Friday, September 17, 2021

Robert A. Hunt: United Methodist Divides as a Site for Interreligious Dialogue

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Robert A. Hunt. Hunt is responding to “Love and the Christian Way of Being in the World,” a piece by Don Manning-Miller, which is itself a response to “Lifestyle Evangelism and Moral Convictions” by David W. Scott, which draws on essays by Hunt and by Thomas Lambrecht.

While continued conversation is welcome, Don Manning-Miller’s recent response to David Scott’s piece misses the point a bit – primarily because he’s driving toward a standard of his own, and one long embedded in the conversation of progressives in this regard.

As I read this post, Manning-Miller begins with what seems unassailable: an assertion that love is the fundamental “ethic” that forms Christian ethics. Yet, despite his mischaracterization of Lambrecht’s work, Manning-Miller knows, I think, that the claim of love as an ethic is problematic when everyone claims it.

So, as he ends his post, he acknowledges that making ethical judgments, in particular judgments about those with whom to fellowship is possible, is indeed necessary. Then he offers what seems to an airtight basis for such judgments: Do the ethics of a group cause harm? And of course, he asserts that the ethics of Good News do indeed cause harm.
The problem is that the definition of harm is no more obvious and shared among United Methodists than the meaning of love. And this gets us to the real problem. Good News and the WCA operate out of a classical ethic based on attaining the teleos for which each creature, including humans, was created. In this view, that which causes harm is that which prevents a person from reaching the end God has designated for their personhood as a human and as an individual.
The progressive ethic, which Manning-Miller expresses, is not teleological, in my view. It is a process ethic in which the name of the process is love and in which there is no particular teleos to be seen. The Reign of God is less an end than a set of values that guide the process. As long as all those engaged in the process of love manifest those values, their behavior is ethical. At best, any discussion of an end or purpose for humankind would be couched in terms of ever-changing forms of human fulfillment. But this fulfillment can’t refer to a true teleos, because it isn’t linked to a genesis.
So, Lambrecht could say in perfect sincerity that the ethics of the Good News/WCA/Traditionalist United Methodists doesn’t cause harm, even if it does cause pain. In fact, he could claim their ethic prevents harm by keeping individuals and the church moving toward their divinely appointed teleos, when all those who either refuse their divinely appointed end or hinder others, that is (to quote scripture) “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)
But for Manning-Miller, this approach certainly causes harm because harm is anything that interferes with the discernment and realization of human fulfillment. Put another way, the concept of harm is embedded in the concept of fulfillment, and a classical and a process understanding of fulfillment are fundamentally different, as are their understandings of the Reign of God.

This fundamental difference between these two perspectives demands the hard kind of dialogue, the kind that is met in real inter-religious dialogue, the dialogue between groups that do not begin at the same place in understanding the nature of reality. Schubert Ogden and Mark Heim recognized this back in the 80’s.
The question remains whether those holding the classical view of reality and those holding a process view of reality can find a way within their distinct worldviews to accommodate some kind of cooperation with the very much other. A fair amount of work has been done on this in the world of inter-religious dialogue, but I see no evidence that either the WCA or UM Progressives have thought of one another clearly in these terms.

Thus, neither group has formulated a sensible and internally coherent approach to dialogue with the other, and as a result, both engage in polemic primarily intended to shore up the support of their own faithful while wondering why they keep talking past rather than to each other.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: What Are Institutions, and What Is Institutional Decline?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The United States is, it seems, in a time of institutional decline. There has been a lot of (digital) ink spilled in the last five years about the turmoil in and disruption of political institutions in the United States. But already twenty years ago, sociologist Robert Putnam was writing about the impact of declining social capital on civic organizations and other communal institutions.

As many commentators (Putnam included) have noted, a decline in institutions in general is bad for religion, at least in its institutional variety. Yet it is particularly problematic for denominational religion. Congregations, which are most Americans’ primary connection to institutional religion, are their own set of institutions, but denominations add an additional set of institutions to those of the congregation. Thus, denominations are doubly threatened by institutional decline: It can impact both the denomination and its constituent congregations.

