Two Pastors on Christian Worship in Politically Divided Times
Many preachers and congregations claim that politics have no place in their worship. But pastors Meg Jenista Kuykendall and Katie Ritsema-Roelofs say that addressing public issues in worship is essential for congregations to become to Christlike communities.
Meg Jenista Kuykendall is the pastor at Washington, DC Christian Reformed Church (DCCRC) in the US capital. Katie Ritsema-Roelofs, a commissioned pastor, is DCCRC's minister of music and worship and is the worship catalyzer on the Christian Reformed Church's Worship Ministries team. In this edited conversation, they discuss worship planning in politically fraught contexts.
When and why did your congregation begin?
KRR: Our church was founded in 1943 so that servicemen stationed in Washington, DC, could have a Christian Reformed (CRC) congregation to attend. It was consciously located in a neighborhood that was predominantly middle- to upper-class African American. The church had really strong ties with its neighbors, and people still talk about legendary vacation Bible school programs. Some of our elderly African American members have been here since our church was planted. Although we're not attracting military service people anymore, we still have many members who were CRC born and raised.
How would you describe your congregation's demographics now?
MJK: It's been shifting in recent years. We have people from many church traditions—Lutheran, broadly evangelical, and people from the Gospel Coalition Reformed branch who've been confused that a church with Reformed in its name has women pastors on staff. Others come because of ties to Calvin University or Dordt University. We also have members who say, "We came to do a courtesy visit to a local CRC and decided to stick around." Our church membership is geographically spread out across DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
KRR: At least 65 percent of our members are government employees or work in government-related jobs, such as contractors and staff at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) loosely affiliated with the government. We have an active attendance and membership of about 100 people.
Do issues such as race and politics surface in your congregational worship and life, or do you have a "keep politics out of church" philosophy?
KRR: A lot of churches say they don't talk about or preach about politics. We can't not talk about it because it's people's lifeblood. We have people who were confirmed to their jobs in both Republican and Democratic administrations. They work for the EPA, the FDA, NASA, the US State Department, the US Office of Government Ethics, and the US Justice Department as well as for CNN, IREX, and the Rand Corporation.
MJK: We understand coded language—like, when you ask someone at the post-worship coffee hour what they do, and they say, "I work in security" in a way that doesn't invite follow-up questions. We have registered Republicans, registered Democrats, and probably some American Solidarity folks. It's probably fair to say that we lean left. The gift of worshiping multiracially is that it messes with your politics. We've learned that African American Christians don't seem to divide politics in the same way as white Christians often do. For a significant period in the 1990s and early aughts, our church membership included the longest-serving Republican chief of staff on Capitol Hill—and Nancy Pelosi's chief of staff.
How do you lead worship in such a politically fraught environment?
MJK: It doesn't feel fraught to talk about politics here. Folks expect it. The way a church plans worship and preaches has to be faithful to its context. Every church member should expect something of their life to be reflected in worship. If a congregation in Iowa farm country is going through a severe drought, you'd expect to hear about it in prayer or hear the pastor mention it. Our context is Washington, DC, so how could we not talk about politics? When someone's boss is in the news, I send a text or email to let the person know I'm praying for them in what must be a hard week.
KRR: What's in the news often feels personal to us. For example, the US Capitol is a symbol of American democracy, which so many of our church members work so hard to uphold. The January 6, 2021, Capitol riot hit everyone hard. Homes and yards here are small, so some of our church families take their kids to the Capitol steps to run off energy. Some members were summer pages or interns on Capitol Hill back when it was considered inappropriate for women to wear sleeveless dresses to work. It was hard to watch people jump on, break, and disrespect things there on January 6. As a congregation, our reaction to that event had nothing to do with how we vote.
What's your advice to pastors and worship planners who prefer to stay away from politics?
MJK: Two things. First, if your worship doesn't form worshipers politically, then their political spirituality will be formed by their favorite news and media sources. Second, if your political discourse is mainly to run down certain groups of people who work in DC, then you are giving your church members permission to question the Christianity of a neighbor who voted for Joe Biden or to hate a neighbor who voted for Donald Trump. Washington, DC, is so much more than McConnell versus Schumer and McCarthy versus Pelosi.
