This post is a day late in the ever increasingly unsynchronized syncblog sponsored by Jeremy Smith over at Hacking Christianity. Jeremy has found this Lenten season full of all sorts of busy and hasn’t really kept up with the discussion and sync posts thus far, but check out The Epistle of Jim for at least one other blogger covering these books!
Like Jim, I find this my favorite of the bunch thus far. I’ll admit that a portion of my liking this book is that it shares some of the same left-leaning theological pre-commitments I hold, but there’s a lot to like about this book aside from those things as well.
First, this book, like Lord I Love the Church, And We Need Help, lets theology lead its discussion and analysis. Whereas storytelling and storylistening were the key theological aspects of Bassford’s book, a grassroots insurgency to open the breadth of whom the church is oriented toward serving is the driving idea behind Rasmus and Escobedo-Frank’s book. They find fault with the current structure of The UMC in being hierarchically shaped in how decisions and resources are made. Similarly, they find fault in the Call to Action proposals in elevating the power of the Council of Bishops while flattening all other things. Instead, the argue for returning the impetus of The UMC to the laity in noting that
The original dream of the Methodists was simple: create a free-flowing structure that allowed for movement, innovation and growth.
And noting that while the Call to Action reinserts the word accountability into United Methodist discourse on polity, it does not do so in the way that laity watched over the church in the original structure but instead, makes the Bishops the purveyors of accountability. This effectively heightens the top-heavy hierarchical problems of our denomination by offering a top-heavy solution.
Instead, Rasmus and Escobedo-Frank want to flatten the church and hand the reins over to the laity who have been displaced by the professionalization of the clergy role. Edward Farley’s Theologia was an early practical theological call for reform in theological education out of concern that the training of clergy had fragmented among different specializations. These specializations fragmented theology and removed the pastoral tasks of things like preaching, pastoral care, church leadership and administration, etc. from the theological moorings of biblical interpretation, church history, systematic theology, etc. As a result, clergy were trained to be ‘professional caregivers and caretakers’ more than leaders of a church in mission to the world.
I think that Rasmus and Escobedo-Frank, Farley, and myself are all ultimately concerned with a sense of classism within the church that results from this professionalization of clergy roles. This classism tends to put laity on the low end of the totem pole as the ‘untrained’ who therefore aren’t to be the prime movers of a church’s ministry. This to me is a horrible mistake.
Gramsci speaks of “organic intellectuals” in social movements and this idea carries a lot of weight for me as I consider what The UMC needs. While trained clergy are important, we need more bi-vocationally adept clergy who can do more than “church work.” Such clergy would be able to move more easily in the days of post-guaranteed appointments. But more importantly, it would put clergy more in touch with the organic level of laity skills. Rather than things like Shepherds Ministries or Certified Lay Speaker programs that train laity to do clergy tasks, clergy can learn to recognize and utilize the skills already present in lay members.
Many theological schools have begun curriculum reforms to incorporate what Farley and resultant conversations in practical theology brought to their attention. But, in my experience in parish ministry, there’s more work to be done as it seems the laity have been dutifully trained to expect clergy to perform certain tasks and do things rather that be shapers of Christian formation in their congregations and communities. Breaking dependence is difficult.
The second thing I like about The Jesus Insurgency is the willingness to recognize that some things need to die– and that dying is not always a bad thing.
So we must be willing to die. And we must acknowledge our own death. Our structures, our traditions, our preferences, our way of being and our control must be set free to die.
Now, those of you who know me, know that I love pretty much all thing Star Trek. Yet my favorite series is Deep Space Nine, perhaps because it is the least “Trek-verse” of all the Star Trek series. DS9′s abiding strength for me is that it complexifies Gene Roddenbery’s vision that technology will the solution to humankind’s problems and creates a space for the truly unknown and unexpected to find solutions where technology fails. This is done in the guise of the Bajoran religion and worship of The Prophets, despite the Federation counter-narrative of these being ‘wormhole aliens’ who have extraordinary abilities to alter the timeline.
What this twist within DS9 does is shatter the Western cultural myth of eternal progress that is evident in the technological salvation of Roddenberry. In a similar way, we need to shatter the myth of eternal progress within The UMC. There are things that need to die, churches that need to pass the baton, and clergy that need to move on to whatever their calling truly is if it’s not making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Rasmus and Escobedo-Frank offer up a lovely theological model for how to shatter this myth by pointing out the central message of Christianity is one of death and resurrection–not eternal progress!
Or, to paraphrase Tim Rice’s lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar,
While you live, your troubles are many, poor UMC,
To conquer death, you only have to die.
You only have to die.
But, as in the scriptures, death does not get the final word. The third thing that’s great about this book is that love gets the final word. And it is a radical and deep love for all. Rasmus and Escobedo-Frank are not shy about expanding the circle of The UMC to include those who are currently ignored or outright kept outside. They take seriously the arguments, expressions, and approaches of modern society in showing how our denomination, and much of Christianity, has become incomprehensible to people outside our congregations. This is a message we can’t be told too often! As my UMC Inside Out post stated, this sort of insular bubble is very very dangerous for us.
The solution Rasmus and Escobedo-Frank present to this dilemma is based in their own experiences in ministry and personal faith. Love is what brings people in. And love is what keeps them in. Far more than programs, preaching, or gimmicks, a community that expresses and expands the love of Jesus Christ for all people will push us outward. Thus, the Jesus Insurgency for love begins at the edge of the church, not it’s center. At the edge, where we meet the other and welcome them by loving them. Homi Bhabha agrees with the importance of the edges of a culture by noting that this is precisely where the Location of Culture lies. It is NOT at the center of a culture where identity and cultural practices are created and shaped. It is in the overlapping areas at the edges of cultures where they meet and bump into others. It is in the stairwells between the floors of buildings that seem hidden and out of the way.
This is where our United Methodist culture and ethos must be forged. Because, it was John Wesley, in a field, preaching and talking to factory workers after they got off from a grueling 12 hour work day where the world became his parish. Not until his dying days did he locate his ministry in a building. So, maybe its time to die, so that we can be reborn in a field, or a stairway, or a street corner as we were truly meant to be.