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 and 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, before it closes with the hashtags #poemsfortheresistance and #advent.

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.

Figure_Members_110219

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.

Facebook Page Shares Reactions
The Christian Chronicle 3,600 1,400
Authentic Theology 177 352
Plain Simple Faith 1142 101
Radically Christian 949 556
Wineskins 36 115
John Mark Hicks 104 642
Bobby Valentine 342 413
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.

Her new Kaitlin Hardy poetry page can be found at this link:  here.  A collection of her poetry can be found at this link:  here.

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.

Impact

Thousands of people took the time to make comments after reading Kaitlin Hardy Shetler’s words, including:

“I really loved this poem.”

“Seriously. Crying.”

“Best sermon this poem holds.”

“This is awe inspiring – wow!”

“Amazing”

“One of the best things I’ve ever read.”

“This is beautiful.”

“Powerful”

“Amen!”

“Thank you for this!”

“Wow … preach sister.”


———————————————————–

——————————–

————–

If you would like to be notified of other articles on the Churches of Christ and similar topics, please sign up to follow Authentic Theology by “Liking” on Facebook here:  https://www.facebook.com/AuthenticTheology/  

 

 

 

 

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.