Friday, October 19, 2018

New Mission Areas for the 21st Century

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Mission has always been contextual. In part, that means that how mission is done fits (or should fit) the context in which it is done. But it can also be taken to mean that what mission is done must fit (or respond to) the context in which it is done.

A few forms of mission are enduring. Evangelism is a component of mission in all times and places. Mission has always (or almost always) shown concern for the poor. Yet, even within these enduring forms of mission, the activities paired with evangelism and how Christians have shown concern for the poor have varied.

As the Western mission industrial complex was coming into its fullest flowering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the forms of mission it undertook were shaped significantly by two types of contexts which were the focus of a lot of American and European mission efforts: urban centers in the West and non-modern societies outside of the US. How Western Christians understood and continue to understand the components of mission was significantly shaped by their experiences in each of these two types of contexts.

In non-modern societies outside the West, Christian mission came to include not only evangelism but also medical work, education, women's rights, publishing, famine relief, and economic development. In some of these areas, Christian missionaries were drawing upon longer histories of church expertise and activity (education has been a function of the Western church since the medieval time period, for instance), but in all of these areas, missionaries were also responding to their perceptions of the needs of the mission fields in which they worked.

In urban centers in the West, Christian mission came to include not only evangelism but also medical work, literacy, poverty relief--including food and clothing distribution, temperance, and women's rights. This list overlaps with the list of mission work done outside the West, and there was at the time discussion of the similarities between work among the urban poor in the West and that in non-Western countries.

In the middle of the 20th century, the range of mission work was expanded through interactions with new historical contexts to include refugee relief and resettlement (especially in response to the refugee crises of the world wars), disaster relief (growing out of post-war rebuilding efforts), and social justice advocacy (coming out of post-colonialism and minority rights movements).

For the most part, all of these previous forms of mission continue today (with the possible exception of temperance and publishing as major foci). In part, that is because the perceived issues justifying each of these forms of mission work continue to exist. There is still sickness and poverty in the world. But in part, these areas of mission work continue because the institutional infrastructure created by previous generations was set up in such a way to ensure continued focus on these particular forms of mission.

But what if we were attempting to develop a set of forms of Christian mission that were responding to contexts in the 21st century and not merely continuing the traditions of mission that we have inherited? What issues might we see as critical for the church to address? This is not an attempt to adopt a "needs-based" missiology but instead an attempt to, as J.C. Hoekendijk argued for, put the world and the kingdom of God into conversation. What areas of mission focus would be suggested by the world in 2018 and the kingdom that were not part of previous models of mission? What particular contexts would these types of mission be most relevant to? In short, what might be "new mission areas" for the 21st century?

Over the next several weeks, I will suggest some possible new mission areas that I see - loneliness, climate refugees, mental health, and others. But I would also like to hear from you readers: What do you see as possible new areas for mission focus in the 21st century? Comment below to suggest topics or email me a post with your take on this question.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tribalism in the American UMC

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Consider this description of American United Methodists:

"Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives together comprise just 14 percent of the American church membership—yet it often feels as if our denominational conversation has become a shouting match between these two groups at the furthest ends of the spectrum. Together with Traditional Conservatives (who share values and tribalism like the Devoted Conservatives, just less intensely), they compose the 33 percent of people in the groups we label the Wings.

"Combined, the members of these three tribes comprise just one-third of the membership, but they often dominate our denominational conversation. Tribalism runs deep in their thinking. Their distrust and fear of the opposing side drives many of the people in these groups, and they have especially negative opinions of each other. When people today speak about how United Methodists seem to hate each other, they're usually talking about the opinions and behaviors of the Wings.

"The Wings are also the most unified internally. On many of the most contentious issues—race, immigration, LGBTQI+ rights—the people in these three tribes express high levels of unanimity. Often more than 90 percent of people in one of these groups holds the same view about a controversial issue, and typically, it will be the reverse of whatever the opposing wing believes. In contrast, the remaining two-thirds of American United Methodists at the center show more diversity in their theological views, express less certainty about them, and are more open to compromise and change—even on issues that we all tend to consider highly polarizing."

Sounds pretty accurate, right? Only here's the catch - this isn't a description of American United Methodists. It's a description of the American electorate from the Hidden Tribes of America project, which I changed slightly to shift references from the nation to the church. The fact that it can be read so easily as a description of the church makes the point that divisions in The United Methodist Church in the United States mirror the divisions within wider society.

Increasingly, scholars and commentators have been referring to US society as becoming more "tribalized" - that is, divided into exclusive and competing groups constructed around communal identities. Amy Chua is perhaps the scholar most associated with this analysis, but it has been adopted by many others. The Hidden Tribes project takes such an approach. The ways in which their description of tribalism in American politics maps so neatly onto the church shows us that the American church has become tribal as well.

