Monday, August 30, 2021
United Methodist Traditionalists have been a fairly successful bunch over the past several decades. They have achieved many of their legislative goals in the church, have undercut the power of bishops and bureaucrats that they deem too liberal, and have created a plethora of paradenominational organizations with extensive membership.
Now, Traditionalists are facing a new challenge: launching a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church (GMC), to be carved out of the present United Methodist Church. But in their quest to launch the GMC, Traditionalists are coming up against new challenges.
At the heart of the matter is this tension: Traditionalists want to take as much of the existing UMC as possible into the GMC, but current UMC law makes it difficult for groups to leave en masse to another denomination. Thus, Traditionalists have chosen to wait in hopes of the Protocol being passed, but that waiting risks divisions within the Traditionalist ranks.
At the heart of restrictions against departure from the UMC is the trust clause, the piece of church law that stipulates that all property held by local congregations actually belongs to the denomination as a whole. There are provisions for both congregations and annual conferences (especially outside the US) to leave, but they are difficult, time-consuming, and costly.
Moreover, none of these provisions provide for the possibility of different parts of the church to leave together. If a congregation here, a congregation there, and an annual conference over there all depart piecemeal, there is the challenge of stitching them back together, a process that requires legal, financial, and administrative work.
This piecemeal route would also require all those components leaving separately to be willing to be sewn together into something new, and that is not a given. After decades of hearing disparaging remarks about denominational structures, many Traditionalists have become skeptical about the value of denominations in general, even denominations run by Traditionalists. Especially for congregations, becoming independent and non-denominational may seem like an attractive option.
Thus, Traditionalists are beginning to advance arguments about why they do need a denomination. Such arguments should be seen as a response to questions raised within Traditionalist ranks: What is the value of waiting to join a new denomination vs. leaving now and becoming independent?
The arguments for a denomination become more difficult, too, as more details emerge about the denomination being formed. While some might agree to the idea of joining a new Traditionalist denomination in general, the more that denomination takes on concrete shape, the more likely it is that some will find specific things to dislike about that denomination in particular. Already, there are some public critiques of the specifics of the GMC, and even if these critiques are not persuasive (and the ones in the link are not likely to be persuasive to Traditionalists), there is always the chance that other critiques could be.
The Protocol would provide a clearer and easier path for launching the Global Methodist Church than congregations and annual conferences leaving individually. If passed by General Conference, it would allow for annual conferences, central conferences, and churches to all leave together for a common denominational destination in a way that minimizes costs and makes the process relatively simple and straightforward for those departing.
Thus, passage of the Protocol has become a central goal of Traditionalists because it is the simplest, easiest, and cheapest way to launch the GMC. The GMC's website makes it clear that Traditionalists are willing to wait to launch the GMC while there is still a possibility that the Protocol might pass, even if it means running the risk that some Traditionalist congregations will choose to leave the UMC in the meantime and become non-denominational.
US Progressives often gripe about the $25 million payout to Traditionalists in the Protocol. But to focus on the $25 million is to miss the real value of the Protocol to Traditionalists: It provides a means for a large group of Traditionalists to leave, without bumping up against the trust clause, in a way that is relatively cheap, easy, and minimally disruptive for congregations, and ensures that all those departing will end up in the same denominational home.
The catch with the Protocol as a route to launching the GMC is that it requires General Conference action, which cannot happen until General Conference meets again. Right now, that is set to happen a year from now, but there is no guarantee that it won't be postponed again because of a future lambda variant or other COVID complications. Still, the centrality of the Protocol to Traditionalist plans to launch the GMC is why Traditionalists are arguing that General Conference "must" meet in 2022.
Even if General Conference does meet in 2022, and even if it does pass the Protocol (also not a given), Traditionalists are left with the challenge of holding their coalition together in the meantime. Traditionalist leaders are already receiving questions about what churches and pastors should do while waiting to see if the Protocol passes. The longer that wait extends, the more incentive there will be for individual churches and pastors to seek their own exit path from a UMC they see as corrupt and irrelevant, even if that exit path does not lead them to the GMC.
