A Quaker Church’s Struggle with the Powers, both within and without the Church
Joseph Pfeiffer, Ph.D Candidate,
Fuller Theological Seminary.
Homelessness in Orange County, California, is only recently coming to light. Its rapid increase in the most affluent county in the U.S. is increasingly difficult to ignore, having swelled to over 7,000 in recent years, and with few resources allocated to cope with it (Replogle 2019a; 2019b). Attempts by county and local officials to make the problem simply disappear have resulted in public controversy and federal court censure (Replogle 2018).
In late November 2017, a small, historic Friends (Quaker) Church in an ethnically and economically diverse corner of western Orange County was directly confronted with this swelling crisis. A homeless man came to the church one afternoon a few days before Thanksgiving. He asked if the church had any food available. The church maintained a food and clothing closet for those in need. Later that night, the man returned and slept in the church parking lot, covering himself with a tarp for protection from the rain.
Concurrently, a man with stage four colon cancer and his wife, affiliated with another church then renting space on the church property began parking their RV on and around the church premises, asking the church to use restrooms and the fellowship hall for recovery and rest during chemotherapy treatments. All these persons reported repeated harassment in the local community by residents and authorities.
Confronted with their presence, the church community decided to pray and discern how best to respond in a way that was socially responsible, as well as faithful to the biblical concern for compassion and justice for the poor and oppressed. But within a week of the homeless being visible around the church—no more than five at any given point—some neighborhood residents began to call and complain. What resulted was a year of controversy with some local residents and authorities, and a legal battle with denominational authorities for control of the church property, ongoing at this writing.
Naming the Powers: Humanity as Economic Productivity
In attempts to engage with neighbors in a mediating and reconciliatory stance, church representatives worked to humanize the handful of homeless persons that had come into the church’s sphere. Concerned residents were invited to meet them personally and understand their stories. Church representatives tried to communicate to these neighbors that the church sought the flourishing and well-being of everyone in the community, and understood the term “neighbor” inclusively, as every human being made in God’s image in proximity to the church community, including both those with, and without, homes.
This sentiment was met with immediate hostility and rejection by these few vocal individuals. To them, “neighbor” entailed limited, tribalist connotations—those who had means to own a home in the neighborhood (or at least afford the rent) and who conformed to the social and cultural expectations of this land-owning elite. Unqualified to meet this definition, homeless persons were subject to blanket summary “othering” (Volf 1996), and regarded as outcasts, unworthy of participation in the community.
By nature, in this view, homeless existence, in any real way, is simply unacceptable. By implication, the homeless are sub-human. This dehumanization was expressed in a variety of ways. It was most glaringly hostile in the response, “I don’t care who they are…get that riff raff out of here!” Another, more tactful rationalization was “this is a high-income neighborhood—they [homeless] should be sent to camps out in the boonies, the desert, until they can get jobs and afford to pay rent here.”
However expressed, the refusal to grant human status to the homeless was apparent. Homeless persons are not of us, they do not exist in our world. We do not want to see them, we do not want to make a place for them in our world—out of sight, out of mind. The homeless were denied the dignity of identity and visibility.
This paper will argue that maintaining the ideal of Orange County as a “white haven” and (false) utopia is at the root of hostility to the homeless, who are effectively seen as non-white (despite their skin color)—hostility which persists within power structures and popular cultural attitudes of Orange County, even as Orange County has itself shifted to become more demographically multiracial and multicultural since late 20th century. I will draw on insights from Willie James Jennings’ theory that this kind of “whiteness” is not essentially biological, but rather a cultural “building project” seeking to bring the world to a warped sense of maturity (Jennings 2018). I will explore the relationship of homelessness to the prevalent Orange County “NIMBY” (“not in my backyard”) attitude, from the level of local neighborhood organization, to County bureaucracy. I will follow Lesslie Newbigin’s (1986) identification of the prevalent syncretism in affluent Western Christianity that relegates ethical and private matters, such as social justice for the poor, to the personal and private sphere, thus leaving them vulnerable to market-driven consumerist methods. This syncretism both appeals to and propagates white cultural normativity through the seductive and false appeal of what I term the “myth of inclusive whiteness.” Further, in this case, others, even evangelical denominational power structures, have— perhaps unconsciously—reinforced this predominant attitude, contrary to authentic gospel witness.
To understand and articulate a Christian analysis and response to such unjust myths and oppressive systems of power within the biblical framework, I look to Walter Wink’s seminal “powers trilogy” (Wink 1984; 1986; 1992). Wink uses the Apostle Paul’s language of “principalities and powers” to lay the groundwork for resistance to the powers’ opposition to the reign of God, and the witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Wink outlines his robust Christian social engagement in a threefold process of naming, unmasking, and finally confronting these powers, through faithfully embodied counter-cultural Christian witness. A small, beleaguered Quaker church, in its struggle to minister as Christians to and advocate for homeless individuals in affluent Orange County, has perforce become conscious of the countercultural nature of this witness, and faced the hostility it evoked from embodied power structures of oppression that are both political in Orange County and within the world of suburban white evangelicalism. All are undergirded by a latent ideology of white normativity that Wink can help us challenge.
Background: Orange County as (False) Suburban Utopia
The post-world war II era brought rapid development and suburbanization to Orange County, as residents from urban areas of Los Angeles County and elsewhere were attracted to newly available, relatively inexpensive housing developments. This period also saw an exodus of whites from Los Angeles and other cities in Los Angeles County following civil rights agitation that effectively challenged practices of segregation in housing and education in those urban areas (Schneider 2008).
Orange County thus became a “white haven”—a place of escape for those who sought a continuation of the homogenous way of life that was becoming difficult to sustain in much of Los Angeles County.
To understand the cultural ethos that has dominated Orange County since the suburbanization of the 1950’s, we will look at the cultural history that paralleled its social development. The complexities of urban life came to be seen as a “contagion” to be avoided and escaped. Capitalizing on these fears of social and cultural change, real estate developers were quick to sell an idealized picture of the “good life” that could be easily and affordably obtained for the right price—an American Dream that could be packaged and sold.
