgently, desperately matters – because the stakes are so terribly high.
The World at Our Door
You see, every single day Old South Church’s open door gives welcome to homeless persons and drug addicts; to individuals diagnosed with terrifying illnesses who have come to Boston desperate for a cure; to European tourists who assumed, until they entered our sanctuary, that buildings like ours were antiquated caverns with neither life to them nor meaningful purpose; to fresh-faced college students away from home and in peril of losing their way in an enticing new city; to those who tarry in our sanctuary and write out their most deeply felt prayers, slip them into our Prayer Box, and entrust them to our keeping; to LGBTQ folk who weep to learn that they are welcomed, as is, and cherished by a Christian church that is learning about gender non-conformity; to individuals whose grief over a loved one’s death is so new and raw that it is life-threatening; to those who, hungry and thirsty for Christ, experience a generous invitation to the Lord’s Table whether they are more sinner than saint, whether confessed, baptized, or rattled and riddled by doubt; to Muslims in Boston on business who rush in at the hour of prayer and ask if there might be a space where they could pray … who are shown to a quiet room and pointed in the direction of Mecca.
To put it differently, seven days a week, the stories and drama of scripture reverberate in Old South Church as we encounter the likes of blind Bartimaeus, curious Zacchaeus, the Syrophoenician woman, the Geresene demoniac, the rich young man, both the wounded traveler in the ditch and his Good Samaritan, the prodigal son along with his brother and father, the bleeding woman who has expended everything and Jairus whose daughter is nigh unto death, the boy convulsed with an unclean spirit and his anguished father, and the woman with too many husbands.
The walking wounded are everywhere around us. Yet the chance to capture their attentions and fire their religious imaginations is always fleeting. The occasion to intrigue them with the possibilities of Christian community, to touch them with prayer or awaken their spirits with deep ritual or meet their loneliness with companionship, is momentary. Should they feel rebuked or judged, belittled or patronized, they will vanish like smoke. They will remember what they have read and heard of Christians (that we are judgmental, outdated, boring) and they will move on.
And we will have failed them. And we will have failed Jesus. We will have failed at Jesus’ kindness, at his ministrations to the stranger, the other – forsaken the mindfulness and the soulfulness he brought to each new encounter.
Souls at Risk
Because the stakes are so high for so very many people – as high today as they were in 1st-century Palestine – and because we can’t tell by looking at a person what it is that terrifies them or whose soul is at risk at any given moment, we aim to be as porous to the city around us as we can be. We aim to be a thin place – a sanctuary in this city. We aim to be a place and a people whose witness bespeaks mercy, justice, and beauty and where, by the grace of God, a seeker might find solace, welcome, healing, mercy, sympathy, courage, companionship, or joy.
We know we have entered an historical epoch in which communal tragedy and catastrophe – mass killings, terrorism, and environmental upheavals due to climate change – are the new norm. Our hearts break over each new horror, yet we are not surprised by evil and its long reach. Indeed, it is the vocation of the church to train and rehearse for the arrival of evil.
As stewards of large sacred spaces, often centrally located, churches are uniquely positioned to gather communities in times of crisis or trauma, and to pour out upon them the healing balm of Gilead. As inheritors and benefactors of sacred words and meaningful ritual, we are empowered by Christ himself to minister to a world in pain.
In Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, this is our vocation. It is this that authorizes and informs both the urgency and boldness of our witness.
The Rev. Nancy Taylor ’81 M.Div. has been senior minister and CEO of Old South Church in Boston since 2005. She is a member of the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council.