Thus, especially if there is another delay or likely delay to General Conference, Traditionalists are likely to abandon their Protocol-centered strategy and instead decide to search for quicker forms of exit. Of course, these other forms of exit will likely run into the problems of piecemeal approaches, as outlined above.
United Methodist Traditionalists are not the first group in history to discover that the task of building something new is more difficult than the task of tearing down the old. But the series of challenges involved in Traditionalists' current Protocol-focused strategy to launch their new denomination are highlighting tensions within Traditionalist ranks.
Despite these challenges, Traditionalists will leave the UMC. That is not uncertain. The questions are more about how many, how that will happen, and how many of those leaving will end up part of a new Global Methodist Church denomination.
At this point, it is impossible to know the answers to these questions. Too much--about the COVID pandemic, about General Conference politics, about the decisions of Traditionalist leaders and individual Traditionalist pastors and congregations--remains up in the air. But the Traditionalist leaders' balancing act of trying to hold their constituency together to wait for the Protocol will be one of the major United Methodist story lines to follow over the next year.
Friday, August 27, 2021
The Evangelish-methodistische Kirche im Deutschland (UMC in Germany) has recently published two profiles of Methodist mission leaders. Both profiles (written in German) are well worth reading for understanding the character of Methodist mission engagement in the 20th century and early 21st century.
The EmK website published a nice biography of Philip Potter on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death. Potter, who was born in Dominica, went on to serve as the Secretary of the British Methodist missionary society, the Director of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and ultimately the General Secretary of the WCC. As Klaus Ulrich Ruof writes in the profile, "Potter shaped the ecumenical movement like no other in the second half of the last century."
Emk-Weltmission (the German Methodist mission agency) published an obituary of former long-time EmK-Weltmission Treasurer Walter Volz. The obituary, written by Thomas Kemper, gives a sense of how one person can live out the principles of mission through faithful service. As Kemper writes, "Mission is friendship. Mission is relationship. Mission is sharing life. Walter Volz lived it."
Wednesday, August 25, 2021
We are now just over a year from the dates currently set for the next General Conference: August 29 - September 6, 2022. At this point, it is too early to tell whether such a meeting will actually be possible, given the challenges of organizing a large international event amid an on-going pandemic with unequal global access to vaccines. For the sake of this post, I will assume it will be.
In some ways, the COVID pandemic has felt like a break from denominational politics. There still have been some major developments--consecutive postponements of General Conference, the abortive May 8 Special General Conference, the announcement of the Global Methodist Church, continued promotion of the Christmas Covenant, etc.--and this blog has commented on those as much as anyone.
Still, without many large meetings of United Methodists from around the United States or around the world happening, a lot of the public politicking that characterized the several years before the pandemic has been on hold. Developments have still happened, but they have come more from closed networks not visible to the public. And many pastors and annual conference staff have had their attention consumed by local programmatic and financial concerns associated with the pandemic.
Yet, the ways in which the pandemic has distracted from and diminished denominational politics should not lead one to think that GC2022 will be any less conflict-ridden, if it happens. On the contrary, the coronavirus pandemic will likely increase the amount of conflict at GC2022.
To understand why, think of the current debates over school mask policies in the United States. Conservatives government leaders have forbidden schools in some parts of the country from instituting mask requirements, to the ire of local school leaders and parents concerned for the well-being of their children. Where schools have been able to require masks, there has been significant push back, at times even to the point of violence. COVID precautions have become a culture war issue.
This is apparent in local church ministry and at the annual conference level. Much of what has distracted clergy and annual conference leaders from denominational politics over the past year and a half has been trying to figure out how and when to require and/or provide guidance on COVID precautions. This has not just been a scientific issue of trying to understand medical best practices; it has been a social issue of negotiating vastly divergent views of the pandemic among congregants. Questions about whether churches should meet in person, wear masks, sing, be required to be vaccinated, shake hands, and more have generated heated debate in many congregations.