The real situation, however, is much more complex. Ethnographers and cultural interpreters have seen Orange County and its evolution as rife with contradictions (Baldassare 1986, 27). These contradictions emerge in the desire to maintain perceived values of an idealized quaint traditional past, while simultaneously reaping the benefits of modern industrial (and urbanized) society. Suburban idealists want to have it all.
Edward Soja, an urbanist and former professor of Urban Planning at UCLA and the London School of Economics, sees this utopian-consumerist synthesis embodied in architecture and geographic engineering modeled after the nearby Disneyland amusement park: “Orange County is a park-themes paradise, the American Dream repetitively renewed and infinitely available…a resplendent bazaar of repackaged times and spaces that allows all that is contemporary (including histories and geographies) to be encountered and consumed with an almost Edenic simultaneity… [Orange County has] taken the lead in the new competition for the Happiest Place on Earth” (Soja 1992, 94–95).
Naturally, the poor and marginalized have no place in this Edenic and utopian vision. Homelessness by its nature is the embodiment of everything urban that contradicts the suburban utopian ideal.
Market capitalism drives the development of suburbs like Orange County, yet a value system of individual autonomy works against helpful regulations, and seeks to stymie opportunities for others seeking the same kind of ideals. Suburbs are at the same time both dependent on growth for their own existence, and yet actively resist it from an “anti-urban” bias (Baldassare 1986, 20). Such contradictions inevitably lead to political, economic, and social instability, and thus controversy that challenges the sustainability of the ideal suburban project.
Devotion to the image of the suburban utopia, however, is strong, and thus discontent is projected onto external factors and other scapegoats, such as “big government,” social and intellectual liberalism (McGirr 2001, 217–40), and cultural and economic minorities (Baldassare 1986, 14). One woman in the small Quaker church’s neighborhood, for example, could not believe the homeless persons there were actually Orange County natives, insisting they must have come from somewhere else, such as the notorious “Skid Row” district of Los Angeles. This is a persistent sentiment in the area.
The Myth of Suburban Cosmopolitanism
Nonetheless, the racial and ethnic demographics of Orange County have shifted dramatically since the 1970’s, with large influxes of Asian and Latino background persons, among numerous others. In Orange County, those traditionally classified as ethnic white are no longer the majority. Consequently, over the ensuing decades, and multiple generations, many members of ethnic minorities have reached high levels of affluence in many Orange County communities; affluence is no longer limited to ethnic white Americans.
This developing social dynamic has led some scholars to propose that a new “post-suburban” social reality now exists as Orange County has come into its own. A “cosmopolitan” culture has been emerging beyond the former “provincial” culture of homogenous white suburban Orange County (Poster, Olin, and Kling 1991). Piggot (2012) notes that this cosmopolitan emergence is especially apparent in the existence and visibility of various ethnic restaurants and the interethnic exchange and appreciation of various expressions of world cultural arts and experiences. Yet, this is still undergirded by the same market-driven economics and culture of consumerism that have been spliced into the DNA of Orange County social and political structures since mid-century, and even earlier. It may be in a new multi-cultural and even cosmopolitan guise, but Orange County still markets itself as a suburban utopia (Poster, Olin, and Kling 1991, 22), separated and protected from the urban “other.”
Sins of Omission: “Church Growth,” Megachurches, and White Evangelical Complicity
The focus of white evangelical and mainline Protestant churches during the mid-20th century white exodus from urbanization was to develop programs and innovative outreach strategies catering to these white suburban migrants, with little critical reflection on the racialized and market-driven motivations. That was also when many of the great evangelical Orange County megachurches, such as Robert Schuller’s famed “Crystal Cathedral,” had their origins. From their limited perspective, this period was a church growth success story, with little consideration given to the struggles of the inner-city churches that many had left behind them.
Lisa McGirr, a professor of 20th-Century American history at Harvard University, aptly explicated the interrelated social and political dynamics that fused the “Old Time Religion” of Fundamentalist Christianity with the emerging reactionary conservative cultural norms that were shaping Orange County during this time. She traced the origins of the “New American Right” to this uncritical synthesis of conservative Christian religion and consumerist market capitalism (McGirr 2001, 217–61). Thus, the utopian suburban vision marketed and sold by real-estate developers as an easy answer to the long-developing challenges of urbanization and social change was reinforced and perpetuated by Orange County religious leaders and institutions.
Not only did this lay much of the foundation for the “Moral Majority” movement of later decades, but it also became formally validated and reinforced by the work of “Church Growth” theorists, most notably Donald McGavran. McGavran was a Disciples of Christ Missionary in India during the early part of the 20th century, who, like many of his generation, became critical of the colonial style of missions that characterized the area. In his seminal work, Bridges of God, McGavran noted that organic “people movements” toward Christianity occur spontaneously and make group decisions within their own homogenous cultural units (McGavran 1955).
This research was crystallized in McGavran’s “Homogenous Unit Principle” [HUP] based on the precept that “people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers”(McGavran 1990, 163). Originally framed as a general sociological observation to account for spontaneous Christian “people movements” in overseas missionary contexts, this thesis was further nuanced, instrumentalized, and widely applied to North American white suburban contexts. Orange County in particular was “ground zero” for the Church Growth experiment in white middle class suburbs from mid-20th century.
McGavran’s close colleague, and successor at Fuller, C. Peter Wagner, and his many publications and disciples, insightfully capitalized on the strategic value of recruiting white middle class churches into the church growth philosophy. This resulted in an economic and political power base for empire-building through replication of the models of “successful” growing churches in suburban America and abroad. Through the influence of Wagner, McGavran, and Fuller Seminary’s Institute of Church Growth on prominent Southwest Friends leaders, such as C.W. Perry, Charles Mylander, and John Wimber (more on them below), Southwest Friends, especially in Orange County and Southern California, would be heavily influenced by Church Growth thinking and methodology.
The Evolution of Evangelical Friends in California
Like most early American migrants to California, the first Quakers came there for economic opportunity, beginning with the gold rush of the 1840’s, but especially as California developed as a center of agriculture and trade on the west coast in the last decade of the 19th century and beyond (LeShana 1969).
The epicenter of Quaker migration by the late 19th and 20th centuries was Southern California. Drawn to the developing boom-towns and agricultural lands in the citrus-growing region, Quakers established thriving settlements in Long Beach, Pasadena, El Modena and Yorba Linda in the period of 1890 to 1910. But the heart of Quakerism in Southern California became the city of Whittier, with three large congregations, a college, and the yearly meeting (denominational) offices. In many ways, the story of Whittier is emblematic of the social and cultural foundations that shaped California Quakerism.
