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.
Some weeks ago,
I raised the question of what features of the world and its various
contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in
the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to
areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty
relief, healthcare, etc.
This week, I suggest another new area of mission work that would be a revival of an older area of mission work: spaces for and practices of honesty and vulnerability.
Once upon a time, two practices were common in the predecessors of The United Methodist Church: public confession and public testimony. In the first, a person admitted to things they had done wrong and were trying to turn away from. In the second, they shared a story of what God had done for them, usually in terms of helping them turn from sin or make it through some significant difficulty.
These two practices have some things in common: They are a means by which people can honestly shared about their mistakes and the difficult parts of their life experiences, they are a means by which people can provide a narrative structure to make sense of their life experiences, and they are a means by which can connect those narratives of their life experiences to the larger narratives of the gospel.
Part of the genius of the Methodist theology of sanctification and the Methodist structure of class meetings was that they provided a reason and a context to continue to generate these types of narratives about one's life on an on-going basis, rather than confining such narratives solely to the moment of conversion as in some other traditions.
Despite the one-time importance of these two practices of confession and testimony to evangelistic mission and on-going discipleship, they have largely dropped out of use, at least in the United States.
Yet it seems to me that there is still a need, often unmet, in American society for exactly the sorts of spiritual and psychological benefits provided by these practices of confession and testimony. They provide a space for honesty and vulnerability about the difficult aspects of life and they way in which we do things we regret, or at least the conflicts among our motivations. Especially in an age in which social media demands public performances of perfection, there is a deep need to honesty confront one's imperfections and the imperfection's of one's life.
You can see this need being expressed in a variety of ways. It's in anonymous sharing phenomena like PostSecret. It's in the popularity of the work of Brene Brown, with its focus on the power of vulnerability. It's in the popularity of movies like Bad Moms and Trainwreck and "hot mess" t-shirts and other cultural products that depict and embrace imperfection. In the Christian world, it's part of what fuels the popularity of (ex-)evangelical female writers and bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, Glennon Melton Doyle, and Jamie Wright.
Opportunities for and models of confession and testimony are, however, largely lacking in the mainline churches, including the UMC, with their commitment to middle-class respectability. (ELCA minister Nadia Bolz-Weber is perhaps the main exception.) They're also mostly lacking for men, where a culture of toxic masculinity prohibits the sort of emotional work necessary for confession and testimony and forbids men from showing weakness in any way.
So, if The United Methodist Church wanted to engage in mission that addressed the spiritual and psychological needs of both its members and others in American culture, it would give serious consideration to how it could open up spaces and practices of confession and testimony. These probably will be different from how those practices played out in the past, but they're likely to be just as life-giving, both for those embracing them and for those who would no longer have to suffer the destructive attempts to deal with such sublimated emotions in other ways.