If such questions have divided congregations with pre-existing relationships, some shared characteristics, and immediate common interests, how much more will similar questions roil preparations for General Conference? How will debates about whether General Conference delegates must be vaccinated go? What will the guidance about masks at General Conference be, and how will participants react when some attendees do not follow, or even flout, that guidance? How will General Conference be set up to promote social distancing? What will worship look like when some will want to sing lustily and with good courage and others will feel threatened by the same?
Some of these questions will have to be settled before General Conference starts. But that is likely to leave people of varying opinions upset, defensive, and therefore aggressive before the meeting ever begins. It will not lead to people, as the bishops urged before GC2019, showing up with "a heart of peace." Moreover, whatever fights over setting COVID precautions happen before the meeting will be immediately compounded by whether or not people follow those precautions.
Beyond COVID, there's the issue of race, which has taken on increased salience within the United States and within the UMC during the pandemic. Both US Progressives and US Traditionalists are likely to try to use this issue against each other, with US Progressives accusing US Traditionalists of disregarding people of color in the United States on domestic racial issues, and US Traditionalists accusing US Progressives of disregarding people of color around the world on the issue of sexuality.
General Conference has long been a forum in which the tensions of US culture wars have exploded in increasingly dramatic ways. Historically, most (but not all) of those tensions have been focused on issues surrounding the status of LGBTQ persons in the denomination. Although delegate elections in 2019 may have shifted the balance of delegates identifying with different sides of the US culture wars, people on both sides will still be present.
The pandemic has also done nothing to reduce the tensions around the status of LGBTQ persons, which both sides have largely accepted as irreconcilable at this point. Instead, what the pandemic has done is provide a series of new cultural flashpoints to fuel conflict at General Conference. The pandemic has made United Methodists wait for the next General Conference. But the conflicts at that meeting will be only more spectacular because of it.
Monday, August 23, 2021
On Tuesday, August 24th at 8pm EDT, the Asian American Language Ministry Plan of Global Ministries, the New Federation of Asian American United Methodists, and Church and Society will jointly host the next “Raise Up Your Voice Against Racism” webinar on “Racism and the Criminal Justice System.” Rev. John Oda of the Asian American Language Ministry Plan describes the import of these webinars in a piece entitled "Hate is the other pandemic." Rev. Oda also wrote a piece for UM & Global earlier this year on a related topic: "Why Asian American Should Speak Out about Racism." For more information about the webinar, contact Oda at joda (at) umcmission.org.
On Thursday, August 26th at 7pm EDT, Church and Society will host a webinar entitled "Environmental Justice Day: A Just and Equitable Vision for Creation Care." A four-member panel will "equip attendees to deepen their perspective on Environmental Justice that centers equity and justice and raises awareness on the importance of honoring the past, present, and future of the Environmental Justice movement." To register for the webinar, visit this link.
Friday, August 20, 2021
United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) put out new COVID guidelines earlier this week in response to the rising number of COVID cases resulting from the Delta variant. The new guidelines cover those traveling in mission and those hosting mission travelers; the fully vaccinated, the partly vaccinated, and the unvaccinated; and domestic and international mission journeys. The guidelines are based on CDC recommendations but helpfully condense that guidelines for mission team members. All churches considering short-term mission experiences this fall are recommended to consult these guidelines, whether or not the experiences are official UMVIM journeys.
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
Many US Christians grew up singing the Sunday School song "We Are the Church" by Richard Avery, with its lyrics asserting, "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple." Yet despite how often these words have been intoned by US Christians, they have often acted as if the church were a building.
For a long time, constructing or buying a structure has been the sign that a congregation has arrived. This understanding was actively exported around the world, too, by Western missionaries. A real church has a building, or so the reigning assumption has been.
Much of a congregation's budget often goes towards maintaining and improving that building. The average mainline Protestant congregation in the United States is well over 100 years old. That means in many cases buildings that are similarly old and thus in need of frequent and frequently costly repairs. Yet it also means generations of emotional attachments to the building, which have driven congregations to keep investing in their buildings, despite the costs.
