As I read through Dr. Millett’s reflection on what it means to follow Jesus from the Latter-day Saint tradition, I am encouraged to find there is significant overlap between this tradition and my own – the Black Church tradition. Both traditions believe that being a follower of Jesus requires us to “search the scriptures daily,” because, as Dr. Millett notes in his writing from current Latter-day Saint President Russell M. Nelson, “scriptural guidance helps us to recognize error and make the necessary correction.” Scripture allows us to see how our beliefs, actions, and commitments align or diverge from that of Jesus so that we might be able to evaluate if we are authentically following Him. Disciples of Jesus in the Black Church tradition are also, like Latter-day Saints, a praying people. We fundamentally believe that “no one can come to know Christ and acquire a Christlike nature unless they regularly and consistently offer up their petitions and their gratitude in prayer.” I am bold enough to declare that the majority, if not all, Black Church experiences include opportunities for corporate prayer during the service and emphasize the need for private prayer in the life of each believer. In other words, I am encouraged to see there is some synchrony in what it means to follow Jesus across multiple faith traditions because it reminds me of the importance of ecumenism in the body of Christ. We all need each other to hold one another accountable in our faith commitments if we are to continue to be dedicated disciples of Jesus in a world that seems to grow increasingly distant from Him and His principles every day.
But where I find Dr. Millett’s reflection to be the most helpful is in his note that for Latter-day Saints, church attendance is critical if one is to follow Jesus. He goes on to write that “we need the church” because “Christianity is fully lived out only in community, and “the Church is given to assist and empower us toward that spiritual maturity that is the perfection of which the scriptures speak.” It is impossible to live a life committed to following Jesus without the Church. We all need people in our lives who are going to alert us to the sin that prevents us from seeing experiencing Jesus and redirect us when we are off the path Jesus desires for our lives. Our wisdom and knowledge are limited; there are certain perspectives or growth opportunities that we will be unable to observe without the assistance of someone who has been walking with Jesus longer than us and can help us identify the areas of our lives that Jesus wants us to surrender to Him. Other Jesus’ followers serve as mirrors to us, allowing us to see what habits, practices, and beliefs must change for, as the apostle Paul writes, “the perfecting of the saints.”
This emphasis on church attendance is so salient because I am struggling to remain encouraged when I see the current trends concerning congregational attendance in the United States. My dissertation work is centered on the ever-declining church attendance numbers across almost all demographic data points (except for some Black populations). These numbers have been further exacerbated by the pandemic, which has made people even more reluctant to participate meaningfully in the life of a church. For various reasons, such as immoral or unethical church leadership, a lack of commitment to justice, or preaching and teaching that seems irrelevant and unhelpful, many people, particularly younger generations in the Black Church tradition, no longer see the Church as a viable option for their faith development. Black millennials and Gen Zers have embraced an individualistic faith that makes no room for the congregational body to do some of the very work that Dr. Millett identifies as essential to following Jesus.
I do not mean to say that many of the concerns listed above are not valid – congregational leadership must address the myriad issues that have caused countless followers of Jesus to reject the Church. Furthermore, there is something to be said for the ways that our faith traditions value the personal life of the believer. However, Dr. Millett’s work is a powerful reminder that are best efforts to follow Jesus will fall short without a community around us to keep us honest. If the very first disciples of Jesus emphasized the need to be in relationship with others to follow Christ in their writings, then who are we to declare that we don’t need others in our faith journeys? We as followers of Jesus then should do our best to discover creative and innovative methods to not just get people to church but to learn what it means to be an authentic disciple of Jesus who is committed to His will and work.