A short sermon in the form of a poem by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, an advocate for women and justice and an occasional preacher within Churches of Christ circles, likely reached over twice as many people as there are Churches of Christ members in the United States within just 48 hours of its December 17 publication on social media. The sermon likely reached more people than there are Churches of Christ members in the world not long after. It may have now reached 10 million people or more.
Multiple themes are found among the poem’s imagery, including of Mary birthing and breastfeeding baby Jesus and Mary’s exclusion from the pulpit, as well as in its commentary on male preachers’ actions and position contrasted with the humanity and reality of Mary and her baby.
Prompting thousands of glowing comments — “beautiful,” “this made me cry,” “just stunning,” “powerful,” “lovely” — and more than 60,000 shares and 75,000 loves, likes, and other reactions on social media to date, Shetler reached a diverse group of people — women and men, Christians and non-Christians, a variety of denominations, and multiple races and nationalities.
The poem has been quoted in sermons, printed in church bulletins, shared in moms’ groups, reviewed by theologians, called out as inspirational by atheists and Christians, cited as eye-opening, praised by poetry critics, weeped over by young mothers, and widely discussed.
Ignoring, Irony: Reaching Millions, While Women Restricted in Churches of Christ
Shetler’s message went viral, with each share broadcast to more people and the shares, reactions, and comments fueling even greater attention for it. Over half of the shares to date came in the first 48 hours of publication. This adds up to Shetler reaching an estimated 2.5 million – 8.2 million people within 48 hours and 4.3 million – 14.2 million so far.
For anyone from the Churches of Christ (Restoration Movement) to reach an audience of such size is notable, but Churches of Christ internet media and leaders seem to have largely ignored, missed, or foregone publicly reporting or commenting on Shetler’s poem.
For a woman from the Churches of Christ to reach, with a short sermon, an audience of such a size presents considerable irony.
Churches of Christ congregations, with a membership of around 1.1 million in the United States, are among the most restrictive on service of women and girls in the church, making up most of the 1-4% or less of U.S. Christianity that generally completely excludes women from speaking, leading, and otherwise publicly and actively serving in any way during their worship services — no leading singing, no leading prayer, no preaching, no helping with communion, no reading scripture for the congregation, no singing a musical solo or duet, etc.
Virtually all the rest of Christianity either does not exclude or only partially excludes, from preaching for example, and some are reconsidering.
Comes at a Time of Re-thinking Prohibitions on Women and Girls
Shetler’s message comes at a time when many in the Churches of Christ are re-thinking its doctrine extensively prohibiting women and girls (women and girls are not only prohibited as described in the worship assembly, but women are also generally prohibited from serving as elders and deacons, teaching men and boys above the age of 10, leading prayer in mixed company in the church, and from various other service functions, and girls are similarly prohibited).
Much of the reconsideration is centered around scriptural interpretation. There has been recognition, too, that such prohibitions can harm girls and women long-term.
Churches of Christ in Decline, Recent Acceleration
It also comes at a time when there is a growing realization that the decline in membership of the Churches of Christ accelerated in recent years and that the Churches of Christ has been shrinking in times and places that other evangelical denominations were growing or staying steady.
Churches of Christ Members in the U.S. (1990 – 2019), Based on Data from 21st Century Christian
Some Maintain That Letting Women Speak Won’t Help Membership, Make Disciples
Some within the Churches of Christ maintain that its doctrine involving prohibitions on women and girls does not play a significant role in its membership decline, asserting its ability to “make disciples” — to go and make disciples of all — and its ability to replace dying members with new ones has not been significantly impacted by such prohibitions on women and girls.
But Shetler Reaching Millions Suggests Otherwise
But that Shetler’s homily, one that is uniquely feminine, reached far more people than there are members of the Churches of Christ in the first place in just 48 hours — while the denomination wonders how it can reach more people and if it is doing what it should to “teach all nations” and communicate the Gospel — seems to suggest that its doctrine involving prohibiting women and girls has meant enormous missed opportunities to reach people and gain members and continues to mean missing such opportunities.
Some Churches of Christ congregations have changed such that women now preach, but it is a small minority. Of course, it will take a wide-ranging change, as well as time, for the Churches of Christ to shed the brand-association it has, the reputation it has for prohibiting women and girls.
