Rev. Melissa Cooper

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The Three Greatest Challenges: BUSTH Distinguished Alumni 2017

  2017 Boston University School of Theology Distinguished Alumni, Sept. 14, 2017

2017 Boston University School of Theology Distinguished Alumni, Sept. 14, 2017

This year, I was given an incredible honor. I was nominated and selected as Boston University School of Theology's Distinguished Alumna in the category of Emerging Leader. 

Any chance to return to the School of Theology is one I treasure, to walk halls and see faces that shaped me more than I even know yet, and this opportunity was even more special as an honoree. In fact, I almost didn't make it, as the weekend prior to Alumni Week the entire state of Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma. Thanks be to God (and JetBlue), I was able to only delay my trip by a couple of days and still participated in a few of the Distinguished Alumni events. 

One of those events was a panel presentation, at which each of us was asked to speak for a few minutes on "The Three Greatest Challenges We are Facing in the Next Ten Years." (No big deal - I can handle that in 8 minutes.)

It was inspiring to hear each of my fellow honorees share their ideas on this topic, and I wanted to share my own perspective here. Whether or not these are the greatest challenges we are facing is certainly arguable, but these are the greatest challenges I see that I might have some insight into. I would love to continue the conversation in the comments ...

The Three Greatest Challenges of the Next Ten Years
Boston University School of Theology Distinguished Alumni Panel
September 14, 2017

 (I will always and forever talk with my hands.)

(I will always and forever talk with my hands.)

I really want to take seriously what we need to look at in the next decade specifically, and especially issues that are relevant to the work I have done over the last few years. There are far more significant issues facing our country and our world, and while with the right next steps many of our global social crises could be solved in short time, I do not believe we will do so within a decade. 

Issues like climate change, the prison industrial complex, institutionalized racism, human trafficking … the list goes on. These issues are not likely solved in ten years or less, and I’ll be honest - I’m not the best person to speak on responses to any of these. Instead, I want to look closely at three issues facing us in the next 10 years, as well as three key responses that, if we will act on them, will better place us, especially in the US, to face our even greater challenges long-term.

The first challenge we face is extremism and partisanship. This challenge frames a lot of the other challenges we face. We all lived through this last election cycle, and while the issues are not new, they are more in the open than ever. Coming of age in the Clinton and Bush years, and moving into adulthood in the Bush and Obama years, I have to tell you has been an interesting experience. 

The concept of identity has never been so at the forefront of our society - we have more options than ever about who we want to be and become, and yet I find that my peers and I have found it difficult to take advantage of that option when the extremes drown out everything else - everything is either/or, in or out, never both, never and, and never somewhere in between. I doubt I need to further explore this topic as, as I said before, we all lived through the last election cycle and are living in our current political situation.

The second greatest challenge is on a more sociological level, and related directly to the cross-generational work I’ve done over the last few years. We are about to see the largest generation in history enter retirement - they have already begun, in fact. The aging of the Baby Boomer generation is going to create incredible challenges that will hit us head-on in the next decade. Most of the issues surrounding the Boomers are circumstantial, not qualitative. 

The size of the generation is the primary factor that is resulting in issues like the depletion of Social Security, rising medical costs, a lack of upward mobility in the workforce (and soon to be a large gap in the workforce due to retirement and aging). These issues will become critical in the next decade as younger generations take over leadership in industry and society.

Finally, and this one is specifically for the church, our greatest challenge (and something required for any version of surviving as a vibrant and relevant institution) is to move on from church growth models of ministry to models that focus more on discipleship and love of neighbor. We need to think about going deeper instead of wider. We need to go back to thinking of ourselves as a movement rather than a membership organization. We must look at different ways of supporting and funding ministry. I think we are about to hit the turning point where we can no longer believe the myth that more people in our churches automatically will produce more and better ministry. 

So, that being said, I want to offer what I consider to be the three greatest responses to these challenges, and I believe they are things we can accomplish in the next decade if we pay attention. These ideas are not new, and I don’t want to pretend they are more profound than they are. But sometimes we must be reminded of who we have always been called to be. While I was here at STH, Dr. Parsons assigned us Vincent Donovan’s Chrsitianity Rediscovered, a text that has stuck with me ever since. So my recommendation is that we as the church and society have some things to “rediscover.”

