Church must reclaim subversive way of Jesus

"Older people still respect it, while most younger people ignore it, but almost nobody considers the church in our time to be a threat to anyone in power." That's the view of American minister Robin Myers, who says the church needs to become "a bit subversive again".

By Emma Halgren

June 23 2016At its best, the church should be a kind of spiritual counter-insurgency which is “subversive for the cause of love”, says the Revd Dr Robin Meyers, an American minister, peace activist and author who visited Melbourne in May.

But he said that the church had largely become fearful and “allergic to risk”, and at worst, “a joyless and often fearful defender of the status quo”.

Dr Meyers is senior minister with Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, and Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at Oklahoma City University. He led a series of workshops at the Uniting Centre in Malvern East on 13 and 14 May, hosted by Common Dreams on the Road and the Progressive Christian Network of Victoria.

His 13 May talk was centred on his 2012 book The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus. In that book, he said, he had tried to unpack how it was that a church that was once made up of “non-compliant communities that threatened the Roman Empire” had now become “completely absorbed into an empire of our own.”

“It used to be a very radical, very countercultural, very dangerous thing to be a Christian. Who clipped the wings on what was once a wild dove?” he asked.

He said the title of his book was inspired by the underground railroad movement of the 19th century in America, which saw a vast network of people, including clergy and churchgoers, help slaves escape to free states and Canada.

“This was the church being subversive, by just doing what was right before it was legal,” he said.

Today, he said, the church was often “too clean, too well-appointed, too much like a suburban McMansion with a big cross. Older people still respect it, while most younger people ignore it, but almost nobody considers the church in our time to be a threat to anyone in power.”

Instead, he said, churches were mainly “a threat to each other, as we continue to argue over who has the correct doctrines, or recites the right creeds.”

He posed seven “underground ideas” that he said could help make the church “a bit subversive again”: change our approach to how we serve the Eucharist, so it is not just reserved for “those who believe the right things”; restore the church as the centre of non-violent resistance to war by proudly embracing the pacifist tradition; make church a place of refuge and hospitality for people who have nowhere else to go; create an alternative economy (“God’s economy”) by not only redistributing wealth but by pooling money and loaning it to members of the community at zero interest; put children at the centre of community life so that they are “inescapably tangled up in a community that cares for them”, and accountable to a whole community of people for actions and decisions they take; adopt a local public school, learn what its needs are, and find ways of supporting that school; and confront the environmental crisis through practical, tangible measures in every area of church life.

The 750-strong Mayflower congregation Dr Meyers pastors is the fastest-growing church of its denomination. He described its parishioners as “like leaven in our community”. Some of its activities include community organising around issues of education, public transport and access to affordable health care; a before-school art program in one of the city’s poorest public schools; after-school tutoring provided by dozens of volunteers for students who are not reading up to their grade level; feeding up to 600 homeless people each month and providing them with clothing (including scarves knitted by congregation members), underwear, blankets and school supplies for children; and a medical clinic and boarding school in Nicaragua to help correct hearing loss in children.

He said, “Most of the good that happens in church happens when people move toward the mystery we call God, without knowing how it’s going to turn out. And most of the bad that happens at church happens when people move away from that mystery, immobilised by fear and mistrust.”

 Robin Meyers’ lectures can be heard at www.pcnvictoria.org.au