Monday, March 19, 2018

Recommended Readings: Arusha Call to Discipleship

The World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) recently concluded its Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania. These conferences, which occur about once a decade, are often seen as an important means of ascertaining the state of missiological thinking around the world. This year's conference produced The Arusha Call to Discipleship as a statement of its understanding of the current state of mission, evangelism, and discipleship. It is worth reading.

For more on the Conference, you can read the following resources:
Jerome Sahabandhu's UM & Global post in advance of the conference
A Global Ministries story about Methodist participation in the conference
Two reflections (one and two) from Global Ministries' Amy Valdez-Barker about the conference
News stories from the WCC about the conference

Friday, March 16, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Mission and Religious Fundamentalism

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

One of the major challenges or hurdles for global peace, justice and reconciliation is religious fundamentalism. Why should missiologists be interested in engaging religious fundamentalism? If mission is God’s mission (mission dei) in the whole cosmos, then what is going on in the world is of utmost important as instruments of mission ‘join in’ mission. ‘Joining in’ requires an incarnational understanding of sitz im leben (life in real context). Fundamentalism is a reality in our context today.

Further, mission requires responsibility, accountability, solidarity and mutuality. According to Thomas Thangaraj, missio dei should be complemented with missio humanitas – the mission of humanity (“Toward a Dialogical Theology of Mission,” in Theology at the End of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman. Edited by Sheila Greeve Devaney. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991, pp. 161-176). The challenge of missio humanitas is to comprehend critically a better understanding for mission today and engage in a social analysis – that is a missiological task.

Thus, missio humanitas is tasked with critical questions as part of missional engagement in all times:
  • What are the causes of religious fundamentalism? Are there systemic causes and non-systemic causes?
  • What are the missiological responses to religious fundamentalism and its transformation?

Competing extremisms
In Sri Lanka, we speak of extremism (antavadaya) and religious exclusivism. Like many parts of the globe, in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka religious fundamentalism has caused so much violence and destruction. Today so many are concerned about Islamic fundamentalism, its tendency to provoke and actualize violence. Of course, on an equal footing we must reflect and deal with Christian fundamentalism as well.

Fundamentalism is a global phenomenon and thus scholars are discussing not just ‘fundamentalism’ but fundamentalisms and even competing fundamentalisms. Prof. Sathianathan Clark, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, recently published a work entitled Competing Fundamentalisms. Here, Clark deals with Christianity, Islam and Hinduism and discuss how the extremist trends in each of these religions compete in a socio-religious market place at a global scale today.

What is common?
In religious fundamentalism, religion and politics overlap at many points. But what is religious fundamentalism? What elements do they have in common? In 2013, I was asked by the Oblate seminary in Kandy, Sri Lanka to conduct a seminar on religious fundamentalism.

In it, I reflected on some elements that are common to all fundamentalism, and they are:
1) A sense of crisis in a global dimension and of the impending damnation of the world.
2) A sense of a vacuum of authority in the religious institution to which they belong.
3) A return to their founding scriptures (holy texts) to rediscover in their literal interpretation the unbreakable authority of divine revelation.
4) Clinging blindly to the purity of doctrine and moral precepts of those scriptures as the sole norm of life and only doctrinal authority.
5) Utter condemnation of all those who fall outside their religious views.
6) Willingness to kill for the sake of their faith (fanaticism).

Politics and fundamentalism
There may be several types of religious fundamentalisms. The first we can speak of is a type that pretends to be apolitical and views politics (and indeed all aspects of political and social existence) as being this-worldly and, therefore, bound to damnation, in frontal opposition to the revealed truth. This is largely a Christian variety of fundamentalism. From this perspective, the political and social life should be organized on the basis of what are seen as essential or original religious principles, commonly supported by a belief in the literal truth of sacred texts.

On a cursory analysis of their preaching and teaching, one immediately discovers that in certain types of fundamentalism pretended apoliticism and condemnation of the things of this world is only a pretension without any empirical foundation; deep down, most of the Christian fundamentalist movements and groups are staunch defenders and legitimators of the extreme rightwing side of the political arena.

Another type may be a fundamentalism that is openly political and overtly sets out to give legitimation to the politics of the extreme right. One views this type of fundamentalism as essentially an aberration, a symptom of the adjustment that societies make as they become accustomed to a modern and secularized culture.

Yet we observe another type too – fundamentalism of enduring significance. One believes that it is a consequence of the failure of secularism to satisfy the abiding human desire for higher or spiritual truth.

