With approval ratings a good 15 points higher than her husband, there are probably some strategists wishing they could run the Michelle Obama re-election campaign right now. While the White House legal counsel looks into the constitutionality of a husband/wife switch, the campaign is trying to put her popularity to work.
Last week, the First Lady spoke to the quadrennial General Conference of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church. While the speech was a get-out-the-vote plug, it also shed an interesting light on both her personal faith and the theological tradition of the nation’s oldest independent, predominantly African-American congregations.
In reading the First Lady’s speech, I was intrigued to see a strong emphasis on some concepts I often associate with “missional” churches.
Within the church world, especially among those who are planting them, the term missional has become ubiquitous. It critiques existing church models that focus on creating programs, services, and marketing campaigns intended to draw people to the church instead of encouraging members to go out and serve—to be on “mission.”
Here’s a good example of the type of thing my pastor says all the time when he talks about being missional from the mouth of the First Lady:
"Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday for a good sermon and good music and a good meal. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well — especially in those quiet moments, when the spotlight’s not on us, and we’re making those daily choices about how to live our lives."
One of the signs of a missional church is a de-emphasis on the Sunday-morning worship service put on by professionals. Instead of focusing on a 60-90 minute performance in which most people are passive attendees, increased time and attention are given to the active work believers are doing to further the mission of the church throughout the week. Some churches have abandoned what would be thought of as traditional services all together.
It is much more common within predominantly African-American denominations like the AME (and often both minority and immigrant churches) for the church to function as much more than just a place of worship. It can often serve as a one stop shop for community, financial, business, and political support. And, pastors of immigrant congregations often become experts in the confusing bureaucracy of our immigration system.
Michelle Obama comments on exactly what it is that the church, and particularly the AME does:
"Folks just don’t turn to all of you in times of spiritual crises. They come to you with financial crises and health crises and family crises of all kinds. That’s why AME churches are taking on issues from HIV/AIDS to childhood obesity to financial literacy. Every day, you all are giving folks the tools they need to take control of their lives and get back on their feet."
Littered throughout FLOTUS’ speech were references to those who were acting out their faith, and not just on Sunday. She cited the example of Jesus:
"Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. We know that. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day. He was out there spreading a message of grace and redemption to the least, the last, and the lost. And our charge is to find Him everywhere, every day by how we live our lives."
For many Americans, Michelle and Barack Obama represent their first introduction to any of the many black church traditions in our country. While Rev. Jeremiah Wright is often the first image that pops into people’s minds, the First Lady invoked a figure much more central to the tradition, the AME’s founder, Richard Allen.
Allen was born into a slave-owning household in 1760, but by the age of 20 had earned the $2,000 he needed to buy his own freedom. He was attracted to Methodism and the abolitionist views of its founder, John Wesley. But when he and a few friends were physically forced to their feet during prayer and evicted from a newly established “whites only” section, they started their own congregation known as “Mother Bethel” in a blacksmith’s shop.
The worshiping community had grown out of the Free African Society (FAS) started by Allen and another freed slave, Absalom Jones. FAS functioned as a mutual aid society helping the widow, orphan, and destitute while encouraging thrift and moral behavior. The Church, and later denomination, was birthed out of a ministry already living out the mission of the Church. Today the AME boast over 2.5 million members.
Allen’s church grew out of a very real need. When few, if any, people in your congregation are poor, it’s easy to think of Christ’s commands concerning the poor as nice suggestions, or maybe extra credit. But when your congregation is poor and struggling under injustice, those commands have a whole new seriousness. When you look around and see families enslaved, the freedom that Christ offers becomes much more tangible than a reductive understanding of freedom as only concerned with personal sin.
While the focus on being missional has been what I consider to be a positive trend in church planting and growth, the reality is that some churches have been missional all along. Many black churches have done a better job of keeping a holistic, Monday-through-Saturday focus on their mission than some of their white counterparts. There is a lot to learn when we take the time to look at other traditions than our own.
“Is Michelle Obama a missional Christian?” isn’t really the right question. As attention is drawn toward the black church tradition through the articulation of faith from both the First Lady and the President, the better question then might be: what can Christians who are concerned about being holistic and missional learn from the deep and rich traditions of black churches in America?