The “Acceptable Religion” Concept Makes a Comeback

Historical amnesia is a common American malady.  One of those aspects of American life that is oft forgotten is that of the “acceptable religion,” the idea that certain religions are more socially acceptable (and thus more amenable to their adherents moving up) than others.  In the past, this was mostly an intramural contest within Christianity (with the Lodge lurking in the background); certain forms of the faith were more “acceptable” than others, thus the Episcopal Church was the “church of Presidents.”  (I think we just buried our last one.)  That made Christianity, especially in the South, a socio-economically stratified business: people changed churches both to help move up and to announce that arrival when it happened.  Those who had the bad taste to buck the trend had…bad taste, with the consequences that followed.  The first groups to push back in a significant way against this were Jews and Roman Catholics, but it wasn’t an easy struggle for either group.

Today, of course, the new “acceptable” religion is sexually-driven secularism, and it’s setting the trend for taste in a new way at Yale:

But in late March, Yale Law School adopted a novel tactic: one-upping the protesters. It announced three major policy changes that went further than many of the protesters’ demands, all under the guise of an expanded nondiscrimination policy.

The new policies require all employers to swear that, when hiring students or graduates who benefit from certain Yale funding, they will not consider an applicant’s “religion,” “religious creed,” “gender identity” or “gender expression,” among other factors. The effect of this, for instance, is if a Yale Law student or graduate wishes to work for an organization that does consider religion in hiring — say a Catholic organization or Jewish advocacy group — Yale will cut them off from three important programs.

Because the United States had the bad taste to make another decision–anoint a group of private schools as its ne plus ultra educational institutions–this will probably stick in some form, since students at private schools of any kind don’t enjoy the same broad First Amendment protections from university intrusion that their state school counterparts do.  But it’s a serious shot across the bow, especially for climbing Evangelicals who want their children to move up without the inconvenience–and eternal consequence–of formally adopting an “acceptable” religion.

But such has never really been an option, has it?

Do not love the world or what the world can offer. When any one loves the world, there is no love for the Father in him; for all that the world can offer–the gratification of the earthly nature, the gratification of the eye, the pretentious life–belongs, not to the Father, but to the world. And the world, and all that it gratifies, is passing away, but he who does God’s will remains for ever. (1 John 2:15-17 TCNT)

My Lifeway Memory: Doing Church of God Business in a Baptist Bookstore

The news that Lifeway Christian Stores will all close brought back a memory of something that happened in one of them that was, in some ways, life altering.

In 2010 the Church of God decided to abolish the Department of Lay Ministries, which I was working for at the time.  That left me without a job with the church.  Mercifully that wasn’t my main source of income, but there’s something special about doing God’s work, even when the institutions don’t always go your way.  This was all complete by the end of August, a month after the church’s General Assembly.

Sometime during the fall I was in the Lifeway store in Chattanooga, when I ran into Dr. Donnie Smith, who was the Executive Director of the Church of God Division of Care.  The Care Division includes the ministries of the denomination which used to be called “benevolent.”  These include the Church of God Chaplains Commission (which trains and certifies chaplains for the military, prisons, etc.,) Church of God Ministerial Care (which works to restore ministers in the wake of personal disaster,) Operation Compassion (which furnishes supplies by the trailer load for disaster relief,) Smoky Mountain Childrens’ Home and, as much as Ilhan Omar hates to hear it, Ministry to Israel.

The Church of God Chaplains Commission Board, Fall 2008. Donnie Smith is in the front row on the right. At the far left is Tom Offutt, who figures into this story.

Donnie’s wife Barbara, who was making a miraculous recovery from a stroke, was down from Cleveland to get her hair done, and Donnie had some extra time, so he went to Lifeway.  We talked about church events and people for some time; it was nice to keep up.

But keeping up wasn’t the end of it: a couple of weeks later Donnie called me and offered me a position on the Care Board.  Tom Offutt, who was from Winchester, VA (where my Aunt Dorothy had lived for many years) had passed away suddenly shortly after his appointment, leaving a vacancy of the Board.  It was a pleasant surprise to get this invitation, and to get “back in the loop” in the life of the international church.  I’ve been on the Board ever since; it’s been an excellent experience.