If, then, the United States is in a period of general decline in multiple forms of institutions, that trend is likely to have significant importance for The United Methodist Church as a denomination.

To get a better grasp on what is at stake for The United Methodist Church, though, it is necessary to get a better handle on the scope of the problem: What exactly are institutions, what does it mean for them to decline, and why do they decline?

Historian Patrick Wyman, drawing on the work of economic historian Avner Greif, has defined an institution in this way ( “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior.” While many might think an institution is the same as an organization, Wyman’s definition gives a broader scope.

Applied to the UMC, this definition highlights the wide variety of institutions at work in the denomination. Certainly, the boards and agencies as central organizations count as institutions. But so do things like the appointive system of ministry, episcopal oversight, the paying of apportionments, the practice of conferencing, and The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). Each of these works in its own way to create regular behaviors among United Methodists, ranging from worship to pastoral ministry to finances to mission.

Institutions exist to serve a particular constituency. In the case of denominational institutions, that constituency is ostensibly the members of The United Methodist Church. Yet the issue of identifying an institution’s constituency is actually more complex. There are subgroups within the nominal constituency (say, for instance, clergy and laity in the UMC), and an institution may impact the behavior of those outside of its nominal constituency as well, which may then give them a vested interest in the performance of that institution. For example, the UMC Social Principles (which are a form of institution) are against gambling, which impacts not only United Methodists but also non-United Methodist who may try to expand gambling in an area, only to encounter opposition from United Methodists.

To say that institutions exist to produce regular behaviors is to say that institutions are intended to influence the actions of individuals and groups on an on-going basis. Regularity implies predictability and persistence. In order to “generate a regularity of behavior,” then, institutions are generally set up to continue indefinitely. Changes in behavior make them less regular, so institutions have a bias against change. Institutions are set up to continue; change is in many ways the exception.

One sees this persistence in most of the institutions of The United Methodist Church. Episcopal oversight is not a limited-time practice in the UMC; it’s a central feature of the denomination, intended to persist over time, even as there have been shifts in what episcopal oversight looks like in the 200+ years of American Methodism. Similarly, while the amounts asked and collected in apportionments vary from year to year (or quadrennium to quadrennium), there is no sense that apportionments are going to be a feature of the church for these four years, and then they will stop, to be replaced by something else. Even when it comes to denominational hymnals, where it has been common practice to issue a new hymnal every generation, the concept of a hymnal as a means to shape worship has carried throughout (most) of Methodist history.

Of course, as acknowledged, change does happen to institutions, in big and small ways, suddenly or gradually, because of internal and external factors. Even though institutions are set up to produce regularity, some amount of change is not incompatible with that purpose. The world in which institutions exist is always changing, so it is impossible for those changes not to influence institutions in some ways. Institutions could only be truly unchanging in some sort of abstract, ahistorical sense. Nor is all institutional change is bad for the institution; some change allows them to adapt to continue to serve their function.

Decline, however, is a particular form of institutional change. Institutional decline is a loss of institutional power to generate regular behavior. Institutions decline when they are no longer able to produce the same sorts of behaviors that they have previously or at least not to the same extent.

Hymnals can provide a good example. For most of history, the official denominational hymnal had significant power to shape what sorts of songs Methodist congregations sang; the liturgies used for communion, marriages, and funerals; and even the order of worship services. Yet the denominational hymnal’s role as an institution that sets norms for United Methodist worship behavior has declined. Due to the advent of contemporary worship, a growing recognition of the significance of ethnic and global worship styles, the availability of worship resources online, and other factors, the hymnal is a less significant force in shaping the worship activities of any given United Methodist congregation on any given Sunday. Depending on your view, this development may be good, bad, or indifferent, but regardless of its moral valuation, it represents a form of institutional decline.

At the extreme of institutional decline is institutional failure or institutional collapse. In these cases, an institution completely ceases to exist. Were the United Methodist Publishing House to close permanently without a designated successor organization, that would be an example of institutional collapse. Institutional collapse is the most dramatic form of decline and gathers the most attention.

Yet, while institutional failure is sudden, it is usually preceded by a long period of institutional decline that is the result of subtle shifts that happen over time due to long-standing pressures. To take the example of the Publishing House again, if it ever does close, it will not be a case of brisk sales and comfortable revenues one day and then closed the next. It will be the result of years of falling sales, shrinking budgets, and reduced staffing and capacity.

As the examples of The United Methodist Hymnal and the state of the United Methodist Publishing House suggest, many, perhaps even most, United Methodist institutions are indeed facing decline. Moreover, this decline goes beyond the numeric decline in the number of US United Methodists. It’s not that UMC institutions are in decline because there are fewer US United Methodists to generate regular behavior among. It’s also the case that UMC institutions are struggling to generate regular behaviors among the US United Methodists that remain in the same ways that they have in the past.

That leaves the question of why. The answers, it turns out, are multi-faceted. I will examine them over the course of a series of subsequent blogs.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Rosemarie Wenner: Changing Christian Landscape – Opportunities and Challenges for Mission and Ecumenism

Today's post is by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. Bishop Wenner is a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, having led the Germany Central Conference, and is currently the Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council.

Ecumenism is my daily work. Currently I serve as Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council to connect the World Methodist Council (WMC) with the World Council of Churches (WCC). In this blog and a following one, I will explore two topics that I am involved in: new expressions of ecumenism and migrants, mission, and ecumenism.

The World Missionary Conference 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland was a landmark in the ecumenical movement. The meeting was chaired by John R. Mott, an American Methodist layman. Although only nineteen out of 1200 attendees were non-Western Christians, John R. Mott flagged a change when he said: “The evangelization of the world… is not chiefly a European and American enterprise, but an Asiatic and African enterprise.”

His words came true. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity indicates that in 2018 66% of Christians lived in the Global South. In its 2021 report, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity states that 47 % of the missionaries are sent from the Global south, versus 12 % in 1970.

The United Methodist Church often uses the motto introduced by the Board on Global Ministries: “Mission from anywhere to anywhere!” This is an exciting concept, and it is a challenging reality. Speaking of my home country Germany, established churches expect that pastors, missionaries and worshippers who come from the global south quickly adopt to a European way of (church) life. Despite paying lip service to decolonialization, we often do not realize how much our mindset and our theology are shaped by white privilege and a sense of superiority embedded in Western cultures.

In October 2019, the World Methodist Council and the Organization of African Instituted Churches met for the first time to start a dialogue in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Listening to the partners from the African Instituted Churches, I learnt a lot about the missionary history with its power imbalance between churches with official links to the colonial powers and the indigenous churches. I realized not only the deep wisdom expressed in African cultures, but also my uneasiness with spiritual practices that are unknown to me. I now better understand how unfamiliar worshippers from abroad might feel themselves when they come to Germany.

Regarding ecumenical encounters, we must admit that the conciliar way of engaging is hard to accept for many churches around the globe, especially for many of the fast-growing Pentecostal, charismatic or evangelical churches.

Carefully negotiated attempts to create places for encounters to foster Christian unity for a broader variety of churches are an important step to give credibility to the Christian witness. Since 2018, I am a part of the Global Christian Forum (GCF) Committee. It is composed of about 25 representatives of the four so called pillars of the GCF (WCC, Roman Catholic Church, World Evangelical Alliance, and Pentecostal World Fellowship), and of several World Communions, global Christian organizations, and mega churches.

At its first Global Gathering in 2007 in Limuru, Kenya, the Global Christian Forum developed the vision “to create an open space wherein representatives from a broad range of Christian churches and interchurch organizations, which confess the triune God and Jesus Christ as perfect in His divinity and humanity, can gather to foster mutual respect, to explore and address together common challenges.”

Sharing of personal faith stories is the hallmark of the Global Christian Forum. It is an eyeopener to many to recognize that no matter how different the theological perspectives and the cultural and economic situation of others might be, they are siblings in Jesus Christ.

The Global Christian Forum affirms time over time that it is not an institution, but an open space with an invitation to all Christians to come to the table. This is its strength and its weakness at the same time. No one is a member, no one has made formal commitments, there are no attempts to create programs that over time might lead to systemic changes. Yet the encounters within the Global Christian Forum help to build trust, to discuss hot bottom issues like proselytism and to create openness to engage with one another in dialogue, service, and advocacy.

Just to mention one example: At the moment, a broad alliance of communions and institutions like WCC, Lutheran World Federation, World Vision International, ACT Alliance, World Evangelical Alliance, Micah global, Mennonite World Conference, WMC, and others work on a campaign towards World Food Day October 16: “Weekend of Prayer and Action against Hunger – Give us this day our daily bread”. Regarding advocacy, these diverse partners even join hands with interreligious organizations.

As I engage with rather unfamiliar fellow Christians, I am challenged to listen carefully, to invest trust, and to make myself vulnerable because I express my theological convictions and my personal faith journey. This is an exercise in community building, which enables me to reach out also to interreligious neighbors and to those who are in “camps” distant from where I am in this polarizing world. Ecumenism is not an aim in itself; Jesus prays that we may all be one “so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21)

Friday, September 10, 2021

Thomas Kemper: Reflecting on September 11th

Today’s post is by Thomas Kemper, translated by David W. Scott. Kemper is former General Secretary of Global Ministries. This piece appears in its original German in the September 12th issue of unterwegs, the magazine of the Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche (UMC in Germany).

Where were you, dear readers, on September 11, 2001? I was in the office of the EmK-Weltmission (mission agency of the UMC in Germany) in our house in Wuppertal. My children, still elementary school aged, rushed to my desk and were the first to tell me that a plane had flown into a skyscraper in New York. I had traveled to New York many times before, including as director of Global Ministries, the United Methodist Church's agency for mission, which was based there.  We had our Weltmission office in the basement of our house, and I quickly walked upstairs, just in time to watch live as the second plane hit the World Trade Centre. This is how it is for almost all of us of a certain age: we remember where we were on September 11, 2001.

Later, I witnessed the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack in Manhattan itself. I then worked there as the leader of the mission work of our Church. I saw how the deep, dark crater in the heart of Manhattan transformed over many, many years into a new, living center dominated by the so-called Freedom Tower. I witnessed how the very authentic memories of the construction fences and of Trinity Church, where the first aid had been organized on September 11, were replaced by an impressive museum. And I saw how the narratives about what September 11th means led to more and more conflicts and cracks in American society.

Certainly, the most moving place of remembrance are the two basins with constantly flowing water, exactly where the foundations of the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood. All the names of the victims are engraved. It is an important sign for the relatives, because no traces of most of the dead could be found under the rubble. So, this memorial is aptly called: Reflecting Absence.

Orlando Rodriguez experienced and suffered through this absence. He belongs to Memorial Church, the UMC congregation in White Plains that we visited during our New York years. He comes from Cuba, had already been a Methodist there, and was now also a very committed parishioner in the USA. His wife Phyllis is Jewish but also visited our church services from time to time. On September 11, Greg, their only son, had not managed to make it out of the World Trade Center, where he had his job. He died there with so many others. His remains were never found. All the more important for Phyllis and Orlando was the public collective memory of the victims year after year.
On September 15, just four days after the terrible death of their son, they wrote an open letter in which they said:

"Our son Greg is among the many missing from the World Trade Center attack. Since we heard the news, we have shared moments of grief, comfort, hope, despair... We see our hurt and anger reflected among everybody we meet. We … sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands, dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son’s death. Not in our son’s name.

“Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world.”