An Interview with Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, the Poem
I interviewed Kaitlin Hardy Shetler about her poem and her experience. It will be published in early February at this link: here.
Her December 17 Advent poem, the one that went viral, can be found at her Facebook page at this link: here.
Magnitude of Achievement: Comparing With Other Churches of Christ Outlets and the NY Times
Since its publication on December 17, initially on Facebook, Shetler’s poem has been shared more than 60,000 times, including over 30,000 times from her Facebook page, over 26,000 from the Facebook page of Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness at United Church of Christ, and many more via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, e-mail, and other means. Those have seen over 75,000 reactions (like and love clicks, etc.).
Below is a table showing the number of shares and reactions of the most-shared and most-reacted-to posts for several Churches of Christ-oriented Facebook pages over the past year, as well as the noted posts by Shetler and Blackmon, and then the aggregated number mentioned above, for purposes of having a sense of the scale of Shetler’s poem’s reach.
|The Christian Chronicle||3,600||1,400|
|Plain Simple Faith||1142||101|
|John Mark Hicks||104||642|
|Siburt Institute / Mosaic||15||78|
|Kaitlin Hardy Shetler||30,064||42,539|
|Traci Blackmon (KHS post)||26,296||26,858|
|Shetler’s post (combined)||60,000+||75,000+|
The most-shared article from The Christian Chronicle Facebook page in the past year by far was the one reporting the shooting in late December at the West Freeway Church of Christ, which was shared approximately 3600 times (next closest was around 1400 shares, about Botham Jean’s brother offering forgiveness to and hugging Amber Guyger).
As further comparison, from the New York Times Facebook page, the August 10, 2019 post titled “Breaking News: Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide at a Manhattan jail, officials said. …” had been shared 18,000 times as of January 14, 2020, five months later.
Shetler, Known for Speaking Up
Shetler is known among many in Churches of Christ circles for speaking out in bold theological and moral terms against restrictions on women in the church, spiritual abuse, and violence against women, and for justice and mercy.
A writer and commentator on topics related to the Churches of Christ at her blog, The Skeptiletptic, and other places, she has preached at Lipscomb University, All Saints Church of Christ, and the New Garden Church.
After graduating from Harding, she received a masters of social work from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She served as director of disability services at Lipscomb University for five years and as a Title IX investigator, working with students experiencing sexual assault, stalking, harassment, and discrimination. She currently works for a large, national non-profit organization that seeks to build and improve justice systems.
Thousands of people took the time to make comments after reading Kaitlin Hardy Shetler’s words, including:
“I really loved this poem.”
“Best sermon this poem holds.”
“This is awe inspiring – wow!”
“One of the best things I’ve ever read.”
“This is beautiful.”
“Thank you for this!”
“Wow … preach sister.”
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Sources & Notes
Kaitlin Hardy Shetler’s Advent poem can be found at this link: here.
Interview, once it is posted, will be at this link: here.
It closes with hashtags #poemsfortheresistance and #advent.
For example, the poem was quoted in a Baptist sermon, reprinted in a Catholic church bulletin, posted to a Lutheran church Facebook page, criticized by an author associated with John Piper’s Desiring God who is addressed by by folks commenting on the criticism, Mennonite commenters shared it, discussed by many bloggers (see, e.g., https://littlereview.livejournal.com/1742224.html, https://medium.com/@kristenbarner/tis-the-season-of-my-ridiculousness-814fa4decaa3, and https://www.deaconbob94.org/?p=2462), ….
Total U.S. membership of the Churches of Christ (around 1.1 million): See Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Decline Worsens, 2400 a Month Depart, Treatment of Women & Girls Factor,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 13, 2019).