I’ve always thought it strange that two Church of God people–one a current General Assembly appointee (Donnie) and one former one (me) would gather in the Baptist bookstore to discuss Church of God things.  But our own publishing house has had its share of misadventures in the “brick and mortar” store business; that’s why Lifeway got our business.

And 2010 was a year of other changes: about the same time my Kenyan department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and his Cameroonian assistant sat me down and asked me to obtain my PhD.  This decade has been an adventure in many ways.  God is always doing something new in our lives, and the fact that it was in Lifeway shows that he has a sense of humour too.  For his part Donnie passed into eternity last summer, too soon gone; I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity on the Care Board that he did.

There are many who disparage Lifeway for their restrictive policies on what they would carry.  But it’s like the places I can’t teach: institutions make decisions that they must live with, and it’s their prerogative to do so.  Personally I think that Lifeway’s closing of their stores is a net loss for the church in this country.  But that’s just me.

About Those Honorary Doctorates in the Church of God…

I’ve spent the past several weeks going on about social and political things, but this week I’d like to discuss a pet peeve of mine in the glorious church Church of God I’m a part of: the issue of honorary doctorates, and the calling of their recipients “Doctor.”  Fortunately our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Tim Hill (to use the Anglican form of address) has come out with a nice piece on the subject, Let’s Talk About It: Honorary Doctorates.  Coming from someone who a) received one, b) is called “Doctor” as a result, c) doesn’t require it and d) is now Presiding Bishop, it’s a welcome treatment of the subject.

I like Tim Hill, think he’s a man of integrity and transparency, know many in his family.  I think his personal qualities are worth far more than whatever title he holds. Putting that first comes from years of working in the Church of God at the denominational level, to say nothing of my years-long involvement in Anglicanism.  Pentecostals like for their leaders to have “the anointing,” but personal integrity before God and the church is really more important, and once that’s established the anointing will flow.

My own journey with this issue is only partially related to the fact that, much closer to the pearly gates than to my birth, I received my own earned doctorate.  A product of an Episcopal background and a Roman Catholic early adulthood, I didn’t join the Church of God until my late twenties.  To be honest, it was (and still is) an alternative universe.  Being in the construction industry, people with “too much education” don’t always get a warm reception (or maybe they do!) One professor at West Point even cautioned me about putting “PhD” after his name on my website, as he was concerned about the “warm reception!”

One thing I discovered early in my years in this church was that many in its upper echelons were called “Doctor.”  Growing up in a church with clergy equipped with plenty of formal education, that was no surprise.  It didn’t become apparent until much later that these doctorates were honorary doctorates.  Where I came from, the only people who were referred to as “Doctor” were either a) medical doctors or b) those who earned what accreditation types refer to as the “terminal degree.”  Some parts of the press only refer to people this way with (a).  So I thought this was strange, not only because it ran against general practice but also because I figured our laity wouldn’t take to educated people!

Part of solving this mystery in the “alternative universe” came when I came back to teach regularly about ten years ago.  Since most of my colleagues have a PhD, some of the students called me “Dr. Warrington.”  I tried to dissuade them from this practice but found it a “whack-a-mole” proposition, as Tim Hill did.  I think that some of it was just habit but some of it was currying favor.  I suspect that this same motivation inspires our people as much as it did my students.

But a great deal of it, I think, comes from a deep-rooted inferiority complex in our people, and a desire to move up in the world.  That’s a reversal of some long-held values, but a reversal I was unaware of until it was, for me at least, too late.  Our people wanted to show that they had arrived, and having a surfeit of doctors at the top was one way of doing that.  I still think that this inferiority complex is dangerous and will get us into trouble sooner or later, if it hasn’t already.

So what’s there to be inferior about?  Modern Pentecost’s position in Christianity reminds me of an apocryphal story about Maurice Ravel, the French composer, and George Gershwin, the American one.  Gershwin decided to take some lessons from Ravel, who asked Gershwin, “How much do you make in a year?”

