Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology 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.
When I taught at Ripon College, I had a colleague in the biology department who would frequently challenge the faculty during our discussions with the following question: "What's the null hypothesis here?"
In statistics, the null hypothesis is an assumed hypothesis set up so that researchers can try to prove it false as part of proving that some other hypothesis is much more likely to be true. Usually, the null hypothesis assumes no correlation between phenomena under study, no impact from experimental interventions, no change under test conditions, or the like.
General Conference 2019 has been presented as an opportunity for delegates to select between three plans: the One Church Plan, the Traditionalist Plan, and the Connectional Conference Plan.
If we were being scientific in our analysis of GC2019, we might call the assumption that the One Church Plan will pass Hypothesis 1, the assumption that the Traditional Plan will pass Hypothesis 2, and the assumption that the Connectional Conference Plan will pass Hypothesis 3. Much has been written about the relatively likelihoods of Hypothesis 1 and Hypothesis 2 being true.
Yet any analysis that is focused solely on these three plans as possible outcomes overlooks the Null Hypothesis in this situation. The Null Hypothesis, at least as I see it, is that no plan will pass GC 2019. No action by GC2019 is the baseline scenario against which the likelihood of other scenarios must be measured.
To prove that any of Hypotheses 1-3 are true, the Null Hypothesis must first be proven false. In other words, to show that GC2019 will adopt a plan, it must first be shown that it will not adopt no plan.
The difference is perhaps subtle, but it changes the analysis if the question is not, "Which plan is more likely to be passed: the One Church Plan or the Traditional Plan?" but instead, "Is it likely that GC 2019 will pass a plan? If so, which plan is most likely to be passed?"
Of course, others have acknowledged that it is a possibility GC2019 could do nothing. Yet most of the conversations I see (on both ends of the spectrum and in the middle) are, "What will you/I/we do if X plan passes?" I have seen a lot less sustained conversation about, "What will you/I/we do if no plan passes?"
Yet it may be worth having those conversations. The Null Hypothesis may well prove to be false, but it may also prove to hold true.
Moreover, the Null Hypothesis does not mean no change in the church. It means no plan, but change will come, with a plan or without one. What could that change look like and how might various actors respond?
Unless one is willing to contemplate the possibility of the Null Hypothesis, one will be unprepared for and surprised by the changes that will come if it is true.