Who’s Emerging for the Widows? Thoughts on Missional Partiality

A lot has been said about the emerging and emergent movements, contemporary calls for relevance, the debated value of cultural analysis, and the Pauline call to be “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9).  These are the hot-button topics at the evangelical table (or behind the evangelical woodshed).  They are important topics and these are important discussions.  We have been particularly weak at reaching an increasingly distant culture.

But I do have a question for the emergers, relevanters, culture-analyzers, missional revolutionaries, and all those who relentlessly pursue being “all things to all men”:

Who’s emerging for the widows?

In all the rhetoric about emerging and evolving and engaging and tailoring ourselves to fit into the current cultural milieu, who’s emerging for the elderly?  What about emerging toward the culture of the convalescent home?  What about analyzing the windowless worldview of the shut-in?  What about making your life and the life of your church revelant to the local widows?  What about becoming all things to those with Parkinson’s, artificial hips, cataracts, failed retirement plans, and no family?

Many today are eager to get tattoos and dress hip and overemphasize technology to “relate” to the surrounding culture, to “connect,” and to “open doors.”  But if the majority of these people are truly motivated by a compassionate heart, why aren’t any of our youth dressing like the precious elderly folks in the nursing home?  Who’s learning to play bridge and chess?  Who’s playing vinyl records and eating at the HomeTown Buffet for no other reason than to open doors?

To me, this betrays something very distressing about the current missional swing.  We may be customizing our missionality to fit our own preferences; cloaking our selfishness in a full wardrobe of so-called outreach; crafting our ministry methodology with the tool of public consensus instead of the unwavering words of the prophets and the apostles.  We might not be revolutionaries and radicals after all.  We might just be bandwagoners.

This is not to diminish merciful acts like feeding the homeless, tutoring inner-city kids, or adopting orphans.  It is certainly not to deemphasize evangelism or deny the complications of 21st-century American culture.  Only to say that most of the proclamations about relevance seem to subtly limit that relevance to certain groups of people.  It seems that we’re picking and choosing the groups to whom we want to be relevant.

Call it missional partiality.

Partiality chooses friends based on their relative rating on the social scale.  Missional partiality chooses objects of ministry based on the cool ministry factor.  Partiality engages in relationships based on potential repayment.  Missional partiality engages in ministry based on its subcultural newsworthiness.  Partiality attributes personal value based on personalities and fads and fashions.  Missional partiality attributes personal value based on current compassion trends.

Is it hard to see (or unfair to say) that certain types of compassion are more popular today than others?  I don’t lament mercy ministry trends just because they’re trends, and I must refuse the temptation to judge the motives of others who are engaged in these trends.  But I do think we must be clear: It is possible to exercise faddish compassion simply because it’s the Christianly cool thing to do.  And the quickest way to expose the fact that this is indeed happening is to point to the equally-biblical ministries that are not emphasized as often.  Virtually all youth groups in Southern California take mission trips to Mexico.  I’m guessing that fewer of these groups mobilize themselves to consistently mow the lawns of the elderly in their churches.  And let’s just face it — orphans get more press than widows these days.  As someone who’s adopted an orphan, I would never diminish the value of adoption or the myriad of other ways that you can help an orphan.  But as someone who claims to follow Jesus, I also cannot diminish the value of the other needy object of Christian compassion in James 1:27.  James said “and,” not “or.”

The self-proclaimed subcultural revolution happening all around evangelicalism has some good challenges to present.  I have mentioned this before.  We need to face up to many of the questions being asked (and I think that many churches are, which is exciting).  But what we don’t need is this hot new genre of ministry called cool compassion.  We don’t need the kind of short-lived, fairweather mentality that helps the homeless because it’s hip and also happens to be right.  And we don’t need the kind of mercy ministry that gauges its validity and priority by the bouncing barometer of contemporary public consensus.

Woe to us if we think we’re “in” just because we can map Darfur, detail Joseph Kony, highlight child trafficking, and reference world hunger statistics without lifting a finger.  And woe to us if we sit around playing conversational volleyball with the atrocities of our age while committing ministerial genocide against an entire generation by neglecting the widow and the elderly right around the corner.