Having gotten an early start in land holding and founding many of the basic institutions and businesses there, Southern California Quakers found themselves increasingly wealthy, affluent, and influential there by mid-20th century. The history and legacy of the Marshburn family and their seed company is a fitting example (Jackson 2001), having contributed to the building and success of such well-known institutions as Azusa Pacific University, among others.
Nonetheless, some California Quakers maintained an institutional witness to their sect’s radical convictions through efforts at providing alternative service for conscientious objectors during both world wars, and outspoken advocacy against mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, despite the unpopularity of such positions at the time.
However, the generations of California Friends since World War II have found themselves increasingly aligned with conservative political movements such as the Religious Right, and have followed the general patterns of white flight to the suburbs, and conservative politics and social policies that have characterized Orange County and other suburban areas since the 1950’s. Concurrently, evangelical Friends in Southern California have found themselves deeply influenced by movements such as Church Growth, and popular mega-church style evangelicalism. Southern California has been a center of both trends.
Writing the centennial history of Southwest/California Yearly Meeting of Friends, Sheldon Jackson characterized the 1960’s and 1970’s as its “watershed” years. One of the first actions of the 1960’s was the reorganization of the Yearly Meeting governance structures and the elimination of Quarterly Meetings. The impetus was well summed up in a 1959 minute sent by Whittier Quarterly meeting (the largest QM and “epicenter” of California YM at the time):
As a result of the ease of transportation and communication, a great deal of the work in California Yearly Meeting of Friends is done by the permanent Boards and Committees of the Yearly Meeting. Monthly Meetings are stronger and better equipped generally than they were in years gone by, have pastors that are better trained, and, as a result, do not require the local supervision that Quarterly Meetings were set up to furnish at a localized level. Quarterly Meetings have become simply an intermediate step in the transaction of the Monthly Meeting—Yearly Meeting business (Quoted in Jackson 1995, 57).
It seems the Southern California Quarterly Meetings of Pasadena and Long Beach were amenable to this arrangement, while Berkeley Quarterly Meeting, encompassing most California Friends north of Bakersfield, and San Diego Quarterly Meeting, several hours south of Los Angeles-Orange County, sought to continue (Jackson 1995, 58). This made sense, as the meetings that felt the least need to continue the Quarterly Meeting system were those that were closest to the Yearly Meeting’s power center, in southern California, where most of the larger and more populous churches were concentrated.
By contrast, churches in the north and far south of California were generally smaller, more rural, and more spread out over a larger region. These smaller, outlying churches stood to lose the most in terms of collective representation within the broader constituency. Collective action was replaced by two general meetings for the Yearly Meeting at mid-year (January) and during the traditional Yearly Meeting sessions in June.
The effects of the elimination of the Quarterly Meeting system were twofold: 1.) Greater centralization of Yearly Meeting business in smaller boards and committees; and 2.) Increasing autonomy (and insulation) of local churches to manage their own affairs. Thus, while centralizing the Yearly Meetings structures at one level, elimination also decentralized local church accountability.
The YM Boards were concerned with ministries and services that affected all—such as overseas missions work, education, licensing, and assisting churches in the placement of ministers where needed, and with spiritual life concerns on request. They also oversaw cooperative camping ministries at Quaker Meadow Camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the Sequoia National Monument. Local churches ran their own local and internal affairs with little interference from other churches or Yearly Meeting personnel.
Jackson notes two other major changes during the watershed 1960’s. First, by 1962, Whittier College, the California YM’s flagship institution of higher education—and center of modernists in the YM— had completed its evolution into a secular liberal arts college, and discontinued formal affiliation with California Yearly Meeting (Jackson 1995, 59). Ans second, membership and attendance at the historic flagship churches of Pasadena, Long Beach, and even the largest and most progressive Whittier First Friends meeting, showed marked decline, as the ranks of formerly smaller outlying churches in Orange County, such as Yorba Linda Friends, and newer churches such as Rose Drive and Granada Heights, began to swell rapidly.
As Jackson tells us, Friends in these churches, though not as extreme as the fundamentalist-holiness Friends of the previous era, were generally more conservative, and reactive to the cultural changes taking place in wider society, particularly the sexual revolution. They were also influenced by the emerging New Evangelical movement that was picking up steam across North America (Jackson 1995, 60), and which found its center in such educational institutions as Fuller Theological Seminary, in nearby Pasadena.
Even so, social concerns continued to be expressed through establishing retirement homes for aging Friends, and official Yearly Meeting support of Fred Newkirk’s Inner City Ministries among the growing urban poor (particularly Black) populations in downtown Long Beach (Jackson 1995, 61). It also supported the establishment of Spanish-speaking churches, many in declining churches in Los Angeles county, such as Bell, Inglewood, and Pico Rivera, which were suffering the effects of white flight to the suburbs. Many of these Spanish speakers were newly arrived immigrants from long established Friends Yearly Meetings in Central America, particularly Guatemala.
In seeking options to the fundamentalist-holiness Christian Worker’s Training Institute (later Azusa Pacific University) and mainline modernist Whittier College, numerous pastors of Southwest Friends churches attended Fuller Theological Seminary from the 1960’s through the end of the 20th century. At the time Fuller was the major center of “church growth” conversations, especially since the 1960’s after Donald McGavran relocated his Institute of Church Growth to Fuller and helped found Fuller’s School of World Mission (now School of Intercultural Studies).
At Fuller, many Quaker leaders studied under such Church growth luminaries of the era such as McGavran, C. Peter Wagner, Ralph Winter. Wagner and John Wimber, affiliated with the Fuller Evangelistic Foundation and Church Growth Institute, were early disciples of McGavran and worked during the 1970’s to apply McGavran’s missiological theories regarding “people move-ments” and the quite controversial “Homogenous Unit Principle” into the contemporary North American (especially suburban) church context.
