Friday, February 16, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Mission from the Margins: A Reflection

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.

“Mission Dialogue Forum” is an initiative of the Global Ministries’ Mission Theology Desk to engage theologically and missiologically with the Global Ministries staff, which is an intercultural community now housed in Atlanta. The forum commenced in the November 2017, with the first session facilitated on “Theology and Mission from the Margins.” Mission Dialogue Forums will have a series of dialogue sessions thereafter. It is hoped to share insights and missional themes that come out of these forums with a wider public for debate, dialogue and engagement.

“Theology and Mission from the Margins” is one of the most critical yet attractive and dynamic themes in recent mission discourses globally and locally. Can any good come out of Nazareth (a Margin of the Roman Empire)?

Dialogue of Global Margins
At a global level one can immediately think of situations such as how theologies and missions from Nigeria to Tonga, Congo to India and Sri Lanka and Haiti to First Nation Peoples sharing their missional voices, thoughts and practices, hopes, struggles, readings of Bible and their interpretations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the larger missional communities in the world? Once margins of the empires, these places are now coming out!

Put it in another way, for an example, how can a Dalit Missiology that emphasizes the casteless society, equanimity, democratic discernment, egalitarian power sharing and justice and has been thoroughly influenced by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, himself being a Dalit, empower the global mission of the Christianity? How should a possible theology that comes out of tea picker women in a tea estate plantation from Sri Lanka facilitate theologizing processes of global missiologies? How can Ubuntu theology (I am because You are) influence and transform our understanding of Koinonia today? These questions challengingly invite all of us to a genuine cross-cultural cross-geopolitical intentional hearing, dialogue and engagement.

Center - Margin Dynamics
For centuries Christian theology and mission were decided and disseminated, managed and sent by the various centers of power and administration: colonial centers, ecclesial centers, academic centers, monastic centers and economic centers, etc. Historically voices of the margins were either crushed or not adhered to. Now the margins have emerged with an extraordinary resilience, and the Sprit is moving to share the GIFTS and DREAMS of the MARGINS in decision making and praxis of Christian mission. I believe that the 21st century is the century of the margins! However, the questions remain – How to be vulnerable? How to be in listening and hearing ministry seriously? How to integrate voices from the margins into missional praxis? Are we as disciple of Christ ready to be evangelized from the margins?

There have been some fine conversations on paradigmatic shifts of “mission to” to “mission with,” but two basic issues remain unsolved in these conversations: One is that more serious cross-cultural dialogues were undermined, and the other is power dynamics – not just political power alone, but also economic power. These topics need more collaborative research and conversations in mission.

Margins – the Agents of Mission
The World Council of Churches publication Together Towards Life has a significant portion dedicated to mission from the margins. According to TTL, mission from the margins involves a radical reversal of missional perspective—from the imagination that mission and ministry are done by the rich and powerful for those who are poor and powerless to the recognition that it is among the poor, powerless, victims and outcastes, broken hearted where God is really acting and where Christians are called to ‘join in’ God’s redemptive work in the Cosmos. God chooses the vulnerable and the alienated, those at the margins, to fulfil God’s mission of establishing justice and peace and reconciliation. People at the margins are thus the ‘primary agents’ of God’s mission of affirming life in its fullness. Those who are on the margins are Christians in the poorer contexts in the world, in those places to which the “center of gravity” of Christianity has now shifted. (By 2050 four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa according to a recent Pew Research finding).

Local Church
Of course, every local Christian community (local church) has also its own margins of mission, both within the church itself (intra-church) and in the society in which the local church is largely contexed; every local church is graced with the disturbing challenge to incarnate with the margins and build community through dialogue. If we want to walk on the water, we must get out of the boat! The church should be guided by the Holy Spirit in this “mission from the margins” adventure!

Laity as Ecclesial Margins!
It was fascinating for me to read how the Methodist movement in the USA initially was a fully-fledged mission led by the laity as a lay mission movement! According to Ruth Daugherty through her work The Missionary Spirit: The History of Mission of the Methodist Protestant Church, 1830-1939 (2004), mission began in the colonies by lay persons, and it was through their support and their endeavors that mission continues as a focus. “Methodism was lay evangelism in successful action” (page 7). How could the Methodist movement in the USA engage in a serious reflective practice on reappraisal of core ministries and mission of the laity? How can the church listen to the spirit of the margins within the church, especially to the marginalized laity, and leverage their gifts more holistically in the mission of the church? Methodism was a movement from the margins started in England. Wesley was chosen by God to be the key instrument in that. It was like the Jesus movement that emerged from the margins of the Galilean sea shores. It was a mission driven community of the margins that changed the world! The Holy Spirit has empowered the margins for the world!

