John L. McCullough: Our faith draws us to witness

Maintaining and strengthening denominations’ prophetic voice is critically important, says the leader of Church World Service.

Editor’s note: As the Christian landscape changes, leaders must ask and answer a new question: What’s the future of denominations? This video is part of an occasional series that offers insight on this vital issue. To see the entire series, click here.

The Rev. John L. McCullough is executive director and CEO of Church World Service, an international humanitarian agency providing emergency relief, advocacy, sustainable development and refugee assistance around the world and in the United States.

McCullough, an ordained United Methodist minister, said that finding a balance between denominational uniqueness and the principles of effective unity is critical to the Christian church’s continued role of leadership on social and ethical issues.

McCullough is a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana and the Boston University School of Theology. Before joining Church World Service in 2000, he led congregations in the United States and Kenya and served on the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries. In 2003, McCullough received the Boston University School of Theology’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

McCullough spoke with Faith & Leadership about the role of globalization and ecumenism in the future of Christian denominations. The video is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: From your perspective, what does the future of denominations look like?

At this point, many denominations are in a discernment process about what the future looks like. Christian churches in the USA are trying to figure out the distinct nature of one denomination as opposed to another. What is the real mandate of Christ’s calling in terms of how we relate to others and create a greater sense of Christian unity?

In the United States, denominations are going through a dramatic transformation. The relationship of local congregations to the denominational leadership is different than it was 50 years ago. It’s a strained relationship. Because there is such wide diversity of thought, leadership is not as comfortable speaking on behalf of the whole as at times in the past.

One of the [future] challenges will be the capacity for any denomination to speak with a clear and consistent voice on behalf of the whole. For example, denominations will be less political in speaking to public policy issues, because it’s hard to reach a consensus amongst congregations. Congregations tend to be more informed and worldly than perhaps they were years ago.

Q: You mentioned that denominations are undergoing a discernment process. Could you give examples of denominations that are doing this successfully?

The Presbyterian Church is going through a very intense process of sorting out the nature and meaning of their church for the 21st century. It’s causing them to look at how the church is organized on a national level and where the resources of the church can be best posited for the good of the whole.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is trying to understand the leading of the Spirit as the church adapts to the realities of the 21st century and what it means to be a national church as part of an international alliance. There are a variety [of denominations] wrestling with this.

Certainly the United Church of Christ with their thematic emphasis on God as “still speaking” is very invitational. They’re saying this is a church that is engaged in conversation about what God expects of us and how we can be faithful in a whole variety of dimensions.

Q: It sounds like the prospects for denominationalism may not be all that good.

It’s going to be different as we move forward in the 21st century. Many denominations will go through a fairly radical change in their understanding of what it means to be a denomination, how faith is articulated and how witness is given in the context of public policy issues.

Q: Do you see specific ways that denominations are less able to speak to public issues?

The Iraq war is a classic example of polarities within denominational life that made it difficult to say, “This is the position of the church.” Denominations in which there is a clear titular head had to soften their language because there wasn’t a mechanism by which there could be an absolute consensus.

In the case of the United Methodist Church, which doesn’t have that titular head, there was a pretty wide set of views on the issue of whether or not we should [go to war]. It’s going to continue to be a perplexing challenge for denominations.

Denominations are [also] beginning to understand themselves in a global context. The mission work that they’ve undertaken over the last 50 to 60 years has translated into mature churches overseas; they no longer want to be junior partners. They want to have a seat at the table where issues are being discussed and decisions are being made. We witnessed that in the context of the worldwide Anglican movement, particularly with the Episcopal Church in the U.S. when it took a stance on the ordination of homosexuals.

The power dynamics are quite different and will continue to be different as [mission] churches mature and ask for equal seating at the table. [This development is] redefining how a denomination understands itself, not so much in the context of being a national entity, but globally.

Q: You have advocated for a strong prophetic role for the church, speaking out on public issues such as immigration reform. What is your reaction to the prospect of a lesser denominational role on issues?

The prophetic witness of churches is critical. Historically, it has been a defining feature of who we are. Maintaining and strengthening that prophetic voice is critically important. At the same time, we need to wrestle with what we speak to specifically. Churches can’t be expert on all topics. There are some areas in which we are going to have a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. Those are the areas we need to give particular focus.

We also need to be more attuned to the theology that informs our perspective. It isn’t just a matter of speaking to a social issue. The fabric of our faith draws us to witness, to offer a stance on issues. People generally will be more receptive to that. If they hear the word of social ethics but don’t understand the theology that lifts that up and makes it an urgent matter, then I think that voice will not be as well received.

