Monday, January 14, 2019

Recommended Reading: Korean-Americans and the Way Forward

Rev. Sungho Lee of the California-Nevada Annual Conference recently wrote a commentary on UMNS about the debate over sexuality in the UMC. Rev. Lee argued that the best way forward for Korean-American churches would be to keep the current stances against the practice of homosexuality, gay marriage, and gay ordination, but to decrease enforcement of these clauses. Essentially, Rev. Lee argues for a "don't ask, don't tell" policy as best for Korean-American United Methodists.

This commentary is interesting for two reasons:

First, it does not conform to the positions of either of the two main camps of white American United Methodists, who desire to either remove the current stances or increase enforcement. Rev. Lee advocates doing neither of these.

Second, Rev. Lee's post is evidence that what I wrote last month about some delegates from African annual conferences and the Philippines may be true of other groups as well: They may prefer no plan pass to either the One Church or Traditional(ist) Plans passing. These delegates may want to keep the current prohibitions but be uninterested in enforcing these prohibitions on progressive Americans.

It is interesting that Rev. Lee advocates an exit clause passing. It may well be that an exit clause alone is the plan that has the most chance of approval by General Conference next month.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Missionaries as children in a fosterage system

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.

Traditional histories of missionaries often cast them in hagiographic light as those coming to save the lost and benighted. Post-colonial critiques have pointed out the ways in which such images of missionaries degrade those among whom they are in mission. This raises a question: If we should not depict missionaries as hero-saviors, what other images can we use to understand them?

One surprising example comes from the medieval European system of fosterage. Although the details varied among times and places, in general, the fosterage system involved children being raised for a time by families other than their own. Unlike in the modern foster care system, this arrangement did not indicate that the children's parents were deceased or unable to care for the children. Instead, fosterage was a way of providing children with opportunities to learn important skills and a way of forging connections between families. Sometimes families would even exchange children.

Fosterage usually lasted for a set amount of time, after which children would return to their families of origin. The system of fosterage did not intend to cut ties between children and their families of origin, but rather to transform them in ways not possible if they had stayed home. It would then reconnect them so that what they learned might benefit them and through them, their family of origin.

In many ways, the role of missionaries parallels the role of children in the fosterage system, with culture (or country) of origin and host culture standing in for the family of origin and host family.

Viewing the sending of missionaries as a form of fosterage emphasizes that the goal of mission is not to impart the benefits of one superior culture to another inferior culture, as mission was often previously understood to entail. Indeed, if anything, the fostering family was usually the more socially and economically advanced. Instead, seeing sending missionaries as fosterage emphasizes the goal of mission as establishing connections between cultures.

It therefore also makes sense of the possibility of bilateral sending of missionaries. It is perfectly reasonable to send missionaries from Country A to Country B and from Country B to Country A because, if the goal of mission is connection, then exchanges in both directions facilitate more connection.

Seeing missionaries as children in the fosterage system also emphasizes the importance of learning for missionaries. Missionaries are not primarily those who are sent to impart truth or technique, but those who are sent to learn from their hosts. Of course, mission does involve sharing one's understanding of God and mutual learning, but the image of missionary as teacher is so deeply ingrained that an emphasis on missionary as learner is a useful counterbalance.

Finally, just as the goal of fosterage was not to separate children from families of origin but to return them transformed in ways that could benefit their families of origin, so too the goal of mission is not to separate missionaries from their cultures (and countries) of origin, but to transform them in ways that will allow them to benefit their cultures (and countries) of origin with what they have learned (of God and people) through their mission experience.

As with all metaphors, this image of mission is not perfect, but it is provocative in the ways it differs from traditional concepts of mission. Ultimately, the more images we have at hand to think about mission and missionaries, the better we can understand all facets of the missio Dei.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Recommended reading: Majority of top UMNS stories from 2018 were mission-related

United Methodist News Service (UMNS) has just released its list of its top 5 stories for 2018. The list is determined through voting by UMNS staff and other church communicators. Those top five stories are as follows:

1. The struggle to hold The United Methodist Church together despite longstanding division over homosexuality

2. United Methodists offering asylum and engaging in mission with immigrants, especially in the US and Mexico

3. United Methodist responses to natural disasters around the world

4. The detention and then release of Global Ministries missionaries in the Philippines

5. United Methodist responses to mass shootings in the United States

It is worth noticing that the majority of these top stories are mission-related. Stories 2, 3, and 4 are clearly about mission. The top story has implications for mission, and depending on how one construes the relationship between social/political witness and mission, the fifth story could be read as missional as well.