“Oh, a quarter of a million dollars,” Gershwin replied (this was back in the 1920’s.)

“Perhaps I should be taking lessons from you,” Ravel replied.

Most churches would do well to take lessons from the Pentecostals and Charismatics regarding their outreach and the growth that can come from it.

One pastor up north had a series of sermons entitled, “Trading Your Title for a Towel,” referring to the foot-washing in John 13.  When he quit his church to take another one, he should have entitled his last sermon, “Throwing the Towel In.”  Let’s throw the towel in on calling everyone “doctor,” stop worrying about our “inferiority,” and be the men and women God wants us to be.

Running Scared: My Response to a Baptist Pastor on the Millennials

It’s not often that Vox gives a voice (which is what they’re supposed to do) to a Baptist, but one John Thornton, Jr., a youth pastor in North Carolina, has written an intriguing article about why millennials are so anxious and burnt out these days.  As a college professor who teaches in a state which is more Baptistic than North Carolina (more about that later,) I get to teach many of those millennials who are handed off to me after their youth pastors are done with them.  He’s said some things that need to be said, although my solution to the problem may differ from his.

Let’s start with the good part: I basically agree with his core thesis, which runs like this:

About a year ago, I decided I wanted to find out more about their lives. I’d heard from parents, teachers, and friends with children that kids today live increasingly busy and stressful lives compared to previous generations. I wanted to know not only what that looked like but how the kids themselves felt and thought about it. What I discovered gave me a good deal of pause about the world kids live in today and what it’s doing to them.

We hear a great deal about “snowflakes,” especially at the collegiate level.  I don’t think that’s justified.  What we have is a generation that’s running scared, one which has so much uncertainty under the surface that they really want to shut out anything that might upset the apple cart, including free speech, due process, etc.  If we want to get to the root of the problem we must understand what it is.  I think that the current anxious state of the millennials stems from four trends in our society that are driving their angst.

The first is the collapse of stable families.  The family is the first institution, one that antedates the state, and it’s the first one that we are exposed to as humans.  To live in a society where a family unit can collapse just because someone take a notion to find self-fulfilment is enough by itself to inspire anxiety.  Now the state exercises unprecedented power to interfere in the life of the family, inducing more uncertainty.

The second is the impact of environmentalism as a religion, and American environmentalism in particular, which regards the human race as unwanted and profligate intruders in the pristine wilderness they envision we started with.  That’s a major shift from the Christian concept that we are the pinnacle of creation, charged with the responsible stewardship of God’s creation.  The message today to all of us is that we don’t deserve to be here, although those who proclaim this the most loudly are in no hurry to lead the way to the exit.  Put another way, we have transitioned from being the GOAT (current usage, Greatest Of All Time) to the goat (my mother’s usage, the capricious barnyard animal that butts or the human counterpart.)

The third is our deteriorating economic underpinnings.  Thornton gets this:

Between 30 years of stagnant wages, the rising costs of housing, health care, and education, and a recession just as many of us graduated from college, it’s no wonder that millennials are on course to do financially worse than previous generations, just as Gen X did before us.

To this I would add our national debt, which has passed the point of no return.

The fourth is the warp speed advance of technology, which both creates and destroys careers.  This is amplified by the fact that, instead of buffering our people from the downside effects , it seems to amplify them.

Thornton sums up the result of all this:

While many of us who work with kids don’t want to name the likelihood that the generation behind us will do even worse than us, it’s hard not to see that we communicate it to them regardless. These kids aren’t even being told that the point of all the work and the stress is a better life — they’re being told it’s necessary just to survive.

So we come to the great questions the Russians like to ask: what is to be done? Thornton isn’t much at answering this, but his description of how our schools are approaching the problem is worth the read.  From his description of that “solution” it seems to me that it too is part of the problem.