As the Methodist mission in the USA is embarking on her bicentennial celebration 2019 let us ask the fowling spirit-searching questions:
  • Are we ready to apply and practice “Mission from the Margins” by listening to the Holy Spirit?
  • Are we prepared to engage genuinely with the global margins in world Christianities?
  • Are we ready to be transformed by mission from the margins in pastoral engagement with the world?

The global church is not just a structure but a beloved community of the disciples of Christ that practices costly hospitality in mission; so any mission conversation on theologies from the margins will be incomplete without changing and transforming the margins themselves, not by dragging margins to the centers, but by mutual transformation of both centers and margins into a beloved and just Ubuntu community – The Body of Christ, which will always be a blessed community by being poor in spirit!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Making Sense of UMC Membership Numbers

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.

GCFA recently released delegate counts for the 2020 General Conference along with the membership and clergy numbers on which these delegate counts are based. UMNS put out a news story based on this membership data, and I’m sure many others will be combing through it. I wanted to share several observations not highlighted in the UMNS article.

1. The Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to be the great driver of membership growth in the UMC. The Congo Central Conference added nearly half a million members in the last four years, and total membership in the Congo Central Conference now stands at 3 million. This is further evidence that we need to be more specific when we talk about “African” church growth. Even more so than becoming a US-African denomination, the UMC is becoming a US-Congolese denomination.

2. The Congo Central Conference and West Africa Central Conference were the only two central conferences/jurisdictions showing numeric growth in the last four years. West Africa’s growth was driven by very strong membership growth in Liberia and good growth in Sierra Leone. Both countries are seeing the fruits of rebuilding after long civil wars. It’s significant that, although there were individual annual conferences here and there in other central conferences/jurisdictions that grew, overall the trend lines for the UMC were down around the world. Some of that may have been due to new reporting standards (see below), but it complicates the simplistic narrative of “the US and Europe are declining, and Africa and the Philippines are growing” and thus should lead United Methodist leaders to pay more attention to specific dynamics on the ground in various places around the world.

3. This was the first time that membership numbers (and therefore delegates) outside the US were based off of local congregation records instead of numbers provided by annual conference as a whole. Though not without problems, this approach is a more accurate reporting fashion. There was a lot of curiosity as to how this new approach would affect the overall membership numbers, especially in Africa. There were places where the numbers seem to have declined because of this new procedure (East Africa, South Mozambique), but overall the African numbers proved fairly consistent with past figures. Interestingly, there was a much larger drop in the numbers from the Philippines. The membership figures under the new system were 1/3 lower than under the old. My sources tell me this is more reflective of the change in reporting rather than any large defections from the Filipino UMC, but more research could be done.

4. According to these figures, the denomination has 12.5 million members and 66 active bishops serving 66 episcopal areas. Still, not all episcopal areas are the same. The four largest episcopal areas are all in Africa (North Katanga with 1.23 million members, South Katanga with 985,000, Cote d’Ivoire with 677,000, and East Congo with 447,000). Over 1/3 of United Methodists live in just these four episcopal areas. Over 1 in 12 United Methodists worldwide lives in the North Katanga episcopal area alone.

5. The second smallest episcopal area membership-wise is also in Africa. The Eastern Angola episcopal area has a mere 7500 members in it. It is the only one of the five smallest episcopal areas not in Europe. I’m sure there are political/ethnic/historical reasons why the Eastern Angola episcopal area exists, and I don’t expect it to be eliminated. Nevertheless, the discrepancies between it and the largest episcopal areas in Africa indicate some of the challenges the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters faces as it tries to decide where to put four new African bishops. These most recent membership figures will surely feed into that process. It will be interesting to see what comes out.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Recommended reading: Lisa Beth White on #MyHope4Methodism

United Methodist missiologist and UM & Global contributor Rev. Lisa Beth White has published a recent piece entitled "Cross-Cultural Short-Term Mission" on her blog, Sister of Hope Ministries, in which she picks up on our series on #MyHope4Methodism. In particular, Rev. White interacts with Robert Hunt's piece in that series and uses it to reflect on the role of culture in short-term mission trips. Rev. White's piece is well worth reading.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Phil Wingeier-Rayo: A reflection on the Methodist Church in Cuba on the occasion of its 50th anniversary

This is the second of a four-part blog by Rev. Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, that will discuss the work of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of The United Methodist Church.