All these types lead to extremism of one form or the other.

Landmark year 1910
While the global Christian leaders, especially the Protestants, met in Edinburgh for the World Missionary Conference in 1910, something significant happened parallelly in the US. That was when the term ‘fundamentalism’ came into existence and wider usage. The prime source of the term was the publication, beginning in 1910, of the conservative Christian manifesto in 12 volumes titled The Fundamentals. The “Fundamentals” included the basic (fundamental) Christian doctrines in response to scientific liberal thoughts and higher biblical criticism, which were coming to the fore at that time.

But fundamentalism is a new designation for those Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and others whom sociologists, historians, philosophers, and other scholars include under that title today. It is interesting to note that two modern movements, the ecumenical movement and fundamentalism – to my mind one positive and the other negative – emerged simultaneously in 1910.

From a missional view point, the ecumenical movement for Christian unity in evangelization and mission is a positive movement with its ups and downs through the history. Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Pentecostals have positively contributed to this movement. But globalization of religious fundamentalism is a negative movement for the humanity and rest of the creation, yet a powerful one with religious affiliation.

Three questions come:
1) Has the ecumenical movement failed to engage critically with the ‘signs of the time’ and dialogue with fundamentalists?
2) Has the global peace movement failed to interpret, analyze and transform fundamentalisms?
3) Have we – the moderate conscientious communities all over the globe – engaged in sufficient social analysis to comprehend and transform the phenomenon of fundamentalisms?

These questions require a deep discussion.

Strange way forward
Let me suggest three ways to grapple and respond to the phenomenon of fundamentalisms; my thinking is on long-term investments and more in the educational approach.

1. Intra-religious work: every religious community can have an educational plan to understand the world religions and indigenous religious traditions in a more comprehensive way for their own religious community. That would be part of an educational process for global citizenship and peace-making. Every religion must encourage internal critical discernment and assessment on their own faith tradition in a fully honest way.

2. Education of youth: all public and private schools can conduct a systematic educational program and offer resources on inter-religious understanding for global peace.

3. Missiological work: Missiologists should engage with missiologists of all faiths, especially with the missionary faiths like Islam and Buddhism and semi-missionary faiths like Hinduism. Interfaith missiological sessions could be held and can lead in developing collective approaches to fundamentalisms in the world today.

Finally, we have to LOVE fundamentalist too; praying, understanding, engaging and loving is a non-negotiable ‘missional call’ in dealing with the phenomenon of fundamentalisms today.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 3:8).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Are there too few mainline denominations?

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.

My last blog raised the question of how we can structurally support innovation in The United Methodist Church. I argued that this is a particularly important question for those interested in mission since mission is a primary form of innovation for the church.

This week I will look at a common strategy for evangelical Christians in the United States to support innovation: innovation through organizational multiplication.

There are many more evangelical denominations in the US than there are mainline denominations, and more are being created all the time. There are something along the lines of 10,000 denominations in the US. A couple dozen of these are mainline Protestant, a dozen or so are Catholic, and a few dozen are some form of Orthodox. The rest are evangelical Protestant denominations. Many of these denominations are tiny, but there are a lot of them.

There are also many evangelical para-denominational, interdenominational, or non-denominational organizations. These include cooperative ministries, non-profits, educational institutions, media outfits, and a whole slew of other forms of organizational life.

Because evangelicalism has a decentralized and personalized sense of authority, evangelicals frequently feel free to go ahead and start their own thing, whether that’s a church, a denomination, or a religious non-profit, without needing to seek authorization from others. The bar to create new organizations is low, which leads to more new organizations.

Thus, innovators can easily start their own (separate) structures, which will then suit their own needs and support whatever form of innovation they are engaged in. Of course, not all new denominations or other evangelical organizations are innovations. Some are created to resist innovation and keep things the same. The point is, though, that if an evangelical Christian in the US wants to do something innovative, they often feel divinely authorized to create their own new organizational structures to support that innovation without needing the say-so of existing organizational structures.

This leads to a free-market approach to religious organizational innovation. Some innovations find support and succeed, and some don’t, but the innovators are empowered to develop and accountable for developing their own thing.

Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argue that such a free-market approach to religion that provides more religious choices is good for religious adherence. Thus, more evangelical denominations may mean more evangelicals. Of course, questions may persist about the depth of discipleship and the accuracy of theological and moral understandings developed through a consumerist approach to religion. Paul says untruth sells (2 Timothy 4:3). But if the goal is members and you accept Stark and Finke, then this approach is a good strategy.