First, our extremism and partisanship requires that we rediscover kindness. I have to tell you, the experiences of the last week or two in Florida have brought this one to light. The prospect of the annihilation of your entire state brings out the best and worst in people, and I felt it in myself as well. The myth of scarcity is powerful, and it causes us to forget that there is enough. It causes our greatest selfishness and self-centeredness to arise - I felt that in myself as I watched videos of Hurricane Irma destroying entire Caribbean nations and my first thoughts were about myself and destruction of my property rather than the thousands of people on those islands. 

At the same time, though, I saw incredible kindness and community begin to emerge as resources were shared, neighbors helped one another prepare, and offers of shelter, safety, and the all-important access to air conditioning was gifted by individuals, churches and businesses all over Florida. There was a powerful sense of compassion and kindness. And it took a catastrophic natural disaster to spark that. 

When we look at the way theology and politics have intermingled to the point that you can’t tell which is which, and the only opinions you may hold are those on one end or the other, and the only way we see one another is “us” versus “them,” or whether people are “in” or “out,” we have no hope of rediscovering kindness. We have to realize there is only us, and there is a lot of gray area, and that’s okay. We’re all in this together. 

This idea really is a little more kum-ba-yah than I normally get, but I do believe it. Kindness as a fruit of the spirit is never wasted, and it’s one of the ways we come together not to bridge the partisan divide but to erase the idea of extremes as the default. 

Second, as we see the transition of the giant Baby Boomer generation out of the workforce and into elderhood, and as younger generations take on greater responsibility and ownership of our economy and our culture, we must rediscover the theological concept of vocation. We must understand all people at all ages and stages to carry with them a vocation - a calling from God - in this understanding, we will develop a more well-rounded and socially responsible culture that values what every individual has to bring to the table.

When we hear the word vocation, we usually think of it as the work we do as young and middle adults. We spend our childhood and youth discovering our vocation, our adulthood doing it, and our old age is the time after vocation. However, this places emphasis only on one stage of life as contributive to society. It devalues children as people “in process,” and it puts even less value on those in the last third of life, painting them as “done” with vocation. 

We have to help retiring Baby Boomers find their vocation in retirement and elderhood. Many of them have defined their lives and worth by their job for decades - discovering they are still essential to an intergenerational society and not simply retired consumers is going to be a key move we must make, especially in the church, in the next decade. 

In addition, we now have generations of young people who will not settle for work that simply pays the bills; they desire work with meaning. And these are the folks who are going to be taking over as Baby Boomers eventually retire. Where many Baby Boomers found their purpose in working to support their family, GenX, Millennials and the generation following are more interested in the work itself having meaning. And while our younger generations are more interested in meaningful work than pay or promotion, they are terrified of their financial future with higher costs of living combined with rising student loan debt. 

We have to help people see their worth and contributive potential throughout life, and the work of intergenerational culture-building is a key part of this. We only see each other as complete and contributive if we know each other. 

This brings me to my third and final response to our challenges, which is that we must rediscover community. This is needed especially in the church, and is a key component of moving out of a church growth mindset and into a discipleship mindset. The need for intergenerational community built on relationship rather than membership is an essential component of the future of the church. 

The generational divide is huge - one of the most significant statistical divides in the last election, in fact. We have more generations than ever contributing to our society at once. It’s the first time in history we have four distinct adult generations in the workforce together. And yet, these generations are as divided as they are different. Our culture doesn’t breed community the way it used to.

Now, in the 21st century, we must develop that community intentionally, and that doesn’t happen through church growth models. More specifically, we have to develop intergenerational community. 

The church is one of the few places left in society where, theoretically, all generations gather together. But the models of the late 20th century focused on dividing and segregating rather than developing intergenerational culture. The church is the perfect place to rediscover community, which at its essence includes rediscovering kindness and vocation as well. 

We don’t know each other intergenerationally, and thus we don’t value each other intergenerationally. Through mentorship, apprenticeship, story sharing, worshiping together and even simply breaking bread together regularly, we create the context in which relationships are built. We rediscover kindness, rediscover vocation, and rediscover community - and I think we will be amazed at how that impacts the even greater challenges we face in the next decade and beyond. 

Melissa CooperComment