Recently, I attended a clergy meeting in order to invite faith leaders to be a part of a national campaign seeking to address the overdose crisis and to create harm reduction centers. The purpose of the campaign is to treat overdoses through a public health lens rather than through the criminal justice system. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs by President Nixon we have tried to incarcerate our way out of the issues created out of drug criminalization and it does not take a genius to see that these approaches are not working. At all.
While my invitation to join this national campaign was about 5 minutes long, the police who were present (numbering about 15) were allowed to speak for as long as they wanted. And they took every minute of it. There were a lot of things spoken during their time, but I noticed some repeated themes.
One was that we need to be afraid of younger people in our communities because they have access to weapons and they are doing tremendous harm. Adopting this view of young people means we view young people with suspicion and distrust; an outside force intending harm. Thus, our natural inclination is to hunker down and protect ourselves.
Taking a posture of self-protection gives way to the next theme conveyed which was that the church has all of the answers the youth are looking for. Several leaders of the police pointed to their own lives as examples that when youth go to church, as they did, they do not participate in harming other people. The church is where youth should be. Of course, this evoked LOTS of amens.
So, the final theme? The answer to drugs and violence in the streets is obvious – we just need to get young people into the church! Viola! Everything will be solved! Not only does this make sense, this feels so good to those of us who are in vocational ministry. This is music to our ears. Yes! Just get them into our domain, our sphere of influence, the place where we are in control, and we can take it from there!
Here is the problem though. This is a 20th Century missiology for a 21st Century audience. This approach (sometimes) worked in the 1940s and 50s when the church was often the spiritual and social hub of smaller, rural communities. However, as the US became urbanized from the 50s and 60s on, the church simply became less important in peoples’ lives. Further, as the church either refused to lead on important social and political issues or even took the side of injustice such as promoting segregation and a war based on lies, the church became increasingly irrelevant.
For all mainline denominations and evangelical churches too, people are not only leaving the church in droves, people are leaving Christianity entirely. Denominations and evangelical churches have proven themselves inept at finding creative ways to better communicate their message of redemption or to innovatively find new societal positions to occupy that carry any meaningful.
Reflecting on this meeting recently, I would argue that the police are also increasingly becoming irrelevant. DC police are struggling to recruit new members to their force even though they regularly are applauded by politicians and faith leaders alike. More and more communities are developing volunteer associations to meet community needs and local communities are turning to their own leadership to settle disputes through conflict-mediation because they are recognizing that involving the police most often leads to more violence and a lack of resolution.
Further, for both churches and local police, their reputations have taken hard hits in recent years. Years of police brutality have finally gained public attention and uncovered widespread church trauma and sexual abuse by church leaders and the denominations that shielded them from accountability have rightly shown their respective mottos of “protect and serve” and “Jesus loves you” to be too full of hypocrisy to be believed.
When institutions find themselves increasingly irrelevant they often find safe haven in banding together and protecting one another. Irrelevance attracts irrelevance. And while that may work for those whose identity is defined by one of those irrelevant institutions, it does not do much for addressing important issues before us like a broken, retributive criminal justice system not designed to meet the needs of those who use drugs. And the first thing we should realize is that not all people who use drugs abuse drugs so to criminalize all drugs and all people who use drugs only deepens poverty and marginalization.
Simply put, institutions struggling for relevance are not who we should turn to to find innovative solutions to long-standing problems. And the best part of this is that in turning to other sources for needed solutions, such as impacted community members, struggling institutions can find new meaning and relevance in partnering and following the lead of truly innovative thinkers and actors.
Rather than prop up old, dying institutions, it is time for the church to look for creative answers and partners. The answer is not to get people into the church. The answer is to get the church into the street; listening, following, serving, and seeing all people not with suspicion, but rather, as made in the image of God. Renewal – and relevance – lies within.