When the pandemic hit, most churches had to worship outside of their buildings. Many US Christians were eagerly awaiting the day that they could reconvene in their buildings and once again experience the sense of God in worshiping together in that place. The togetherness is certainly important, but the place is quite important for many too.
Yet for a small but noticeable group, the pandemic has had the opposite effect: Instead of eagerly awaiting the day when the congregation could return to its building, experiencing church apart from the building got those congregations to reflect on whether the time and money it costs to maintain a building are really worth it. Again, I'm not the first person to point this out. Mya Jaradat wrote an excellent piece for the Deseret News about this trend, focused on a profile of a recent United Methodist church start in Houston.
Congregations in older, dilapidated structures are probably more likely to entertain such questions. Smaller congregations, who have experienced greater financial impacts from the pandemic, may also be more likely to ditch their buildings, especially since it is easier to accommodate a smaller number of people in a variety of alternative settings, from living rooms to cafes to other community locations. And newer congregations, with less history and emotional attachment to their buildings, may also be more willing to ask whether a building is really worth it.
The question, then, is not just whether congregations will close and leave behind their buildings because of the effects of the pandemic, but whether congregations will decide to continue to exist but without their buildings, having been pushed in that direction by the pandemic.
This possibility that congregations might decide to continue to exist but without a building is both a revolutionary approach to being church in the United States and a missional opportunity. House churches have characterized Christianity is places from the early Mediterranean to contemporary China, but the model has not been extensively used in the United States. The pandemic may make the house church model more prominent, if congregations decide to ditch their buildings in favor of more distributed or virtual places to connect.
Another pre-pandemic model that might be useful for churches considering jettisoning their buildings is the Fresh Expressions movement. Fresh Expressions focuses on creating instances of church that are adapted to a specific local community. Quite often, these expressions of church do not meet in traditional church buildings, but rather cafes, parks, restaurants, and even tattoo parlors.
If a congregation decides to dispose of its building, that creates some different missional opportunities than if a the church closes and leaves the building to the denomination. Rick Reinhard argued in a commentary for UMNS that closing congregations could leave the denomination with a "real estate crisis." Pre-pandemic, The Atlantic called attention to this problem as well.
Yet local congregations have greater incentive to sell or repurpose their properties than annual conferences or other regional bodies who are trying to manage a portfolio of closed church properties and are less familiar with the specifics of any individual property.
This has led to some examples of churches finding creative solutions to use their buildings to forward mission instead of trying to keep a too-large physical plant going for a small number of people. Tom Sine and Dwight J. Friesen share some examples. Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Ann A. Michel share another example. Even if the result of selling a church is just freeing up more money for mission and ministry, the results can be significant, as Weems and Michel mention.
Given the investment that most US congregations have in their buildings, it will likely be only a small number who decide to go building-less as a result of the pandemic. But, as in other aspects of life, this small number pushed in that direction by the pandemic will amplify nascent trends from before the pandemic. Even if church-in-a-building remains the dominant model, as it almost certainly will, the resulting ecclesiological and missiological reflections from building-less churches are likely to be helpful to the church's self understanding.
Monday, August 16, 2021
As a different approach to recommended readings, I (David) would like to put two pieces into dialogue with each other: a recent blog post by Tom Lambrecht entitled "Lifestyle Evangelism" and a somewhat older blog post by Robert A. Hunt entitled "Moral Convictions - the Wrong Start in Human Relations."
Lambrecht's piece draws on the book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider to argue that the growth of the early church "was not primarily due to missions or evangelism" but was instead due to early Christians' "distinctive, lived-out faith that becomes attractive over time to people unfulfilled by the world’s pleasures and possessions." In illustrating what that practice of faith looked like, Lambrecht cites a variety of what might be termed moral practices by both the early church and early Methodism: business integrity, sexual purity, respect for life, inclusion of all peoples, care for the poor, etc. Lambrecht concludes:
"Evangelism programs and missional strategies are good and helpful. But people will not buy what we are selling unless they see that it works in making our lives different and more fulfilling than theirs. Otherwise, why make the sacrifices that being a Christian entails?"