Arguably no mission church faced a more difficult path to autonomy than the Methodist Church in Cuba. Before 1960 a group of Cuban leaders had conversations with the Methodist Mission Board about autonomy, but the response that came back from New York was that the Cuban church was not ready. At the time of the revolution in 1959 there were 54 U.S. missionaries, 108 churches, and 51 Cuban pastors with 9,209 members of the Methodist Church.[1]

However, Fidel Castro and his group of rebels claimed power on the island on January 1, 1959, when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country and change happened quickly. Many Cubans were excited about the revolutionary goals of land reform, education, and health care for all. Most Christians were sympathetic with these egalitarian goals and nationalistic sentiments, as were the majority of the population. The problems with church-state relations began when Castro declared the Revolution to be socialist on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961. The United States had broken off diplomatic ties with the island three months earlier and imposed an economic embargo.

There was a growing spirit of nationalism in Cuba and anti-American sentiments. Cuban Methodists were being stigmatized for being pro-U.S. and the presence of American missionaries contributed to this sentiment. In 1961 the Board of Missions recalled all the missionaries back to the U.S. for their safety and for the well-being of the work in Cuba. Indeed the revolutionary Cuban government took over the 22 Methodist schools and universities, six clinics and campground. Many people thought the church buildings would be next.

Some missionaries invited their favorite Cuban pastors and helped them escape to the United States. Later in the 1960s the Cuban government organized a Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Produccion (UMAP) where several counterrevolutionaries, gays and religious, including some Methodist pastors and lay leaders, were lumped together as “anti-socials” and placed in forced work camps to be “re-oriented.” Eventually all but eight of the Cuban pastors would flee the country and only three of them were ordained elders.[2] How was the church to survive with only eight pastors for over 100 churches? Certainly Cuba’s path to autonomy was challenging but it is also a tribute to the power of the Holy Spirit that is an example for all of Methodism.

The Process toward Autonomy
The Methodism in Cuba had historically been a missionary conference under the episcopal area of Florida. In 1923 the Cuban Annual Conference was formed with the bishop of Florida as the presiding bishop. Before 1960 Cubans considered autonomy but were told that the church wasn’t ready. Finally under strained U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations the bishop from Florida was unable to travel to Cuba in December 1963 to conduct annual conference, and the Cuban superintendent Rev. Angel Fuster, did all the appointments.

As a result, the Cuban leaders wrote a letter to the 1964 General Conference requesting autonomy. General Conference responded by asking them to submit drafts for consideration of their own Book of Discipline and Articles of Faith to the COSMOS commission. These were received and reviewed by COSMOS during the quadrennium and the recommendation went forward to the 1968 General Conference that the Methodist Church in Cuba become an affiliated autonomous church.

In the interim, the Cuban church was facing more adversity. Lacking trained pastors and confronting the growing anti-religious sentiment, the Methodist Church faced an extremely challenging period in the early 1960s. Not only was the church weakened through emigration, in addition many lay people left the church for greater opportunity or out of loyalty to the revolution.[3] The membership dropped to 5,000 in the mid-1960s.[4] The membership continued to drop to the low-point of 1,800 in 1973.[5]

Nevertheless, there was a faithful remnant. The District Superintendent of Cuba’s Oriente region, Rev. Armando Rodriguez, had trained a group of young men and women to be lay missioners. As the churches were being left without pastors, he asked this group to replace those pastors who had left. Lacking theological education and experience, these young lay people heroically served those churches, often living on the premises, thus protecting church property from vandalism and confiscation.[6]

