A Relational Model of Truth

I was reading Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach recently.  In it, he presents what he calls a relational model of truth, which he contrasts with an “objectivist” and a relativist view of truth.  I thought it worth repeating here, because I think it is a good example of how modernity, postmodernity, and what-comes-next view truth.

According to Palmer, in the objectivist (or, I might say, modernist) view of truth, there are objects out there that can be fully known as they actually are by experts.  Here, truth is a proposition.  In the process of discovering truth, experts study the objects, a process in which the experts do various things, but the objects are inert.  These objects really exist, and it is possible for the understanding the experts have in their heads of these objects to match up perfectly with those objects as they actually are.  These experts can then relay their knowledge of the truth about these objects to others.

Palmer doesn’t spend as much time talking about relativism, but it’s worth relating that model here.  In the relativist (or, I might say, post-modern) view of truth, truth doesn’t depend upon objects that are really out there.  Instead, truth relies solely upon what goes on inside the head or heads of the person or groups who knows something.  Here, truth is an experience or a belief.  Truth isn’t discovered, it’s constructed.  A person might study things or might talk about others about something, but what’s important is not what a thing is actually like or what other people say it’s like, but what each individual thinks a thing is like.  Because truth is inherently subjective, one can never really convey one’s understanding of truth to another.

The model of truth for which Parker advocates, he names the relational model of truth, or knowing in community.  In this model, the individual knower, the community, and the thing known all contribute to the formation of a set of relationships that defines truth.  This model does not say that truth is whatever a community defines it to be.  That’s just a less individualistic version of the relativist model.  Instead, truth is not an individual or group belief; it’s a relationship between the individual, the community, and the thing known.  The thing that’s known is an important and active part of the process that shapes and guides the path to truth.  Yet, there’s no assumption that we can know all there is to know about the thing “as it is” in a way which can be boiled down to a set of propositions.

I believe this relational view of truth represents the emerging view among what-comes-next.  It rejects the relativism of postmodernity without going back to the absolutism of modernity.  It acknowledges the reality of the things known while still recognizing the limitations of our knowledge and the ways in which personal and communal factors influence our understandings.  It focuses on community and relationships, which I think will be important parts of the ethos of what-comes-next.  Because of its focus on community and relationships, I think it also fits well with a dynamic understanding of truth.  I think what-comes-next needs to have some dynamic, creative force to it which isn’t just critical, as postmodernity has mainly been.  Yet a focus on community and relationship, while accounting for growth and change, is less oriented toward a particular understanding of the end goal of that change than modernity usually is.  I think what-comes-next needs to be more open to many possibilities for the future so that many people with diverse beliefs and values can buy into the system and all have a creative part to play.

Right now, I think Palmer’s view of truth is a minority.  But I don’t think Palmer is alone in putting forth such ideas.  Instead, I think he’s a sign of what’s to come in terms of how we may increasingly come to think about truth.

Making Disciples and Taking Measurements

Last week, I talked about a survey by the Barna Group which analyzed what types of experiences Americans have in their church congregations.  The data suggest that, while Americans experience God and fellowship in church, attending church often does not change their lives.  I suggested, following comments from Taylor Burton-Edwards, that these findings may indicate that congregations have a problem with discipleship.  If so, such findings are particularly a problem for United Methodists, as their mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.  What I want to suggest this week about these findings is that this study further supports my proposal for an alternative set of metrics to those proposed by the Call to Action (CTA).

I suggested in an earlier post that we need church metrics that measure whether or not we’re accomplishing our mission as a denomination – whether our members are becoming better disciples of Jesus Christ and whether that discipleship is leading to the transformation of the world.  I suggested that all church members should be asked on a yearly basis about their progress in discipleship, including growth in love, knowledge, and faithful service.  Ministers, DS’s, and bishops should also be asked about how their ministry has led to the transformation of the world and where the church has been successful in helping bring about the kingdom of God.