The United States has gone on so long and been so successful that it has lulled its people into a false sense of security.  That only amplified the tendency of people to drift through life and just go along with the culture.   One of the things that separates people at the top of society from those at the bottom is the fact that the former tend to be more goal-oriented, which requires people to think ahead.  What the schools are trying to do is to push the ethic at the top down.  The problem is that they’re going about it the wrong way.  They’re trying to instil a careerist and corporatist ethic with an emphasis on socialisation, which gives them (assuming it works) a motivated workforce that won’t challenge the existing order.

What they need to do is to teach our people to think, and let their innate desire for personal improvement to take them where they can go.  Traditionally that’s done through the arts, but it can (and should) also be done through the sciences, especially mathematics.  It’s interesting to note that this is done in places like China, Russia and Iran, where the state is stronger and has the means and the will to keep the existing order in place.  That’s the risk: if you teach people to think, they will discover the extensive cognitive dissonance they are presented with and try to do something about it.  The current Exhibit A for this is France, where a people educated with that Cartesian logic realise that things aren’t working out as they thought they would or should.  Macron, taking a leaf from the B-school types in the Anglophone world, will try a managed debate in the context of a managed democracy, but whether that will work in France is still an open question.

Getting our school system changed in this way is a long and difficult process, filled with opposition from those who benefit from the current state of affairs.  But let’s consider this from another angle: what should Christian churches do in the face of this anxiety level?  I think that’s the question that Thornton, as a youth pastor, would like to get answered, and I would say that it is for me also.

Let me start by replicating a brief post I did three years ago:

From The World of Mathematics, this quotation from the British mathematician Augustus de Morgan:

I commend my future with hope and confidence to Almighty God; to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom I believe in my heart to be the Son of God but whom I have not confessed with my lips, because in my time such confession has always been the way up in the world.

Jesus Christ is still the “way up” in eternity.  But de Morgan’s problem of confessing Christianity as a way of worldly advancement has pretty much been solved both here and in the UK.  The sooner we come to grips with what that means, the better.

The basic problem we have in Evangelical Christianity is that it has been sold as the “way up” in this world.  DeMorgan lived in an England where membership in the established church was either a necessary or facilitating way to obtain positions and status in society.  It’s ironic that the Baptists, who strived to disestablish the same established church in places like North Carolina (and succeeded,) would eventually turn to make being a respectable religion a key part of their appeal.  And those who came behind the Southern Baptists have followed suit in one way or another.

But now Christianity’s appeal to be the “way up” in this life as a prelude to the next doesn’t work the way it used to, if it ever really worked at all.  And that’s the way it should be.  Jesus Christ did not come into this world to affirm the careerism that was and is endemic in the Middle East and now on these shores.  Instead we need to be presenting Christianity as an alternative to the careerist rat race that’s set before us, that ultimate happiness in this life and the next doesn’t come from checking off our bucket list or getting the dream career or even “changing the world” (and you should always be careful whom you’re shilling for.)  Most importantly of all, we need to make it clear that being a Christian will cost you.  There are things you may never get to do, schools you’ll never (or shouldn’t) go to, and positions you’ll never take.  But the joy of following Jesus daily will more than offset those losses, that joy buttressed by the fellowship of other Christians.

That’s what the New Testament sets forth.  Are we prepared to live it?  That’s the question in front of us, and we need to answer it quickly.

The Shocking (to Some) Truth About Prosperity and Morality

Tom Jacobs at the Pacific Standard finds himself surprised at the way voters conflated prosperity and morality, which eased their way to vote for Donald Trump:

The findings suggest the Trump campaign’s emphasis on the candidate’s success in business—which has subsequently been shown to be based largely on smoke and mirrors—increased the perception that he was a highly moral man, which in turn increased their likelihood to vote for him.

If Jacobs (and others) would exit their bubble, they would have anticipated this much sooner. But he’s not alone in surprise. When I joined the Pentecostal church in the early 1980’s that I’m still a part of, I was surprised the way that people assumed that, if you were prosperous, you were moral. And that was in a church that was still, for the most part, skittish about raw, straight up prosperity teaching a la Bob Tilton (whose church I attended in the late 1970’s) or Kenneth Copeland. The main beneficiaries at the time were the high income/net worth people in the church, who leveraged people’s attitudes to gain “street cred” in the church and the influence that went with it.

