Methodism reimagined: the center-of-nine

May 3rd, 2022

As we look ahead to reimagine Methodist identity into the future, given the realities of uncertainty and confusion—as well as new possibilities for purpose, belonging, and growth—and given the deep impacts of the last two years on church life more broadly, MinistryMatters is committed to helping you imagine a church called to be God’s future in the present.

To help our readers imagine that, we are asking leading pastors, thinkers, and teachers in our denomination to reflect on their own journey in and through this time of uncertainty.
In this ongoing series called "Methodism Reimagined," we are sharing the tools, practices, and perspectives that pastors are using right now to help them and their congregation move forward into a future that is bigger than the past.

In this article, a first of two parts, Rev. Matt Rawle helps give us a diagnostic of sorts to name where we are at the convergence of several experiences. We hope it helps give you the language to name where we are and where we might gostay tuned for what's next.


If I hear the word “unprecedented” one more time...though those who use the word aren’t wrong. We are living in an unprecedented time (even while it bears some resemblances to moments in our past), and there may be more at work contributing to our anxiety than we are aware. There are nine different spheres all vying for our attention, and the more intentional we are at recognizing the center of these nine circles, the easier it will be to shift our energy into a more laser-like focus of forward momentum, resulting in a shared and much needed deep breath. I’m sure that the “center of nine” is expressed via many disciplines and industries, but as a clergyperson I can’t help but notice this nine-fold Venn Diagram moving about in the life of the church.

Let’s look at the big picture first.

Three “Ages”

  • Industrial Age—Many find themselves in an “Industrial Age” way of thinking and being. Think about registering worship attendance. Industrial Age citizens would sign a pew pad, a registration card, or fill out a form at a welcome desk. You need to be present with pen and paper ready to go. It is tangible and intentional, and for many, the act of signing ones name is the only means of affirming presence. Most of our members and friends find themselves as citizens of the Industrial Age, the land of brick and mortar.
  • Information Age—There are fewer citizens in the Information Age than in the Industrial Age, thought these citizens feel relatively cutting edge, centered, and equipped in the world of Amazon, online giving, Facebook, and live streaming. These citizens register their attendance through QR codes and social media check-ins. They are less physically present than the Industrial Age citizens, but feel just as connected to the local community. They don’t mind email or online forms, and they probably haven’t written a check in quite a while.
  • Augmented Age—Fewer still is the number of Augmented Age citizens, but this may seem like the reality because they aren’t counted in the same way as other citizens. They have avatars, usernames, and gamer tags. These citizens are actually putting their phones down because wearable technology is becoming its own force. They don’t register their attendance at all. They don’t have to because Augmented Age locations have geofences and register their citizens automatically. The citizens in the Information Age go to the internet. For the citizens of the Augmented Age, the internet comes to them.

Here’s the fun of it. All three spheres exist all at the same time. If you only have pew pads many of your citizens won’t be registered. If you don’t have pew pads, many of your citizens will feel forgotten. It would be tough enough to navigate the intersection of these three nations, but lest we forget that we are still living through a global pandemic.

Three Covid Marathons

  • 1st Marathon: Traumatic Improvisation—Everything is shut down. We’re all wearing masks…or supposed to be. There are no vaccines or tested, viable treatments. We’re scared. Our sanctuaries aren’t open. What does this all mean? There was great trauma in the first covid marathon, a long race of building a dance floor while dancing upon it. And yet, there was great innovation and improvisation happening. We asked question we might not have considered. What does it mean to be “present” with one another while being physically separated? How far does the Spirit stretch when blessing communion elements? Is online worship viable? The good news is that this marathon has come to a relative conclusion for many. Not for all. There still exists great trauma and sadness from what Covid stole. Friends and family who exist now only in our memory and the eternal heart of God. Missed graduations and milestones. Lost employment and rising addiction rates. This marathon has lasting effects, but on the whole, this race has been run.
  • 2nd Marathon: Existential Exhaustion—As schools, businesses, and houses of worship began to reopen we underestimated how much energy was lost during the first race. It feels like we are something like 16.5 miles into this particular leg of the race. Monday through Friday has never been more exhausting in our lifetime, especially for families with school-aged children, those in the medical profession, and those in compassion industries like clergy, counselors, and social workers. Though this exhaustion again led to important questions. People began to seriously consider if they are in the right occupation, location, relationship, and faith community. In-person worship attendance is returning much more slowly than many imagined because it’s taking longer to recover from the week’s activities. It also is revealing that worship was an additional “activity” rather than a lived rhythmic reality for quite a long time. Again, not for all, but seemingly for many.
  • 3rd Marathon: Nostalgic Scarcity—We are just now beginning to see this third (and final?) covid marathon beginning. People will begin to assume that there isn’t enough. There isn’t enough to invest. There isn’t enough to experiment or risk. Not only is there not enough, the capital we will be tempted to use to invest in making us feel like we are back in 2019. “Why can’t we just have printed bulletins again,” is something I’ve heard more than once. Do you print some bulletins? Of course. Do you resume printing a full color, folded, detailed outline of worship and announcements for the entire congregation that we had to clean up from under the pews every Monday morning? Never again. I can’t blame people for wanting to reclaim what it felt like before all the craziness, but there are some things that won’t make it out of Covid. So, let us celebrate and morn and move.

It would be one thing if these were consecutive races, but they aren’t. Many are running all three at the same time, and we wonder why our tempers are short, substance abuse is on the rise, and there is a great resignation happening across the board. But there are three more circles to contend with.

Three Ways of Moving Forward

  • Pipeline—Moving forward, either getting a degree, working through grief, developing a new hobby, etc., was more or less defined by a paradigm or pathway. First do this, then when that is completed, do that. It was systematic, planned, and expected. When a cog is missing from the machine because of a Covid outbreak, the systematic and expected path breaks down. So, we move into an…
  • Ecosystem—Teamwork makes the dream work, right?! If you’re out, I’ll pick up the slack. Working from home and working in the office. Hybrid meetings and zoom calls. All seems to be moving in the right direction again…until there seems to be little reason only to work remotely, or there seems to be little reason exclusively to ever go to the office again. The ecosystem begins to break down. The waste within the system becomes unpalatable, and the seemingly seamless give and take necessary for a thriving ecosystem only produces bitterness and frustration. So, we finally consider to….
  • Abide—To abide with each other. We neither try to maintain a pipeline or fine-tune an ecosystem. Moving forward becomes compassionately personal. Pipelines and ecosystems have work or production at its center, but the “abide” model of moving forward is a people first movement. It gives rise to a decentralized experience like crypto currency, Web3, and autonomous organizations where there is a disassociation between workers and work. At least, to abide is to understand that we are all a work-in-progress. 

What’s the point of all this rambling? All nine circles are intersecting all at the same time producing an unfathomable Venn Diagram that we quite don’t know what to do with. At its center is an industrial, informational, and augmented space of traumatic improvisation, existential exhaustion, and nostalgic scarcity, moving us from the familiar pipeline into an ecosystem that is begging for us to simply abide with one another.  So, take a deep breath, give yourself a break, and know that you are not alone.

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