During his missionary years in South America, Wagner was supported by numerous contributors from Southwest Friends, and upon his return to study with McGavran was a member of Bell Friends Church, pursuing recording as a Friends minister, before abruptly switching his affiliation to the Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena (Wagner 2010). Nonetheless, his strong ties to many Friends leaders persisted through relationships with many pastors and colleagues who cooperated with the Church Growth Institute, and who would become his students at Fuller. Especially significant was Wagner’s decades long close friendship and professional partnership with John Wimber who was a staff pastor at Yorba Linda Friends Church in the 1970’s before Wimber left with a portion of YLFC’s members to found what would become the healing, “signs and wonders”-oriented Anaheim Vineyard Church in 1977 (Hodgkins 2012, 78–85).
By the 1970’s, the leadership of Southwest Yearly Meeting of Friends was increasingly influenced by church growth thought and methodology. Church records at Midway City Friends contain materials from denominational offices urging churches to consider church growth principles and consultants for assessing and evaluating their ministries.
But perhaps nothing so strongly represents the impact of church growth thinking among Southwest Friends as a 1975 Doctor of Ministry dissertation written by Charles Mylander (1975). Mylander served on staff at several Southwest Friends churches, most-notably at the burgeoning suburban Rose Drive Friends Church (in Yorba Linda, CA) before becoming Superintendent of Friends Church Southwest (1984-2001), and finally as Executive Director of Evangelical Friends Mission until his retirement in 2012.
Directed by church growth/HUP advocate C. Peter Wagner, Mylander’s dissertation focuses on Church growth dynamics among four large Friends churches in southern California. One of the four, East Whittier Friends, was a historic church, founded in 1906. Of the other three, Yorba Linda Friends was established in 1911 in a then-predominately rural area, but was growing rapidly at the time of Mylander’s writings, and two other newer churches, one (Rose Drive Friends) founded on the west side of Yorba Linda, bordering Placentia, CA, and the other (Granada Heights Friends) in La Mirada, CA.
Mylander noted that church growth in these areas was correlated with rapid demographic change, as areas that were formerly rural, became increasingly suburbanized. Furthermore, during the periods of growth, farmlands were rapidly turned into suburban housing tracts, and soon “the suburbs of Los Angeles and north Orange County join community to community with nothing between except a sign, a street or a backyard fence…what formerly were separate towns and cities have merged by means of the vast suburban growth since World War II” (Mylander 1975, 7–8). But Mylander also noted the ethnic and economic make-up of these growing suburbs of Southeast L.A. and North Orange counties and their churches at the time: “predominately white middle and upper middle class. Only a smattering of blacks, American Indians or other specified races live in these neighborhoods” (Mylander 1975, 8).
The same could have been said of earlier stages of church growth among Southwest Friends in the decades previous to Mylander’s study. The correlation of urban and suburban-centered growth among Friends churches in Southern California was nothing new at the time of Mylander’s writing. At the turn of the 20th century, the largest churches of Friends were in areas that Quakers had settled—most originally small towns and farm lands in the late 19th century, but whose populations had swelled into major metropolitan areas. The growth of these churches owed both to the migration of Quakers from the historic Midwestern and Eastern Quaker heartlands, but also because the moderate revivalist-style holiness evangelicalism of most westward migrating Quakers was compatible with general inclinations of established Protestant churches in their new homes.
In short, growth was relatively easy among newly in-migrating white Americans, so long as the local churches were generally open to outsiders. In the early 20th century many white Americans were generally religious and saw affiliation with a Protestant church as positive and socially responsible. And the goal of American evangelicalism since the early 19th century, was to evangelize nominal Christians to truly converted and fervent religious zeal.
But by the 1970s, as the early churches continued to age and decline, the predominant narrative of Southwest Friends was that shrinking churches were stuck in old modes of thinking and not embracing the principles of church growth methodology.
This outlook is evident in Mylander’s thesis. One of the churches he examined showed a recent decline: East Whittier Friends Church. He explained this as due to a culling of the membership rolls, which showed that decline had been more drastic than initial numbers indicated. He considered this a temporary set-back, noting that the church had recently hired new staff to get the church back on track with church growth techniques.
Unfortunately, the decades since Mylander’s study have not borne out his explanation and forecast. The church-growth techniques he espoused were not enough to compensate for the changes the entire city of Whittier would experience from the 1970’s on, showing that the earlier rapid growth was an anomaly, more attributable to demographics than to specific ministry techniques.
Mylander’s study gave only cursory attention to demographics. Following the popular Church growth thinking of the era, proper structures and programs were the recipe for success, and declining churches were evidence of not following such principles. The working assumption was that a healthy and growing church is dependent on the quality of its programs. The very white, middle class and capitalistic assumptions of this approach were neither identified nor questioned. As in many Church growth strategies followed in white middle class suburban areas during these years, the Homogenous Unit Principle was invoked—often implicitly and even unconsciously—to justify reaching people “where they are” and thus avoided the prophetic nature of the church’s witness that breaks down dividing walls of class and race.
The HUP advocates’ dismissal of a mission theology that focuses on leveling barriers of ethnic and economic disparity has been the focus of its critics from its inception. In the early 1980s, C. Rene Padilla, a Latin American Evangelical and advocate of “integral mission” that couples evangelical mission and social responsibility toward poverty and injustice, made a thorough investigation of the multi-cultural and inclusive nature of Christian mission and ecclesiology evidenced in the New Testament. He came to the conclusion that: “Because of its failure to take biblical theology seriously, [the HUP] has become a missiology tailor-made for churches and institutions whose main function in society is to reinforce the status quo” (Padilla 1983, 301).
As the 1980’s progressed, church growth strategy continued to develop along with the emerging megachurch phenomenon. In tandem with the optimistic capitalist culture of the Reagan era, Church Growth thinkers began to push toward the possibility of unlimited exponential growth. It was no longer enough to fill existing church buildings, but to build and fill more colossal megastructures. Whereas, churches that numbered in the hundreds were once considered large, churches of multi-thousands were now to be considered the norm. Where the Crystal Cathedral had been a trailblazer in the 1960’s and 1970’s, larger megachurches such as Saddleback and Harvest Christian Fellowship in Southern California, and Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago became paradigms of the new movement.