KRR: And praise the Lord for that! We enter into worship with the expectation that we won't all agree with each other on policy and polity. And isn't that the heart of democracy, to cooperate in a system of checks and balances? Actually, the biggest debate in our church is between sports fans of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan!
How do you connect worship elements to people's daily challenges?
MJK: Communion is important. We celebrate monthly communion (at least in non-COVID-19 times) in the round. People who disagree vehemently about policy issues Monday through Friday nevertheless join in the same communion circle. Just as Paul Scott Wilson's four-page sermon model addresses troubles and grace in the text and in the world, it makes sense to bring the world's troubles into worship through prayer, lament, confession, and "in-between words." I'll always remember a brief recording of one of our physicians talking about being all suited up for twelve hours in a COVID-19 ward, driving home to her unvaccinated children, and seeing unmasked college students streaming out of bars. It's good for God's people to hear, lament, and confess about real-life tension, anger, and anxiety.
KRR: We name things—political division, elections, racism and racial unrest, the pandemic—in sermons, in liturgies, and always in prayer. For the first Sunday service after the January 6, 2021, insurrection, we asked various church members to record themselves reading Scripture and parts of the preamble from "Our World Belongs to God: A CRC Contemporary Testimony." They spoke from places outside and inside federal buildings and monuments, including in front of the Capitol Building and inside the Senate Rotunda. We ended that section of worship by singing together "This Is My Father's World."
Sometimes we ask members to give short testimonies about experiencing God in their work. For Good Shepherd Sunday (the fourth Sunday in Easter) we asked for testimonies related to Psalm 23. The US Coast Guard chaplain talked about being led by still waters. A Georgetown University professor and the Berea College president spoke about leadership in the context of "your rod and staff comfort me." A Johns Hopkins physician and FDA drug regulator talked about "you prepare a table before me."
Which worship songs help your congregation in these divided times?
KRR: One of our congregation's heart songs is "Koinonia" by V. Michael McKay, which begins, "How can I say that I love the Lord, whom I've never, ever seen before and forget to love?" It rings true because of our congregation's shared level of love and respect for who we are in the life of this community together. People move to Washington, DC, for their careers. Few have family here, so we become each other's family.
Washington, DC, is often dragged through "drain the swamp" rhetoric. Yet many of our church members feel called to good government work. We want to say—through testimonies and other ways—that their work matters, that God is present in and through their work. That's why "Your Labor Is Not in Vain" by The Porter's Gate has become a heart song here.
What advice can you offer about including real-life issues in sermons, especially when church members disagree on how to frame or address those issues?
MJK: Since before the pandemic, and certainly in these divided times, I've been encouraging my clergy colleagues to stop saying, "We don't preach politics." That's not true, because we teach not only by what we preach about but also by what we choose not to address. Who we are in the public square and in commerce is essential to who we are in Christ. As pastors we can't preach policy or partisanship. But we must preach the whole Bible.
For example, the Christmas story includes the fact that Joseph, Mary, and young Jesus had to flee to Egypt as refugees because of a powerful king who was afraid that his empire would be threatened. That's just the biblical text. I'm not telling you how to vote, but you need to know that the Savior we are worshiping was a refugee. So the decisions you make about refugees and immigrants are connected to that reality.
Also, one of the gifts of needing to pre-record service elements during the pandemic has been to match the medium to the message. So I've preached parts of sermons from different settings. In one about Jesus going to a hill to commission his disciples, I went to a cliff in Rock Creek Park. In a sermon about how the church witnesses through time, especially during persecution, I preached a segment in Dorsey Chapel, built by African American Methodists in Maryland.
KRR: It's possible to misinterpret a sermon on loving your neighbor as yourself as a partisan comment, but the Bible tells us that there is nobody that we can deem unworthy of God's love. The more people shy away in sermons and worship from civic decisions, the greater the divide becomes among Christians. That silence makes more space for distrust.
Watch a brief worship clip from the Washington, DC CRC on the Sunday after the January 6, 2021, insurrection. These stories in The Banner, Christianity Today, and Faith & Leadership explore how pastors, including Washington, DC CRC's pastors, dealt with the storming of the US Capitol and other political conflicts. Read the book Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and Liturgy, by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson.