Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hendrik Pieterse: United Methodist Identity In a Changing U.S. Context: Some Musings

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Regular contributor David Field’s recent reflection on Methodist identity in a rapidly secularizing Europe is a thoughtful reminder that discerning ecclesial identity and mission is always a contextual affair. This is not a new insight, of course. Indeed, “contextualization,” “contextual theology,” and related themes have been front and center in missiological debates and wider theological conversations for the better part of sixty years now. Field’s reflection on European United Methodism is a model of just such contextual theological work.

It is safe to say, I think, that U.S. United Methodists have been less prepared, and perhaps less concerned, to mine this missiological discussion for their own context. The reasons are varied and complex, no doubt. One of these, I suspect, is that U.S. United Methodists in large measure haven’t felt the need to, given decades of Christian, and at times Methodist, dominance in U.S. religious culture. Not surprisingly, now we find ourselves ill prepared to make theological sense of a North American religious and cultural context that is changing out of proportion—and doing so at a dizzying pace and on a massive scale.

Current denominational responses to this shifting landscape, I fear, will be of little help in the long run. Preoccupation with rightsizing, downsizing, dashboards, and membership metrics, tethered as these are to an incessant rhetoric of denominational decline, are seed sown on “rocky ground” (Mt. 13:5). They may show results in places in the short term, but they will do little to sustain denominational fortitude in the long haul. For one thing, they remain beholden (albeit largely viscerally) to the now long-defunct narrative of Christian (if not Protestant) ascendancy. More important, and perhaps as a consequence, they fail to be sufficiently contextual. That is, they neglect to pay attention what is actually going on—to those demographic, cultural, religious, and other forces that are reconfiguring the current U.S. societal landscape as we speak. The fact is we are confronted with the reality of social change that in kind, intensity, scope, depth, and sheer relentlessness is unprecedented. Fundamental to this dynamic—in part both its result and catalyst—is rapid religious change, reshaping both the Christian and the larger religious make-up of the country.

A key feature of this religious change is growing religious diversity. To be sure, religious diversity—at least in its Christian variety—is as old as the founding of the Republic. What is different about today’s religious diversity is precisely its potential to radically recast this longstanding Christian-dominated social imagination. I say “potential,” because there is nothing given about this prospect. Indeed, in his extensive surveys of American religious attitudes, Robert Wuthnow notes a “significant tension in American culture between a long-standing and still deeply held view among sizable numbers of Americans that America is a Christian nation, on the one hand, and norms of civic liberty that recognize the reality and rights of non-Christian groups, on the other.”[1] Closely intertwined with this interreligious struggle in the American social psyche, I suggest, are two additional shifts: (1) A rapidly diversifying Christian landscape: For example, the Protestant share of the Christian pie continues to decline (it dipped below 50 percent for the first time ever in 2012) and immigrant Christians are slowly diversifying Christianity’s racial, ethnic, and theological makeup. (2) A loosening of religious loyalties: Here an example is the so-called “nones.” Whether this segment of the adult population represents the growing edge of religious secularization in the United States is an open question. What is clear is this mostly young “spiritual but not religious” cohort consider religious affiliation not so much objectionable as simply irrelevant.[2]

How do United Methodists construct a “clear, convincing, and effective” witness (to quote the Book of Discipline, ¶105) in this rapidly shifting context? In place of an answer, let me offer a few musings. For starters, we would be wise to resist the impulse, as we are wont to do, to view these shifts as merely demographic, sociological, and cultural processes, whose primary use is to serve as data sources for more effective strategic planning, institutional innovation, and entrepreneurial leadership. (United Methodists have shown ourselves particularly adept at such reductionism.) Instead, we should take a leaf from contextual theology and learn (again) how to read context theologically. Then our primary question becomes, “Where, how, and to what ends is God at work in these processes of cultural and religious change?” Asking this question opens the way to theological meanings within what otherwise might appear as merely sociological or historical events. And so we might wonder: What if diversity is first of all the abode of divine mission and not impetus for religious and ecclesial contest? Might change and diversity thus interpreted not stem our current self-preoccupation in favor of curiosity about a divine wind that blows where it wills for purposes yet to be discerned (John 3:8)? And might boundary not in this way become gift instead of threat, threshold instead of barrier, horizon instead of perimeter?

I realize that for some readers this line of thinking will amount to so much spinning of intellectual wheels at a time when increasingly perplexing circumstances call for decisive action. And yet, with my colleague David Field, I am persuaded that cultivating the virtues and skills—and, above all, the patience—for discerning the theological meaning of context is an indispensable discipline for ensuring a United Methodist witness that will not only endure but thrive in these changing times.

[1] Robert Wuthnow, “Religious Diversity in a ‘Christian Nation,’” in Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism, ed. Thomas Banchoff (Oxford, 2007), 152-68.
[2] See, for example, the Pew study “Nones” on the Rise: One-In-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation (2012); online at

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