Worldwide: The only in-depth, researched study of the membership of the Churches of Christ worldwide of which I am aware published in the last 5 years is Bob Waldron, “The Global Status of Churches of Christ,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 8, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2017), http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-8-1/authors/md-8-1-waldron2, which concludes, based on a 2015 survey, that the Churches of Christ likely has “as many as” 2.4 million members outside the United States and Canada. One of the notable things about the study is that little mention is made of China. There is a different group that uses a version of the Church of Christ name in China, but query the presence of the Churches of Christ (Restoration Movement) in China. The study reports substantial growth in Africa and India in the preceding decades. It is difficult to know whether that growth has continued for the Churches of Christ there. Reading some of the background material suggests that funding, impetus, and personnel fueling much of the growth came from the United States. With the acceleration of the decline of the Churches of Christ in the United States over the past 15 years, and particularly in the past 5-10, it has and will almost certainly have an impact on church giving and funding available, which will in turn impact funding of overseas efforts. A Wikipedia entry lists 5.0 million for Churches of Christ, with no source cite. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations_by_number_of_members)
For purposes of this article, I used 4.0 million as the current worldwide membership number (2.4 million + 1.1 million + assume some growth outside the United States since the study + wondering about China + some room for error to that Wikipedia number).
Estimates for reach: I used data and guidance from professional studies, a Facebook group I administer, and a Facebook page I administer to estimate reach. Pew Research found that, in 2014, the average Facebook user had 338 Facebook friends. See https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/03/what-people-like-dislike-about-facebook/ ; https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/facebook-statistics/ . I suspect that the number increased. I used, however, a range around 338. Business Insider reports that “[e]ach user post on Facebook is seen by an average 35% of the user’s friends, according to a comprehensive recent study led by Stanford University researcher Michael Bernstein, who collaborated with three Facebook data scientists.” https://www.businessinsider.com/35-percent-of-friends-see-your-facebook-posts-2013-8. “According to the study, posts that do not receive likes or comments tend to be seen by less friends: an average 28.9% of a user’s network. Over the course of one month, Facebook users in the study had at least one of their posts seen by an average of 61% of their friends.” https://www.businessinsider.com/35-percent-of-friends-see-your-facebook-posts-2013-8. This was in 2013. Facebook’s algorithm changed in 2018 in a way that favors posts like this one, increasing its appearance. See, e.g., https://blog.hootsuite.com/facebook-algorithm/. That is, a post with a greater number of shares, reactions, and comments will likely be seen by a greater percentage of people. Of course, it seems likely that the algorithm changed multiple times between 2013 and 2018 and even before December 2019. But these data points suggest that the Facebook algorithm is likely to show an above-average percentage of friends such a post that is receiving such a large number of shares, comments, and reactions in such a short period when it is shared. Factored in to this is that the number of shares, comments, etc., would make it go up, but also there will be some overlap among friends, so adjust down. Those sharing, commenting, etc., appear relatively diverse, and the groups reached by Blackmon’s post appears relatively diverse from that reached by Shetler’s post, so the overlap is probably below average, though. The estimates are also based on data from a Facebook group that I administer, with a typical post without comments or reactions (or very few) is seen, for example, by about 50 out of 188 (27%) members and those with an above-average number of comments or reactions typically reaches 70 or more (37% or more). None of the posts have very many comments or reactions, though (most would say few). It also is based on data from the Authentic Theology Facebook page and the “reach” data I see there. I used a range consistent with the above, with higher percentages used for the first 48 hour time-period, during the time-period the poem was receiving a high-intensity, viral treatment. I refer to a user seeing a post with the poem as “reaching” a person with her message. This is the way Facebook uses the term “reach.” Example calculations: 60,000 x 388 x 0.61 = 14,201,000; 60,000 x 338 x 0.61 =12.3 million; 60,000 x 338 x 0.35 =7,098,000; 60,000 x 338 x 0.25 = 5,070,000; 60,000 x 287 x 0.25 = 4,305,000; 35,000 x 388 x 0.75 = 10,185,000; 35,000 x 388 x 0.61 = 8.2 million; 35,000 x 338 x 0.45 = 5,323,500; 35,000 x 338 x 0.25 = 2,957,500; 35,000 x 287 x 0.25 = 2,511,250.