A few months ago we went to a local Chinese restaurant after church.  As we were sitting in our booth getting ready to order, a recent TMC grad from our dorm came around the corner and noticed us.  He set his things down on his table and walked over to say hi.  I asked him who he was having lunch with, and he said “a friend.”  I smiled inside, assuming that he was trying to cover up the fact that he was basically on a post-church date with a female interest.  Sure enough, after we talked for a bit, his date came around the corner and slid into his booth.  Only she was about 85.

He introduced us to her and soon went back to sit down.  From time to time I glanced over and saw them smiling, laughing, and conversing the way a sensitive young Christian man and a widow who’s ripened with age interact.  He was a young single man taking a widow from his church out to lunch.  There is much more to biblical compassion than this.  But there is not less.

This isn’t really about widows.  It’s not really about the elderly.  It’s not really about nursing home visitation.  It’s about the partiality that so easily creeps into even the best things that we seek to do.  It’s about that missional lemming in all of us who’s afraid or unwilling to cut the path that Scripture says to cut and instead gravitates toward those smooth and well-traveled trends that are lined with admirers from the church and the culture alike.  And most of all, it’s about the inescapable fact that missional partiality is still partiality.

6 thoughts on “Who’s Emerging for the Widows? Thoughts on Missional Partiality

  1. I am a widow of 5 years and also grandmother who has is involved in raising grandchildren. Your article made me cry. It is what I have been saying and Your lengthy reply to your friend i’s exactly on target. I get the poor and widow were kind of examples to make your point but basically we widows have been tossed to the curb for the current ministry trends. We are to move on and serve and get over ourselves. Meanwhile every other need is a top priority. I am sorry I am hurt but hoping to move on and do the best with the Lord at my side.

  2. Good food for thought, brother – both in the post and in your response to Telle. Thank-you. I hate how easy it is to improve in one area, only to find you’re now neglecting another… I’m struck again and again with how impossible it is to live a genuinely faithul, fully-orbed Christian life without consistant self-evaluation – and not against others around you, but against God’s Word. There are plenty other things we’re not doing as a youth ministry and as a church, but I’ve recently begun trying a few things to encourage our youth towards ministry to the elderly. I’ll let you know how it goes…


  3. Telle – I appreciate your comments. I look forward to talking about this more over lunch next week, but I’ll also try to give you a thoughtful response here.

    First, if you believe that I have the log of missional partiality in my own eye and therefore have no biblical platform to write this post without being a hypocrite, please tell me personally and directly as soon as possible and I will gladly hear you. But if you’re simply referring corporately to weaknesses that we both see at TMC and in conservative circles, the existence of those weaknesses is no reason for me as an individual to remain silent regarding particular expressions of missional partiality that I see in the current missional swing. In other words, weaknesses within an institution are no automatic warrant for saying that particular individuals serving at that institution cannot offer observations and critiques of the broader Christian landscape.

    Second, I don’t pretend (either in this post or elsewhere) that missional partiality is unique to one group or absent in conservative circles. I hope you remember as well as I do the multiple conversations we’ve had over the years about these very issues within our circles. Further, I’ve written often at this very site about weaknesses I see and how I desire to fight against them in my own life, the church’s life, and the life of the college. I don’t expect you to have read those other posts, but it’s important for you to know that they’ve been written lest you mistakenly assume that this latest post simply represents some sort of one-sided anti-culture, anti-relevance agenda.

    Though I’m very grateful for many aspects of the current missional emphasis (as I’ve made very clear here before), I think it’s wise to highlight some dangers of that emphasis within circles that emphasize emerging, contextualizing, engaging culture, and pursuing relevance (which is a smorgasbord and spectrum of movements and people, I know). I chose the widow and the elderly as an example of how a concentrated emphasis on connecting with popular culture, using technology and art, seeking relevance within the public square, emphasizing particular kinds of previously-neglected mercy ministries, and pursuing the younger unchurched generation can unwittingly produce a ministry subculture that neglects the elderly.

    You asked me to demonstrate why this particular expression of missional partiality (neglect of the elderly) would be a strong temptation in the midst of the current missional swing. I would suggest several reasons:

    (1) When a movement strongly emphasizes connecting with popular culture, that movement will not as naturally pursue the elderly because the elderly are part of a different (older) culture. This doesn’t mean that pursuing the elderly becomes impossible; only that it’s less likely the stronger the emphasis on popular culture.

    (2) When a movement emphasizes the employment of technology and art in ministry, that movement will run a high risk of leaving the oldest generations behind. The oldest generations don’t typically use Facebook or YouTube or iPods or the internet, nor do they have much appreciation for or connection with newer (and often radically different) forms of art.

