In late January, a post here described the struggle between the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW) and the small Friends Community Church of Midway City, in Orange County near Los Angeles. EFCSW’s Board of Elders decided to close the Midway City church, and fire its pastor, Joe Pfeiffer.
The Elders acted after several homeless people (from the LA area’s estimated 59,000 homeless multitude) were briefly taken in there. The Midway City congregation has gone to court to stop the closure and keep Pfeiffer and his wife Cara as co-pastors.
Background and initial details are in the blog post and a followup. Court proceedings have been put into suspended animation by the pandemic, likely til late this year (at least). But the theological debate brought to light by the controversy continues. It should heat up after today, with the publication of Quaker Theology, Issue #34. In it, Joe Pfeiffer lays out the theological and historical case for the challenge he and Midway City have mounted against its putative ecclesiastical overlord.
In Engaging Homelessness Behind the “Orange Curtain” By Joseph Pfeiffer, Joe calls sharply into question both the history and theology of the “church growth” & corporate brand model of church structure and governance that now reigns in EFCSW, and its flagship Yorba Linda Friends Church. It is this theology, and the power grab it enables, which Pfeiffer argues have produced the current conflict. Further, this theology is built on presumptions of white normativity and corporate norms that are both unscriptural and increasingly dysfunctional.
As Joe puts it,
. . . 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.
Joe’s critique of the “church growth” era among evangelicals is not original. There have been dissenting voices since the movement surged into view half a century ago. But in the evangelical world, most of them were ignored and marginalized, especially while the megachurches (and their budgets, and in some cases political influence) continued to grow.
More recently, however, while the megachurch phenomenon persists, several of its high profile figures have been dethroned by scandal, and outside their busy ramparts, demographic surveys make clear that overall religious involvement among Americans, especially younger ones, has been steadily declining.
Explanations for the decline are not only varied but conflicting. Joe Pfeiffer’s view, from the bottom of the heap among west coast Evangelical Quaker congregations, is a radical and prophetic one. It is no accident that EFCSW’s move to close down Midway City and oust Joe and Cara followed the small church’s openness to a few of southern California’s homeless, a group, that readers will; see, are effectively banned from stepping through the “Orange Curtain” where EFCSW’s headquarters and officials are located.
Officially, EFCSW has been keeping a tight lid on this conflict, presumably hoping that any attention to it will dissipate. The coming of the coronavirus pandemic has provided a near-total distraction from it, which could last for months.
But like the swelling army of southern California’s homeless, the basic conflict seems unlikely to be gone when the deadly smoke of the COVID-19 crisis dissipates. In this essay, Joe Pfeiffer explains why.
Joe’s essay is the lead article in Quaker Theology #34, which is available now in three versions: online, open access, here; an ebook version is available here; and a print paperback edition is available here.