People are giving up on church right and left these days.
From what I hear from clients and colleagues, the rates of departure are climbing rapidly post pandemic.
Churches are opening their doors back up, but not many people are walking back in.
I get it. I haven’t been back to church either. There’s just too much hurt I’m still processing. Too much disappointment.
So, I was surprised to find myself wanting to go to church, even longing for church, as I read The Gathering: A Womanist Church by Irie Lynne Session, Kamilah Hall Sharp and Jann Aldredge-Clanton.
Here was a church that inspired and compelled me, a church that addressed trauma rather than created it, that confronted sexism rather than upheld it, that dismantled racism rather than protected it, that welcomed people rather than discarded them.
I know a lot of “progressive” churches that say they want to do all of the above, but most of us with any skin in the game know how rare it is for congregations to live up to their ideal.
There’s a lot of performative justice covering up a lot of actual injustice teeming in the underbelly of the church’s operations.
So, what makes The Gathering any different? In short: womanism.
The Gathering in Dallas, Texas, is the only church founded as a womanist church with the word womanism in the title. And it shows.
If you don’t know what womanism is, the authors explain that it is about the leadership of Black women who are paying close attention to “what is happening in the lives of the most vulnerable Black, brown, poor and disenfranchised bodies,” then using that keen seeing to transform the world.
In other words, womanism is the answer to the church’s hypocrisy problem. “Womanism is not only what the Black church needs but what America needs,” they write – and they’re right.
At The Gathering in Dallas, people who haven’t attended church in 20 years are finding belonging. People who have given up on church are finding healing and inspiration. People who are fed up with systemic oppression are finding liberation.
Why? Because womanism is rooted in the quest for liberation of all people.
Because The Gathering was founded on womanist principles and remains unapologetically committed to them. Because their approach to ministry is creative and full of integrity.
Because their focus is people, not institutions. Because they are actually doing what we know in our hearts Jesus calls us to do.
Interestingly, Session and Sharp didn’t set out to plant a church, and perhaps that freedom, that spacious imagination, is a key ingredient of their secret sauce.
They didn’t have their eyes set on church-as-we-understand-it. They were dreaming up a new thing, and only later did they begin to identify that what they had created was church.
I am speculating here, but perhaps what they were dreaming up in the beginning was so unlike their past experiences of church that they could not yet see that what they were birthing was, in fact, the truest kind of church.
In liberating themselves from “church-as-we-know-it,” they set themselves free to redefine church in the best of ways.
The authors write, “The North American Church has been derelict in its Jesus-identified mission of liberating the oppressed. Even so, Black clergywomen, including scholars and theologians, are forming ecclesial communities outside institutional and denominational structures to find healing, wholeness, social justice activism, and the freedom to use and maximize their God-given gifts to transform church and society.”
Sharp and Hall certainly belong to that great company of Black clergywomen transforming church and society, and we would do well to follow their leadership.
Womanism is not just for Black people, and it’s not just for women. Womanism is the perspective and voice we all need even more than we know.
So, take my advice: ditch the next “How to Grow Your Church” book you were planning to read. Pick up The Gathering instead.
It is by far smarter, more “Jesus-y,” more important, and more mission-critical. I promise.