For many Americans, thinking of their society as a tribal society is new. During the Enlightenment and colonialism, the West (including the United States) took great pride in its belief that it had advanced beyond a tribal basis for organizing society. Thus, Americans in general may struggle to figure out what a resurgence of tribalism means for American society. Similarly, American Christians may struggle to figure out what a resurgence of tribalism means for the American church.

Yet Americans do have Christian brothers and sisters who have long experience in trying to think through the implications for and intersections of tribalism and the church: African Christians. While the impact of tribalism on and in the church is still a contentious issue that Africans have by no means solved, they do have a long history of trying to bring Christian theological and ethical resources to bear on tribal conflicts in church and society and have acquired a good deal of wisdom in the process.

The debates over homosexuality leading up to the called General Conference in February of next year are perhaps the biggest expression of tribal conflicts in the US UMC today. What if, in the face of these tribal conflicts, American United Methodists were to ask their African sisters and brothers not "Which tribe will you align with?" but "What can you teach us about how to handle tribal conflicts in the church?" It might not end conflicts in the US church, but it might help us to move forward in new ways that transcend rather than merely replicate the conflicts in the broader US society.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Bishop John Yambasu videos

United Methodist Communications has put out a series of six short (1-2 min.) video interviews with Bishop John Yambasu of the Sierra Leone Episcopal Area.

In the videos, Bishop Yambasu discusses divisions in the church over human sexuality. He affirms support for traditional understandings of marriage as between a man and a woman, though he also notes African discomfort with talking about sex in general. He indicates that Africans could support the One Church Plan, since a contextual approach makes sense, but only if they were able to separate support for the One Church Plan and support for homosexuality. He affirms the unity of the church, but also speaks about how Africans are preparing for the implications, including the financial implications, of divisions in the American church that are already apparent. Finally, he calls on the general church to stop "legislating sex" and instead to focus on the church's attention and money on mission to the world, including the hungry, sick, illiterate, and uneducated.

The videos are as follows:

United Methodist bishop: "It is God's church"

United Methodist bishop: "Marriage should be between man and woman"

Bishop discusses One Church Plan implications for Africa

Sierra Leone bishop looks at all three plans for GC2019

United Methodist bishop: What a church split means for Africa

United Methodist bishop: "Rethink our calling as a church"

Friday, October 12, 2018

Mission vs. Pilgrimage

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

A day ago, a friend of mine, Rev. Jeremy Smith, shared on his Facebook page the following interaction with someone:

"Recently I had a conversation with a man who used to be a missions director for an independent church. He left his position over disagreement over the mission of the church. He said to me: 'My church no longer does mission trips, they send people on pilgrimages. We used to do mission trips for communal transformation. Now we do pilgrimages for individual transformation. We will end up with more self-aware people who have had their mountaintop experiences, but at the expense of fewer valleys filled in with service and mission.'"

Rev. Smith then posed these questions about that interaction: "Is this true? Are people choosing to go on pilgrimages instead of missions? And what does that mean for our mission identity if more churches do?"

I'd like to share an expanded version of my response to this interaction and the questions that Rev. Smith poses about it.

I want to address this scenario from the Wesleyan premise that the point of Christianity (including both works of piety, which might include pilgrimage, and works of mercy, which might include short-term mission trips) is to help people grow in holiness, and by this term is meant love for God and for other humans.

Furthermore, I think it is an important Wesleyan assumption that growing in love of other humans cannot be accomplished without interacting with actual other people. It is impossible to grow in love of others in an entirely abstract way. Real love must be embodied. I have been convinced by Dr. David Field that this is the best understanding of John Wesley's oft-cited comment about "social holiness" and "social religion."

Given these Wesleyan premises, there are lots of reasons we could critique short term mission trips as commonly practiced as embodying a deficient understanding of love or failing to actually help those going on them to grow in love of the Other.

Books such as When Helping Hurts have pointed out how short-term mission trips often actually end up harming instead of helping those with less financial resources, especially when conducted in ways that objectify, stereotype, demean, or force into dependency those on the "receiving" end of mission. Obviously, this is a problematic understanding of love.

Furthermore, recent research has shown that there are often no long-term religious or theological effects to the experience of going on a short-term mission trip for the Americans and especially American youth that participate. This would suggest a failure of short-term missions as a way to grow in love and therefore holiness.

But I think there are also many reasons to question whether replacing short-term mission trips with pilgrimages does any more to help people grow in love of others and in particular others who are different from them.

Especially when those pilgrimages are focused on "individual transformation," it is likely that they are merely reinforcing a Western individualism that has problematic interactions with the gospel and replicating current capitalist focus on experiences as a trendy form of personal consumption.