These megachurches were all established and built in newly developing upper-middle class suburban neighborhoods, among a growing stratum of white-collar baby boomers, and led by charismatic and pragmatistic pastors that saw in consumer driven market capitalism the way of the future. Church Growth scholars such as C. Peter Wagner capitalized upon this trend, and provided the theological justification for the new movement. Dispensing with older notions of church membership as a hindrance to growth, Wagner advocated that the goal was the use of market-driven techniques to a amass a crowd. Discipleship and growth of individuals would simply follow suit, ostensibly through a process of assimilation and osmosis. Wagner and McGavran even warned that too much emphasis on discipleship (what they call “perfecting”) can hinder rapid growth (McGavran 1990, 123–24).
The megachurch “seeker sensitive” model of church growth gained steam through the 1990’s, and reached its zenith around the year 2000. The trend was seen in EFCSW during this time with its own model success stories in three out of four of Mylander’s case studies: Rose Drive, Yorba Linda, and Granada Heights, each numbering over 1,000 attenders by the late 1990’s (Schrader 1997).
But what are we to think when the methods and techniques of the Church Growth model do not seem to work? It would seem to call into question the promises of unbounded market growth, and we are inevitably drawn to look at other social and cultural factors as well. It was not only East Whittier Friends that demonstrated the limits of simple reliance on church growth techniques—exponential growth did not occur there, despite Mylander’s hopeful outlook— but two of the other, larger churches in Mylander’s study have declined in recent years as well, at the same time their surrounding communities have experienced major demographic shifts.
The affluent white population ages; newer residents are more ethnically and economically diverse; their children and grandchildren, especially the rising “Millennial” generation, is less and less church-oriented; and “urban” problems (e.g., the burgeoning numbers of homeless) creep ever closer. Though both Granada Heights (La Mirada) and Rose Drive (Placentia-Yorba Linda) are still large congregations numbering more than 500, both had passed their heyday of more than 1,000 around the turn of the 21st century. While EFCSW no longer releases denominational membership statistics, personal observation over years indicates that the secularizing trends fully documented in American culture at large are affecting Orange County as well. This reality was underlined in 2010, when Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt, and was soon sold to the local Roman Catholic diocese.
As in many prominent Orange County churches, the megachurch-centered institutional leadership of the Evangelical Friends Church-Southwest, the denomination the small Midway City Friends Community church has been part of for more than 85 years, has long drunk deep from the wells of church growth thinking. They have been enraptured with the sensational “glitzy” suburban megachurch success stories that seemingly resulted (Schrader 1997). Though it began innocently enough, with the goal of reaching homogenous middle and upper middle suburban class whites (Mylander 1975, 7–8), the unintended consequence has been to render the denomination immune to consciousness of its own deep-level commitment to white normativity.
As a whole the denomination’s trajectory has validated the HUP critics, by exhibiting blindness to the essential othering of the surrounding poor and marginalized. It has failed to develop capacities for intercultural understanding in all but the most surface-level attributes of ethnic and cultural variation (Padilla 1983). With little or no critical thought or reflection, its models of “successful” church growth strategies were based upon a very white, suburban, middle-class North American phenomenon—one that was reinforced and perpetuated by white suburban middle-class money and power. Even if well-intentioned, the fallout from this lack of critical contextual reflection would create no end of controversy in the ensuing decades regarding the ethical basis of church growth and HUP specifically—for a thorough exploration and critique of the HUP see (Shenk 1983).
For many American churches, the first two decades of the 21st century have been marked by a slow awakening to the reality that the unbridled church growth predicted in the 1990’s had simply not materialized—and gradual decline is in fact apparent. As Baby-Boomer leaders continue to enter retirement age, the question of their legacy and the future of their empires looms large. It is shadowed by a rapidly changing society and culture that is increasingly younger, more diverse, less religious and ever more vocal about the limitations, and even flaws, of the capitalist ethos and the megachurches it spawned.
Beginning in the late 1990’s and gaining traction since the turn of the millennium, some missiologists and theologians have had their ears to the ground and have taken note of deep “epistemological shifts” (Hiebert 1999) occurring They have called for global Christianity to rethink its nature and mission in light of colossal paradigm shifts that have been occurring in global worldviews—namely, Postmodernity in an age of multi-cultural globalization (Bosch 1991).
These growing cultural shifts have produced two streams in American Evangelicalism, which have outgrown the New Evangelical consensus of the mid-20th century. One is a progressive and revisionist evangelicalism that represents a move towards organic rethinking and re-rooting itself in postmodern society, both in the West (Gibbs and Bolger 2005) and around the globe (Bolger 2012). This movement is ready to critically reflect on environmental and ecological issues, as well as the complicity of Western Christianity in colonialism, cultural hegemony, and white supremacy. It seeks a vision of the Church that ministers from a position of weakness and marginality, seeing this as the example of Christ and the early Church.
Within the world of Friends, the late great Quaker scholar John Punshon realized the looming crisis among evangelical Friends at the turn of the century. He saw the core strengths and values of evangelical Friends as “reasons for hope” for a new emergent Friends Church in a global postmodern world. He also warned of the danger to these values as evangelical Friends became ever more swept up in mainstream market-driven religion, even as those same ideas were becoming untenable in wider society (Punshon 2001, 354–55).
The other response to globalization and postmodernity is a reactionary evangelicalism that fears its loss of privilege and influence in society, and seeks to continue the Culture Wars of the previous generation of the conservative Right. We see this trend born out in the political climate of the United States in recent years. The current leadership of EFCSW is firmly aligned with this latter position, despite the diverse nature of EFCSW itself.
The parallel trajectories of Yearly Meeting centralization and local church autonomy have been marked by an uneasy tension throughout the last three decades of the 20th century and since. They may now be coming to a head in 2020, in the current controversy around Midway City Friends. Yearly Meeting leaders from the 1970’s on have struggled to maintain a sense of cohesion in the wider body, as churches faced various issues of cultural change. The Wimber case of the late 1970’s demonstrated that the Yearly Meeting would draw boundaries around the influence of the charismatic movement. However, as larger meetings such as Granada Heights and Yorba Linda grew in numbers, they began instituting (implicitly if not formally) limitations on women in preaching ministry, or even serving on local elder boards. This is blatantly contrary to classic and traditional Quaker practice and witness; yet no disciplinary actions were taken, for fear of causing division.
