Commentary by Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications & Young People’s Ministry
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the most pervasive myths in contemporary Christianity is the one where faithfulness is always rewarded with a corresponding, and nearly immediate, fruitfulness. There is no greater threat to a mature, and truly rewarding, spiritual life than this.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. We live in a world where instant gratification has become an expectation, not a rare exception. If we are to consider an actual place where the church is most likely to accommodate to the larger culture unwittingly, this would be a candidate alongside the bigger is always better motif.
The driving forces in our culture position themselves to provide for, and to reward those who also meet, our cravings for instant gratification. Are you hungry? Pre-packaged meals will make your dinner prep so much easier. If you don’t have time for that; a drive thru is waiting with a meal that will overload you with carbs and a quick buzz. Or maybe you are bored? Each month a new innovation is released to deliver “entertainment” that demands less effort, and thought, from the consumer.
[pull_quote_right]Some things just take time. One of those things is societal change. [/pull_quote_right]Don’t get me wrong. I’m no luddite and there are significant advantages that come with emerging technologies and life-hacks. I remember hanging clothes out to dry as a kid; what a complete waste of time that seems like now. There are things we can do with technology, like video chats with family members who live thousands of miles away, that are simply fantastic.
But some things just take time. One of those things is societal change.
I guess you could blame it on the mainframe, the outdated hardware that is some weird combination of the human heart, mind, and spirit. We can try to push out software upgrades through the form of education and, more effectively, via experiential learning but moving people still takes time – maybe less than before – but time all the same.
Let us consider an example.
United Methodists inherit a rich heritage of women serving in leadership that extends back to John Wesley’s day. While ordination would come much later, Wesley himself licensed the first woman preacher in 1761. Still, I’ve been witness to folks debating whether women should be allowed to publicly preach and teach in the church. And I have at other times encountered people who were completely oblivious and dismissive of those raising inequality concerns, living into some odd “the church doesn’t see gender” meme.
Despite some long-standing equality in our official structure, United Methodist clergy women are more likely than their male counterparts to experience gender-based challenges to their authority. They are less likely, in many regions, to serve as lead pastors in large churches, as District Superintendents, or to be elected as Bishops. In some communities, people will still leave a church that is appointed a female pastor and some of our churches still find subtle (and less so) ways to suggest their preference for a male pastor.
Is this wrong? Absolutely. Is it reflective of a systemic and pervasive sexism that exists in our larger society and creeps into the church? Definitely. Is it true that appointing a female pastor in some communities will lead to membership loss? Probably. Does the faithful church do it anyway? Certainly.
After eating a final meal with his disciples, Jesus went “to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”
Those of us who are familiar with Matthew’s story know that Jesus returns to find them sleeping not once, but twice. This Gospel story isn’t so much a recounting of narcoleptic disciples as it is an example of catechesis for the early church – an encouragement to stay alert and faithful despite the difficult times ahead. After all, Jesus was not promising a drive-thru faith and most of his disciples would not live to see the fruit of their faithfulness to Jesus’ vision of God’s Kin(g)dom.
[pull_quote_left]I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. – Rev. Theodore Parker, 1857[/pull_quote_left]If Jesus were to walk into a church today, I suspect he would continue to ask us to be patient, to wait, stay alert, and hold true to the things we have come to understand. The church’s historic stands for social justice have never been found on the quick path toward numerical success and societal popularity. Why would we expect anything to be different today?
As that oft-mentioned long arc of the moral universe continues to bend toward justice, holding fast to these principles are the only future the church truly has. Within Christian community there should be serious, healthy, and theologically informed conversations about change as it occurs. And some consideration to the ‘fruitfulness’ of leadership and innovation ought to be considered. But when we do so, we should question whether God perceives fruitfulness the way we see and understand it.
John Wesley is said to have asked three questions worth our consideration here:
- Is there faith?
- Is there fire?
- And is there fruit?
I find keeping each in its proper order to be a helpful corrective to both our desire for quick results and the defensive impulse represented in such statements as “we are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful.” While each successive question can provide some guidance to the previous ones (e.g., when faith loses fire we need to understand why, and challenge assumptions with good questions), our ministry is ultimately undermined when we allow success to dictate the tenets of our faith. We forfeit our ability to transform the world and challenge the norms that we have inherited.
Buying into the myth of fruitfulness without developing a holistic understanding is dangerous. Conservatives and progressives alike have been guilty of grounding faith claims in the shifting sands of numerical success. Such an approach puts the church at risk of an unholy capitulation to an impatient culture that glorifies instant gratification at great cost to many, and to our witness as the church of Jesus Christ.