Not only had the U.S. missionaries been recalled, leaving a leadership vacuum, but the Cuban church was also facing a financial crisis. They had been receiving nearly 70 percent of their financial resources from the United States, and had also lost the income generated from Methodist schools after their nationalization by the Revolution. In July 1963, Rev. Angel Fuster, president of the Cuban Annual Conference, received the news from the head of the Latin America desk of the Methodist Mission Board, Dr. Eugene Stockwell, that financial support could no longer be disbursed due to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

In response the Cuban cabinet proposed three options: 1) lay off half the pastors (those who enjoyed less seniority), 2) ask the revolutionary government for compensation for the nationalized properties, or 3) request the local churches to send apportionments to the national church. The Cuban leadership valiantly chose the third option and sent pledge cards requesting all the members to tithe their support. They received 3,000 financial commitments within two months the national church was solvent.[7] The early enthusiasm and nationalistic spirit also influenced the church leaders’ desire to be independent.[8] Financial self-sufficiency prepared the groundwork for autonomy.

In late 1966 Superintendent Rev. Angel Fuster traveled to a World Methodist meeting in Ireland and stopped in Miami on his way home to visit two daughters. On January 5, 1967 he died in Miami from injuries sustained in an automobile accent. The following year, February 1-4, 1968, the Cuban church held its founding annual conference and honored Rev. Fuster as the first Cuban bishop elected posthumously. Then they elected Rev. Armando Rodriguez the first active bishop of the Cuban Annual Conference, but the Cuban government did not grant a visa to an outside bishop to consecrate him. Finally, a week later, Bishop Alejandro Ruiz was allowed to come from Mexico and consecrated Rev. Armando Rodriguez. All this was subject to the pending approval of the General Conference in April later that year.

In spite of losing most of its clergy to emigration, the financial crisis, decline in membership and tense church-state relations in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the Methodist Church in Cuba has not only survived, but has actually has thrived. Today the Methodist Church in Cuba retains its affiliated autonomous relationship to the UMC and has approximately 43,000 members, which is more than four times its 1959 membership and has 400 churches with 1,000 other mission sites.[9]

One of the concerns discussed about affiliated autonomous churches is that they would become so nationalistic that they would not want to relate back to the U.S. However, Cuban Methodism continues to have many partnerships with monthly Volunteer in Mission teams, and prayer partnerships with the Florida Annual Conference and many sister churches.

On Saturday, February 10th at 7:00pm there will be a celebration held at the Iglesia North Hialeah, 5559 Palm Avenue in Miami in honor of 50 years of Cuba Methodist autonomy.


[1] Clyde W. Taylor, Protestant Missions in Latin America: A Statistical Survey , Washington: Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, 1961, p.110.
[2] Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Cuban Methodism: The Untold Story of Survival and Revival, Atlanta, GA: Dolphins & Orchids, 2006, 67.
[3] Shawn Malone, “Conflict, Coexistence, and Cooperation: Church-State Relations in Cuba,” The Cuba Project, Center for Latin American Studies, Georgetown University, August 1996, 2.
[4] Clyde W. Taylor, Protestant Missions in Latin America: A Statistical Survey , Washington: Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, 1961, 110.
[5] According to church statistician Generoso PĂ©rez. Email with Rev. Rinaldo Hernandez, February 1, 2018.
[6] Telephone conversation with Bishop Armando Rodriguez, Sr., February 1, 2018.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Linda Bloom, “Cuban Methodists Are Packing the Pews,” UMNS, January 31, 2017.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Phil Wingeier-Rayo: The work of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS)

This is the first of a four-part blog by Rev. Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, that will discuss the work of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of The United Methodist Church.

1968 was a momentous year of change in recent history. The time of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., Black Power, and growing nationalistic independence and self-determination movements around the world. The Vietnam war was well underway with greater U.S. involvement. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in April and June, respectively, and the Soviet Union repressed a group of protesters in Czechoslovakia, which became known as the Prague Spring. It was also an important year of the space race with implications for the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. In Mexico a protest rally was met by the army killing 300-400 students on October 2nd, just 10 days before the world descended on Mexico for the 1968 Olympics. The Latin American Council of Roman Catholic Bishops met in Medellin, Colombia to interpret the changes of the Second Vatican Council to their context making a “preferential option for the poor.”

A lesser known, but nonetheless significant event in Methodist circles was the decision of Cuban Methodists to become autonomous from Methodists in the U.S. The first Cuban bishop, Rev. Armando Rodriguez, was consecrated 50 years ago on February 11, 1968.