Given that the sermon was quite short and in the original post, it seems likely that a reasonably high percentage of those that it reached read at least part of it, if not the whole thing. At least 75,000 reacted to the poem and at least 60,000 shared it, it seems likely that this makes up at least 100,000 different people (there would be some overlap— that is, some would react or share and some would do both). Given my experience and observation on the ratio of the number of people who click on articles to those who comment on, react, or share it, the conclusion that the ratio is above 11:1, which would make it above the number of Churches of Christ members in the United States, is easy to reach. The conclusion that the ratio if above 40:1 or 50:1, which would make it above the number of members in the world, is a distinct possibility, too. Thus, while the number who read the whole poem is difficult to say with certainty, I am confident, given the number of shares and reactions and the length of the poem, that the number exceeds the U.S. membership and might exceed the worldwide membership.
“1-4% or less of U.S. Christianity that completely excludes women from speaking, leading, or otherwise publicly and actively serving in any way during their worship services”: See Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Decline Worsens, 2400 a Month Depart, Treatment of Women & Girls Factor,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 13, 2019). It may be less than l%, given that Churches of Christ membership is around 1.1 million and about 65% of U.S. adults identify as Christian. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_the_United_States.
Graph in body of article: The graph focuses on the acceleration. See Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Decline Worsens, 2400 a Month Depart, Treatment of Women & Girls Factor,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 13, 2019).
“table showing the number of shares and reactions of the most-shared and most-reacted-to posts for several Churches of Christ-oriented Facebook pages over the past year”: I researched this by scrolling through the page’s posts over the past year between January 14 and January 27, 2020 and making note of the most-shared / reacted-to.
… harm: See, e.g., Steve Gardner, “Church of Christ Practice Harms Girls Long-Term, Suggests 2018 Study,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 28, 2018).
The Skeptileptic site is here.
With such significant engagement with the posts, through shares, comments, and reactions, it is likely that the reading-rate for the post was well above average.
From the Authentic Theology Facebook page, a post had 177 shares and 352 reactions. The Plain Simple Faith Facebook page had 1142 shares and 101 reactions on a post. A post on the Radically Christian Facebook page had 949 shares, and another had 556 reactions. For the Wineskins Facebook page, the most-shared post had 36 shares and was also the most-reacted-to, at 115 reactions.
The most-shared post on John Mark Hicks’ Facebook page had 104 shares. The one with the most reactions had 642 reactions, a personal post, with 327 reactions on another. A post on Bobby Valentine’s Facebook page was shared 342 times. The one with the most reactions had 413, a personal post, and another had 345 reactions. Siburt Institute, which includes several articles from Mosaic, had a post with 15 shares and another post with 78 reactions.
Updated: 1:23 pm, 3:37 pm 1/28 fixed reaction numbers in Hicks and Valentine rows (had used the non-personal high numbers); non-substantive fix of some awkward sentences; moved links to poetry pages. 1/29 10:37 am Corrected New Garden Church name.
Picture: Picture of Kaitlin Hardy Shetler speaking at church.
For more on the scripture relating to this issue, see:
Start here for a discussion regarding scripture on this issue: Steve Gardner, “20 Passages Asking Women to Speak, Teach, Lead, and Have Authority Over Men, In the Assembly and Elsewhere,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 3, 2018).
For a discussion regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 22, 2018).
For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:12, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: 1 Timothy 2:12, “Teach or Usurp Authority” (Part 3),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 9, 2019).
For a discussion regarding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, see Steve Gardner, “Most Church of Christ Colleges No Longer Exclude Women From Leading in Worship Services: … 1 Timothy 2:12 …,” AuthenticTheology.com (May 30, 2018).
For a discussion regarding female elders, see Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Female Elders (Part 2),” AuthenticTheology.com (April 3, 2019).
For a discussion regarding Christ’s example, see Steve Gardner, “One of Largest Churches of Christ Opens Preaching Role to Women — And Some Questions,” AuthenticTheology.com (September 17, 2019).
For scriptural discussions from various Churches of Christ, see these three articles: Steve Gardner, “10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: List and Links (Part 1),” AuthenticTheology.com (March 26, 2019); Steve Gardner, “Another 10 Churches of Christ Where Women Speak in the Assembly: Their Reasons & a Quiz,” AuthenticTheology.com (April 24, 2019); and Steve Gardner, “4 More Churches of Christ Open Speaking Roles to Women,” AuthenticTheology.com (November 26, 2019).