The metrics proposed by the CTA mostly measure members and money.  Specifically, the seven CTA metrics measure attendance, membership, baptism, and giving.  But it doesn’t matter how many members come through our doors if they don’t become better disciples once they’re there.  It doesn’t matter how many members we have and how much money we take in if this money and these people don’t make the world a better place in God’s eyes.  We could potentially be welcoming a lot of new members who give a lot to the church but not ultimately be fulfilling our mission if all these members don’t grow in their discipleship of Jesus after arriving in the church and do nothing for the transformation of the world.

We can only know if we’re fulfilling our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world if we ask directly about the components of our mission – discipleship and transformation.  The Barna Group report suggests that congregations may be having problems fulfilling the UMC mission, at least in some areas, but we’re not going to know more unless we ask, not about members and money, but about discipleship and transformation.   We know there are membership and financial problems in the UMC.  We can tell that with the data the church currently collects.  Nevertheless, those problems with membership and money would be insignificant if it turned out that we weren’t fulfilling our basic mission adequately.  Yet we won’t know whether or not we’re fulfilling our basic mission unless we ask questions that actual assess our progress toward that mission.

As I said in my original post about church metrics, I agree that the church needs a renewed push toward vital ministry, and proper metrics can be part of that push.  Yet what you measure determines where your focus is and where your effort goes.  The metrics proposed by the CTA put our focus on propping up an institution through members and money, not carrying out God’s mission by making disciples and transforming the world.  Using the CTA metrics, we’ll focus on increasing members and money for the support of an institution.  We may be successful, but what we’ll have is a stronger institution, not success in achieving the mission for which that institution exists.  If we’re really serious about making disciples and transforming the world, that’s what we should measure because that is where our focus will then be and that is where we will put our efforts.

Congregations, Discipleship, and Staying on Mission in the UMC

I just learned about a recently reported study by the Barna Group entitled What People Experience in Churches.  This study asked Christians questions to assess five different dimensions of church-going.  There’s some good and some bad news included in the findings of the report.  The good news is that most church-goers say they experience a connection with God (66%) and others (68%) at church.  While these numbers could be higher, as my most recent post said, sometimes two out of three isn’t bad.  Also good, 40% of respondents said their congregations cared about helping the poor a lot, while 33% said their congregations cared somewhat.  That’s a total of three-quarters of people who say their churches care about the poor.  Again, could be higher, but overall, not bad.

The bad news is that church doesn’t seem to be a transformative experience for many.  46% of church-going respondents said their life has not been changed by church.  61% couldn’t remember an insight from the last church service they’d gone to.  That’s not to say that these people aren’t getting anything from church – remember, two thirds of people are connecting with God and others – but it does mean that their faith life may not be growing and developing in their faith through participation in church.  The Barna study appears to be asking about church worship experiences, and worship certainly can’t address all aspects of Christians’ faith lives, but the findings should give us pause.

I found out about this study through two blog posts written by Taylor Burton-Edwards.  In his first post on this topic, The Differences Congregational Worship Makes . . . And Doesn’t, Burton-Edwards reflects on what this means for worship.  In particular, he picks up on the lower numbers reported by young adults regarding what they’ve received from attending church, rightly raising concerns about these results.  He also notes the poorer scores from people who attend middle-sized churches and ventures an interesting explanation based on Dunbar’s number for social group cohesion.

Burton Edwards’ second post, Differences Congregations Don’t Make . . . And What to Do about It, is more pessimistic, concluding, “Congregations make little or no difference in the lives of most people who attend them.”  Burton-Edwards then reasons that we shouldn’t expect congregations to make a difference in people’s lives and instead this task should be left to groups similar to the early Methodist societies.  Burton-Edwards cites the examples of campus ministry groups, Walk to Emmaus Fourth Day groups, and unspecified UMC groups in Zimbabwe.

