"The crowd is everything. The crowd is us."
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
During my final semester of seminary, I read a little book called After Whiteness by Willie James Jennings. In it, Jennings, a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School and former academic dean of Duke Div, constructs a searing and all-too-true critique of the state of graduate theological education and, very much embroiled in graduate theological education at the time, it knocked me off axis. His critique is profound, yet simple. Jesus' ministry is rooted in the idea of the crowd -- the hungry, hurting, sick, lost people who gather around him in the cities and towns and follow him into the countryside -- and the seminary's (and the Church's) attention has slowly veered away from the crowd and towards something else resembling our own navel, perhaps. About the crowd, he writes this:
“The crowd is everything. The crowd is us. People shouting, screaming, crying, pushing, shoving, calling out to Jesus…People being forced to press up against each other to get to Jesus, to hear him, and to get what they need from him. People who hate each other, who would prefer not to be next to each other. Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, rebels, insurrectionists, terrorists, murderers, tax collectors, sinners all…widows, the orphans, the poor, the rich, sex workers, wonderers, magicians, thieves, gangsters, centurions, addicts, magistrates, city leaders, people from all over the Roman Empire—all pressing to hear Jesus."
"The crowd is everything,” he writes. “The crowd is us.”
As Christians and as disciples, we are at the same time ministers and the ministered, charged with care of the crowd and members of the crowd ourselves. In my role as Young Adult Missioner, my charge is with the care of college students and young adults and the communities that sustain them, and in just the first month of ministry here in Fredericksburg I've heard much about the state of the crowd. College students have described the first week of classes feeling like a whole month, that all of their friends and classmates are just kind of depressed and anxious, and how good but weird it is to be back. Young adults have shared their difficult and murky risk assessments in their social lives, dealing with various degrees of protection (or lack thereof) in their work places, or just feeling kind of -stuck- as this new reality continues to shake out. And in truth, I've heard much the same about people on either side of their 20s and 30s too.
After Whiteness reminds me that the Church is not just a building (nor is a campus ministry, a house) neither is it a program calendar or a "Normal" that we are expected to return to. The Church is us, a crowd of people, hungry, hurting, longing, and reaching out for God and for one another and responding to those needs. And right now, we are a crowd that is individually and collectively knocked off axis. Who is it that you are in the crowd? For what do you hunger? How are you hurting? For what do you long? What hungers, hurts, longings do you see in those around you and whose hungers, hurts, longings do we do our best to ignore? These are the questions for my ministry, and these are the questions for all our shared ministries. They may not lead us where we planned for Fall 2021, but so far as we are attending to the crowd, we can rest assured that we are headed in the right direction, that is, following in Jesus' footsteps.