My experience growing up in Palm Beach, coupled with “traditional” (depends on the tradition, really) Christian teaching on the subject, taught me that the opposite was more often the case. It also taught me that standing up to the great of this world in church was doable, something that never got off the ground in this “go along to get along” culture.

It wasn’t always this way in Southern culture, and with God’s help I’ll elaborate on that in a future post. But as the left ascends in the moneyed classes of our society, they would do well to stop and consider that the attitude of “the rich are moral” has largely prevented the kind of social upheaval that growing income inequality promotes. If that attitude ever flips, we’ll have problems that make the #GiletsJaunes in France look like an outing in the park.

Getting Rid of the White People Won’t Get Rid of Christianity

Some people evidently work under that assumption, as this ugly event in New York attests:

New Yorkers woke up Thursday morning to find colorful new street art popping up on trash cans along the Lower East Side.

Their message is clear – Trump and his supporters are “trash.” The controversial posters feature images of “Trump supporter” stereotypes with the words, “Keep NYC Trash Free.”…

Another features a white woman wearing a “Make America Great Again Hat” while holding the Bible.

Most of the Christians in the New York area I know aren’t white.  That’s a legacy in part of leaving that whitest (and soi-disant social justice) church, the Episcopal Church.  Most of these aren’t Trump supporters either.  If they had featured Christianity with a non-white person holding the bible sans Trump hat, it would have been more accurate to the reality on the ground, but the reaction would have been entirely different.

There’s an underlying assumption on the left that, if we could just get rid of white Evangelicals, Christianity and Trump will go away, and we can get laid, high or drunk without guilt or interference.  That’s simply not true.  God’s plan will go forth without white American Evangelicals or even the United States, if it comes to that.  In some ways, it would probably help.  Our country is headed towards a day of reckoning; we spend too much time and energy on things that won’t stop that reckoning.

Once a Fundie, Always a Fundie

In Randal Rouser’s post on village atheism, after he lists the characteristics of village atheists, he makes the following observation:

As I already noted, there are also many village Christians who exhibit similar traits. (But the way, it should not surprise us that when village Christians leave the church, they typically become village atheist.)

To put it another way: once a fundie (fundamentalist) always a fundie.  You can change the book or creed you’re working from but the mentality is the same.  Atheists who have left Christianity frequently think of themselves as “enlightened,” but that’s easier said than done.  Probably the most egregious example of that to butt heads with this blog was James Alexander, but more recently one of my church people went postal on me regarding immigration.

Some Thoughts on the 2018 Church of God General Council Agenda

Well, it’s that time of the biennium again, when our ministers and their church pack up and spend several million dollars on the gathering called the General Assembly.  I’ve made it my habit to comment on the agenda, which can be found here.  The last time, OurCoG copied my comments in serial format (guys, next time give a link back) so perhaps they made a little more impact than usual.

It’s true that American Christianity in general and the Church of God in particular are having a rough time.  So how does the agenda deal with our current situation?  Let’s take a look…

The “FINISH Commitment” Resolutions

At the very start the agenda makes a bold statement:

The 77th General Assembly agenda is different. It is conceived and contextualized on the declared Mission and Vision of the Church of God. The purpose of the FINISH Commitment Agenda is to articulate the vision predicated upon six primary areas delineated as resolutions. These include the following: Visional Actualization, Doctrinal Affirmation, Structural Acclimation, Ministerial Activation, Generational Assimilation, and Spiritual Acceleration. Every agenda item is categorized under one of these visional resolutions.

