This post is based on a YouTube series that I did exploring the question, Is MOPS drifting into Progressive Theology?
In the spring of 2016, Mandy Arioto, became the new president of MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers). She began to implement a series of changes to the ministry. Although the statement of faith and core ministry values listed on the MOPS web site remain biblically solid, changes were implemented to the materials used for leader training and in small groups. However, some of the ministry's veterans were troubled by these developments. They felt the materials were out of step with the ministry's web site and history. This led to concerns that MOPS was possibly drifting into progressive Christianity.
A handful of leaders reached out to me privately asking if I would weigh in on whether their concerns were warranted. They were moms, not professional theologians or pastors. They didn't want to sound the alarm prematurely or unfairly. (Note: These ladies originally reached out to my friend, Alisa Childers. Alisa is arguably the foremost apologist working right now in the realm of progressive theology. But Alisa was too busy with her current book project to take on something new. So, they looked down the bench and found me.)
At first, I was hesitant to look into this matter because I am an outsider. I have never attended a MOPS group. But I have been a mother of young children and I did attend a similar group at my church in the early 2000s, which was a great encouragement to me in that season of life. I am a public theologian who frequently comments on matters related to theology, apologetics and culture. So I told these gals that I would "look into it."
Here is a slice of my journey down the MOPS rabbit hole.
I started my journey by watching a 40-minute video of a call with MOPS leaders where Mandy Arioto explained the rollout of the new messaging and branding (title: All Leader Call with Mandy - June 22, 2016).
During the call, Mandy announced that they were going to update the "outdated" logo for MOPS and that they had a vision to go into spaces where there is no Christian framework, by having Mandy make radio appearances and speaking at secular conferences. Personally, I love this vision and think it is a great approach. If you're going to reach non-Christians with the Gospel, then you have to be willing to go into the spaces where they hang out.
However, this approach also demands a very high degree of intentionality and accountability when it comes to messaging so that the key features of the Christian worldview are put forth accurately, clearly, and winsomely. Without this, the Gospel can easily degenerate into a message of self-help and community.
On the call, Mandy also made a couple points that were potential red flags for me.
1) Mandy described MOPS as being a "new wineskin" for this generation with a fresh vision for the faith (in contrast to the organization's 40 year history). For me, these phrases could be fairly innocuous. Or, they could be a problem. I have heard advocates of Progressive Theology use terms like these before, so it made me wonder if Mandy's selection of these terms was intentional or incidental.
2) Mandy's definition of the "good news" ("gospel") seemed very vague. Here is how it was defined on the call.
"Families are looking for something. But here's the thing. People are so interested in finding hope. They have no idea what the good news is. And they haven't found it among the followers of Jesus. Until now. We are people who are reclaiming the good news. Who are walking out on the way, the one we follow, a man named Jesus, to bring good news to hurting people. Eight million people are leaving the church every year. So we are taking serious responsibility for the fact that we need to be people bearing good news. Reclaiming the good news. And what is good news? Good news is friends when you are lonely. It is food when you are hungry. It is kindness with no strings attached. It is food when your baby is sick. Good news is Jesus. And it is the embarrassingly extravagant love of God."
This definition jumped out at me because it lacked the details of the actual biblical definition of the Gospel, such as the life, ministry, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15). I would characterize it as fairly humanistic and superficial. There was no mention of hope being rooted and grounded in traditional concepts like the need to be reconciled to a holy God. In fact, the issue of sin didn't seem to be in the picture at all.
And again, I noticed an insinuation that Christians had missed how to positively present the "good news"....until now. But God was going to use MOPS to change all that. Really? Non-Christians haven't found hope and the good news of Jesus among the followers of Jesus, until now? I found such assertions quite alarming.
In spite of these issues, I tried to keep an open mind. Perhaps there was more to the story. I needed more information.
Also as part of my early research, I read these blog posts and listened to the podcast below, put forward by other concerned women.
"Open Letter of Concern Over MOPS International," by Sarah Wilkins (published on her pastor's blog site); published August, 2016
"MOPS and Its Move Away from Biblical Christianity," by Sarah Wilkins (published on her pastor's blog site); published September, 2016
"Why Your Church (and You, Believer) Should Stop Associating with MOPS International," by the Theology Gals; published May 26, 2019
"It’s Time to Say Goodbye to MOPS International (Mothers of Preschoolers)," by the Theology Gals; published May 26, 2019
At this point, I couldn't yet discern whether this issue was just a few Reformed women being legalistic, or if there was a genuine theological problem here. I asked a trusted friend to reach out to her friend who was a long-time MOPS leader and see if she had similar concerns over the recent changes. After a lengthy discussion, she thought it was a lot of dissension stirred up by some overly religious women and that the changes were probably for the good of outreach.
So, I reached out to Sarah Wilkins, who was a former MOPS leader and author of two of the blog posts listed above, to see if she'd be willing to be a guest on my show, "All The Things." She had left MOPS the year before and started a moms group at her church inspired by the original vision of MOPS. Here is that interview.
Sarah provided ample documentation that MOPS began as a ministry to reach unchurched or de-churched mothers of young children with the Gospel. MOPS groups generally meet at churches, but gear their programming with an eye toward connecting new moms with local Christians and providing a non-threatening on-ramp for them to hear the Gospel and begin to potentially integrate into church life. You can definitely hear Sarah's heart for outreach in the interview above. Sarah didn't strike me as legalistic. She was measured, reasonable and well researched. And, she had a HUGE heart for evangelism.
At this point, I still didn't know a lot of details of the MOPS theology. But I knew enough to suspect that some of Sarah's concerns were somewhat warranted. I decided to keep digging.
After the interview with Sarah Wilkins, I began publishing a series of book reviews of MOPS materials on my YouTube channel. Here are those efforts.
During this phase of research, I continued to notice a pattern. There were glaring omissions in the theology presented in the MOPS books and leader guides. I found it incredibly odd that an organization that claims to want to reach non-Christians with the Gospel had such a lack of critical definitions in their materials. The answers to major questions seemed to be completely absent.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
What is the Gospel?
What is humanity's fundamental problem?
What did Jesus actually accomplish on the cross?
You know...the basics.
Looking back, maybe it was for the best that I'm an outsider to this conversation. I have no vested interest in vilifying, or defending, MOPS. My only interest in commenting on the preservation of the historic Christian faith. As such, I've tried to remain neutral in my research and just report the theological facts.
In part 2 of this series, I'll document what I think is the Gospel according to the MOPS organization and how this message is currently being presented.