Monday, December 17, 2018

Recommended Reading: African Aid Recipients on Charity Adverstising

NPR.org recently published a story sharing findings from a survey of Africans, taken to determine Africans' own views on advertisements used in the West to solicit aid for Africa. The survey was supported in part by SAIH Norway (the Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund), a group that has done previous work to combat negative stereotypes in international charity work.

The individual comments by Africans on the ads - some ads showing positive depictions of Africa and Africans, and some showing depictions of problems - are well worth reading. They are also worth considering as American United Methodists decide how to carry out the various mission fundraising projects they do for their African partners.

Friday, December 14, 2018

New Mission Area: Entrepreneurial Support

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.

Some weeks ago, I raised the question of what features of the world and its various contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty relief, healthcare, etc.

This week, I suggest another new area of mission work: support for entrepreneurs, especially social entrepreneurs.

This new area of mission work would bring together two threads in the church: First, the church has long engaged in various forms of economic development mission, especially in developing countries and in American cities. Second, in the United States, the church is facing the question of how to deal with unused and underutilized church buildings, as Monday's Recommended Reading indicated.

One solution to the problem of empty church buildings has been to re-purpose them. The Missional Wisdom Foundation, highlighted in the recommended article, has been engaged in this sort of work with local congregations. There are a variety of ways in which empty church buildings can be repurposed, though. They can serve as community centers, homes for non-profits, converted into housing, sites for church-run businesses, even as climbing gyms.

Certainly, any time a church building is put to use for the good of the community is a missional success and should be celebrated and replicated. Yet there are reasons why churches may want to give special consideration to one possible use for their space: as free or low-cost space for start-up businesses, especially those pursuing a model of social entrepreneurship.

To the extent that churches care about the economic well-being of their neighborhoods, supporting entrepreneurs is a promising way to boost that economic well-being. Entrepreneurs and other small businesses create many of the jobs in the US, but support for entrepreneurs and the number of new entrepreneurs has been on a thirty-year decline. Space is one of the basic needs for early-stage new businesses, and churches thus could make an economic impact by offering their space to new businesses on favorable terms.

Moreover, engaging in support for new businesses also gives the church a say in what sorts of businesses get developed. This is an opportunity for the church to exercise some moral influence on the world of capitalism, influence that has been significantly curtailed in most other ways (and probably never existed to the extent popularly imagined).

That moral influence can come in not supporting businesses which the church finds morally offensive: alcohol, gambling, weapons, etc.

But it could also come in supporting businesses with a positive moral and social dimension as well. One of the hot topics in both the business and social service worlds is "social entrepreneurship" - the practice of starting businesses that both generate profit and benefit those in the communities around them in some tangible way. There's even a special type of incorporation (B Corp) that puts this goal of social benefit into the very foundational documents of a business.

So, what if the American church sought to use its space as a resource to benefit social entrepreneurs? What if it took something it had in abundance and was able to use that for the betterment of the neighborhood and the world around it? Wouldn't this be a form of joining in what God is doing?

As with pretty much all other areas of new mission work I have suggested in this series, this sort of entrepreneurial support is not something a church can likely do successfully on its own. There are, however, a host of other organizations out there with which churches can partner, from colleges and universities to economic development agencies to business associations to government entities. The availability of other partners is not the question; the question is whether the church is willing to be one of these partners.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Mission from the Margins

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.

Let me share three reflections with you on Mission from the Margins:

1. Mission from the Margins is a Choice:
We all know that Eugene Peterson translated the Bible (the famous Message version) into the common language of the people for contemporary times. So the Bible is understood even by the communities at the Margins. This has also given the power of interpterion to the common people.

One of my favorite passages from The Message translation is John 1:14, which says “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” When I was sharing this passage with a community at the margins in a small group meeting in Sri Lanka where I come from, they helped me to understand and read the passage with new eyes. The group agreed to understand the passage on incarnation like this: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the margins of humanity.”

We believe in a God who came to liberate humanity and creation through ‘Jesu Christu’ and offer abundant life to all. The point is that Jesus came to the utmost margins of the most powerful empire of that time. That margin was Nazareth of Galilea! So the very beginning of mission is God’s choice to incarnate in the margins with one of the most marginalized communities in the universe.

The Gospel of Luke asserts God’s deliberate choice:

“God’s Spirit is on me;
    he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
    recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
    to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”
He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” (Luke 4:16-21)

Mission is always and everywhere a choice. As churches and Christian communities, are we ready to make that choice today? Are we ready to reach out to the modern Nazareths struggling under our modern empires?  Are we ready to be in solidarity with the Nazareths of our own local churches?

In the work of God’s reign, we cannot be neutral - either we are with Jesu Christu or we are out of God’s reign.

Mission from the Margins commences first with well-discerned decisions, missional choices, and solidarity with the communities at the Margins. That is how God started mission through Jesus. Therefore, the first transformational point that I want us to understand is that we rediscover the mission of the church by renunciation of our own powers and ecclesial selfishness, letting God take over and allowing God’s sprit to lead us to be with the margins.