It’s tempting to regard these resolutions as “fluff” (like corporate vision statements) but many of the points in these resolutions are carried through in the agenda items that actually alter the Minutes of the church.  So these are worth paying attention to, and some comments are in order.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this Task Force specifically focus on the following areas and prepare recommendations for the Executive Council to consider for implementation and, as necessary, inclusion on the International General Council agenda for 2020:

a. Evaluation of the departments and ministries of the International Offices to determine the value added to local churches and to develop an instrument for state/regional offices to evaluate the value their programs and ministries are adding to the local church;
b. Assessment of the budget of the International Offices to determine the funding priorities supporting the core values of the church and finishing the Great Commission;
c. Review of the systems (including elections and appointments) and programs of the church considering multinational and multigenerational culture, including language-specific resources, cultural variants, etc.;
d. Appraisal of the church planting and church revitalization efforts and funding with a goal to enlarge and enhance the effectiveness of these priorities;
e. Analysis of the need for and promotion of ministerial recruitment, development, and placement in the Western USA, and other areas;
f. Refine, expand, and promote the current affiliation and amalgamation opportunities and procedures;
g. Devise policy guidelines for multisite campuses; and

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that a report of this Task Force’s work be prepared and made available to the 2020 International General Council.

Some of this was done in the wake of the “Missional Revolt” of the last decade, which included the reduction by a third of our local churches’ contribution to the state and international offices (including World Missions.)  Evidently things have not worked out quite as hoped; part of that is due to the fact that the serious changes that needed to be made were not done.  Those include ending the requirement that the central church own the local church property (a sore subject with Anglicans in this country,) the election of state and regional bishops, and other topics that will be discussed.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that our ministers prayerfully reaffirm their commitment to and belief in these doctrinal statements…

With the experience of the Anglican-Episcopal world at my back, I have supported the idea that our ministers affirm their commitment to what the church stands for.  I have gotten pushback on that, which you can see here.  I doubt we’ll get any further with this now than we did then; I hear a ticking time bomb, but I’m not sure how to prevent it from going off…

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that careful consideration be made of our voting and appointment processes to assure that they reflect our multicultural diversity and enhance our missional impact…

Evidently some of the logic of this post is coming to the forefront, but for those of you who might think this is a “leftist” bent, it really isn’t.  That’s because of one simple reality: the ethnic mix of Pentecostal churches is rapidly shifting towards non-white people, and the long-term survival of the church depends upon our ability to attract and keep these people in our churches.  If that means doing like Canada (Ontario) and using a quota system in our leadership irrespective of the offering, so be it.  But getting a church with its current ethnic mix to go along with quotas of any kind (and that includes the “hipsters” who’d like to age the rest of us out) is an uphill battle.

Expanding the Council of 18 to become the Council of 24

Honestly I think the main effect of this will be to enlarge the travel budget of the International offices, and frankly we don’t need that.  Making this body more representative of the international church may involve slaughtering some sacred cows, but they make great hamburger and we could save some money in the bargain.

One thing we need to keep in mind is that, if we internationalise more effectively our executive bodies, and that includes the Executive Committee, Executive Council, General Council and General Assembly, that might be a strong backstop against whatever pansexual agendas ooze out of the “Global North.”  It’s worked for the United Methodists and sort of worked for the Anglicans (who aren’t as tightly bound.)  Just a thought.

Election and Appointment Study Commission

That a Study Commission be appointed to review the election and appointment process, including reflection of multicultural diversity with recommendations to the International Executive Council for implementation of, and as necessary, inclusion on the 2020 International General Council agenda.

I think that we should elect our state and regional administrative bishops.  I know that many think it would make a “popularity contest” but anyone who has worked with our state system knows that, even with centrally appointed bishops, the states still have a great deal of autonomy.  It worked for the Roman Empire church and will work for us too.  Who knows, a layman like Ambrose might get the nod…

Applicants for Ministry

There are  a couple of resolutions on the table on this topic.  Pentecostal churches have been known for relatively easy entry into the ministry, but also have a high attrition rate.  The trend in recent years has been to up the education requirements for our ministers, which is expensive and time-consuming.

