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Queering Worship in Times of Collective Upheaval

Jess Cook

Rev. Jess Cook is the organizing pastor for Every Table, a new worshiping community in
Richmond, Virginia, and was the first openly trans / non-binary person ordained as a
minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA).

In the early stages of lockdown in 2020, I began to say what has now become a repeated refrain in my life, “If you want to know how to worship outside of a church building, talk to the people who’ve been told they cannot worship in a church building. Because it is among those folks that you’ll begin to realize why it is we worship in the first place; you’ll engage a level of authenticity that has been lost from much of our traditional worship these days.” This was most often repeated as I talked with pastors struggling to adapt to new forms of worship and the limitations they perceived doing church so far outside their comfort zones. 

It has been clear that getting back into our sanctuaries has not, indeed, done anything to improve church membership. The sharp decline in church attendance, already steep before COVID, has only continued since many congregations have returned to in-person worship. The energy in most congregations on any given Sunday morning vacillates between stagnant, arid, and woefully insufficient in providing worship goers what they need for this time in which we are living. 

And it’s not just in the church. The world is in a state of chaos unparalleled in our collective history. The systems so many of us have been told would keep us safe are failing. As they do, we are facing circumstances many of us haven’t even considered, much less faced, before. News reels are filled with one overwhelming story after another. We are in a time of great transformation in the church and in the world unlike any we have experienced before.

When I think about the church today, I think about Peter’s declaration in Matthew 16 that Jesus is the Christ. This is the moment Peter finally sees what Jesus has been trying to get the disciples to see since the start of his ministry. Just two chapters before, when Jesus walks on water, Peter is almost there, but doesn’t quite yet understand—he trips himself up with his own doubt. It is only after Peter has seen Jesus feeding and healing people (both Jew and Gentile), defying the boundaries of religious and social norms and expectations and defying the religious experts, that he finally gets it. 

Peter declares Jesus as the Christ when he understands the ministry Jesus models is about feeding people, healing people, and transcending boundaries put upon us, especially those enforced by the religious establishment. In his proclamation Peter is affirming that when we see these markers, we know Jesus is at work. 

Jesus says, “Yes, Peter! You get it! You understand! And it is on this understanding that my church will be built.” 

At the moment Jesus gave Peter his name, a seed was planted. Peter’s understanding is the living rock which is the seed and true foundation of Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus was killed and came back, the seed had everything it needed to grow. Then Pentecost came, and that Spirit of understanding, so alive in Jesus, was given to all of us. Jesus showed us what it means to love God through true love to our neighbors and ourselves. In Christ, we have access to a way of being in right relation with one another. Those early followers of The Way understood what we are and what we can be when we live in right relation with one another. Acts 2:42–47 tells us that those first Christians lived as a united community and shared everything. Those who had more sold what they had in excess so everyone could live in abundance. They ate together and offered thanks to God for God’s goodness and providence, and the community grew exponentially.

That small seed grew into a vigorous plant; and, like the Spirit that enlivened it, the plant could not be contained. It grew wild and became a serious threat to the status quo.

A few hundred years in, it was made into an institution. A proverbial layer of concrete was poured over the living foundation established by Christ. Concrete, however solid it may seem, is a fabricated material. It’s toxic to breathe and makes the ground impermeable to water. Concrete pales in comparison to the sturdiness and steadiness of rock, which is just as much a part of this creation as humans are. 

Yet that plant—that Spirit—is resilient and has continued to grow, often, despite the institution’s best efforts to contain it.

The church’s history can be traced by the relationship between this plant and the layers of concrete poured over it. There have been reformations and transformations and glimmers of the Divine breaking through. Yet, time and again, we’ve fallen into scarcity thinking, confused the institution with God, and forgotten that we have everything we need already within us. And each time, we’ve poured another layer of concrete. 

The years of faulty foundations have finally caught up with us. We are no longer naive enough to avoid what is so clearly happening. The writing is on the wall; we can sense it in our hearts. We can feel the Spirit groaning with labor pains as we wait for all of creation to be set free. The foundations are crumbling, yes, but that ancient plant rooted in the life of Christ is still alive and is powerful enough to break through everything keeping us from living into who we were created to be. 

The call of the church in this moment is to nurture the growth of that life breaking through all we’ve known. We are being invited to see that we are that living plant, that new life breaking forth, tearing through anything that does not serve our love of God, ourselves, and our neighbors. 