This coming Saturday, February 10th at 7:00pm there will be a celebration held at the Iglesia North Hialeah, 5559 Palm Ave. in Miami in recognition of 50 years of Cuba Methodist autonomy.

An Early Vision of Autonomy for Mission Churches
Early missionaries and mission executives envisioned all international mission churches would become autonomous. Pioneer Methodist missionary to India, Bishop James Thoburn, wrote in 1893:

“We may accept it as certain, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that in every nation under the sun our Christian converts will want to assume the management of their own affairs as soon as they are permitted to do so…Accepting, then, a fact so obvious as this, it requires the highest wisdom on the part of all missionary managers to co-operate with the natural tendency of events on the mission field, and to develop our indigenous government of every Christian church as rapidly as possible.[1]

While Bishop Thoburn (1836-1922) was writing about Asia, his findings and beliefs were relevant for mission everywhere.

Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas
At the same time as the world was changing in the 1960s, the Methodist Church in America was also going through some internal changes. The denomination was having conversations internally to integrate the all-African American Central Jurisdiction and externally to merge with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church. In addition to these eventualities, the 1964 General Conference commissioned the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) to “study the structure and supervision of the Methodist Church in its work outside the United States…and prepare recommendations as it considers necessary for presentation to the General Conference of 1968.”[2]

The COSMOS commission met in November of 1965 to plan for a major consultation in the fall of 1966. This larger gathering brought together 250 people including all the members of COSMOS, all American and overseas bishops, General Conference delegates from the U.S., the General Board of Missions, the Judicial Council, theological professors and representatives from the EUB Church, the World Methodist Council, and the World Council of Churches, among others.

The five-day gathering heard and discussed four main options: 1. Keep the present basic Methodist Structure, 2. Encourage Methodist units outside the U.S. to become autonomous churches, 3. Create a truly international Methodist Church that would have several Regional Conferences (the U.S. being one of several) and one General Conference with balanced representation between the U.S. and Central Conferences abroad, and finally 4. Organize a world fellowship of autonomous Methodist Churches. This gathering did not have the authority to choose one of these options—only to make a recommendation to the 1968 General Conference.

One of the problems facing the Methodist Church was the structure of the world church that covered 46 countries and very different contexts. In Cuba and elsewhere, opponents of Christianity attacked local Methodism as being an appendix of the United States. In a report prepared for the 1966 COSMOS conference, Lonnie Turnipseed wrote “…it is easy to see how persons opposed to the Christian faith can use them to brand the church as a foreign rather than an indigenous church.”[3] This concern was certainly a reality in Cuba among many people fighting for self-determination and the end of foreign interference.

COSMOS also recommended to 1968 General Conference the autonomy for the Methodist churches in Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Peru, Malaya, Sarawak, and Uruguay, in addition to the prior recommendation for Cuba. These were the first since the churches in Mexico and Brazil had become autonomous in 1930.

Besides these churches, the recommendations from the 1964-1968 COSMOS commission have largely not been pursued by General Conference. Methodism overseas was overshadowed by the efforts to incorporate the all-African American Central Jurisdiction and unite with the Evangelical United Brethren into the United Methodist Church. Nevertheless, the recent crisis on the United Methodist stance toward human sexuality and the deliberations of the Way Forward Commission have highlighted the ongoing importance of the worldwide structure and the influence of context on church effectiveness.

In the second part of this blog, I will examine how this process toward autonomy played out in Cuba. In the third and fourth parts to this blog, I will examine in greater detail the four suggestions for the international structure of the United Methodist Church and explore what happened in other regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America with implications for the current dilemma that the UMC is facing about organizational structure.

** This article was corrected from an earlier version that listed secular events as happening in 1968 that actually occurred in 1967 or 1969.

[1] Daniel Johnson Fleming, Devolution in Mission Administration: As Exemplified by the Legislative History of Five American Missionary Societies in India, New York: Fleming Revell Co., 1916, 72.
[2] The Journal of the 1968 General Conference, Nashville: TN, The United Methodist Publishing House, Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, Report no.1.
[3] Lawrence Turnipseed, “New Structures for Methodism Overseas,” paper prepared for the COSMOS conference, February 10, 1966.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Two UM & Global Updates

Dear readers:

A quick note about two updates to the UM & Global blog.