Right after we came home from the last General Assembly in Nashville, i received my PhD, so I feel I can say some things about education that I couldn’t before.  They are as follows:

  1. The educational level of the ministers of the church is related to that of the laity; both should be in the same ballpark.  That’s an issue of the minister relating to his or her congregation.
  2. I don’t think that the Church of God, given its current demographic, can financially afford the types of educational programs for ministers that we see in other denominations.  Given the expense of higher education these days, students at both undergraduate and graduate levels receive their degrees with high levels of student debt.  Most of our churches cannot pay the salaries necessary to liquidate that debt; that’s the problem many millennials have with ministerial positions.
  3. I think we’d be better off figuring out a way to produce “90-day wonders” with much continuing education following (and, of course, discernment as to whether a person has any business being in the ministry to start with.)  That would also attract another class of people: those in highly paid (and educated) professions who could support themselves with their jobs and not be so dependent upon the church for income.  The last will become more important as stewardship declines and full time ministry as we know it now becomes the exception rather than the rule.

Use of the Term “Bishop”

That open Ministry Forums be conducted globally to provide opportunity for deliberate and meaningful discussion, dialogue, questions/answers and time for spiritual insight regarding the importance and understanding of ministry ranks, qualifications, and women in ministry with attention upon the meaning and usage of the title “bishop.” Following the forums, appropriate motion(s) be formulated by the International Executive Council specifically addressing the stated issues and brought to the 2020 International General Council.

The title “bishop” should be restricted to state/regional/national/international prelates.  Period.  The expansion was a mistake.  But that, in turn, has complicated another debate: the ordination of women as “ordained bishops” to use the current term.

The history of Pentecostal churches and the way they look at church in general makes the whole topic different from, say, their Anglican counterparts, although Pentecostals could learn a thing or two from that experience.  We actually went through a “listening tour” ten years ago on this topic, and the result was simple: everyone but the Scots-irish were prepared to go along with what the Anglicans call “WO.”  My guess is that these new “Ministry Forums” will generate many travel expenses and come to pretty much the same result, although the generational shift will soften the opposition.  I think this is an issue where real change is going to take more than just a vote of the present ministers and laity.

Pastoral Requirement to Become a State Administrative Bishop

Dan Tomberlin has an excellent piece supporting this concept.  I’m inclined to agree with him; however, the problem in many cases is that, in the past at least, some of our more successful ministers didn’t do well at a local church became they were particularly “pastoral,” but because they were good pulpiteers and fund-raisers.  (in the old days, good building skills didn’t hurt, either.)  Our Administrative Bishops need to be pastors to their pastors; being at a local church is necessary but not sufficient to insure that will take place.

Engaging the “Jeremiah Generation”

That each State/Regional Overseer in cooperation with the State/Regional Youth and Discipleship Director, lead pastors, student pastors, and the perspective state/regional Ministerial Development Board (CAMS and MIP) adopt an annual plan for identifying, mentoring/training, and engaging young men and women designated as the “Jeremiah Generation” in both local and state/regional ministry of the Church of God.

The whole issue of the generation coming up has become a near obsession with our leadership, given the common beliefs that a) the millennials are abandoning Christianity wholesale, b) they cannot be reached by anyone other than their own contemporaries, and c) they cannot be reached by anything other than the methodology those in (b) are putting forward.  I think, however, that this whole topic needs to be tempered by the following:

  1. A discipleship-based approach to church life is an absolute must now.  The biggest difference between what our older ministers are used to and what our younger ones face is that we cannot rely on the culture to pre-disciple our people, quite the opposite.  I can tell you from experience that discipleship-based approaches are a hard sell.  The smaller, more traditional churches don’t see the need and the larger ones don’t want to invest the time because it gets in the way of growing the church financially and numerically.  There are exceptions to that but when a discipleship-based approach becomes the rule and not the exception this divide will fade away.
  2. The economics of full-time ministry are no where near what they used to be.  I’ve discussed this with respect to education, and that’s a big driver.  Pentecostal churches, traditionally, have been better at dealing with economic adversity than their Main Line counterparts.  Unfortunately recent prosperity has blurred our vision of reality; we thought we had seen the light at the end of the poverty tunnel, but it was only a guy with a flashlight.  We need first to be real with the “Jeremiah Generation” leaders about this.
  3. Although Pentecostal churches are not immune to cultural secularisation, most of the exodus from Christianity in this country is among white people.  The changing ethnic mix in our churches will offset this if we have the sense to take full advantage of our situation.