Lambrecht's article helpfully questions the value of top-down initiatives to grow the church, and his emphasis on living out one's faith in practical ways that impact one's treatment of others represents an important and central affirmation of Methodist theology.
As I read Lambrecht's piece, though, I thought about the challenges that cultural diversity and cultural polarization represent to the type of lifestyle evangelism Lambrecht commends. While morality is not the entirety of lifestyle evangelism, it is centrally connected. For Christians' lifestyle to be attractive involves, on some level, non-Christians being able to see the attractiveness of the moral system lived out by Christians or at least the outcomes thereof, as Lambrecht's examples suggest.
Yet, in our culture today, understandings of morality are deeply polarized, at least on some issues. While people from all background generally agree that stealing and murder are bad, some of our country's most deeply polarizing topics have been framed not just as political or social issues, but as moral issues. Thus, the treatment of LGBTQ+ persons, responses to racism, views of the police, climate change, treatment of national symbols, and more are debated in moral language. Each side sees its approach to these issues as moral and the other side's approach as immoral.
This raises a question for the practice of lifestyle evangelism: Can it only be effective among those within the same politico-cultural sphere? Can Christians in the 21st century United States practice lifestyle evangelism in a way that is genuine attractive to those on the other side of the country's polarizing issues? And if not, if morality is so tied to politico-cultural identity, will non-Christians attribute Christians' practice of morality to their faith or to their political views? If their morality is seen as a function of their political views, then a lifestyle lived in accordance with that system of morality will not be seen as a testament to Christianity.
Here is where Robert Hunt's piece is useful. Hunt raises a strong caution about morality as a starting point for Christians' engagement with the world. He argues that "[t]he traditional church has imbued us with a set of moral convictions, and indeed a moral order, that only grudgingly makes way for genuine diversity and inclusion" and because of that "a diversity of cultures and customs is all too quickly mapped onto the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous." Thus, if we as the church are too focused on morality, then we run the risk of shunning rather than attracting those who disagree with us on moral issues (whichever side we are on), and some must inevitably disagree with us in contemporary American society.
For Hunt, the solution is to focus on Jesus as "the one who leads us into the questioning of our own moral convictions" and the one who presents a new law of love. We must practice love for our neighbor "not merely when, but particularly because he or she is puncturing our posture of moral confidence." This is especially important in "a time of deep divisions, exclusion, and hatred."
This juxtaposition of Lambrecht's and Hunt's articles is not meant as a refutation of Lambrecht's piece. I am sure that Lambrecht would affirm that an evangelistic lifestyle is one that involves love of one's neighbor, and love of neighbor is present in the examples Lambrecht gives of what such a lifestyle looks like.
My intention is, instead, to encourage us as we are reflecting on Lambrecht's piece to think of those attractive aspects of the Christian as stemming from love, not from a system of morality. It is love that has the ability to reach across divisions, polarization, and boundaries, because love respects the integrity of the other. Love incarnated in our actions is what makes Christianity both credible and attractive.
Friday, August 13, 2021
In recognition of their production of U-Safe Hand Sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic, African University has been awarded the prestigious Jairos Jiri Humanitarian Award by the government of Zimbabwe, as reported in this press release. The U-Safe Hand Sanitizer is the only locally-produced hand sanitizer in Zimbabwe. Africa University, a United Methodist insitution, began production of the sanitizer as a way of aiding the coronavirus response in their setting.
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
Last week, I suggested that after the pandemic, people are done enduring wrongs. While that piece was primarily focused on movements in broader society, I connected this thesis to the church too. I wrote that, while there is an opportunity here to join in work toward the kingdom of God, "[f]or some, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to the church." I want to explore that suggestion further in this week's post and a following one next week.