Although I appreciated Burton-Edwards’ first post, I have to take issue with his second post.  First, I think it’s an extremely negative reading of the Barna Group’s report to conclude that congregations make no difference in people’s lives.  Burton-Edwards takes “somewhat influential” to mean that churches only “marginally affect” people’s lives.  While I agree that this report points out that churches have a problem in terms of fostering discipleship, Burton-Edwards’ overstates that problem.

But more importantly, no matter the size of the problem, there is no way we can excuse congregations from the responsibility to make a difference in people’s lives, as Burton-Edwards suggests we do.  This is especially true as United Methodists, with our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.  The Book of Discipline affirms that congregations are the primary sites at which the UMC carries out its mission.  We need to expect congregations to be just that.

I really believe in the importance and effectiveness of small group ministries such as those Burton-Edwards cites, but if our congregations are not making a difference in people’s lives, if they are not helping them become better disciples of Jesus Christ, then we as the United Methodist Church are not carrying out our mission.  If we truly believe in our mission and truly believe that our local congregations have a role to play in that mission, then we should continue to expect that they carry out the work of making disciples, including teaching them and transforming their lives.  It’s not easy work, and it’s not something that’s going to happen every day, but to be United Methodists, we cannot give up on it.

The Consequences of High Expectations, Or, Two Out of Three Isn’t Bad

My brother Jeff once introduced me to a rule about purchasing outdoor gear passed on to him by Matt Conroy of Green Mountain Rock Climbing, Rutland, VT.  It’s nice when outdoor gear can be affordable, durable, and light-weight.  Conroy’s Law, as we might call it, states that you can have two of these three, but you can’t have all three.  Jeff and I were applying Conroy’s Law to car-buying as well, speculating that in a vehicle, you can have two out of the three of the features of high gas mileage, a low purchase price, and a spacious interior, but you can’t have all three.

Basically, Conroy’s Law is an example of a trade-off.  Trade-offs are all around us.  There are only so many hours in a day and only so much money in our bank accounts, which means we must make choices, and choosing one thing means not choosing another.  Moreover, when we are making choices, we must balance the importance of the different features possessed by different options.  I will watch “House Hunters” when there’s nothing else on TV, and the young couple looking for a home is inevitably forced to weigh the relative importance of the good features of the houses they’ve seen.  Do they want the one with a better view or the one with more space?  The one with a nicer kitchen or the one with a lower price?

Despite the prevalence of trade-offs around us, we are often fed media messages that encourage us not to believe in trade-offs.  We are told we can have it all; indeed, we are sometimes even told that we deserve to have it all.  These sorts of messages raise our expectations so that even when advertising doesn’t encourage us to want it all, we do.  Forget having to choose two of three desirable features – we deserve to have all three!  This is another consequence of a culture that if focused on relentless progress and maximizing everything.

Yet Conroy’s Law persists, and we must still make trade-offs.  What happens when our rising expectations meet up against Conroy’s Law and other trade-offs?  One of a couple of things.  One positive consequence of increased expectations in our roles as consumers is that companies then work to meet them.  Outdoor gear now uses materials and technology that allows for outdoor gear that is overall better, lighter, and cheaper than was possible twenty years ago.

Yet there can be negative consequences to our increased expectations, too, especially if they become too greatly dissociated from reality.  If we expect more than the world can give us, we are liable to be disappointed and unhappy with the world.  That has negative consequences for both us and the world.  The negative consequence of unhappiness and dissatisfaction for us is perhaps obvious.  In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz examines the negative consequences inflation expectations can have on us.  It’s a good book and an easy read, and I’d recommend it.

Yet negative consequences for others may be just as significant.  If we expect to be able to have it all, and others are not able to meet those demands, then we may become angry with them, leading us to treat others unpleasantly for not meeting our over-inflated expectations.  How many of you have ever seen a demanding, entitled customer berating some poor sales clerk for not being able to deliver them the moon by the next morning?  Those who are interested in the level of civility and kindness in the world should therefore have an interest in keeping their expectations in line.  Even those whose ethic is less concerned about others should be able to recognize that although in one situation they may be the one doing the berating, in another they are likely to be the berated.