In terms of mission, more organizations may also mean more missionaries and more money for mission if there’s more opportunities to get involved and a lower bar to entry. Again, there may be questions about whether this is the “right kind” of mission. Pictures of orphans bring in donations, even if those orphanages have negative consequences in their communities. Yet following Stark and Finke’s argument again, there’s a reason to think more options for mission = more support of mission.

The number of mainline denominations, on the other hand, decreased over the twentieth century through a series of mergers and a disinclination to start new mainline denominations. This lack of religious options and competitors on the mainline side may be one reason for mainline membership decline starting in the mid-twentieth century, if you buy Stark and Finke’s argument. By contrast, evangelical membership only began to decline in the last decade or so.

Mainline denominations also generally reduced the number of organizations conducting mission over the 20th century as they merged organizations responsible for men’s and women’s work and domestic and foreign work. Organizational consolidation may have decreased interest in mission among mainline Protestants.

Thus, one answer to the question of organizational support for church innovation in The United Methodist Church would be to have more United Methodists go off and form their own organizations, separate from the current structure. This argument is sometimes advanced in favor of UMC schism.

I’m not making that argument here. But I think the appeal of this approach to Americans does put the onus on those committed to some form of continued organizational connection to provide an account of how innovation can still happen within that larger organizational system. I’ll offer one such possibility next week.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Central Conference Bishops

For those looking to learn more about United Methodism outside the United States, several recent interviews with bishops from the central conferences are a good way to do that. Here's a list:

Joe Iovino interviews German bishop Harald Rückert for the Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast.

Joe Iovino interviews Filipino bishop Rodolfo A. Juan for the Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast.

Bishop Christian Alsted gives a short overview of The United Methodist Church in Norway.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Dialogue — A Spiritual Practice for 21st Century

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The word dialogue comes from the Greek dia, meaning through, and logos, a word that includes the meanings of language, principle, rationality, law, etc. Dialogue invites us to engage with the other by respecting the ‘otherness of the other’ as we grow together in humanity and world citizenship for peace and justice.

Global Ministries’ Mission Dialogue Forum conducted a session on interfaith literacy in January 2018 in order to offer the Global Ministries staff an appreciative understanding of world religions and spiritualities and promote interfaith dialogue. The following are some of the insights we encountered during the mission dialogue session and wish to share with a wider public.

Cross-Cultural Literacy
As global citizens of the world, it is important to not just learn to respect the people of all faiths and non-affiliates but also to develop understanding, sensitization and awareness as the necessary step. The challenge is to empower global citizens cross culturally in a changing world today to face the challenges of tomorrow. Literacy challenges of the new times are that of interfaith literacy, cross-cultural literacy and ecological literacy.
A recent Pew Research study on the changing scenarios of the world’s major religions forecasted into 2050, when the world population will be about 9.3 billion. Finding include the following:

  • The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world. By 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%), possibly for the first time in history.
  • Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population. (Is our society become a post-secular society?)
  • The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today.
  • In Europe, Muslims will make up 10% of the overall population.
  • India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia.
  • In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion. Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish based on religion.
  • Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Our Neighbors
Given these facts together with rapid growth of international migration and human movements across national and global borders sociology and spirituality of our neighbor will have a spectacular come back. This is extremely challenging for the Christians in mission and ministry; engaging our neighbor and her faith will be the critical question in front of all humans. When we say and greet, “How is it going!” are we practicing missional seriousness? In the greeting there is a call to stop and dialogue on the “goings of the other”. The faith of the other is a significant dimension of that ‘going.’

Test of Faith is Faith in Relation
I thought sharing a few highlights from Rev. Dr. Lynn De Silva (1919-1982), an eminent Sri Lankan Methodist theologian, ecumenist and world religions scholar could share some wisdom for Christians who are called to be in mission today. According to De Silva:
  • Dialogue does not in any way diminish full and loyal commitment to one's own faith, but rather enriches and strengthens it.
  • Dialogue, far from being a temptation to syncretism, is a safeguard against it, because in dialogue we get to know one another's faith in depth. One's own faith is tested and refined and sharpened thereby. The real test of faiths is faiths-in-relation.
  • Dialogue is a creative interaction which liberates a person from a closed or cloistered system to which he happens to belong by an accident of birth and elevates him to spiritual freedom giving him a vision of wider dimensions of spiritual life by his sharing in the spirituality of others.