This week, I'd like to explore what it means that for some pastors, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to their roles in and experience of church, and thus, after the pandemic, an increased number of pastors are done enduring ministry.
First, I must say out that I am far from the first to point this trend out. There has been a series of articles over the past year in both religious and secular press describing the exodus of pastors, including these sources: The Alabama Baptist, Kentucky Today, Religion News Service (also reprinted in The Christian Century and USA Today), ChurchLeaders.com, Lifeway Research, Business Insider, and Christianity Today. More citations could be added too.
It seems like this exodus of ministers is being driven by fall-out from a combination of the top headlines of last year: the COVID-19 epidemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the extremely contentious election cycle. All of these stories have made pastoral work harder, and misinformation related to the first and third of these stories has further added to pastors' challenges. The cumulative effects have been stressful and have left pastors asking questions about their place in the church.
The pandemic involved significant stress for pastors in figuring out what to do in the face of church shut-downs and how to do it, how to made decisions about remaining closed or reopening, and how to navigate the organizational dynamics of congregants' opinions on questions about reopening and COVID-19 precautions. Questions about how to meaningfully address racial conflict in the United States, especially when such issues are polarizing to (white) congregations, added to pastors' stress. Then trying to promote Christian love in a political climate of extreme division made the job more complicated, especially for pastors serving politically mixed churches.
In each of these instances, these issues presented large, complex challenges that required significant adaptation and presented no easy solution. In many instances, pastors felt alone in trying to navigate these challenges. Thus, the substantial stress of responding to such issues has been enough to leave some pastors wanting a break.
But these issues also raised questions for many pastors about their relationship to their congregants and denominational leaders. Pastors risking COVID infection for themselves and, sometimes, their families to do ministry wondered whether congregants or denominational leaders cared whether they got sick. Pastors asked whether their white congregants were more attached to white supremacy than they were to Jesus' gospel of love for people of all races and nations. Pastors watching their congregants write vicious or false things on Facebook, either about the election or the pandemic, questioned how that fit with the Christian message of truth and love. Pastors wondered whether denominational leaders would support them in conflicts with their congregations over any of these issues and sometimes felt that those leaders did not.
These questions also undercut pastors' willingness to endure the challenges of ministry, challenges which were usually significant pre-pandemic, but which have only grown in the last year and a half, as described above. Why endure the stress if those for whom you worked didn't care and your work wasn't going to change people's actions or hearts anyway?
So, an increased number of pastors have decided that they are done. They have left or are leaving ministry.
This trend seems to be impacting pastors across the theological spectrum, in different denominations and polity systems, and in different geographic areas (as indicated in the breadth of news sources quoted above). Varying age ranges are also involved, though anecdotal evidence collected by my wife suggests that the trend is especially pronounced among pastors in their 30s and 40s and among women. While many factors are likely at work, this group includes parents of school-aged children, some of whom are also caregivers for older relatives as well, both groups negatively impacted by the pandemic. Women in particular have borne a significant amount of the pandemic-related parenting stress.
While the resolve and faith of those pastors staying in ministry is certainly to be praised, we must be careful about treating those who choose to leave as "failures" or their complaints as unimportant. Such responses lack compassion and seek to justify oneself. Decisions to leave reflect real issues in the church laid bare by the last year, and these departures will have real impact on churches. We as the church must take both seriously and seek to learn from them, rather than write them off.
What implications does this trend have for churches? I see several.
1. Increased difficulty for congregations seeking a pastor. The number of congregations, while shrinking overall, does not seem to have reduced as sharply as the number of pastors in the past year. Thus, fewer pastors = fewer possibilities of filling open pulpits. This trend will play out in different ways in denominations with call vs. appointment systems, but it will impact them both. This impact will be manifest immediately.
2. Increased pressure on struggling congregations to close. There is already pressure on such congregations. Small, impoverished, or dysfunctional congregations will have the greatest struggles attracting new pastors and had the most significant pre-pandemic challenges. If they are unable to find pastors, that creates yet another incentive for them to close their doors. While the pressures may be immediate, the resultant closures are likely 2-5 years down the road.
