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Rev. Mieke Vandersall Headshot

5 Thoughts on Building a Faithful Church of the 21st Century

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In June of 2011, New York State legalized marriage for same-sex couples. In the first year, same-sex couples sought me out -- from as far as the Deep South and across international boundaries -- to officiate at their weddings.

I consider it a blessing to be asked. I love the work that I am called to do with couples, helping them prepare for their wedding day and their life ahead.

However, in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), where I am ordained, officiating any of these weddings can lead to being charged and punished in the church.

And yet, I have said and will continue to say "yes" to many of these couples.

Why do I do it? Because in taking this risk I find that I am living more fully and faithfully by the vows that I took upon my ordination -- the vows in which I promise to seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love my neighbors and work for the reconciliation of the world.

This act of standing with same-sex couples seeking God's and their communities' blessings, coupled with the greatly changing nature of what it means to be disciples of Christ in the 21st century, has helped me think long and hard about the future of our church. I believe the legalization of marriage presents us with an opportunity to assist in the building of a strong, vibrant and relevant church in the years to come. Here are five bold ways that we might do this:

1. Live Our Tradition

In times of change, I am comforted that, as Christians, we are not alone. In fact, we have a guide on this journey, and by looking back to our traditions, we can actually find a way forward. Our tradition is grounded in a Jesus and a Gospel that encourage us to be more loving, more giving and more caring, even if that means breaking rules that attempt to prevent such behavior. I encourage us to dig deep into our traditions that have set us free individually so that we might set each other and the world free as well.

2. Embrace the Fear

In the spirit of following Jesus' life, death and resurrection, we have to stop being the church of "no." Life wins over death in the Christian tradition, and I believe that scary actions, like breaking rules, can transform death-dealing legislation into a life-giving witness. We can't continue to say "no" when there are real stakes here, not just for loving and committed same-sex couples, but for young LGBT people looking to the church for guidance and acceptance. Jesus, in the midst of the disciples' fear, broke down doors to be with his people, wishing them peace and encouraging them to receive the Holy Spirit and go back out into the world, where he would continue to be found. Christ's real presence with us in our own fear gives me great courage and strength when I am scared, knowing that in the end, I have nothing to fear.

3. Take Risks

Letting go of fear frees us to be able to achieve amazing things together, things we never could have predicted or expected without the Holy Spirit's guidance. We are freed to take risks and be with God's people exactly where they are, walking alongside us in our highs and lows.

As Presbyterians, often when the Spirit asks us to take risks, we instead take up a study. While I encourage us to be thoughtful in our decisions, I am also conscious of the fact that Jesus did not begin his ministry through study. He began at a table with people, eating, drinking, being, celebrating and grieving with them. It can feel terrifying to move into the unknown, but the Gospel implores us to take risks. In fact, I believe that in risk-taking we find God.

4. Expand Our Idea of the Church

Welcoming same-sex couples into our communities of faith allows us to expand our idea of the church, where it can be found and whom it can serve. When the Ethiopian eunuch turns to Philip the Evangelist and asks, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" Philip responds, "If you believe with all your heart, you may."

Who, like the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch, is coming to us, how might we serve them and how do we meet the Sacred through this service? For me, this is how I find the Christ's witness through His church expanding and growing ever-more faithful.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that our church will face massive change. Mainline Protestants are facing enormous shifts in identity, power and expression of faith, and I believe that opening our doors to same-sex couples seeking marriage actually points us to a new understanding of church. Congregations can get so bogged down in rules that regulate privileges of membership, and people coming to us seeking blessing and support can pull us back to the center of our Christian life.

5. Grow the Church

By opening our doors (and hearts), we will find new and unexplored potential for growing our church and the ways we partner with others. As we become a truly welcoming church, I believe the Spirit will present to us members of Christ's body whom we have not yet met. If we are able to listen and pay attention, we will find new partnerships, within our own cities and internationally, that emerge between denominations and communities where conversations were previously impossible because of our exclusionary and unequal postures. By growing and diversifying our church, we will be a stronger body of Christ.

Above are five bold steps exploring how the legalization of marriage for all might help us build a vibrant, faithful, relevant, welcoming church. What other steps might you add to this list to build such a church?