Today, 20 years later, when I read these lines and see the pictures of desperate people from Afghanistan, I am overcome with sorrow and shame that we were not more courageous to stand up for a non-violent response, as Orlando and Phyllis did. Instead, it came to a military response, which not only dramatically worsened relationships between Muslims and Christians but also brought so much more suffering and so much more death to Afghanistan and many other parts of the world. In Afghanistan alone, the US invested $2 trillion in the war. And these days, we are witnessing the final failure of this response.
The letter resulted in the campaign "Not in our son's name." Phyllis met with the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the co-conspirators of September 11th. She publicly campaigned against the death penalty for Moussaoui. The two mothers, Jewish and Muslim, regularly came together and became friends. Not in the name of our sons! Stop abusing religion to spread hatred and violence. As Martin Luther King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can.”

15 years after the terrorist attack, a documentary was released about Phyllis and Orlando and their untiring and intrepid reconciliation work. We showed it at one of our Board meetings in New York. Afterwards, our directors from all over the world were able to ask their questions in a personal conversation with Phyllis and Orlando. Inspired by the two of them, our colleagues went home encouraged to look for non-violent answers to conflicts in the Philippines, Nigeria and many other places.

Once I came very close to terror, in June 2016 in a suicide attack on Istanbul's Ata Türk Airport, where over 40 people died. I can still clearly hear the explosions that tore me out of a short nap in the airport lounge. I see the rushing, fleeing, frightened people around me. I feel my fear as I hid in a kitchen cabinet together with another man with whom I had no common language. We shared the fear because nobody knew how many terrorists were still in the airport. Many hours of anxiety and panic.

After that, still in the lounge and now almost all alone, I wrote on Facebook. I wanted to inform my colleagues that I was safe, because they knew I had flown through Istanbul: "I feel safe now. Now that terror has come so close to me, it brings me even more gratitude for my life and my family. And terror calls for us to work against hatred and terror wherever they show up. It leads us into a deeper solidarity with all those who experience terror and violence not just once, but every day and every night. "

I think of the young, veiled Turkish woman who at some point sat next to me crying bitterly. She told me falteringly in English that she had actually only brought a friend to the airport and then in the chaos had somehow gotten on the wrong side and was now without papers in the international terminal. Now she was very afraid. She could not reach anyone and feared being treated as terrorist. And I think of Sudjit Pereira from Sri Lanka, who still calls me today on every anniversary of the attack, because at the time I lent him my cell phone, with which he could call and reassure his completely distraught family. A common humanity.

Somehow, that Facebook message of mine came to CNN, and I was interviewed that night by the well-known host Anderson Cooper. This resulted in dozens of interviews with broadcasters from all over the world: BBC and Al Jazeera, ABC and some German broadcasters among them. I think a reason for the many requests was that I had already tried on CNN to talk about the meaning of religion. Everywhere I tried to talk about how important it is that we give room for conversation and friendship between the believers of all religions. A network of peace, in which religions are at the forefront.

That must be the lesson and the message of September 11th: religions that contribute to peace and reconciliation and not to more hatred, violence and exclusion. There is no alternative in this global world. Will we, as the Methodist Church, contribute to this goal? Or shall we remain in our own fragmentation and internal strife? We should courageously lean far out of the window of our own comfort, seek dialogue and build bridges.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Recommended Reading: Would Wesley Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

United Methodist Professor of Mission and past UM & Global contributor Rev. Dr. Peter J. Bellini wrote an article for Firebrand magazine last spring entitled "Would Wesley Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?" With the delta variant driving a current surge in coronavirus cases, especially among the unvaccinated, Bellini's piece is well worth revisiting.

Bellini frames the question in terms of the relationship between science and theology. He writes, "I believe, in some quarters of the church, we are facing ... a suspicion of the discoveries of science." Bellini explains that an exclusive reliance on divine healing coupled with a distrust of science causes some to reject medical approaches to healing.