3. Disruption of leadership pipelines. Especially if it proves true that a disproportionately high number of early- to mid-career pastors are leaving, that means that there will be fewer pastors to develop into leaders for large congregations and denominational positions. This impact won't be felt immediately. Instead, it will become increasingly manifest in the next 5-15 years.
Thus, the impact of the pandemic on clergy supply in the United States will last much longer than the pandemic itself, serving as a drag on Christian ministry for years to come. Clergy are not and should not be solely determinative of the health of Christianity, but it would be foolish to pretend that clergy leadership does not matter to the quality of the church's mission and ministry.
While these forces pushing pastors away from ministry are cross-cutting, there is something that congregations and denominational leaders can do. Pastors that feel supported by their congregation and their denominational leaders are less likely to leave. Tangible support can reduce stress levels from responding to the pandemic and other social forces, and the existence of support reduces the questions pastors have about their relationships to their congregations, colleagues, and supervisors. Pastors are often looked to as sources of love and comfort, but they need these mercies as well.
Friday, August 6, 2021
The Methodist Church in Ireland is offering a hybrid course on mission for church members and leaders. The course, entitled Joining with God's mission, seeks to answer the question, "What does it mean to join in with the Mission of God in the 21st century?" The course comprises six monthly groups and two in-person day-long conferences over the course of the next year. The online component of the course will be hosted on the TheologyX platform and thus be a good demonstration of what that platform can do to bring theological education to multiple audiences within the church.
Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Last week, I wrote that the pandemic has broken our pre-pandemic story lines, and we as a church, a (US) society, and the world have not yet figured out what new story lines will absorb our focus as the pandemic is no longer the overwhelming story that frames all others. I would like to suggest a framing story that puts together a number of pieces of news that have come out of the context of the pandemic but are not necessarily about the pandemic itself.
After the onset of pandemic, and in large part because of the pandemic, people are done enduring wrongs. They have new energy to protest that which they see as unjust and are not putting up with the same problems they tolerated before. This unwillingness to continue to endure wrongs is manifesting itself on individual and societal levels in a variety of realms: political, economic, and social.
In some ways, the Black Lives Matter movement was the first sign that people were unwilling to continue to endure previously existing wrongs. Police violence against Black bodies had existed for years, including some high-profile cases over the past decade. But none of those cases galvanized an international movement until George Floyd's death during the pandemic. In part, this issue caught on last June because people had more time and attention since they were at home due to the pandemic. But in part, concern about Black deaths from police violence was amplified by the information about disproportionate Black deaths because of the pandemic, data that became available prior to Black Lives Matter. These pandemic racial disparities helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence.
Such movements of protest against the powers that be have played out again and again around the world since the Black Lives Matter movement began. Last fall, protests swept Belarus. Most recently, there have been unprecedented protests in Cuba, Columbia, South Africa, and Eswatini, all of them directed against the government. In each of these cases, long-simmering resentments of government malfeasance have combined with complaints of mishandling of the pandemic to touch off mass protests. Even at this year's Olympics, athletes have felt freer than ever before to protest a variety of wrongs.
The point is not whether or not any of these protests have yet been successful in ending the wrongs protested or changing political systems. The point is that they are a sign that people are no longer willing to endure wrongs that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it's because the pandemic has amplified those issues, has put them in a new light, or has just added one more significant item to a list of complaints.
The unwillingness to put up with wrongs is evident in the cumulative effects of personal decisions in the United States. This trend is most apparent in the labor market, where many workers previously employed in low-wage jobs, especially jobs that had other harmful aspects, have not been willing to resume those jobs after the pandemic, leaving those sectors short on workers. There's still debate over whether other factors - the hourly rate of these jobs or government financial assistance - have also impacted such decisions. But it's clear that thousands of people who had jobs they were not happy about pre-pandemic decided that it was not worth returning to those jobs post-pandemic, either because they had gained new perspective on employment and/or because the jobs had become more onerous.
