Church Unbound: Thinking About Cats and Church Governance

On Monday, Nov. 4, a stray black cat made its Monday night football debut, charging across the screen on live tv. Apparently, several cats make their home in the stadium, coming out after the fans have left to eat some of what they’ve left behind. This guy just jumped the gun, to the delight of fans.  

Watch the video. 

Read some commentary.

It’s funny because it’s a cat video but as a symbol, it’s got something to teach us about church governance. (And, sorry, kitty you will also serve as this week’s guiding metaphor.)

Stay with me. Our denomination pulls together a collection of historically diverse traditions — the United — church bit in our collective name. Some parts of the denomination give the pastor more power and some less, but most share a commitment to democratic ideals of voting, committees/teams/whatever and the notion that everyone’s voice counts. This local control gives each church its own rugged, almost nationalistic, character.

The trouble is the idea of the nation is breaking down. Consider this opinion piece from CNN that seeks to explain how we are moving towards a post-nation world; the point being nations are not what they used to be. 

Of course, we all know this. The point being that much like the cat discovered that Monday night the world is not the way it used to be. 

For years, the church writ-large has struggled to understand this new reality, using new words to try and make the church more adaptable, or more nimble, more future-focused in an effort to lessen the impact that world changes bring. (Read: smaller congregations, fewer young people, increasing stress on clergy, etc.) The point is it’s easier to see what the church of tomorrow isn’t than what it looks like.

I’m sure I’ve written about some of this before, but I was again struck by a similar thought reading two excellent articles in a recent issue of the journal Nature that described a pair of studies looking at the biology of online hate groups. Here is an example of where the common good would suggest that something needs to be done, but where the tools of the nation-state are inadequate or are ineffective. 

I’d encourage you to read these two articles, not because they have any clear answers but because the insights they raise are profound. Briefly, they suggest that online hate groups have an ecosystem that spans nations, are very resilient, and attacking the largest groups may backfire into just creating more hate.

They are worth reading and pondering, but not because they give easy answers. These are big-picture data analysis studies that make me wonder about each of the individuals involved in these groups. The pictures that accompany the articles look amebae like, with tendrils and centers weaving across the globe. 

Make it more personal by looking out some more local data here.

So, what does that mean?

Here’s my take away from this data, looking at it with and wondering about it with a theological eye. 

  1. What role does the local church play in this, because after all everybody lives somewhere? I suspect that empathy and love can cure some of this hate. I also suspect that salvation is not something some people want. There is a tension here that may not be resolvable.
  2. These studies raise the question of evil. Theologically speaking evil is a reality, but it is not something we in the progressive camp like to reckon with or name as such. I wonder if that needs to change?
  3. Does more knowledge help? We already know the world can be a terrible and hate-filled place. What is the role of education in situations like this? I believe that light cures a multitude of ills, but the reality is that evil/nasty/terrible shares on social media spread farther and wider than truth. 
  4. What is the best response to this data? I’m not sure. Studies like these are helpful to understand some of the evil that has gripped our world, but it seems so abstract and removed. 
  5. Is there an answer? These studies make it clear there are no easy answers and no clear solutions. The cat is running free in the stadium. Some of us can see it, but nobody wants to be the one to actually grab it.

I started the post discussing church governance and I think there is a place for considering these issues in the church.

I would suggest you look at the data this week if only to give you your own points to ponder. Maybe use it in your sermon prep. I’d be tempted to pair it with Jesus speaking about the salt of the earth. Or perhaps the Parable of the Sower. 

Share some of your ideas in the comments below. What can we do to help in the battle against online hate? Is there a role for the church, beyond condemnation and solidarity?

Rev. Jeremiah Rood is a freelance writer, minister, and stay-at-home dad. He has served congregations in Massachusetts, where he still lives with his wife and daughter. For more book thoughts read his reviews at Foreword Review. For more information please visit him at: www.revjeremiahrood.com

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