Am I a croaker?
Croakers were early nineteenth-century Methodists who yearned for the Methodism of their youth. As croakers aged, Methodism became more mainstream, more fashionable, and less intense. They wanted the old days back.
Croaker is a pejorative moniker and suggests a crusty, unimaginative, behind-the-times fogey. Croakers may have been correct that Methodism lost its cutting edge, but as they looked to the past, their Methodist co-religionists captured the American mainstream and became its largest denomination. The tides of history washed Croakers into obscurity.
As a Brethren senior, I have experienced a considerable change in society and in the church that is disturbing. Should I accept change as part of life or should I put my foot down? Should I be a Brethren croaker?
Some changes are simply matters of style. Many of us remember a great aunt who bemoaned the decline of propriety and manners. Women no longer wore white gloves, casual familiarity ran rampant, and contractions abounded. Was she a croaker (croakette?). In the grand scheme, these changes were inconsequential, and somehow we managed to end Jim Crow even though middle-class women stopped exchanging handwritten thank-you notes.
In religion, as well, some change is insignificant. Worship music, for example, has been contentious ever since worship music began. The early Brethren opposed musical instruments in worship, but congregations with organs, pianos, or praise bands feel no less virtuous than their forebears who sang a cappella.
On the other hand, some change is significant. Praise worship includes not just different instrumentation but also change in the text of hymns, something more serious.
The trick, then, is to determine which practices of the past are cosmetic and which deserve retention, a task more difficult than it sounds. In Brethren terms, does the near-disappearance of the Brethren core--non-resistance, free ministry, humility, simplicity, non-swearing, nonconformity to the world, feet-washing, and Love Feast—represent the loss of something vital or superficial?
The loss of the free ministry (unpaid preachers without seminary training), for example, simply came with changing levels of education and professionalization among the laity. Likewise, non-swearing (“affirm” rather than “swear”), which non-Old Order Brethren abandoned several generations ago, reminded practitioners of their membership in God’s kingdom rather than the worldly one, a valuable lesson, but in the grand scheme it feels nevertheless small. I have actually practiced non-swearing on occasion, but I cannot remember the last time that I scratched out swear and wrote in affirm on a contract, and I have not been in court since I missed a stop sign when I was sixteen.
Other declining beliefs and practices, however, feel like genuine losses. For all their idiosyncrasies, our great aunts had a point about the decline of manners. Resist the changing expectations for interaction in society, and role model civility.
The next time you encounter a pedestrian on the sidewalk immersed in a phone and avoiding interaction, say hi with confidence. Smile. Let your faith shine forth.
Another virtue under attack is humility, which is more than another Brethren quirk but a vital New Testament teaching. The next time somebody preaches a Joel Osteen-esque ode to the first-person pronoun and denounces humility as destructive to self-esteem, mental health, and the soul, remember “Blessed are the meek.”
Likewise, organized religion is increasingly out of favor. The next time someone endorses spirituality but not religion, a thinly disguised disparagement of the church, remind them that for all its flaws, institutional religion includes missionaries, disaster relief, bible school, Sunday school, pastoral training, mutual support, and Pentecost. Say something nice about the church, and role model regular attendance.
Finally, the trend in giving emphasizes heart-felt special donations while routine, regular contributions are down. Individuals are more likely to respond to special projects that seize the moment and less likely to support institutions. Resist this trend, at least its downside, because the church needs our support. Fill the collection plate.
Thanks for your words, Stephen! As a voice from the younger generation, I can say that while I see the need to reimagine the expression of our faith for a new time I also sense the need for us to do so with careful discernment, embrace of our values and convictions, and creative social engagement/critique. I wish we could reclaim that Brethren core - non-resistance, free ministry, humility, simplicity, non-swearing, nonconformity to the world, feet-washing, and Love Feast - in new expressions for our day. These aren't just things made up by our denomination...they're the teachings of Jesus
I see possibility for compassionate nonresistance paired with care for our veterans, bi-vocational ministry, servant leadership and the regular practice of confession and repentance, simple living to free us for ministry, an insistence upon protecting the integrity of our word, and celebrating feetwashing and the Love Feast.
What a great point and article! Well done.
Great thoughts, Stephen! I might do a little croaking in my mind, but I try to not croak out loud about the non-essentials. :)