One simple solution to the problem of over-inflated expectations is to practice gratitude.  Rather than look at what you don’t have and be unhappy about it, look at what you do and be grateful for it.  While it is maybe possible to have more, it is certainly possible for us to have less.  We may not be able to have all three features we want, but two out of three isn’t bad, and we should appreciate that we’re not limited to one.  As Jeff pointed out to me, two out of three is still a winning percentage.  Next time you get two out of three things you want, remember to feel grateful for being a winner.

The problem with empires and theologies of success

Last week I attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History.  The conference was a productive one, yielding new ideas and new connections.  One paper I found particularly interesting was presented by Alister Chapman of Westmont College.  In a paper entitled, “‘Where there is no vision, the people leave’: The End of Empire and the Decline of Christianity in Britain, 1945-1970”, Chapman argued that as the British Empire fell apart and came to an end, the rhetoric of Britain being a “Christian nation” also declined, even among conservative Christians.  While Britain had been an imperial power, British leaders understood the nation to be characterized by Christian values and to be fulfilling a Christian, civilizing mission in its colonial endeavors.  Once those colonial endeavors ended, Britons lost the sense of their country as one endowed by God with a particular mission in the world.

Two clarifications of Chapman’s argument are important here.  First, Chapman was arguing that the decline in Britain’s imperial fortunes directly affected the role of Christianity in British society, not just that a decline in empire and a decline in Christian self-perception happened at the same time.  Second, Chapman was talking about the decline of rhetoric about Britain as a “Christian nation”, not necessarily decline in Christian practice, though that was happening at the same time.

Chapman’s paper made me wonder about the American context.  Over the past several decades, there has been no shortage of people willing to proclaim the United States a “Christian nation”.  At the same time, America’s imperial fortunes have fared well.  The United States has been able to project its military, economic, and cultural power around the globe to its benefit.  Yet many (and I among them) question how much longer American imperial dominance in international affairs can last.  Economic and other troubles at home, the rise of China and other powers, the toll of the war on terror, and a host of other factors indicate that America may not be the world’s sole superpower, able to call the shots as it likes, in the next few decades.  If that proves to be the case, what are the implications for Christianity in America?  Will Americans, including conservatives, no longer talk about America as a Christian nation if our international fortunes go into decline?

I’m not really concerned here with preserving a notion of America as a “Christian nation”.  While the United States has always been a majority Christian country, it has also always been a country characterized by religious diversity and an array of levels of practice and adherence.  Furthermore, it’s a country that has cherished the separation of church and state for the benefit of both church and state.  So, while the United States may be a Christian nation in some sense, it is certainly not a solely Christian nation, as many who use the term seem to imply.

What concerns me here is not our perception of the United States (or Britain or any other country) as a “Christian nation”.  It is our perception of God and how God relates to nations.  What is troubling for me about the idea that the decline of international influence could lead to a decline in Christian self-perception is that it seems to imply a belief that God is only with the successful, the dominant, and the winners.  It seems to imply that we are only faithful Christians if we are on top and in charge.  Do we really believe this, or do we believe that God can be with the poor, the humble, the declining, and even the unsuccessful?

The temptation to equate this-worldly success with religious success is always there.  It even pops up in the historical books of the Old Testament.  There is an Old Testament trope wherein the nation of Israel is faithful, and God prospers it; then Israel becomes unfaithful and God punishes it by harming its political standing, usually through foreign attack and invasion.  Yet if we read the Biblical text more closely, we’ll see that the correlation between worldly success and religious dedication is not as perfect as we might assume it is.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel prospered under King Omri, even though Omri was wicked.  King Hezekiah, on the other hand, was faithful, and while that faithfulness may have helped turn back Assyrian attacks on the southern kingdom of Judah, it did not prevent them.

Thus, we cannot assume that worldly success means we’re doing something right in God’s eyes or that worldly failure means we’re doing something wrong.  The United States may lose its position as the dominant global, political power.  That decline, however, does not in fact tell us anything about how faithful the United States is being to the role God has accorded it in history.  The possibility of faithfulness is always there, in decline as in success.

