By Rev. Alexis Lillie
Associate Pastor, Church of the Village
For the first time in the country’s recorded history, the majority of Americans do not currently belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. This cultural shift is due in large part to an increase of Americans with no religious preference—the so-called “dones” and “nones”—according to a study conducted by Gallup.
You might think that as a pastor of a local church I would join the hand-wringing of colleagues as they lament decreasing church membership, especially among progressive religious communities. Instead, I find myself tantalized by the fresh possibilities that are surfacing as we reinvent church life during the pandemic.
The Church of the Village is a progressive, radically inclusive faith community that seeks to dismantle racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression. We believe that practice flows from belief, so it is important to unpack scriptural texts and sacred stories in ways that lead to the flourishing of all, while prioritizing those on the margins. What we found over the past year of virtual living is that this message resonates with folks near and far.
Experiences at workplaces, gyms, and family get-togethers have been altered and expanded because of our ability, and necessity, to gather online. Churches are no different. Church of the Village expanded our membership to include people across the country and around the world, from diverse locations and faith backgrounds.
When I talk with our new virtual members and attenders they are often attracted to our progressive values, but they stay in the community because of the connection and welcome they feel— even in a fully virtual space. I believe that while people may be “done” with institutional religion, we will never be done with needing to engage our own spirituality and connect with others who are doing the same. What many are done with is the toxic and traumatic form of religion that distorts our sacred texts, grabs for power, and diminishes our worthiness.
I am grateful to serve in a community working to discard those ways of interpreting and practicing, and to recapture the messages contained (in the context of my work) in the narrative of the life of Jesus without the inherited dogma. This means reimagining many things, and the pandemic has given us an unexpected opportunity to do so. We spent over a year gathering only on Zoom—on Sunday mornings and at other times. We added more weekly group meetings and classes as more people wanted to join and participate from wherever they were. Now we are moving cautiously into the next phase—from a fully virtual reality to what we’re calling an onsite/online model—and we will continue to shed institutional conventions that no longer resonate.
We are not, and likely never will be again, a community that is geographically bound. We now are connected to people around the world! In areas with higher concentrations of virtual members we are beginning to develop communities, de-centralized from NYC, which will have elements of both online and onsite engagement.
The Gallup research reflects a reality that has not yet included our expanded definition of “church,” a liberated definition that is exciting to me. Every day I witness the community that is Church of the Village discarding, creating, recreating, and communing together in new and different ways. I, too, am “done” with the harmful manifestations of institutional religion—and I cannot wait to see what comes next.
Rev. Alexis Lillie is the minister for leadership and congregational development at Church of the Village on West 13th Street and Seventh Avenue (churchofthevillage.org).