Yet Bellini argues that, while divine healing is a possibility, that does not preclude the use of medical healing as well. He asserts, "As the grace of God in creation causes the sun to shine on the just and unjust, so also does the grace-filled created order of God allow for healing in creation through the internal healing mechanisms of our body, medical advancement, and the gifts of care in the health professions. Healing can occur through supernatural, natural, and even artificial means, all under the providence of God."

To further bolster his argument, Bellini turns to John Wesley's approach to the issue of healing. Bellini notes, "Wesley considered both spiritual and natural factors that cause and treat health problems. Rarely did he take a single approach, but often integrated a variety of treatments that were available, including prayer, medicine, natural remedies, and other therapies."

Bellini adds, "The theological point is that Wesley did not find science and religion strictly incompatible. In fact, he believed their partnership could contribute to the overall well-being of the human person. To this end, Wesley meticulously attended to every dimension of health and wholeness found in the eighteenth century. Wesley believed the sick should first consult a physician. Methodist leaders, when visiting the sick, were trained to support and supplement the care that was already provided for by medical professionals."

These investigations into Wesley's attitudes towards science and scientific medicine lead Bellini to conclude, "Would Wesley get a COVID-19 vaccine if he were around today? I speculate that as Wesley trusted the advancements of science and the medical profession of his day, so would he today as well. I venture that he would receive the vaccine. More so, when I think of his innovative use of the electric machine, I think he might have been one of the first in line!"

If Wesley would have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, then we, the followers of Wesley, should too!

Friday, September 3, 2021

Recommended Reading: Global Missions in Black Methodism

The African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AME Zion) publishes a quarterly magazine about mission, both domestic and foreign, call The Missionary Seer. Last year, the issue for the fourth quarter covered "Global Missions in Black Methodism," providing an overview of the mission work of the AME Zion, African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME). For those interested in Black involvement in mission, comparative Methodist missiology, and the ways in which race and mission intersect, this issue is a helpful resource. In addition to being available through the AME Zion directly, past editions of the magazine are available in some libraries.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

An Affirmation for the Rural Church in Mission

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I was teaching a Course of Study class on mission recently, and several of my students asked how they could lead mission in their small, rural, elderly, and tired churches. I appreciated the sincerity and the trace of anguish in their question. There are a lot of small, rural, elderly, and tired churches in the United States, and they don’t fit with the models we usually hold up for church success.

Their question also resonated with me personally. I’ve spent half of my life living in towns of less than 10,000 people, and the majority of the churches I’ve been associated with have worshipped under 100 people on a Sunday, some of them as low as 12-20 people. I know the sense of repressed grief in good, faithful church people as they look around at Sunday school classrooms that haven’t been used in a decade and as they try to figure out whether they can scrape together just enough volunteers to hold their annual charity fundraiser at least one more time. I know that it’s not just the church; that small towns in general feel left behind by the modern world. I’ve walked throughout downtowns that are just a hair salon, a restaurant, and a lot of empty buildings. I know that the best and brightest frequently leave small towns because there are no good jobs locally. And I’ve sat in pews where 80% of the congregants are over 65 because of this combination of younger generations leaving for work or just not coming to church at all anymore.

Yet, despite all these winds blowing against small, rural, elderly churches, I do believe that God still calls them to participate in God’s mission. I believe there is good they can do in the world. God does not call us to be successful in the world’s eyes; God calls us to be faithful, and there is plenty of room yet for faithfulness, even in small, rural, elderly churches.

So, I want to share here the affirmations of the role of small, rural, elderly churches in God’s mission that I shared with my class. There have been other recent articles and commentaries about small, rural churches, and I hope this post adds to those to offer a sense of encouragement.

My comments draw on the six principles of asset-based ministry set out by Michael Mather in Having Nothing, Possessing Everything. Although Mather’s work was in poor, urban areas, I am convinced that his insights apply more widely.