1. As of this week, UM & Global will begin publishing pieces three times per week instead of the twice per week it has done in the past. It will publish articles Monday, Wednesday, and Friday instead of Tuesday and Thursday. While the days of week on which it publishes will change, this is an effort to bring more high-quality content to you.

2. As you will have noticed, I have freshened up the blog's look slightly. Most noticeably, I have reduced our side panels to better highlight our main content. That insightful content is the primary reason you come to this blog, and I want to make it visually easier for you to read.

Regards,
David W. Scott,
UM & Global Blogmaster

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Robert Hunt: #MyHope4Methodism

Today's post is the second in a series that features United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology.

My hope for Methodism is that we will understand that we are an inter-cultural church and not merely an international church.

The structures of Methodist and then United Methodist mission were formed by the social location of the church as a denomination among denominations, as an international church in a world of nations, and as a national church engaged in mission in the context of international colonialism. These structures attuned to the political realities shaping American and global society in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Today denominationalism, internationalism, and national church mission both mask and are out of tune with the complex cultural realities characteristic of the contemporary religious and political worlds. In order to fully engage God’s Mission within these emerging cultural and political realities the United Methodist church must revise its self-understanding. It must realize that it is primarily inter-cultural rather than international and understand its mission as the cultivation of a pragmatic inter-cultural dialogue on the meaning of the claim that Jesus is the Christ in relation to God’s Reign. This means that the single most important set of skills for the future of United Methodist leadership and mission will be the skills necessary for inter-cultural dialogue and collaboration.

In order to achieve a new approach to the mission of the church that is intentionally cross-cultural and dialogical in nature I believe we must revise our understandings of the world we live in and ourselves.

1)     The first of these revisions must be to re-engage the Biblical vision of mission as inter-cultural rather than international.

a)     The “nations” of the Bible were not nation-states, but people groups. The incarnation of the Risen Christ takes place in specific cultural settings and not merely socio-political settings. As importantly, each culture adds to the human understanding of the Gospel through its own distinctive premonition of God’s presence in its history. What emerges as the Biblical witness to Christ is God speaking out of an intense inter-cultural dialogue. An excessive focus on socio-political realities masks this dialogue and leads to an imbalanced understanding of the gospel message.

b)     Revelation should be understood as the movement of the Spirit in a multi-cultural community engaged with the apostolic witness to Christ. The Bible is the Church’s book so long as we recognize that the church was and is a Beit Midrash; a House of dialogue and discovery. This doesn’t mean that no definitive conclusions are drawn, only that we recognize that they are also culturally located and that through time and circumstance the Spirit of Christ will draw us back to re-engage the scripture.

c)     Moreover, the Biblical witness is a witness of people on the move to peoples on the move. As Israel discovered, and early Christian communities enacted, migration is both the context of Christian mission and a means for the spread of the gospel. Paul’s journeys, as well as the migrations of the groups to whom he and other apostles witnessed, led inevitably to the emergence of ever changing and often newly emergent Christian cultures. Thus, the appropriate inculturation and proclamation of the Gospel, the appropriate interpretation of the apostolic witness into words and deeds, is an emergent phenomenon even in scripture. As an intercultural church rather than an international church, we will need to read the Bible as a witness to Christ arising out of an inter-cultural dialogue whose meaning emerges in the context of multiple new cultural encounters.

2)     The second of these revisions in self-understanding is to recognize that our contemporary global United Methodist church must be understood as inter-cultural not merely international.

a)     By conforming its structures to the emerging colonial world of the 19th century Methodism gained a pragmatic advantage in that political world. And by shaping itself in conformity to an emerging international economy it gained a pragmatic advantage in that economic world. Yet it also thereby participated in the Enlightenment influenced colonial suppression of indigenous cultural resources for the ordering of both human societies and human institutions. This laid the groundwork for much of the divisiveness experienced today both within the United States and across the globe.

b)     The conflation of nation-state with national culture, something that Europe’s 19th century history made to seem natural, is extremely deceptive even in the European context. Our generation has seen the break-up of established European nations on the basis of cultural difference, including through civil war. My Austrian German teacher used to repeat the mantra: es gibt kein Europaer. Even little Austria had distinctive subcultures, multiple languages, and mutually incomprehensible dialects of German.