A Wesleyan Theological Assessment of Church Metrics

I have thus far studiously avoided commenting on The United Methodist Church’s Call to Action on this blog.  After some conversations with my friend Justin, though, I think I’m ready to hazard a go at that risky endeavor.  I’d like to suggest an alternate approach to church metrics based on some Wesleyan theological insights.

For those of you not familiar, the Call to Action is a document/plan prepared for/by the UMC to counteract trends of declining membership in the United States.  The Call to Action involves several aspects, but among them are a focus on “vital congregations” and assessing the vitality of churches based on seven metrics that measure membership, attendance, baptisms, and giving.  Measuring and monitoring such numbers (referred to occasionally as “dashboard indicators”) and holding pastors and churches accountable for them has been one of the most controversial aspects of a report with a number of controversial aspects.

I would like to suggest three things about metrics and church accountability: The current metrics are not theologically sound.  Another set of metrics might be.  This other set also has the potential to better unleash ministry and assist the church in mission.

First, it is important to point out that we are in many ways not ultimately responsible for the fruit our ministry bears.  We do not make converts to Christ; the Holy Spirit does through the administration of God’s prevenient grace.  We may be the means, but the Holy Spirit is the main actor.  The work of the church is ultimately God’s work, which God invites us to participate in, but whose success is ultimately dependent upon God, not us.  Therefore, I think it is a bad idea to measure membership and baptisms.  Sure, we should be a church that is reaching out to others, but it’s judging us on something that is ultimately the work of the Spirit.

That does not mean, however, that there should be no accountability in the church.  As a Wesleyan, I believe that we are responsible for responding to God’s grace through faithfulness and service.  Furthermore, I believe that we have a responsibility for encouraging and equipping each other in our faithful obedience to God’s call to service.  Finally, I believe that some metrics can assist in that process of mutual accountability.

Such metrics would measure not raw numbers of members and money but instead try to assess the ways in which the ministry of the church has contributed to the transformation of the world.  In the language of non-profits, they measure outcomes (how things are qualitatively different because of your work) and not outputs (how much of something you’ve produced).

Such metrics would ask all church members questions like the following: Have you (and how have you) grown in the knowledge and love of God in the last year?  Have you (and how have you) sought to more faithfully live out your Christian calling in the last year?  Do you feel like you have more or less of the knowledge and skills necessary for effective ministry than you did a year ago?  It would ask pastors similar questions, but also questions like this: Have you developed in your understanding of your vocation?  Church leaders, pastors, and district superintendents would be asked: How is the world different because of the ministry of this church?  Where has the Kingdom of God come into being because of the work of this church?

Such questions would have the advantage of holding all church members (and not just pastors and bishops) accountable for faithfully engaging in ministry.  One of the problems of the current Call to Action plan of assessment is that it makes elites responsible for the success of the church.  But effective ministry is the responsibility of all Christians, an insight which Wesleyans should recognize as much as any others.  By encouraging us all to reflect on whether we are being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, such assessments would drive home our mutual responsibility to respond to the grace of God.  We may not be ultimately responsible for the results of our ministry, but we are, all of us, responsible for engaging in ministry as best we can.  Proper evaluation, like all efforts at equipping the saints for ministry, should reinforce that point.

Modernity and the myth of progress

One of the fundamental beliefs of modernity is the belief in progress.  According to modernity, all manners of things can undergo an endless progression of expansion, improvement, and growth.  Knowledge, technology, the economy, social systems, and our selves are all capable of a never-ending process of improvement.  Such a notion is, however, a culturally-conditioned belief and not a given fact.  In most societies in the world for the vast majority of human history, people believed that the world underwent cycles of growth and decay or that it held to a tenuous equilibrium capable of catastrophic disruption.  Things might improve, but usually only through dramatic divine intervention in apocalyptic or eschatological ways.  Such beliefs accorded with human experience in which life was fragile and unlikely to improve dramatically.