While I don't know exactly what type of pilgrimages the person talking to Rev. Smith was referencing, it is likely that these pilgrimages occur in cultural contexts other than the church's home context. Yet the notion of pilgrimage for the sake of "individual transformation" does not seem to me to lend itself to extensive interaction with locals for the sake of increasing one's understanding of them and growing in love for and compassion towards them. I could be wrong, but I also know the stereotypes of how Americans behave while tourists, and it's easy for pilgrimage to become a form of religious tourism that objectifies, stereotypes, and demeans those in host countries.

Certainly, it's possible that people can form close relationships with other pilgrims and that these relationships can be mutually transformative (the movie The Way is a nice depiction of this), but that's still usually best accomplished by opening oneself up to strangers, not traveling with a group of your friends and acquaintances. Thus, I'm not convinced that sending church groups on pilgrimages is actually a good way to help church members grow in love for others.

Growth in love of God is perhaps an even more important part of growing in holiness, and some might counter that such pilgrimages are about exactly that. Yet it is worth noting that most of the works of piety Wesley commended as means to grow in the love of God still had a communal bent to them - taking communion as part of corporate worship and group study of the Bible, for instance. Thus, as Wesleyans, we should be leery of the notion that focusing on one's self should be a primary means to grow closer to God. Pilgrimage may produce a "mountain-top experience," but does that experience translate into a closer walk with God when back down on the plain?

I think better than either short term mission or pilgrimage is to ask how we as Christian communities may go about forging relationships with others who are different from us so that we may all mutually better understand the good news of God's universal love for us and others and come to more fully embody that love in our own lives.

It is possible to do short-term mission trips or pilgrimages in a way that foregrounds such relationship-building and mutuality. But there are also other good models of what this sort of international travel and connection can look like. A model like the work of Sister Parish that focuses on solidarity, mutual understanding, and mutual learning is one such example. But whatever model a church chooses, it is important to think theologically about the purpose of the trip.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Game Theory and General Conference 2019

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

When the special called General Conference of The United Methodist Church convenes in St. Louis next February, they will be considering a variety of plans for how to resolve the denomination's long-standing debate around homosexuality. As many as five or more different plans may be up for consideration by this body - the One Church, Connectional Conference, and Traditional plans from the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, and the Plan of Dissolution and the Simple Plan submitted by other groups. Not all of these plans may pass constitutional muster, and there may have been other plans submitted of which I am not aware, but it is clear that there will be multiple plans set before the General Conference.

Yet because of how parliamentary procedure works, delegates will not be choosing from among all the plans at once. Only one plan at a time will be considered, and it seems reasonable that once one plan has been passed, no other plans will be considered, since the plans are mutually exclusive.

There are two additional complicating factors: First, some delegates may be willing to support more than one plan (as evidenced by non-exclusive voting at the Global Young People's Forum). Yet their willingness to support more than one plan might not be equal. That is, they may have a first preference and a second (or subsequent) preference that they would be willing to consider, but only if their first preference is not available.

Second, with each subsequent plan voted on, the threshold for support decreases. There was be great pressure on delegates to approve something, and the odds that delegates' first choice plan becomes unavailable and therefore they would be willing to support a second or third choice plan increase with each subsequent defeated plan. Thus, delegates would likely become more willing to vote for a plan if it is considered later in the process (assuming, of course, that no previous plan is approved and there is a later in the process).

This leads to a game theory question: If supporters of a particular plan were able to choose the order in which the plans were voted on, what would be the most advantageous order for their plan?

At first it might seem that the obvious question would be that supporters would want their plan voted on first, since then there would be no chance of another plan passing first. But the answer is actually more complicated than that and depends upon the perceived level of support for the supporters' plan and other plans.

If supporters are confident that their plan would pass as the first plan voted on, then it would make sense for them to seek to bring that plan to a vote first.

Likewise, if supporters of a plan think there is a decent though not certain likelihood that their plan will pass but also a decent (or greater) likelihood another plan would pass (remember, it is possible for people to support more than one plan and thus possible for more than one plan to have sufficient support to pass), then it would make sense to want their plan to be first, even if they were not certain they had sufficient support. It is probably better to gamble on winning in the first round rather than gambling on not losing the first round and then gamble on winning, even if the odds of winning increase somewhat if they do not lose on the first round (i.e., have another plan approved).

On the other hand, if supporters of a plan were not confident that they had the initial votes to pass their plan, but were confident that other plans also lacked sufficient votes to pass, then it would actually be advantageous to them to bring other plans up for a vote first, expecting those plans to be defeated. Those defeats would lower the threshold for support for their own plan and increase the number of people supporting their plan as a second or third choice, thereby raising the odds of their plan being passed in a subsequent round of voting.