The unity imposed by Yearly Meeting leadership has been, to a large degree, artificial. The larger churches that tend to bear little or no affinity with historical Friends distinctives are kept from leaving through Yearly Meeting by the fact that ownership of property titles is kept by the YM. The practice that began for economic reasons to provide collateral for building and establishing new churches, was formally instituted as a requirement in the 2001 revision of EFCSW’s Faith and Practice. This change was a catalyst for the historic Berkeley Friends Meeting, a founding church of the Yearly Meeting which did hold its own title, to leave EFCSW. (Whittier First Friends, the onetime “central” church, soon left as well.) Yorba Linda Friends would have left the same year, had its property not been held by EFCSW.
Under the leadership of John Werhas, once a baseball player for the L.A. Dodgers, Yorba Linda Friends had mushroomed from a 150-member Evangelical Friends Church (in 1986) into a multi-thousand-person congregation that more resembled other Orange County megachurches, and had de facto barred women from preaching and serving on its elder board. Werhas would have taken this personal empire out of the Yearly Meeting then, had EFCSW Superintendent Stan Leach not informed them that doing so would entail forfeiture of the property (Hodgkins 2012, 118). Werhas did leave, and is now pastor of The Rock Community Church in nearby Anaheim.
Since then Yorba Linda Friends, rooted in Orange County’s most self-consciously affluent city (signs at its border pronounce Yorba Linda “The Land of Gracious Living”) has replaced Whittier as the denomination’s official center by absorbing EFCSW’s offices; and the body’s main staff are dually employed by the church.
Even so, the years of Stan Leach’s leadership as EFCSW Superintendent (2001-2017) represented an attempt at something of a “big tent” philosophy, allowing for much diversity among the churches, so long as they remained loyal to EFCSW. In his address at the 2016 Annual Conference (which had shortened and replaced the former “Yearly Meeting” annual sessions), he stated that EFCSW encompasses everything from “megachurches to micro-churches.”
Nevertheless, his tenure oversaw the continuous consolidation of power in the Yearly Meeting, as fewer Boards, with fewer numbers, made more decisions. This included restructuring the 24-member Administrative Board into a nine-member “Elder Board.” Leach’s career as Superintendent began with announcing to the Yearly Meeting that the Elder Board had unilaterally decided to disaffiliate the Quaker Meadow Camp and its governing Board from the Yearly Meeting, and was divested of Yearly Meeting funds. He did not ask the Yearly Meeting to weigh in on the decision, but announced it as an accomplished fact, and thus created a situation in which the Yearly Meeting had few options besides simply accepting it. Moreover, the Elder Board also laid down the Board of Spiritual Life, and absorbed its responsibilities, and budget.
A third similar action occurred in 2016: the laying down of the New Church Development Board, and the assumption of its responsibilities by the Elder Board. This also included absorbing its designated funds and endowments into the General Fund, and put them at the Elder Board’s discretion—which in part helped to cover a $100,000 deficit that had been discovered in the General Fund earlier that year.
Despite these changes, the Yearly Meeting felt the strain and struggle of maintaining a sense of identity and purpose, and a “Vision Reboot” was announced to explore the future direction of EFCSW. Within a year, this process resulted in Stan Leach’s resignation as Superintendent.
As a key part of the “reboot,” at the 2017 Annual Conference, Elder Board Chairman Rick Darden announced that the Elder Board had hired the “Unstuck Group” consulting firm to advise EFCSW leadership on its future direction and restructuring (EFCSW 2017).
The “Unstuck” Group (https://theunstuckgroup.com/) is a Georgia-based firm, whose motto is “We help churches get unstuck.” It is a church counterpart to “turnaround specialists,” who are called in to bring failing businesses back to profitability and growth. Such “turnarounds” in business are often associated with corporate downsizing, the shedding of factories and “legacy” divisions; for workers it very often means layoffs, plant closings, wage and benefit cuts. The “Unstuck Group” is firmly oriented to a large church with a centralized power model, and an approach that sometimes eerily echoes that of the more pitiless corporate turnaround trimmers. As Tony Morgan, its Chief Strategic Officer wrote in 2019:
Declining churches have twice as many committees. Churches that have large decision-making boards and multiple additional committees generally struggle, but it should be no surprise. The more people you have making decisions about what can or can’t happen in ministry, the fewer people you have actually doing ministry. . .” (https://tinyurl.com/vmbwzzq)
Furthermore, Morgan urges large church executives to be ruthless in weeding out all but a few survivors in the eighty percent of local and satellite churches that are “struggling” or “dying,” to mobilize resources for the big winners those being pushed IN “the right direction towards continued growth and multiplication”:
“The first 20[%] have some health”; The next 40 [%] are “the mired middle”; and as for the rest “The last 40 [%] are simply dying.” Morgan says no more than 10% of common resources should go into the bottom 40, or the smaller or lagging portion of the “mired middle.” (https://tinyurl.com/wmo7w8y)
EFCSW leadership has since closely followed such advice. No wonder Midway City’s property and program are on the chopping block. However, very few EFCSW members ever heard any of this.
For the “Unstuck Group consultation, Stan Leach presented to the 2016 Annual Conference a list of persons the Elder Board had selected as EFCSW’s official representatives.
A tense discussion resulted. Joe Pfeiffer pointed out that the representatives were overwhelmingly white, male, and from the same affluent (Yorba Linda) zip code, and did not fully represent the diversity of EFCSW. Numerous other representatives voiced similar concerns.
Darden was taken aback by the unexpected resistance. He asked that churches submit additional names for the list after the meeting. This resulted in three additions: one Cambodian-American woman from Long Beach Friends, a Hispanic pastor from Bell Friends, and a Korean-American from Gateway Friends.
However, the make-up of the committee was not substantially changed. The original 10 members (all white and insiders), remained, and the subsequent additions proved to be no more than tokenism. Susanna Sgniem, Clerk of Long Beach Friends, and CEO of the United Cambodian Community was disappointed and felt that the committee paid little heed to suggestions from a minority point of view. Similarly, various persons of color who had served on the Elder Board over the past several years had stepped down from their positions, feeling that they were not taken seriously by the dominant affluent whites of Yorba Linda, and were merely there as tokens.
