Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

Reimagining A Way Forward

Jonathan Lee

I am what some people might call a “cradle Christian”, but perhaps not in the way you think. Yes, I was born into a devout Christian family and have grown up to become a confessing Christian myself. But what if I told you that the first place I went to as a newborn after the hospital was not my family’s home, but Sunday morning service? Now before you jump to any wild conclusions about the decision, let me say that we were discharged on a Sunday morning, and since the church was conveniently located between hospital and home, my parents and I stopped by for a quick hello on the way. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has beaten my birth-to-church record just yet!

This is all to say that I have certainly been in the church for a long, long time. During this time, I have seen my share of the beauty of the church. I have many fond memories of growing up in church community, particularly an ethnically-specific one such as the Korean congregation that my family was a part of, where I felt seen, was uplifted, and fed good food (both physical and spiritual).

At the same time, spending so much time in church also invited me to witness the church’s more unsavory, if not absolute worst, moments. When you are in it for such a long time, seeing the beautiful comes with seeing the ugly.

There is certainly something to be said about the need to reimagine the church, whether it is capital C universal or lowercase c local. Certainly, the Covid-19 pandemic has played an active role in prompting more intentional conversations about what the church “is” and how people relate to it. However, the issues that many churches face today, such as declining membership, use of space, and questions of diversity, equity and inclusion, did not just appear in the spring/summer of 2020.

Take my own experiences of changing relationships to church for example. Amongst the twenty or so youth group peers that I grew up attending church with I cannot think of more than three or four individuals who are still a part of a church community, Korean or otherwise. When I speak to other Asian American seminarians about their reflections on growing up in church, “I am the only one left” is a common response. This phenomena in the Asian American community, though certainly not exclusive to Asian American spaces, where youth raised in the church leave after high school and never return is labeled “the Silent Exodus”. As a young Asian American male, church can be an eerily lonely affair as I try to navigate the racial and age divides that I see my home church and others dealing with.

My own observations and experiences of the lack of enthusiasm for church, particularly amongst young people, drives forward my desire to be a part of this “Reimagining Church” project and ministry work in general. The church has been and can continue to be at the cutting edge of our social movements, offering a model of radicality that stands up against our dominant cultural norms to offer something refreshingly new and accepting for all peoples. This undertaking is an experiment to figure out what that newness can be, and will be one I participate in regardless of whether or not I choose to engage with it here through Yale Divinity.

That being said, I can’t help but wonder, who are we reimagining the church for? Who is it that we want to be a part of this reimagined, reconciled, and renewed church body? Is it for the church stalwarts and lifelong members, or is it for the ones who walked away and those feel abandoned? These and other questions are not ones to carry lightly or to leave behind because they are too heavy, and I am excited to tackle them as I work with members from Spring Glen UCC as we collectively move forward step-by-step until we find ourselves where God will lead us.