Q: Might that kind of prophetic role be carried out more through organizations such as your own rather than through a denominational structure?

Ecumenical organizations like Church World Service can certainly play a critical role. At the same time, the capacity of denominations to bring their theology into dialogue with other churches on a variety of issues is going to be important. The Lund Principle of doing together what none of us can do as well apart applies to the future of our denominational life. It is about intentionally honoring those distinctive qualities of who we are, but, at the same time, not allowing these to become impediments to our engaging in a broader conversation and finding areas of synergy that help us move forward on issues of faith, values and quality of life.

Q: What are the challenges to honoring different traditions while working ecumenically, as you do with the Church World Service?

Hopefully, we’re close to coming through a period in which there has been a heavy focus on denominationalism. Partly this is driven by the global economic recession. Curiously, that has helped us to realize a greater dependency on each other. I’m hoping that one of the outcomes of this period is a greater valuing of the other, a greater desire to engage the other, to find the constructs through which we can have conversations about doing things together rather than separately.

It’s an opportunity for ecumenism, but when the economy turns from a bear to a bull it will be interesting to see if we revert to old tendencies to do things separately as denominations rather than continuing to work to find points of synergy that tie us together.

Q: By engaging in ecumenical projects, can one come to a deeper appreciation of one’s own denominational stance in history?

It’s a wonderful opportunity. We did an ecumenical building [project] in New Orleans in which Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans, among others, came together as volunteers on a common project to reconstruct a single-family home. [The project] served as the basis for talking about what informed their faith and the desire to offer gifts and talents to provide a home for an unknown family.

When we gather in general assembly as an ecumenical community to talk about issues of social consequence, it is an opportunity for us to talk about a Calvinist approach to an issue as opposed to a Wesleyan approach. It provides us a safe space to have conversations and not feel as though one may be personally attacked. It becomes an opportunity for Protestants to sit down with the Orthodox and gain an appreciation for how one may approach a particular issue or how one may sense the Spirit’s presence in the midst of a particular issue.

What is the motive behind that conversation? Is it about trying to convert the one to the thinking of the other, or is it about finding that space in which the two can coexist in an amicable way? Ecumenism provides opportunities for conversations that wouldn’t happen within a denominational reality.

Q: What are some specific ways that you see these denominational tensions playing out?

It can certainly play out in terms of how we respond to disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast area. Denominations had a very specific, church-oriented approach. There was this tremendous movement, but it was very denominationally oriented as opposed to our coming together to respond to the disaster, pooling our resources, energies and talents towards the greater good of the relief and recovery effort.

We criticize the U.S. government for not doing as effective a job in the Gulf Coast area as it could have, which is true. At the same time, were it not for the response on the part of the churches, the disaster would have been compounded. In fact, the denominational response [to Katrina and Rita] is one of the great success stories. Beyond that, if there had been intentionality on the part of the churches to combine their resources and work together, how much more could we have accomplished? How much further ahead would the Gulf Coast be in recovering from that disaster?

Q: That brings me back to my original question from a different angle: What is the value of denominations?

The value of denominations is that they provide a foundation from which we can wrestle on a very personal level [with] issues of our faith. As the son of a denomination, I appreciate the opportunity to be part of a theological context that challenges how I read the Scriptures, how I think about that, how I then choose to not only live it out, but how I would then, in turn, give guidance to my children in terms of how they would live their lives with a great deal of respect and honor for their Creator and for what God would expect of them.

That’s a great value or virtue that denominational life provides [that] I don’t think that, let’s say, ecumenism could provide. Because it has a tendency to bring one closer to the core.

It also has a tendency to bring one specifically into relationship with people who may be like-minded. We’re not all going to believe the same thing. We’re not all going to hold the exact same values. That is something which clearly is unattainable. So we need not aspire towards that, but I think there is a certain synergy that does exist at the core of all denominational life that really does tie us together.

For example, all of us would say that we do believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Lord of our lives. Now, how we might interpret the Scriptures and the literal reality of all of the things that the Scriptures account, and did these words mean this -- that may be somewhat of a variable. But claiming Christ as something which is very much at the core -- that’s there.

Within denominational life, that provides us that space to sit with people who share, for the most part, a similar theological perspective and similar sets of values. And [it] provides a space where we can really sit down and to discuss and to engage and to stretch ourselves and to grow and to find ways in which we can give expression to that faith and to those values in relationship to a larger world.