The missional nature of these stories is important, because it provides another narrative for the denomination. Many of the standard narratives about the UMC revolve around its conflicts over sexuality or its decline in the US. But there are other stories that are being told: stories about how United Methodists are joining in the missio Dei and engaging the world around them as messengers of Christ's love, healing, justice, and truth.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The United Methodist blogosphere, GC2019, polarization, and confirmation bias

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.

As the special called General Conference in February approaches, a crescendo of posts from across the United Methodist blogosphere have addressed the upcoming conference and the two main plans laid before it - the One Church Plan and the Traditional(ist) Plan. The focus on this issue in the United Methodist blogosphere is overwhelming, so much so that I sometimes wonder whether it is worthwhile to write about anything else in the next two months, or whether other conversations will necessarily be overlooked by those taking the clickbait of yet another post for or against one of the two plans.

Certainly, GC2019 is an important upcoming event, and the issues before it deserve serious consideration and discussion, on the internet as in person. However, the United Methodist blogosphere's focus on General Conference 2019 illustrates how the it reflects in many ways the general American media landscape, with its attendant problems of polarization and confirmation bias.

First, a brief description of what is out there in the United Methodist blogosphere. There are three types of United Methodist blogs: those sharing devotional materials, including sermon repostings; those sharing information about specific ministries; and those commenting on general church and cultural issues. In this analysis, I am referring to the third type of blog.

Most general church and culture blogs tend to have an easily identifiable theo-political slant to them - either conservative/traditionalist or liberal/progressive. That's not necessarily a bad thing - people are entitled to their views - but it does affect how blogs go about attracting an audience. Rather than attract readers who are interested in a particular topic (church-state relations, for instance), most general UM blogs attract readers who are interested in a particular viewpoint, regardless of the topic under discussion.

While religious types have a high tolerance for shouting in the wilderness, whether or not anyone is listening, most bloggers do still pay attention to what attracts readers. And when readers come to a blog for its viewpoint, usually what will attract the most readers are posts in which that viewpoint is expressed most strongly. In other words, polarized content is generally more popular content. Moreover, when that polarized view is applied to current hot topics, the page views increase further.

I think this is a major reason why many United Methodist generalist blogs have focused so heavily on GC2019 recently. It is certainly a hot topic, but it is also one which lends itself easily to polarized treatments. Thus, a polarized assessment of some aspect of GC2019 is more likely to be a "successful" post (in terms of page views) than one on, say, how the church should view the ethics of driverless cars (a current topic, but not a terribly hot one, and not a polarized one).

But there is a danger in this approach to content production in the United Methodist blogosphere. As current discussions of secular media in the United States have highlighted, a polarized media environment, especially when content is shared through social media, as most United Methodist blogs are, can fall victim to or even reinforce confirmation bias. In other words, when we seek out polarized media, and when media go along with incentives to produce more polarized content, that system seeks to strengthen people's existing biases and preconceived ideas about issues.

Thus, while much digital ink is being spilled debating the proposals for General Conference 2019, it is quite likely that both sides are overlooking strengths in their opponents' arguments and plans and weaknesses in their own, which could leave either or both unprepared for what actually happens. Moreover, it also means that all those words are making it less likely rather than more likely that opponents in the church will be able to work together in a spirit of prayer and charity to address our collective problems.

Here at UM & Global, we will try to avoid these problems of polarization and confirmation bias by continuing to produce non-polarized assessments of GC2019 and by focusing on other topics as well in the next two months. It may not earn us as many clicks, but I'd rather be less popular and not contribute (as much) to the problem than to go viral with content that will only further separate faithful Christians from one another.

Friday, December 28, 2018

2018 Year in Review

As 2018 winds down, we are joining in hallowed news tradition and reviewing some of the top stories of 2018 on UM & Global. Topics and posts drawing interest on this site included:

Many posts on UM & Global, as elsewhere in the Methodist blogosphere, have continued to focus on the upcoming special called General Conference in 2019 and the Way Forward process leading up to it. UM & Global has tried to bring global perspectives and organizational analysis that provide a different approach to these topics than the theological and cultural arguments for one side or another found in most other sources.

A series of posts by William Payne, Robert Hunt, and Darrell Whiteman on the topic of contextualization gathered attention this summer, with each of the three providing different perspectives on how to understand this term missiologically.

Several authors contributed to the popular series #MyHope4Methodism throughout the year, naming bright spots, strengths, and desired futures they see for the (United) Methodist tradition.

Phil Wingeier-Rayo wrote several posts on the COSMOS process in the 1960s which led to the establishment of autonomous affiliated Methodist church.