2. People at the Margins as Agents of Mission:
Together Towards Life is one of the recent ecumenical mission papers that we all must read in and through our mission debates. It corrects one of the major misconceptions of mission:

“The dominant expressions of mission, in the past and today, have often been directed at people on the margins of societies. These have generally viewed those on the margins as recipients and not as active agents of missionary activity. Mission expressed in this way has too often been complicit with oppressive and life-denying systems. It has generally aligned with the privileges of the centre and largely failed to challenge economic, social, cultural, and political systems which have marginalized some peoples. Mission from the centre is motivated by an attitude of paternalism and a superiority complex. Historically, this stance has equated Christianity with Western culture and resulted in adverse consequences, including the denial of the full personhood of the victims of such marginalization.” (Together Towards Life: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/mission-and-evangelism/together-towards-life-mission-and-evangelism-in-changing-landscapes)

Jesus’ first followers were a community of those on the margins. Through their faith in Jesus, they experienced a newfound power and agency. Among them were marginalized women, children, the lepers, the sick, the prisoners, the blind, the poor, the Samaritans, the gentiles, the destitute, persons in prostitution, the victims of structural sins, the Galilean fisher folks, and many more. This community was gathered from the lowest strata of the social order. Through struggles in and for life, these marginalized people became reservoirs of the active hope, collective resistance, and perseverance that were needed to remain faithful to the promised reign of God. It was the people from the margins who provided the power of agency to God’s mission in Jesus.

Are we ready to recognize the power of agency from the margins? Are we ready to be transformed by the power of the spirit that comes from the margins? Are we ready to connect with the Jesus community in our day and in our missional spaces for the sake of God’s reign?

3. Hope and Mission from the Margins:
This transformation begins with the denunciation of self-power and the annunciation of God’s power. As Christians we take refuge in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Sprit. There is a beautiful hymn from Asia introduced to the world church by D.T.Niles (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 523: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-saranam-saranam), which emerged in the context of peoples’ struggles. It goes like this:

"Jesus, Savior, Lord, lo, to thee I fly: Saranam, Saranam, Saranam;
Thou the Rock, my refuge that's higher than I: Saranam, Saranam, Saranam.
In the midst of foes I cry to thee, From the ends of earth wherever I may be;
My strength in helplessness, O answer me: Saranam, Saranam, Saranam."

This hymn speaks of people in the margins, and of their cry to the Lord. When they are in utter desperation the prayers of the people have reached the God of the Oppressed. We see the same in the Bible in the prayers of the exiled community. We take Saranam (refuge) in that God. We do not take refuge in the empire or any other higher worldly power or mammon. It is only in God that we have hope!

"My strength in helplessness, O answer me: Saranam, Saranam, Saranam."

Friends, this is the lament song of the people from the margins for all generations. May I invite all of us to connect our lives and missional energies with this universal lament by taking refuge in the Cosmic Christ?

However, the questions remain – How should we be vulnerable? How should we be listening and hearing ministry seriously? How should we integrate voices from the margins into missional praxis? Are we as disciples of Christ ready to be evangelized from the margins?

May Jesus the Christ - crucified and risen Cosmic Guru - be our teacher, our guide, and the one who empowers all of us and transforms us in God’s mission.

Amen!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Recommended Reading: Empty Churches in America

This blog has occasionally discussed the missional problems associated with church decline in the United States. One of those problems: What to do with church buildings that are too big for dwindling congregations or no longer used by defunct congregations? Religion journalist Jonathan Merritt has written an article for The Atlantic about just this problem, "America's Epidemic of Empty Churches." The article particularly highlights the work of United Methodist mission theologian Elaine Heath and her Missional Wisdom Foundation in helping congregations rethink the use of their buildings while still in them.

Friday, December 7, 2018

New Mission Area: Space for Honesty and Vulnerability

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.

Some weeks ago, I raised the question of what features of the world and its various contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty relief, healthcare, etc.

This week, I suggest another new area of mission work that would be a revival of an older area of mission work: spaces for and practices of honesty and vulnerability.

Once upon a time, two practices were common in the predecessors of The United Methodist Church: public confession and public testimony. In the first, a person admitted to things they had done wrong and were trying to turn away from. In the second, they shared a story of what God had done for them, usually in terms of helping them turn from sin or make it through some significant difficulty.

These two practices have some things in common: They are a means by which people can honestly shared about their mistakes and the difficult parts of their life experiences, they are a means by which people can provide a narrative structure to make sense of their life experiences, and they are a means by which can connect those narratives of their life experiences to the larger narratives of the gospel.

Part of the genius of the Methodist theology of sanctification and the Methodist structure of class meetings was that they provided a reason and a context to continue to generate these types of narratives about one's life on an on-going basis, rather than confining such narratives solely to the moment of conversion as in some other traditions.

Despite the one-time importance of these two practices of confession and testimony to evangelistic mission and on-going discipleship, they have largely dropped out of use, at least in the United States.