Closing Thoughts

This is a very sweeping agenda; it will be interesting to see whether the General Council actually has the time to get through it.  Most of the issues, however, are ones that have been around for all of this millennium and have been addressed in the upheavals we have had.  Having been a witness/participant in the “Missional Revolt” (and ultimately a casualty in an employment sense,) I see that this didn’t produce the change it advertised it would.  That being the case, if we want to see change in the church, we really need to see some in ourselves, and that’s beyond the scope of any Church of God General Council Agenda.

Lessons about Women’s Ordination from Palm Beach’s Social System

Some readers of the blog are doubtless buffaloed at my blasé attitude regarding what Anglicans call WO (women’s ordination.)  I explain some of my rationale here but some of that comes from being a product of the Palm Beach social system.  That system–exclusivistic and highly non-industrial–moulds everyone who lives there in ways that aren’t obvious until they get away from it.  So here are some reflections on the effect of that system and why it’s relevant in the church today.

First, a core feature of the system is the simple fact that women have been powerful and played a central role in the system long before the move to “liberate” them got going.  An easy-to-understand example of this was Marjorie Merriweather Post, who owned Mar-a-Lago for so many years.  Mar-a-Lago was (and is if you ignore the fact that it’s a private club now) the largest private residence on the island, and she was prominent (including the square dances she held.)  But she was only one.  Palm Beach was a place where work was a four-letter word in the past for many people (or in their ancestors’ past.)  With this a person’s position based on the job they did (and for many years it was the men who did most of the paid jobs) didn’t really bear on where you stood in the scheme of things.

This tended to put women in the driver’s seat in many ways–overseeing households (where they routinely told men what to do,) controlling fortunes (based on the terms and conditions of those fortunes) and organising events.  There’s power in all of that.  It’s hard to swallow industrial-era based complementarianism when you’ve been exposed to that.  (A cursory reading of Proverbs 31 should also put paid to such thinking, but I digress…)

The second is that power is not always exercised in the open.  We are routinely regaled with things such as “the first woman to…” and so forth.  And these accomplishments should not be gainsaid.  However, one thing one learns in a place like Palm Beach (and should be learned elsewhere but frequently isn’t) is that real power often resides in the hands of those who aren’t in the limelight, or who don’t have the formal position.  That, just about as much as anything, drives me crazy about American political dialogue.  The whole rise of the Religious Right in politics was based on the idea that, if we could win enough elections, we could take American back for God again.  We now know that this was not true in the 1980’s and certainly isn’t now, although elections are important.

An interesting example of how this played out relevant to the topic of women took place when the Vestry of Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, led by shirt magnate William Cluett, booted the ladies’ rummage sale from the parish hall on “scriptural” grounds.  In those days vestries were an all-male affair, and in a complementarian world the ladies would be compelled to sit down and shut up.  They didn’t; led by prominent socialite Helene Tuchbreiter, they moved their operation elsewhere and started the Church Mouse resale shop, which is today a part of the scene in Palm Beach.

So why is Palm Beach’s social system educational for the rest of us?  Well, “moving up” is a big deal for Americans in church and elsewhere.  You simply cannot promote industrial-era complementarianism one the one hand and the desire of upward social mobility on the other without running in the simple fact that, when you reach the peak of the latter the former isn’t operative.  For all of its unBiblical aspects, Palm Beach’s social system in many ways reflects a time before what job someone had defined their status in life, and that’s something that everyone needs to remember.  If we could get past that, we could liberate ourselves from many things.

P.S. One thing I didn’t touch on was the exclusivist nature of Palm Beach’s social system.  We hear many opponents of Christianity decry churches as “country clubs” but if you’re a product of a system where being in a club was a big deal that isn’t much of an insult.  And if we’re going to implement things such as the “Benedict Option” that aspect will be a key to our survival.  But again that’s another post…