Of course, the challenge for this game is that players operate with incomplete knowledge. Supporters of a particular plan will have estimates of the level of support for their plan and for others, but these estimates may be incorrect, making their strategy ineffective. That is basic feature for most game theory problems, though - players must operate with incomplete knowledge.

Furthermore, while this game theory analysis has assumed that players may select the order of voting, in real life, that order will be just as contested as the plans themselves. Nevertheless, I hope this piece will help readers understand the procedural conflicts about the order of business before the General Conference that are likely to precede voting on any of the actual plans.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Christian Alsted videos

United Methodist Communications has put out a series of four short (1-2 min.) video interviews with Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic-Baltic Episcopal Area.

In the videos, Bishop Alsted discusses divisions in the church over human sexuality. He argues for continued relationship despite differences. It is worth noting that Bishop Alsted's episcopal area contains significant differences on this topic, especially between Denmark and Estonia. The videos also include a mention of the Nordic-Baltic unified cabinet model, which crosses annual conferences, languages, and nations, and an affirmation of mission by Bishop Alsted and the Connectional Table, which he chairs.

The four videos are as follows:

United Methodist bishop: "It's important for us to stay in dialogue"

United Methodist bishop urges congregants to face challenges together

United Methodist bishop: "I trust the General Conference"

United Methodist bishop: "God's mission is yet alive"

Friday, October 5, 2018

Benjamin L. Hartley: Opening Up the Church so Wide…

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission at George Fox University. The post originally appeared on the author's personal blog, Mission and Methodism, in slightly modified form.

I have been thinking and writing about refugees quite a bit recently. There’s ample reason for it; today, seventy million people in our world have been forced from their homes as refugees or internally displaced persons.[1]

November 11, 2018 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. The end of that war brought peace to some, but the refugee crisis it spawned and the ensuing famine in Russia that affected millions made life a nightmare for years after the trench warfare ceased. I wrote an article about this that came out in the International Bulletin of Mission Research this month.[2] Specifically, I wrote about the European Student Relief – the first aid organization to be truly international and ecumenical. It was organized by Christian students around the world to come to the aid of refugee students.

Our refugee crisis today was again brought to my attention a couple of months ago at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies with a sermon given by Rev. Peter Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa. I met him several days earlier - spotting his name tag as I trickled into a lecture hall with 150 other attendees for the conference’s first plenary lecture. I was surprised to see him. He is not the young man that he was when he bravely fought against the apartheid regime for decades beginning in the 1960s.

As part of his resistance to that regime he would sometimes hold a sign that read, "All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six and other parts of the city, and who were forced by law to leave their homes because of the colour of their skins. Father forgive us."

This so-called “Plaque of Shame” was erected on the outside wall of the local Methodist church in District 6 as well. I’m told it is still there. In his sermon that Sunday, Rev. Storey also described another time in the history of that church – long after he had departed as its pastor – when the building provided a place of refuge for people fleeing the ruthless regime of Robert Mugabe in the neighboring state of Zimbabwe.

On the last day of the Oxford Institute, Peter preached on the story of four friends who dug a hole in the roof of a home where Jesus was teaching and asked (demanded?) that Jesus heal their paralyzed friend. The church, he said, has to be broken in order to actually be the church. By serving refugees from Zimbabwe, the church he loved – including the building itself – was literally broken down from the stress of housing dozens of people who lived, cooked, and slept in the sanctuary.

I am reminded of how rarely I have seen this kind of ministry happen in the churches that I have attended and served in for the past several decades. To be clear, I have been a part of churches – urban ones especially – that did prioritize ministry to their neighbors over keeping the church building in shape. I am grateful for their witness, but I have not seen this enough.

When Rev. Storey finished preaching I felt compelled to thank him for his sermon. It had moved me to tears. But I knew that kind words and a handshake wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to hug this man – to feel the aging sinews in his back muscles that had fought against oppression. Peter Storey reminded me that morning that the Christian life is not primarily about finely nuanced talks or academic papers (valuable as they can be) but about ministering to people where they are at in their fullness as people truly created in God’s image and who reflect that image even in the brokenness of their bodies. “Too often,” he noted, “we are more concerned about being right than doing good!”

Rev. Storey paraphrased Mother Teresa in his closing words that Sunday morning in Oxford. I can’t think of a better was to close this blog than to follow his example:

“May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” Reflecting on this quotation with respect to the story of the paralytic and his four friends, Peter went on, “Only if the church gets broken open does the world get mended… Open up the Church so wide that the whole world falls in."

[1] See the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. This number would be higher if an even broader definition of refugee and internally displaced person were utilized.
[2] See my article in the October 2018 International Bulletin of Mission Research, entitled “Saving Students: European Student Relief in the Aftermath of World War I.”