It was only with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that belief in unlimited progress became wide-spread.  This belief in progress certainly has much to recommend it, as it is responsible for (and caused by) the dramatic increase in life expectancy and standard of living that the human race has experienced over the past several centuries.  Nevertheless, there are also darker sides to the belief in progress.  I would like to point out two such downsides today: unsustainability and the stigmatization of non-growth.

Some forms of progress have no inherent limits.  Is there a limit to how good of a person I can be or how much I can love God and neighbors?  No.  So, pursuit of sanctification is an enterprise that is probably a sustainable one.  For many other processes, though, there are real limits to how much we can achieve.  Finite resources, the laws of physics, and other forces mean that some forms of progress cannot go on forever.  Yet modernity’s myth of progress proclaims that they can, setting up the conditions for dramatic crashes between our expectations and way of living and these limits.

I find the myth of progress as it is incorporated into capitalism to be the most potentially tragic instance of this problem.  Capitalism depends upon growth.  The economy must grow (at something like 3% annually) and individual corporations must grow (usually at much more than 3% annually) or bad things happen: unemployment, price inflation, takeovers, lack of investment, etc.  To grow, capitalism demands more workers, more resources, and more markets.  Yet to have more workers, there must be more people.  More people and the demand for more resources eventually bump up against very real limitations on the amount of resources in our world.  There’s not only a finite amount of fossil fuels, but also of many important minerals, to say nothing about the question of food production.  There are also a finite number of markets in the world.  Once Coke has entered all of the countries of the world and displaced their traditional beverages, where then will its growth come from?  We need to question the myth of progress and instead develop economic and social models that seek sustainability and not endless growth lest we set ourselves up for disaster.

The other problem with the myth of progress is that we stigmatize instances in which we do not see progress occurring.  Humans often think in binaries, so if you are not growing, then you are declining.  If you’re not going forward, then you’re going back.  Since progress is the goal (and an achievable goal for all in all manner of areas), anything but great progress is seen as great failure.  Instead of looking at decline and decay as part of natural processes, we are convinced that they only occur as the result of great failures (moral, intellectual, volitional, etc.) on the part of those involved.  This even spills over into how we treat the aged, sick, and dying in American culture.  We shunt them away from sight, for they have failed to keep progressing, and we do anything we can to avoid being like them.  Yet age, sickness, and death are all instances in which decline is natural and perpetual youth and life are an illusion.  Thus, we stigmatize those who are involved in declining enterprises, be they companies, churches, social movements, or even people’s bodies.  While I’m not going to say that decline is a good or even necessarily a neutral thing in all cases, I think it’s in many cases at least less of a bad thing than we think it is.  Only by learning to recognize and selectively reject the myth of progress can we come to have a more human and compassion attitude toward those who are not progressing.

On Seeking Perfection

In many of my posts, I try to examine social problems and suggest aspects of their solutions.  It’s possible that some of my posts may give the impression that if we can just find the right solution, we can solve all of the problems plaguing our current world in the world of what-comes-next.  If we can learn from the wisdom of non-Western Christians, American Christianity in what-comes-next will be better.  If we can find that key uniting factor, then the United Methodist Church and indeed Christianity as a whole can be more united and cohesive.  If we can figure out what the social system is that is analogous to playing Legos, then we can have a world in which all are able to play together nicely.

I hope these posts have not indicated that I believe it is possible with enough smarts, hardwork, and gumption to build a perfect world.  I don’t think it is.  I do believe in the importance of trying to make our world better.  I do not believe in the possibility of making our world perfect.  Perfection is an elusive quality.  We often assume that there is some well-defined, clearly recognizable, and possibly attainable state of being called perfection toward which we should be striving.  I doubt whether perfection is well-defined, clearly recognizable, or attainable (at least in all its senses in this life).