    (3) When a movement emphasizes particular kinds of previously-neglected, fresh mercy ministries (poor, disenfranchised, marginalized), there is always a strong and obvious risk that the most basic and seemingly unexciting ministries will fade. It is not hard to see why the elderly can quickly fall into this easily-neglected category. This same risk applies when the church partners with the world in its compassion concerns. It becomes a temptation over time to serve and reach out only in ways that the world values because we want to be a testimony to them, all the while not realizing that we may be leaving behind some significant things that God values.

    (4) When a movement seeks relevance within the public square, it focuses its energy on addressing the hot-button concerns of the public square. But these are often not the topics of concern for the widow and the decrepit, so their concerns and needs grow increasingly unmet.

    (5) When a movement channels the majority of its missional energy toward the younger, unchurched generations who have few Judeo-Christian foundations or values, the biblical priority of loving the older generation can be left behind. This is not at all to diminish the much-needed emphasis on evangelizing these younger, increasingly post-religious people. Only to say that when they are the overarching emphasis, it takes much more effort to remember and value the elderly.

    I agree with you that many of the compassion emphases in the current missional climate are a reaction to the neglect within previous movements. I am genuinely and intensely grateful that a void is being filled (and I’ve said so very strongly and definitively before). But because it is partly a reaction, I am simply calling all of us, including myself, not to open up other voids in the rush to show compassion to certain categories of people. I’ve experienced a relative silence regarding the widow and the elderly in the missional literature I’ve seen, in conversations about these new movements, and in online dialogues. This is reason for concern. And I still believe it exposes some things about these new swings.

    After all of this, my question remains: Who’s emerging for the widows?

    Feel free to push back if you still feel that something’s imbalanced. Some of that perceived imbalance may be due to the fact that I’m emphasizing one thing in this post, and I think you’re wanting me to hit on a lot of other things that I’ve already said elsewhere and will continue to say. Either way, this is worth clarifying and thinking earnestly about, so thanks for the open dialogue. And I am deeply honored that this humble blogsite played host to Matt Telle’s inaugural address to the blogosphere.

  4. So it is apparent that I wrote that response to late in the night. I just could not sleep, I was thinking about it so much,

    I think that the main thing to me is that I believe that ministry partiality is such an issue on the Master’s College campus, in the hearts of its students, and in the hearts and practices of its circles to the extent that I think it most appropriate to remove the log out of our own eye as it were before we attempt to critique others in this (especially when they are strong in areas we are weak).

    Thanks Gun

  5. Good to hear your voice through print Gun,

    I appreciate your heart on this matter, however, I feel that you may not be fairly treating the issue. You are addressing “Missional partiality” especially in he area of ministering to the elderly as a pitfall of emerging culture, which is duly noted, but it is not a “Missional” or “Emergent” problem. It is a church problem. The conservative or fundamental church is also partial in its ministry. You must prove that this is a problem unique to “Missional/Emergent” churches or at least inherent to them for it to be singled out in ministry partiality.

    I am also nervous about the subtle assumption that the reason for the compassion leanings in missional living are based in a smooth path rather than the one cut by scripture. That is a little rough, though I realize that you did put in a little disclaimer. I think that it may be that the compassion leanings in missional living may have been spawned by a lack of people in the conservative church willing to replace their comfort with an active pursuit of compassion that is not as easy as playing bingo once a month.

    It could be that the leanings of the emergent church or missional living or whatever one wants to call it is necessary to fill the void left by a conservative church that would rather circle the wagons against culture (even that in itself would create a culture) then engage it the way Jesus and Paul did.

    I definitely agree that as true followers of Christ we must strive with an unwavering zeal to fulfill all of Jesus’ commands, especially following his example of universal compassion. This is something that I fail in everyday. I just do not believe that the failure to do so is inherent to missional living.

    P.S. This is the first time I have ever written on a blog in my life, so that just goes to show how much I miss our interaction on a regular basis. Love you Bro – Telle

  6. Thanks for the thoughts Gunner,

    I cant really say that Ive thought about this topic very much, but I like what your saying nonetheless. The other night though I was having a conversation with my roommate Luke and observing how much culture has impacted and changed the tenor of the modern church in America. Its nice to see that we arent totally out to lunch with what we were noticing.



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