Years from now historians will be tripping over themselves to explain how and why the church in America changed so radically toward the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. Three trends of the period will fascinate historians: 1) the rise of radical Christian fundamentalism and its influence upon American politics; 2) the role that Neo-Pentecostalism or the Charismatic renewal movement has played in the decline of mainstream Christianity; and 3)the groundswell of women entering the ordained ministry.
The one I worry most about is how the influx of women into the pulpit will be judged by historians. What difference will it make that 50% or more of those attending seminary these days are women? Has the church changed in any fundamental ways since women have fought for and gained access to seats of power within the institutional church? Or has it been business as usual? Has the presence of women in the pulpit made any difference in history?
Who knows whether we have come to the kingdom for just such a time as this? It just might be that women are the prophets the church sorely needs to hear from these days.
Prophet. Um, er, duh, prophetess. Ah yes, now there’s a word that raises a lot of hackles. In the pentecostal, charismatic church of my youth, being prophetic meant being able to foretell a coming event or being able to look into the heart of an individual. I grew up hearing lots of evangelists. I also grew up believing that some indeed had the gift to discern my lustful appetites, or to sense that I cursed around my friends, or to see that I’d mastered swiping Butterfinger candybars from Mr. Jim’s corner store when he wasn’t looking. In the church of my youth individuals were the focus of prophetic utterances, not kings, governments, and economic systems (as these were in the days of the prophets of the Bible).
And then I grew up. Or was it that I ventured outside the church of my youth? Whatever. Not only am I a child of the church, but I’m baby boomer as well, someone who came of age at the height of the the anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements of the 60s and 70s. Which explains why I prefer the social and political indictments of prophets like Amos and Jeremiah to the pietistic, didactic teachings of prophets like Paul and John.
It’s easier and more popular to preach about a woman’s depression and emotional disappointments, and to make her think that she’s the problem. It’s more difficult and dangerous to talk about the sexism women encounter daily that makes us depressed, or about how the church (and the men) we love so much has benefitted from our illnesses.
What we preach about says a lot about what we care about.
How can we preach for years and never bring up domestic violence, sexual abuse, and the kidnapping of girls that take place every week in our cities? What will it say about us if we mastered the art of preaching, but never figured out a way to persuade audiences to see God as more than Father? If we insist upon our right to preach, only to preach a gospel of prosperity and say nothing about war and systemic poverty, what was the point? If God is as terrifying and punitive in our preaching as God has been construed by previous generations of preachers, if men are not offered new models of manhood and women are not offered new, life-giving ways of being whole and holy vessels of God, if hierarchy and patriarchy continue to define the way the church does business, then what difference will it have made that women outnumbered men in seminary in the 21st century?
If history records that we stood to speak, and no one feared that we would turn the world upside-down with what we had to say, then we missed our opportunity in history as the groundswell generation of women clergy. If we are remembered for the fashionable clergy outfits we sported in the pulpit but not for any prophetic stance we took, then Lord have mercy on us all.
If it’s said that we saw no connection between our struggles in ministry and the efforts of a certain senator to become the first woman to become President of the United States in 2008, then it will be obvious why we failed to make a dent in history
I wonder what history will say about us preaching women who lived during the 21st century.