This would be the last Annual Conference in which representatives were given space to challenge Elder Board decisions. Within the year, Matthew Cork was announced as the Elder Board’s nominee as Superintendent. At the 2018 Annual Conference, after Cork’s approval at a contentious Special Representatives’ meeting the prior October, the only business item placed before the Representatives was the approval of a basic general budget. The budget was less than one page in length for a million-dollar-plus set of programs; and there was no outside audit or other outside review. Further, very little time was allotted for questions and discussion by representatives.
This would become the basic pattern for all subsequent Representatives’ meetings to the present. The tenor of the new order was set: the big tent was over. Matthew Cork and the Yorba Linda /“Unstuck” model would be imposed as the standard for all EFCSW. Ministries, churches, and pastors that could not—or would not—conform to this model would be pushed aside, or pushed out altogether, and their resources reallocated to church plants and satellites deemed more promising.
Midway City Friends looks to be only the first casualty. In a deposition by EFCSW “Chief of Staff” Ron Prentice, he maintained the Elder Board has the unchallengeable right to impose this model and that it intends to do so.
EFCSW Elder Board minutes further indicate that plans are being made to deal with other pastors who will not cooperate with EFCSW staff ministry assessments. Further, the Board has decided that Jorge Norena, a staff pastor from Yorba Linda Friends, and newly appointed EFCSW Elder Board member, will guide the Spanish-speaking churches (about one quarter of EFCSW constituent congregations) into conformity to the Yorba Linda model for Spanish speaking churches, despite their own unique history and culture as Central American-heritage Friends.
Even so, older churches in older parts of Orange County, whose meetings continued to strike a balance between evangelical religiosity and traditional Quaker sensibilities—such as Midway City, and Garden Grove (formerly Alamitos) Friends— have struggled with changing demographics in their own pieces of the suburban utopia. Minutes from business sessions at Midway City Friends Meetings from the 1990’s forward reflect growing concern about declining numbers as long-term members moved away from the area, and remaining members aged. Church Growth resources provided by Yearly Meeting leadership seem to have proven fruitless, as the membership increasingly recognized that real challenges to growth came more from the cultural barriers to the growing Asian and Hispanic populations that have come to predominate in the area.
The Church Growth model, emphasizing growth through ethnic silos, only resulted in Midway Friends hosting various ethnic ministries on its campus, with little understanding of how to communicate the Friends message to these communities in an interculturally meaningful way—let alone for it to embrace a an authentically integrative multi-cultural identity itself.
The most successful example of a truly multi-cultural Friends identity emerged organically at Long Beach Friends Church. But it was often at odds with EFCSW leadership that did not oppose, but also did not know fully how to support—let alone learn from—their example in what has been identified as the most multi-cultural city in America. Though the lesson came late for Midway City Friends—in the last five years—the church is now, despite its small size, more economically, ethnically, and culturally diverse than it ever has been.
Since the 1960’s, issues of multi-culturalism, poverty, and homelessness in EFCSW and its environs have been relegated to the “special cases” of its poor benighted inner-city churches. Examples include, Long Beach Friends Church and its affiliated Inner City Ministries—until recently an EFCSW supported domestic mission field—and Spanish-language “ethnic” churches in Inglewood, Bell, and Pico Rivera. These are all historic Friends churches left behind by the “white flight” from the 1960’s onward, while the central power structures retreated behind the “Orange Curtain” around Yorba Linda to maintain the Edenic illusion.
But when urban “problems” seeped across the line into Orange County’s suburban utopia, the denominational leadership was unprepared to cope with the inevitable fallout in any positive way. In the case of Midway City, it was the (providential?) appearance of members of an especially stigmatized and marginalized, but steadily growing group, the homeless, who brought this changed reality home. But EFCSW leadership, rather than see the experience of the small Midway City Church as a learning opportunity and taking a supportive role, have responded to the church antagonistically, seeing it as a liability, and seeking to shut down its ministry, terminate the pastor, and close the church to avoid conflict, criticism, or bad publicity.
This reaction fits their orientation. Matthew Cork as Superintendent, and Ron Prentice as “Chief of Staff” (both dually employed at Yorba Linda Friends) have sought to shape and project a highly integrated corporate identity revolving around brand marketing “brand” strategies, a recent trend in the corporate megachurch model (in early 2020, Yorba Linda Friends had eight staff members at work on “Marketing Communications” https://friends.church/leadership-staff/).
In her recent study of this brand-marketing model represented in the “New Black Church” by such figures as T.D. Jakes, Paula McGee, an ordained Baptist preacher, and recent Assistant Professor of African American Church Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary, uncovered an integral ecclesiology in which the “brand” or image of the church and its spiritual “products” are marketed as instantly available promises of prosperity and growth (McGee 2017) that happily by-pass the long-road of suffering and identification with the poor and marginalized that other theologies of liberation offer.
For the new leadership of EFCSW, this brand is simply Friends Church, the name that the Yorba Linda Friends Church adopted under Cork’s tenure. They are also adopting the “satellite model” (very popular with the “Unstuck Group”) in which local churches are annexes or subsidiary satellites of one larger center, such as “Friends Church: Orange”, and “Friends Church: Anaheim”, with “Friends Church: Yorba Linda” as the central node.
This very much resembles the franchise model used, for instance, in fast food chains, where every branch offers identical burgers with the same “secret sauce.” Cork has taken his appointment as Superintendent as a mandate to bring the entirety of EFCSW into this model, with his church continuing as central node of an expanding empire, seen in the rebranding of EFCSW as simply Friends Southwest or FSW, as evidenced by the new denominational website (http://fsw.church/).
The Friends brand (or franchise) is an appeal to the success of the latest face of the glitzy spin. The allure of this brand, and all brands, is the promise of a product—in this case, a spiritual product—that can be attained through a transaction. The maintenance of the image of the uniformity of the products is essential to inspire confidence in would-be consumers that the goods will be delivered as promised.
Communications from EFCSW denominational officers indicate that the actions of Midway City Friends, to minister to the homeless as “neighbors” in the gospel sense, are not understood or welcomed by the affluent demographic that is their primary focus for what they consider “sustainable” church growth, in middle class terms. Cases like Midway City Friends muddy the image of a successful, “unstuck” church that delivers on the promise of unbridled growth and economic success.
