Rev. Jason Butler: Lead Pastor, Transformation City Church
Rev. Jennifer Nordstrom: Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee
Jennifer Nordstrom is the first woman to serve as a “settled senior minister” at First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, a 175-year-old congregation located just north of Downtown. The Rev. Jason Butler, a native of Virginia, watches over an 8-year-old evangelical Wesleyan congregation on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side. Their wide-ranging conversation started with the state of religion at a time when the percentage of people claiming no religion is the largest it has ever been. Moderated by Erik Gunn
JN: Religion is how we cope with the reality of being mortal. We’re so divided from one another that people deeply need a space to make meaning with other human beings in a community that gives value and richness and purpose in their lives. I don’t think that’s going to change.
JB: Yeah, I’d agree with that. I’m not an alarmist, feeling that the church is dying. The Christian church has existed for 2,000 years in every culture in the world. It’s been alive through some very difficult moments, and it’s survived. The church is one of the prominent places in our society that says, “Wait a minute, there’s something more. Something bigger, and we need to surrender to that.”
JN: At our congregation we have a similar experience. We have a lot of people who come into the Unitarian Universalist church for the first time saying, “I didn’t know that there was a church like this.” Unitarian Universalism [was] instrumental in participating in the marriage equality movement. Our congregation has a Black Lives Matter banner hanging on its church and is involved in work for racial justice.
JB: I love that. As followers of Jesus, I think we’ve lost our rudder a bit. We live in the most segregated city in America, and it’s crushing communities.
JN: One of the things that we talk about in Unitarian Universalism is how do you create a kingdom of God on the earth, here, today? What does it mean to live with love right now? On your website, I [saw that] your “What Do We Believe?”“How do we create it here on earth today?” Which is unusual for an evangelical congregation.
JB: Maybe it is. To us, the Kingdom is the central teaching of Jesus. How is God’s world breaking into our world and making all things right? We’re followers, and we’re bringing God’s spirit into the world, which brings equality, justice, hope, love and light. To me, it’s lamentable that you read that on an evangelical website and thought, “Oh, that’s unusual!” I tell our church a lot of times that the church doesn’t ask enough of us. [God says,] “You’re going to have to give up your life for this call. You might have to stand in the gap for somebody. You might have to march in the name of justice. But this is going to cost you something.”
JN: I do think the church needs to ask more from us, but I also think the church needs to offer more. It needs to offer the real opportunity for a changed life. Young people are looking for something that will bring out their best selves and call to their spirit and tell them to live fully their whole lives, their best version of their reality. When the church doesn’t do that, it’s not worth their time. And when it does, it’s worth their commitment, because they will jump in.