I want to begin by saying that God doesn’t require tired, elderly congregants to have all the resources or energy of a congregation filled with 30- or 40-somethings. God can work with whatever your congregants are able to provide, and God will supply the rest of what’s needed through other people. Mather’s process of learning to see abundance in his communities wasn’t about getting more out of his congregants. It was about noticing the abundance that was outside of but all around his congregations. Part of engaging in God’s mission as a small, rural, elderly church is about discovering the abundance around the church, not figuring out how to get more out of already tired congregants.

Mather’s first principle is “Our neighbors are God’s people. Act like it.” Acting like our neighbors are God’s people is both sometimes easier and sometimes harder in small communities where people know each other. People have an easier time seeing people as individuals and not stereotypes, but at the same time, people can get locked into seeing each other in one way, and it may be hard to escape previous bad impressions. Part of engaging in mission, then, is being willing to see those around the congregation in new ways, even if congregants have known them their whole lives.

As part of this principle, I think it’s important to reframe mission from “the well-to-do helping the needy” to “neighbors helping neighbors,” a practice with long roots in many rural areas. While God does call us to serve others, we should not see other people as just “needy.” We need to see other people as full people, full children of God, with assets and abilities as well as needs. That’s essential to treating people with dignity.

Mather’s second principle is “Everything begins with and builds on the gifts of our neighbors.” Even if there are fewer of them, rural churches still have neighbors, and those neighbors still have gifts that can be used to serve others. Part of living out this principle is collaborating ecumenically or with other community organizations rather than a small, elderly church trying to run all mission endeavors themselves.

It is also about drawing on the sorts of personal, informal networks that often characterize rural areas. If your congregation includes people that have connections to others in the community, draw on those connections! That could be a helping professional like a teacher, police officer, or social worker, but it could just as well be a member of the classic car enthusiast club or quilting group, or it could be the person who works at the local gas station and knows everyone in town because they come in to buy gas.

Mather’s third principle is “Parents and guardians are the first and best teachers. Respect this.” I think this principle is equally valid in cities, suburbs, small towns, and the countryside.

Mather’s fourth principle is “We invest first and foremost in the good the people of the neighborhood seek.” I think rural communities have their own sense of what they want for their communities (or individuals within those communities may have several different senses of this), and I still think it’s worth listening to what those are rather than deciding that we know what the community needs. Also, we’re very used to thinking about need in economic terms. We assume those “in need” are those with less economic resources. And rural poverty can be particularly grinding and invisible. But all of us are in need in some way. Maybe the work God is calling your church to is not about money. Maybe it’s about loneliness, or maybe it’s about support for those going through cancer and their families, or maybe it’s grief support, or maybe it’s help finding childcare. Needs are everywhere, just as gifts are.

Mather’s fifth principle is “Money must flow to the neighborhood.” In an age where it’s almost always cheaper to drive 30 miles to get something at Walmart or to order it online, I think making sure that money flows back to local communities is essential in rural areas. Support your local small businesses whenever possible in whatever you do in mission, even if it costs a bit more.

And finally, Mather’s sixth principle is “Practice neighbor love.” I think love is just as important in rural areas as anywhere else. And I don’t think love requires a formal program that runs in perpetuity. Churches often get hung up on trying to establish on-going programs that they run themselves, which can be especially challenging for a small, rural, elderly congregation. But loving people, in whatever way presents itself at that moment? That’s something that all people everywhere can do. And when we change or those we’re loving change, then the ways in which we love them can change too.

Following these principles doesn’t guarantee that your small, rural, aging congregation will suddenly be filled with new, young families. But that’s not the point. Your church may still close in ten years. But if you knew that was going to be true, if you knew that your church would close no matter what, what would you want to do with those last ten years? What sort of legacy would you like to leave?

The good news is this: Small, rural, elderly churches can be faithful in responding to God’s call, and when they do, they produce fruit and establish a faithful legacy, no matter what happens in the future. God is at work, including in rural areas. May our churches see God’s mission proceeding and join in.