In their terms, once rid of the congregation and pastor, they can find a “better use” for the Midway City property, and the “assets” derived therefrom. Most important of all, the pristine image of the brand must not be sullied. It is not only a church, but a place that is marketed by the brand: Yorba Linda itself, the “Land of Gracious Living” as the city’s motto declares.
The promising brand offered by the current EFCSW leadership can perhaps best be described in an ethnographer’s words: “The diversions of Yorba Linda…once a Quaker settlement, and now a large-lot, zoned for horses, almost lily-white municipality, tucked away in the northern reaches of Orange County” (Soja 2014, 92–93). The brand so desperately clings to, and promises, the idyllic suburban utopia, wrapped up in Christian religiosity, even as encroaching urbanization and all its concomitant “problems” challenges the sustainability of that very vision daily in Southern California.
Conclusion: Returning to the City
This paper has drawn attention to two cross-currents: 1.) The increasing urbanization, cosmopolitanism, and pluralism of Southern California, and of Orange County, specifically; and 2.) A tragic movement within the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest that has, under a superficial guise of market-driven relevance, in actuality creates itself within a mirage of affluent white normativity, and ever decreasing ability of alternative voices to meaningfully speak into these affluent white power structures.
The current crisis in EFCSW is one that has been years, even decades, in the making. The appearance at Midway City’s door of a few of southern California’s tens of thousands of homeless at Midway City, unbidden but not refused, served to bring the underlying tensions and contradictions in EFCSW culture into high relief and public notice. And as the turbulent months of 2020 unfold, Midway City could become – nay, is already becoming, a crucible of conflict and change.
The crisis has stemmed from advocating as universal a set of methodologies and paradigms of Christian identity and witness that were, in fact, limited, suited to a passing white affluent demographic that has since spent half a century failing to reconcile with the reality of a pluralistic, multi-cultural, urban society. Yet, the values of white normativity are desperately, even if only half-consciously clung to in EFCSW, even as current leadership seeks to propagate/market this values system to a broader constituency that is no longer there.
But, like the myth of the cosmopolitan suburban utopia itself, their image of diversity can only be superficial at best, as the underlying values system is too rigid to allow true plurality and diversity. At its core, this vision calls for absolute uniformity. The alternative, so this vision posits, is irrelevance. I call this dynamic, “the myth of inclusive whiteness” upon which the entire suburban marketing project is based. It is in fact a form of neo-colonialism.
So, what future then is there for Friends, and Christianity in general, in Orange County? The myth of the suburban utopia is unsustainable, for as Soja put it,
“surely the area is no longer ‘sub-urban. Orange County may have no dominant city in the traditional sense, no easily identified center of skyscrapered downtown, but it is a metropolis nonetheless, an industrial capitalist city of a new kind…We are not in suburbia anymore” (Soja 2014, 91).
At this point, I wish to advocate an alternative vision not only for EFCSW, but for American Friends and evangelicals everywhere. In deconstructing the suburban myth, I propose a wholistic return to the essential urban nature of Christianity and its mission. The groundbreaking work of Wayne Meeks’ on the First Urban Christians of the early church has stood the test of time. It demonstrates that, from its emergence, Christianity as an ethnically, socially, and economically diverse community of faith – including homeless widows and orphans– was forged in an urban cosmopolitan environment (Meeks 2003), and provided a scandalous social witness where these boundaries were crossed with impunity in socially stratified Roman society. And as Alan Kreider has expertly expounded, it was such scandalous acts that provided a primary stimulus for the rapid growth of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in its first three centuries—the elite male patrician class excepted (Kreider 2016).
But until recently, the urban element in ministry and mission thinking has been marginal, or a side-project at best. During the early 20th century, the domestic or “home mission” efforts of many mainline denominations in inner-city areas was the assimilation of immigrants to English language and American ways of life—a task referred to in one book as “Christian Americanization” (Brooks 1919).
The prevalent image in the popular imagination has been the city as a “project” of such civilizing efforts. This of course is from a perspective that privileges the suburban affluent model. Those excluded, left out or displaced from it have no more place there—they are truly seen as indeed “homeless” and are meant to be and stay invisible. The solution to such urban problems is conformity to the suburban vision, one way or the other—either through “civilizing” efforts, or displacement and dispersal, which is common these days in the “gentrification” movements underway in many inner-city urban areas.
Thankfully, since the late 20th century, new movements of “incarnational ministry” have gained traction, which seek to approach the City from a non-judgmental, learning posture—assuming that God is already at work among the people of the City, and that Christian partners and workers in the urban contexts might actually have something to learn about their own faith from the ‘other’ with whom they collaborate in ministry.
Quakers would naturally appreciate this point of convergence with their traditional theology of God’s indwelling light that ministers in and to all universally. But what is called for here is that those who see themselves as the distinct ‘other’ to the new urban emerging reality would understand that such progressive theologies of the city are not merely for an urban ‘other’ but for themselves as well.
The unmasking of the suburban utopia as in Midway City undermines the powers behind it. Urban theologies and missiologies that seem exotic and curious from a distance will now need to be brought home to middle-class suburbia. In recognizing their own urbanity, those who have subscribed to the suburban vision will need tools to come to terms with issues of social and economic justice. Ethnic and racial reconciliation goes with a truly communal vision that works toward prioritizing the common good of the community, now to include the poor and marginalized, over the comforts of the individual. But this path was once well-trod by the Church in Acts, that mediated conflicts between Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews, Jews and Gentiles, wealthy benefactors and homeless widows and orphans, all of whom broke bread around a common table, and rose to struggle together for justice.
It will take courage among suburbanites to embrace this vision, for it involves letting go of a vision of Christianity that reinforces an ideology of safety, security, and the promise of unbridled prosperity. Rather, it invites everyone to the good news of salvation through identification with Christ in opening ourselves to the plight of the poor and suffering, even in our own midst, and to make our own hearts and homes a place of welcome to the “other.”
This is not only an ideal dream, but in the gathering tumult of 2020 America, suddenly a practical necessity. Social, economic, and demographic forces point to an Orange County, and an American suburbia, that looks more like Midway City, Garden Grove, and Santa Ana than to Yorba Linda. Zoning codes and gated communities will only be sustainable for so long. The highest border walls never prove to be impervious.
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