Intra-Cultural Dialogue
From the point of view of reconciliation, healing and goodwill, navigating through intracultural dialogue and cross-cultural dialogue is the test of our time. Sometimes intra-cultural relationships are harder and even tougher than cross cultural dialogue. What we need today is a dialogical leadership at all levels. Dialogue cannot be genuine unless we engage as equals. This may be of special critical relevance in inter-racial dialogue, inter-economic dialogue (the rich and the poor), and inter-theological dialogue within our own cultural communities.

Prayer and meditation in all faiths is a dialogue. The challenge of the world religions and other spiritualities today is to earnestly invite their own adherents to engage seriously in prayer and mediation as a mystical spiritual empowering source for dialoging with humanity and the rest of creation. Let the gift of Dialogue be our 21st century spiritual practice for the fullness of LIFE.

“It is vital that we stand up with the same aspiration and that we talk openly with each other. In any situation, dialogue is a positive endeavor. It builds solidarity and creates unity. dialogue gives rise to trust, even among those who don’t see eye to eye.” - Nichiren Daishonin

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mission, Structure, and Innovation

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.

In a previous post, I compared the historical arc of (primarily white) American Methodism over the past century with the story of the tower of Babel. American Methodists sought to build impressive towers, both literally in terms of church buildings and metaphorically in terms of organizational systems. Our languages, however, have become confused from one another so that we have been unable to keep building our organizational towers.

Yet even if we were able to continue to build our organizational towers, there would still be dangers. Organizations tend toward standardization and bureaucratization, which leads to rigidity. But rigidity leads to fragility, both in physical buildings and in organizational systems. Physical buildings that do not have give can be toppled by strong winds or earthquakes. Organizations that do not have give exclude innovation and thus can be toppled by the daily (strong winds) or cataclysmic (earthquakes) changes of our world.

Innovation is necessary for the long-term success of organizations. Without innovation, organizations become maladapted to a changing world. But organizational systematization is both a human need and a powerful temptation that can lead groups to exclude innovation.

In Christianity, mission is often the innovation of the church. This is especially true of evangelism, which starts new church congregations and brings in new Christians. This type of innovation provides Christianity a basic necessary organizational resource for its continuation – adherents. Yet other forms of mission can also be a form of innovation. Mission of compassion and social justice mission both witness to God’s reign by meeting the pressing, current pains of the world and thus keeping the church connected to a changing world.

If we care about mission, then we should ask: How can we foster innovation as United Methodists?

There are many skills, beliefs, knowledge sets, and behaviors required for successful evangelism/mission/innovation. One answer to the question of how we foster innovation could thus look at how to impart these skills, beliefs, knowledge sets, and behaviors to United Methodists.

But I think it is important to recognize that innovation is already happening all the time in the church, whether that’s through Fresh Expressions, mission in new countries started by African annual conferences, dinner churches, creation care ministries, migrant ministries in Germany, etc. I think people are naturally creative and innovative, and some level of innovation happens no matter what.

Thus, another approach to the question of how to foster innovation in United Methodism is to ask how we can recognize and structurally support the innovations that are already happening. How can we empower and legitimize those who are already innovating?

Of course, there’s a larger question of whether The United Methodist Church actually wants innovation. The book Immunity to Change suggests that people don’t change dysfunctional systems because those systems are actually working for them, they are providing the people involved with something important, even if there are negative consequences associated with it. We may not actually want innovation and change in the UMC if we see it as jeopardizing deeply held beliefs, values, habits. Even if a lack of innovation slowly kills us, we may be willing to accept that death if it means we don’t have to live without our cherished traditions and existing structures.

We’re going to assume, though, that the UMC, or at least those interested in mission in the UMC, are open to change, are willing to risk some of what they currently get from the church for the sake of something new. Thus, my next two blog posts will look at the question of how organizational forms can succeed in fostering innovation.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Recommended Reading: Mission: what are we missing?

Missio Dei has become a critical term in contemporary missiology. It was developed in large part to critique an approach to mission that was dominated by the Western church, propagating Western imperialism and institutional concerns. This helpful reflection from French missiology Gerard Kelly examines ways in which we can still fail to fully understand missio Dei by making it still primarily about human action. Kelly offers five affirmations about missio Dei that he believes can provide for a more faithful, joyful approach to mission.