Yet it seems to me that there is still a need, often unmet, in American society for exactly the sorts of spiritual and psychological benefits provided by these practices of confession and testimony. They provide a space for honesty and vulnerability about the difficult aspects of life and they way in which we do things we regret, or at least the conflicts among our motivations. Especially in an age in which social media demands public performances of perfection, there is a deep need to honesty confront one's imperfections and the imperfection's of one's life.

You can see this need being expressed in a variety of ways. It's in anonymous sharing phenomena like PostSecret. It's in the popularity of the work of Brene Brown, with its focus on the power of vulnerability. It's in the popularity of movies like Bad Moms and Trainwreck and "hot mess" t-shirts and other cultural products that depict and embrace imperfection. In the Christian world, it's part of what fuels the popularity of (ex-)evangelical female writers and bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, Glennon Melton Doyle, and Jamie Wright.

Opportunities for and models of confession and testimony are, however, largely lacking in the mainline churches, including the UMC, with their commitment to middle-class respectability. (ELCA minister Nadia Bolz-Weber is perhaps the main exception.) They're also mostly lacking for men, where a culture of toxic masculinity prohibits the sort of emotional work necessary for confession and testimony and forbids men from showing weakness in any way.

So, if The United Methodist Church wanted to engage in mission that addressed the spiritual and psychological needs of both its members and others in American culture, it would give serious consideration to how it could open up spaces and practices of confession and testimony. These probably will be different from how those practices played out in the past, but they're likely to be just as life-giving, both for those embracing them and for those who would no longer have to suffer the destructive attempts to deal with such sublimated emotions in other ways.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Would some African and Filipino delegates to GC2019 prefer no plan pass?

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 couple weeks ago, I encouraged readers to consider the possibility of the "null hypothesis" being true at General Conference 2019: that no plan to resolve the denomination's debates about gay ordination and gay marriage is passed. That post was intended to remind readers that the passage of a plan is not a given. There is a real possibility that there may not be sufficient support for any of the three plans coming out of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward or any alternate plan introduced by another body.

In this post, I would like to suggest something further: that at least for some central conference delegates, this scenario would not represent a failure of GC2019 but a success. That is, at least some central conference delegates to GC2019 may prefer the present state of affairs to any of the three plans on offer.

To understand why, one can look at some of the recent episcopal statements from African and Filipino bishops. As I have cautioned before, episcopal views don't necessarily reflect the attitudes of delegates from episcopal areas, but these statements are nonetheless instructive.

Both the Africa College of Bishops and the Philippines College of Bishops have recently released statements weighing in on the state of the denomination. Neither endorsed any of the three plans coming out of the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. The statement by the Africa College of Bishops emphasized two things: a traditional definition of marriage and unity. The statement by the Philippines College of Bishops emphasized unity without directly addressing sexuality. Opinions among the Filipino bishops vary, but as the accompanying UMNS article made clear, at least some bishops like Bishop Torio favor a traditional understanding of marriage.

While opinions certainly differ among central conference delegates, as they do among American delegates, these two desires seem common: a desire to continue a traditional understanding of marriage and a desire for church unity, both as a spiritual principle and because it facilitates partnerships with a broad range of American partners.

Yet the major contending plans each threaten one or the other of these two desires. The Traditionalist Plan, while it maintains a traditional understanding of marriage, cuts into the unity of the church and the breadth of partnership because it also emphasizes a "gracious exit" from the denomination for progressive conferences. The One Church Plan, while it maintains unity and thus allows for continued broad partnerships, undercuts a traditional understanding of marriage. The Connectional Conference Plan would seem to threaten both the desire for unity and the desire to maintain a traditional understanding of marriage.

Of course, central conference delegates may decide that one or the other of these two principles is more important to them and vote accordingly. Or they may decide that the changes involved in one of the plans are not significant enough or likely enough to affect them to really threaten their desires.

But there is also the option that central conference delegates would decide that the current state of affairs is actually the best way to balance unity and upholding a traditional understanding of marriage. The UMC currently officially has a traditional understanding of marriage. Passing nothing would not require anyone to leave the denomination (it is likely that some would, but that is likely under any scenario). Thus, some central conference delegates may see the status quo as the best way to balance their desires for traditional understandings of marriage, unity, and broad partnerships.

Most Americans see the debates over gay marriage and gay ordination as indicative of an untenable situation in the church. Surely, they think, something has to happen. We can't continue to go on in the way we have. Yet, for many outside the US, these debates are remote and do not affect the daily experience of the church. It is entirely thinkable and relatively unproblematic for the status quo to persist. Ultimately, the biggest difference between US and central conference delegates to GC2019 may not be over views of marriage but over how important it is to try to resolve the debates.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Recommended Reading: Mental Health Ministries

A couple of weeks ago, I published a piece entitled, "New Mission Area: Mental Health." The piece argued that the church should consider addressing mental health issues as a form of mission, just as it has long addressed physical health issues as a form of mission.

Since that time, I have been informed of the existence of Mental Health Ministries, a site for online resources for addressing mental illness. Mental Health Ministries is an outgrowth of the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church. Those who are interested in learning more about the potential for conducting ministry with those with mental illness as a form of mission are encouraged to peruse the resources available on Mental Health Ministries' site.