First, I don’t think perfection is a well-defined concept.  To start with, who gets to define perfection?  This is one of the main points of postmodernity – no one’s definition of perfection is inherently better than anyone else’s, and everybody has a different definition.  I might not agree fully with the first part of that statement (I think that some definitions of perfection are better [or more perfect?] than others), but I definitely concede the second.  How can you pursue perfection as a society when different members of society define perfection differently?

Even if there was some commonly agreed-upon definition of perfection, would we be able to attain this perfection?  Most people’s conceptions of perfection are heavily influenced by the Greeks, who argued that perfection was a static, changeless state.  But our world is always changing.  Indeed, that’s one of the reasons the Greeks thought the material world was imperfect.  So, if we continue to hold a Greek view of perfection as static, it is impossible to attain perfection in this world, because the changing nature of the world would make any perfect state a fleeting and ephemeral experience.

Now, before anyone accuses me of abandoning my Wesleyan roots, let me be clear than I don’t give up on all talk of perfect.  I believe that God is more powerful than humans, and I believe perfection is easier to achieve in localized rather than systematic instances.  So do I believe God can make an individual perfect in love, such that they could not love others any more than they do?  Sure; I’ve never been one to put limits on God.

But do I expect to live in a perfect world in the future?  Absolutely not.  As my girlfriend Allie once pointed out, such a world would literally be utopia – that is, no place.  It doesn’t exist.  But you know what?  My dedication to making this world better doesn’t depend upon the belief that I can make it perfect.   I can still try to suggest solutions to our problems without expecting them all to be solved or with the expectation that, if we do solve our current problems, new ones might pop up.  Some might see this attitude as pessimistic.  I see it as hopeful.  I believe in real change for the better, and I believe I can contribute to such change, even when the possibility of perfection lies beyond me or humanity in general.

Playing house vs. playing Legos

I would like to suggest two metaphors describing how societal unity has functioned in the past and how societal unity might function in the future.  In the past, societal unity has been like playing house.  In the world of what comes next, I think societal unity needs to be like playing Legos.

Playing house is a group game that involves all children present.  When playing house, each member of the group of children has an assigned role: “You be the daddy.  I’ll be the mommy.”  There may be negotiation over who gets to play what role.  Often the bossiest members of the group dominate the other members and assign them their roles.  Members may be cast out of the group if they fail to submit to the roles assigned: “If you don’t want to be the brother, then you can’t play with us!”  Once the complex process of role assignment has been settled, though, participants then have a uniting framework within which to work and are then free to play and be imaginative within that framework.  That play may occasionally be interrupted by rule negotiation, but play continues nonetheless with everyone united in doing the same thing.

Playing Legos works differently.  What unites children when playing Legos is not an agreed upon framework of roles and rules but rather a shared set of play equipment – Lego blocks.  Using the blocks, children can decide to do any of a variety of things.  They can create storylines centered around minifigs.  They can build specific buildings or vehicles.  They can arrange buildings and vehicles into landscapes.  And they can do all of this with varying levels of cooperation with other children.  Some children can collaborate together on building projects or storylines while others do their own thing, but all can still feel like they played together because they were all playing Legos.  Of course, playing Legos is not without conflict – children can argue over who gets to use specific pieces and can damage or destroy each other’s creations.  Nevertheless, there is a much wider variety of option for how children can be united in playing Legos together than in playing house.

I would like to suggest that playing house is how social unity worked in the modern era.  There was a great effort to assign everyone roles in a world-wide social system.  Mostly these roles were assigned by the bossy types – Europeans, males, the rich, etc.  Those who didn’t accept the roles imposed upon them by these bossy types were killed or exiled from being part of world society.  Those who accepted the roles, though, could be part of “playing” with those in charge and have access to the social, economic, and political advantages (and costs) that came along with that.

