Joe Kay is the minister of Hamilton's Nexus United Church of Christ (UCC). Steve Aust
Jack Sullivan is the executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches. Steve Aust
Every time a new poll or survey addressing religious adherence or church attendance is released, the findings undoubtedly give believers pause. For example, a Pew Research Center survey published in December 2021 revealed that 63% of U.S. adults identified as Christian, a marked decline from the 78% that classified themselves as such in 2007. Most of that decrease was absorbed by the survey’s “No Religion” option, which swelled from 16 to 29%.
Translation: those who know longer identify as Christian aren’t primarily migrating to other faiths; they’re largely walking away from the construct of faith.
The Festival of Faiths, an exciting celebration of diverse faith traditions that took place earlier in August in Cincinnati, provided an ideal backdrop to discuss the challenges clergy members face in serving their congregations and communities, as well as belief and hope that churches can adapt and thrive amid complex times.
Jack Sullivan is the executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches, a 103-year-old organization that supports seventeen Protestant denominations. He’s been in ministry since 1983, with just over three years in his current role.
Fighting for justice (and relevance)
Over nearly four decades, he’s seen ministry’s challenges reflect an increasingly complex, pluralistic society: “In my early days, ministry was maintenance work, encouraging fellowship in the congregation. Sometime in the ‘90s, it became clear that this wasn’t enough for the church to support its true mission. To truly embody the will of Jesus, a church must speak truth to power and fight for social justice.”
Simply put, this path entails balancing spiritual and theological matters with practical matters of neighbors helping neighbors, particularly supporting at-risk communities.
Sullivan said, “You can’t address injustice without tackling the inequality and systemic racism. The wealth of the few in this country has not trickled down to the many. Until we’ve addressed healthcare, affordable housing and other issues that impact the poor, churches aren’t being relevant to the needs of today’s world.”
He also noted the importance of Christians making the effort to learn and understand other faiths “because collaboration and empathy are essential to working together to uplift society.”
Longstanding “legacy” churches often encounter resistance to adopting progressive policies, such as full inclusion for the LGBTQIA+ community or tackling poverty, climate change or other sensitive topics. Contrastingly, Nexus United Church of Christ (UCC) in Hamilton was founded in 2006 expressly to embrace LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.
Creating inclusive culture
Joe Kay is a former sportswriter and ex-Catholic who’s been the church’s minister for eight years. He acknowledged the challenges churches face in outreach to many populations.
“There are many people who have been damaged by their church experience, and it’s very difficult for them to trust any church,” he said.
Kay reflected on the suburban Cleveland of his childhood when churches served their proximate communities and neighborhoods were close-knit. Now, as myriad types of organizations fulfill the social roles churches once occupied, faith communities must adapt to connect.
Nexus UCC meets at a Hamilton YMCA so, according to Kay, “it doesn’t seem like church”, and despite its small congregation with a typical Sunday attendance of 25-30, it’s made an impact by playing a pivotal role in the creation of the Hamilton Pride Parade and has two representatives of the West Chester + Liberty Township Faith Alliance, a collection of churches dedicated to alleviating poverty.
“A church cannot succeed unless it gets out of its silo and reaches out to the community to bring people together and serve marginalized populations.”