c)     In the context of US history and the history of the colonially created nation-states of the 20th century the idea of a single national culture is even more dubious. The voluntary union of the Methodist Episcopal Church North and the Methodist Episcopal Church South with the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939 hasn’t eliminated the cultural fault lines marked by the division of 1844. Rather, these have simply taken on more contemporary forms even as they represent much older cultural divisions than those around slavery. Only a structure and concept of mission that recognizes and puts on a dialogically engaged footing different cultures within nations and trans-national cultural movements among nations will allow us to live together as a single church.

d)     A reasonable first step in this direction was the 20th century creation of autonomous national Methodist churches gathered in the World Methodist Council, even if the existence of national church polities often masked cultural differences within their respective nations. However, there are social locations in which this degree of autonomy, or autonomy in the context of a nation-state, isn’t desirable or desired. In these situations, the UMC needs to both create new polities and allow a variation in polities so as to allow not only local churches, but districts and annual conferences to design governance structures that are both culturally relevant (including relevancy in a mixed culture context) and allow all the cultural resources for working together to be fully expressed.

e)     As importantly, the UMC needs to recognize that the ways in which the mission of the church is understood and executed should be determined by the cultural contexts of those engaged in mission as partners. The urgent needs of those both witnessing to the gospel and receiving that witness will vary between social contexts. And the perception of those needs and how they relate to the gospel will vary between cultural contexts. A congregation in the Philippines shouldn’t be bound to structures of mission organization that originate in the US. Nor should an annual conference in Africa be bound to strategies formulated for the Philippines.

f)      In short, the guiding principle of our polity needs to become the facilitation of inter-cultural dialogue rather than the supposed efficiencies created by replicating nested hierarchies. This kind of re-imagining of structures is already taking place within the inter-cultural business community. The value of such experimentation should not be lost on us.

3)     The third revision is to recognize that post-enlightenment North Atlantic culture, along with its many outposts across the globe, is a distinctly new human phenomenon.

a)     Theorists of Christian mission may find similarities between the urban societies of the 21st centuries and those in Greece and Rome of Jesus' time. But what is emerging today is actually unprecedented, as Charles Taylor has shown in his socio-cultural history A Secular Age. The distinction, indeed gulf between the modern and non-modern experiences of being human as well, as those in some form of transition, demands a new conceptualization of our mission in terms of complex inter-cultural engagements across this gulf.

b)     Our primary mission cannot be reduced to addressing reified understandings of non-modern religions or cultures, nor to making the gospel relevant to the detritus of modernity, nor even to making it relevant in whatever has been identified as the latest market for religion, whether it is boomers, gen x, or millenials. Rather our mission must account for the new cultures continuously emerging among us, whoever the “us” is, and across the globe. These are cultures whose contours are only now being discovered, whom we must engage out of our own multiple cultural contexts in dialogue over what it means in specific times, places, and social locations to proclaim and enact that Jesus is the Christ.

c)     Our mission is to discover among the people of these new cultures what distinctive apprehensions of God’s presence in the world are coming to light. And this requires that we understand both ourselves and others as bearers of culture and thus vessels of incarnation rather than rivals or enemies in the articulation of the truth about God.

Which means, and I come to my most important point, that the single most important set of skills for the future of United Methodist leadership and mission will be the skills necessary for inter-cultural dialogue and collaboration. These skills include awareness of our own culture and of cultural difference and its various dimension, the motivation to engage those differences, knowledge of the multiple dimensions of cultural difference, and the ability to form strategies and adopt new behaviors in order to effectively work in complex cultural environments.

These skills are not unknown, and indeed have been explored, defined, and placed in pedagogical frameworks for the last 50 years. What remains is for those of us who are leaders and who train leaders to make the acquisition of these skills our first priority.

In sum, these three revisions in our self-understanding suggest that we must move beyond the models of what it means to be Christian in society that have dominated Methodism since its beginning. We must rediscover the both distinctly Biblical and fully contemporary understanding of the Church as a body of cultural communities within societies that are culturally diverse and constantly changing. Put another way, we must recognize that our cult does not become, but is always embedded within a culture. And since God intends that cultural diversity be an enduring part of the human order, our church will always need to be inter-cultural if it is to be global.