Post-modernity was, in part, many people saying, “We don’t want to play house any more.  We don’t want to have to play these roles we’ve been assigned.  We’re tired of being the X in the family, and we want to do something different.”  One option in the wake of this declaration is for people to stop playing with each other – for everyone to go off and play their own game.  And in large part, that’s what’s happened in postmodernity.  There are, however, downsides to this approach.  If some people are playing Lincoln Logs and some people are playing chess, it’s difficult to play together.  If everyone is playing their own game, it results in a retribalization of the world.  This is a problem not only for those who believe in some sort of global unity as a moral/ethical goal, but also those who want to be able to continue to enjoy the good economic, cultural, and social goods in life that come about as a result of people from different backgrounds working together.

Therefore, we do need to find a way for people to still play together in the world of what comes next.  That playing together probably won’t take the form of playing house, with well-defined roles and rules.  Instead, it will resemble playing Legos, where everyone agrees on using a shared platform which then allows people to collaborate or work independently in myriad different ways towards myriad different ends while all still playing within the same system.

Three questions about church growth for the UMC

On Monday of this week, I was privileged to have a unique opportunity.  My advisor, Dr. Dana L. Robert, and I made a presentation to the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of The United Methodist Church at the annual meeting of their board of directors.  This was a great experience: I was honored by having the opportunity to speak to such an official group; I was happy to do something with such “real world” application; and it reaffirmed yet again the huge amount of admiration I have for Dana and the gratitude I have for being her student.  Yet what I wanted to share with you, my readers, were three questions from that presentation.

Dana and I had been invited to make this presentation because we had written an article called “World Growth of The United Methodist Church in Comparative Perspective: A Brief Statistical Analysis”.  In that article, we compared growth rates for national branches of the UMC and growth rates for national branches of independent Methodist denominations, African-American Methodist denominations (AME, AMEZ, and CME), Anglicans, Nazarenes, and Christianity as a whole.  Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the GBGM found our article provocative and wanted us to present our findings to the Board.

I won’t recount the findings of the article.  If you’re interested, you can read it online here.  Basically, the UMC is growing slower than these comparison groups in most countries around the world.  Instead of recounting the article in depth, I’d like to say something about the three discussion questions we presented to the Board.  Thomas wanted our piece to spark conversation among the board members, and Dana and I figured the best way to do that was to challenge our listeners with some questions.  I’d like to share them here, hoping they may challenge you, too.

The first question we asked the Board was, “How important is church growth to The United Methodist Church?”  Our article pointed out that the UMC was growing slower than these other groups and implied that was a problem, but that’s not necessarily the case.  I think especially as Americans and as capitalists, we think that the highest possible growth is always the best possible thing.  Indeed, as Christians we do want to make sure the gospel is available to all.  Yet there are good reasons for not buying into a mindset in which numerical growth in members is the sole important measurement of whether a church is headed in the right direction or not.  At the same time, knowing to what extent growth is important allows us to not be distracted by less important aspects of our mission.  How do we balance a desire to spread the gospel to all people with other important commitments to which God calls us?

Our second question for the Board was, “How do we balance diverse local expressions and global unity in the UMC?”  Anyone who has read the past couple of months of this blog will not be surprised by this question.  One of the points we made was that certain models of being the church may not be applicable for all national or cultural settings in which the UMC is present.  To assume they are can lead to cultural imperialism and hinder growth in those locations where they are inappropriate.  So, some adaptability is necessary.  Yet at the same time, if The United Methodist Church is to be united, not just in the United States, but globally, there must be some forms of global unity.

Third, we challenged the Board to answer, “What are the UMC’s gifts and graces relative to the world church?”  Talking about slower growth rates or declines in membership can quickly become an exercise in negative thinking in which people can end up feeling helpless and depressed.  That was certainly not Dana’s and my intention.  We asked this question out of a conviction that all parts of the body of Christ have contributions to make to the whole.  The UMC, at whatever rate it is growing, has gifts and graces to contribute.  Knowing what these are will help us to perform the ministry God has given us with effectiveness and satisfaction.

Those are the three questions then.  From the feedback we received, even though the questions weren’t part of the original research, they were just as useful to our audience as any other part of the presentation.  I pray that they may be of use to you, too.