So often when confronted with a crisis, we resort to scarcity thinking—we focus on budgets and bottom lines and do what we can to get through. So we do what we’ve always done because it’s what we’ve always done. We cannot face the anxiety we feel underneath it all, so we lean on what’s familiar, when what we need right now is exactly the opposite.

We need new ideas; we need to break outside the self-imposed barriers, both literal and metaphorical, that are keeping us from seeing the abundance happening all around us. 

In short, we need to queer the church. 

Merriam-Webster defines queer as “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal; eccentric; unconventional.”1 While the word Queer can still make people uncomfortable, for many others, claiming the word has been a way of subverting the narrative by uplifting the value of unconditional ways of approaching the world. If we truly honor the unique image of God in every person, why would we celebrate normalcy and conformity above all else? Queerness pushes us beyond our comfort zones and beyond the self-imposed boundaries that prohibit us from living into the fullness of who we were created to be. 

By “queering the church” I mean embracing the unusual, the unfamiliar, embracing that idea that someone prefaces with, “Oh, I know this may sound a little strange, but what if we try this . . .” Embrace that nudge that comes in the form of a neighbor expressing a need and the community that is built as a response to it. Ask the question everyone is afraid to ask. Show up for the difficult conversations, for the ones that challenge who we are individually and together.

Queering the church means trusting that part of you that knows you have to worship—not because it makes you good, but because it makes you whole.

When we started Every Table, a new worshiping community in Richmond, Virginia, with the focus on healing from the ways white supremacy and capitalism have torn us apart, we knew food would be central to the process. We decided early on to have one Sunday a month set aside to just share a meal. I can remember a brief moment wondering if only sharing a meal was legitimate enough to count as worship, only to remember that the exact thing Jesus was doing when he said “Do this and remember me” was breaking bread.

The question I’ve wrestled with since is whether the rest of the stuff we’ve grown so accustomed to doing in worship is legitimate. Scripture makes very clear that our worship needn’t be fancy or decent and in order; it just needs to be authentic. Yet, how often have we fallen into a pattern of doing things because it’s just what we do, never stopping to ask whether it does anything to encourage us to love God, ourselves, or one another? We may switch out elements of worship, add in a new prayer, or vary up the way we serve communion, but we are still wed to the idea that worship has to be done in just the right way to be valid. 

In our earliest days of Every Table, we didn’t know what form worship would take. We learned to sit in stillness together. We leaned into being vulnerable with one another. We showed up for one another. We learned to show up for ourselves. We learned to be present with silence while waiting for the Spirit to move, to listen for her still, small voice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, once we were settled in our bodies, we found the Spirit’s voice to be anything but small. 

We have learned to trust the abundance of daily bread as we create a system of support for ourselves and one another. And we continue to stand in awe at all the ways the Spirit has shown up and illuminated the path ahead of us. The seeds we’ve planted are taking root in the garden of ALL THAT IS, and we are finding our rhythm as we learn to nurture the new life coming forth. 

Starting a new worshiping community has reminded me daily that the institution is not the church. We are the church, all of us. We’ve learned to trust that we are being provided for and will have exactly what we need as we move forward. Starting a new worshiping community has also shown us that the most Spirit-led moments often happen when we are able to let go of control and claim what we already have among us. The Spirit moves most freely through an unobstructed vessel, when things feel almost effortless (even while getting things done). Yes, it is possible to have a church gathering that feels almost effortless. 

The Holy Spirit seldom moves in a way that is decent or in order. Tremendous, often necessary, change always comes on the heels of chaos. 

So, what happens if we honor the chaos and see it as the Holy Spirit tossing everything into a state of uncertainty so we will be jostled into a new way of seeing ourselves, one another, and God? 

But what does that mean on a practical level? How do we learn to both honor the chaos and find the stillness within?

For starters it means 

Slow down. 

Create spaces for stillness and silence in worship and in your life.

Share meals. Often.

Encourage vulnerability—within yourself and the community.

Look at all you’re doing as a community and ask yourself why you’re doing it. Be willing to toss out anything that doesn’t nurture love of God, self, and neighbor. 

Have imagining sessions together to talk about what kind of world you envision. 

Look at how you use your money, and how much of it is going towards creating the world you imagine versus how much is being used to prop up ministries that have been dead for some time. 

Be spontaneous. Leave room for the Holy Spirit. Trust her wisdom. Trust your own. Make room for breath. Make room for wonder; make room for awe. 

Trust that God is making all things new and that you are being invited to participate. 

May we all have the courage to answer the call.


1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (2012), s.v. “queer.

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