I grew up in a conservative part of the country where women preachers weren’t a thing. People exited the Lutheran church our family belonged to because the denomination was discussing women in leadership (beyond Sunday School). While no change was actually made, some members left to form a new church in an even more conservative synod assumedly to avoid such conversations again.
Eventually I went east for seminary and most of my classmates were women, many around my mother’s age, experiencing a new freedom at the time to pursue a call to ministry. While I grew more comfortable with women in leadership positions because of this, deep seated prejudice still lingered. When my wife started to express and pursue her own call to ministry a few years later, I supported her but peppered her with well-intentioned, to my mind at the time, questions about the ability of women to lead in a culture that didn’t want them to.
I’m thankful that my slow acclimation to change didn’t hold her back.
As rooted as my reservations were in my own prejudice, they weren’t completely fictional either. While the ordination of women is, more or less, a settled issue in the denomination I belong to, female clergy are still caught at times between justice and the residual sexism that lingers in many congregations and in our society at large. The first female pastor at a church is still required to carry an extra burden beyond her pastoral duties. If she is excellent in all ways the church might welcome the next female pastor to come their way, but if she is like most people, imperfect, those faults can reinforce a narrative bubbling just below the surface.
Over the past forty or so years, much maligned mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church have taken official positions aligning themselves with minority groups, and those without power, because thoughtful leaders believed that it was the right thing to do. Despite the narrative of the conservative right, that these churches were simply accommodating themselves to culture, churches stepped up at a time where there was no clear benefit for doing so. If mainline denominations should be accused of anything, it might be their failure to publicly, and repeatedly, acknowledge that death (or a certain lack of popularity) is a likely cost of following Jesus.
For example, in the Pacific Northwest I can think of several progressive churches that affirmed and supported equal rights for gays and lesbians in cities like Seattle before it was culturally acceptable, and long before marriage equality was a real possibility. They did so because they were in the community, they knew the people, could see the pain, and were moved in love to respond. These faith communities often suffered distain (and worse) from other Christians for doing so despite the hard work they did to pioneer new understandings and applications of an old, old story. And as public opinion has shifted toward inclusion, these same churches are now accused of simply following culture despite a clear history that is in conflict with that narrative.
There have always been followers of Jesus, like myself, who have allowed caution, or prevailing wisdom, to get in the way of their calling to pick up the cross and do what it right. Most of Jesus’ disciples, with the exception of a few brave women, were among that number on the day Jesus was crucified. Eventually we get there but we need the prophetic foresight of those who walk ahead.
But there is a more problematic sort of disciple that confuses numerical success with God’s blessing. Jesus had some of these disciples around him too, urging him to assert himself and lead the people in violent revolution. Jesus had the apparent sense to know how short lasting that sort of revolution would have been; unfortunately we don’t always embody that wisdom.
During Holy Week it’s worth remembering that our calling, as followers of Jesus, is to the cross. We may have the promise of resurrection to anticipate, but that is distinct from our calling. Resurrection is God’s work, not ours.
Discerning why some churches grow while others die is a complicated thing, made even more so when we fail to acknowledge the diversity of congregational expressions held within labels like mainline, non-denominational, evangelical, etc. No one factor accounts for everything and shrewd leaders, and sincere disciples, aren’t all cut from one cloth. Sometimes failure is the result of poor leadership, ineptitude, or societal shifts (like where people live) beyond the control of any single congregation.
But when we look at something like the growth trajectories of mainline denominations and non-denominational churches, and fail to acknowledge that there is a cost to being faithful to the Gospel’s demands to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly, we neglect to acknowledge our calling to the cross. We also, unintentionally perhaps, present to the world a Jesus who refuses to be crucified, a cautious Christ that prefers the crowds to the cross.
Societal change doesn’t happen overnight, and institutions (which can, despite my GenX cynicism, be capable of much good) do require leaders who can manage the proverbial temperature. Their work can provide sacred and necessary space for conversation and transformation.
But we must always keep in mind Jesus’ paradoxical calling to us, that we might die to ourselves so that we might truly live.
Any honest interpretation of Good Friday begs us to consider again, in what ways might we die so that others might have life?
Postscript: While some of the preceding may read like a full-throated endorsement of progressive Christianity, it is not intended as such. The failure to collectively embrace discipleship as a serious task, to adopt innovative ways to communicate, teach and worship, and a reluctance in many places to trust the people of the church with modern biblical and theological conversations are all areas of concern. Well-intentioned or not, this can leave the laity in such places politically opinionated but strangely disempowered from the rich theological thought that undergirds some of the positions they have adopted.