While this does not rise to the level of social injustice, there has even been chatter on social media and in think pieces about what social customs people are not willing to go back to, whether that is in terms of dress, who people interact with, or the sorts of interactions and social conventions deemed acceptable. After having a break from what were unpleasant or offensive pre-pandemic social interactions, many have decided that they are not willing to resume such interactions post-pandemic.
I think there are a variety of reasons leading people to put new energy into changing pre-pandemic wrongs. The pandemic has created a situation of fluidity, where the future must be renegotiated and cannot merely continue as before. Renegotiation is an opportunity to try for something better, to try to avoid what wasn't working before, whether that's in one's relationship with their government, their employer, or their friends and family.
In addition, for many, the pandemic destroyed trust in those that were supposed to keep them and their loved ones safe. Whether it was a government or an employer that people thought was going to take care of them, those expectations were repeatedly dashed, as people were laid off and governments struggled to contain the virus while also imposing restrictions some saw as excessive.
Finally, the pandemic has given many new perspectives on what's important in life. Even for those who did not get sick, the pandemic was a brush with death of sorts. Confronting the reality of one's own mortality tends to make people rethink their priorities. Many have decided to prioritize trying to change the world for the better and trying to right the wrongs around them.
For the church, especially the church in mission, this new unwillingness to endure wrong is both an opportunity and a challenge.
It is an opportunity because new energy to right the wrongs of the world represents new energy among Christians to work for the kingdom of God and new potential partners outside of the church in that work. Many Christians pray for a movement of the Spirit. It is not difficult to interpret a movement towards justice as just that. If the church can join in what God is doing in the world in this pandemic-altered moment, then there is a huge missional potential.
Yet, there is also a threat or a challenge to the church. For some, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to the church. These range from a new unwillingness to tolerate casual and systemic racism in the white church to unwillingness to put up with awkward or unpleasant social interactions that are part of in-person church events to unwillingness to excuse the failures of church leadership, locally or denominationally. The church deceives itself if it thinks there is no wrong in it, and leaders will be surprised when people are done enduring those wrongs associated with church.
Yet, if leaders in the church recognize people being done with enduring wrongs as a way in which the Spirit may be speaking to the church, then they can be prepared to capitalize on the opportunities and rise to the challenges of this moment. They can look for ways to join in the work of the kingdom and respond with humility and a willingness to change when confronted with protests against the church itself. Such a response requires courage and a willingness to change. Yet the world has changed, and we cannot continue to live as if it has not.
Monday, August 2, 2021
In a strong indictment of the field of missiology, Radcliff, who is himself Black, explores the ways in which African American Black scholars and Black thinking are marginalized within US missiology, leaving a field that is black-ish: "something that purports to be Black (African American), but upon close inspection may not be authentic to, or representative of, the culture."
Radcliff identifies two driving forces behind the marginalization of African Americans within missiology. The first is an "internal structuring and epistemology" that pays little attention to African American concerns and has little room for African American intellectual methodologies.
The second is the failure of the discipline to engage with a large catalogue of scholarly writings by Black scholars that could be considered within missiology, given their focus, but are not. I discussed this second reason in my UM & Global piece "Why Are There So Few Black Missiologists?" and I am grateful to receive confirmation of what was for me a hypothesis, and grateful to have Radcliff's analysis as a Black man that is able to see things that I as a White man cannot.
Radcliff does not think missiology as a field is irredeemably marked by racism, nor do I. Radcliff gives three helpful guide points for developing an authentically Black missiology. The work of constructing such a missiology must be done by Black African Americans. But those from the dominant White culture in the United States, such as me, and those from other backgrounds may profitably ask themselves how they may support such an effort, both in structural ways through positions and funding and through the habits of scholarship, by listening, reading, and engaging with Black missiology, incorporating it into the larger discipline by taking it seriously and seeing it as an important contribution to the collective knowledge of all missiologists, regardless of racial background.