A number of posts by David W. Scott this spring encouraged readers to consider structural and financial considerations in how the church has and could understand itself and engage in mission.


Finally, those interested in short-term mission found David W. Scott's post comparing short-term mission and pilgrimage an interesting read.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Plan Now: Methodist Mission Bicentennial Conference

The General Board of Global Ministries will be celebrating its past, present, and future in mission as part of the 200th anniversary of its founding. This anniversary, which it will commemorate in 2019, honors the 1819 founding of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the earliest forerunner of Global Ministries.

As part of that celebration, readers are invited to participate in “Answering the Call: Hearing God’s Voice in Mission Past, Present, and Future,” a global conference co-hosted by Global Ministries and Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

The conference will begin at 5pm on Monday, April 8, 2019, and run through the evening of Wednesday, April 10, 2019. It will be held at the Emory Conference Center Hotel, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.

To register for the conference, readers may visit https://www.eiseverywhere.com/gmbicentennial. On the initial page of the registration site, please select the ALL OTHER PARTICIPANTS category.
Please note that there will be a registration fee of $400 to cover the costs of food and meeting space at the conference. The conference will include a banquet dinner Monday night and light morning refreshments, lunch, and dinner on Tuesday and Wednesday. Guests desiring a full breakfast may purchase one at the conference center hotel or a nearby café.


The conference will include a banquet dinner Monday night at 5pm on Monday, April 8, 2019, and readers may select to attend this portion of the conference as a stand-alone event. This banquet will be a time of celebration, worship, thanksgiving for the past two hundred years of Methodist mission, and inspiration for the next two hundred. It will feature a keynote address by Rev. Dr. Arun Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

To register for the banquet only, readers may visit https://www.eiseverywhere.com/gbgmbqt. Please note that there will be a registration cost of $75 to cover the food, service, and event space.

For more information about the conference, visit https://methodistmission200.org/bicentennial-conference/.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

E. Stanley Jones on Christ and Unity

In the discussion of the Way Forward and the current United Methodist debates over homosexuality, thinkers on many sides have parsed the words of the Bible, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury on the nature of and conditions for church unity. Here, I offer thoughts from another significant Methodist: missionary E. Stanley Jones. These thoughts are not meant to endorse any particular policy position in the UMC. Rather, some words from Jones on the connection between Christ and unity seemed timely at this moment of the life of the church, and in this Advent season.

"For at the central place of our experience of Jesus we are one. It is Christ who unites us; it is doctrines that divide. As someone has suggested, if you ask a congregation of Christians, "What do you believe?" there will be a chorus of conflicting beliefs, for no two persons believe exactly alike. But if the question is asked, "Whom do you trust?" then we are together. If the emphasis in our approach to Christianity is "What?" then it is divisive, but if the emphasis is "Whom?" then we are drawn together at the place of this Central Magnet. One has the tendency of the centrifugal and the other the tendency of the centripetal. He is the hub that holds together in himself the divided spokes."

"Christianity with a what-emphasis is bound to be divisive, but this tendency is lessened with a Whom-emphasis. Note the things that have created denominations in the West: baptism, human freedom, rites, ceremonies, church government, dress, orders--the points of division have been nearly all "whats." The church divided once over the "Whom," namely, in the Unitarian issue. Here it had a right to divide, for the question of who Jesus is is vital and decisive. Everything is bound up with that question."

"Do not misunderstand me: The whats of Christianity are important, a body of doctrine is bound to grow up around him [Christ]. We cannot do without doctrine, but I am so anxious for the purity of doctrine that I want it to be held in the white light of his Person and under the constant corrective of his living Mind. The only place where we can hold our doctrines pure is to hold them in the light of his countenance. Here their defects are at once apparent, but only here.

"But we must hold in mind that no doctrine, however true, no statement, however correct, no teaching, however pure, can save a man. "We are saved by a Person and only by a Person, and, as far as I know, by only one Person," said Bishop McDowell. Only Life can lift life. ...

"But further, we shall soon see that as we draw closer to him we shall be closer to each other in doctrine. Suppose the essence of Christianity is in utter devotion to Jesus, and truly following him is the test of discipleship, will not such doctrine as the new birth take on new meaning? If I am to follow such as he, I must be born again and born different. A new birth is a necessary beginning for this new life. And as for the doctrines of sanctification and the fullness of the Spirit, apart from him, they may become hollow cant, as they, in fact, have often become; but in the business of following Jesus they become, not maximum attainments, but minimum necessities. If I am to follow him, he will demand my all, and I shall not want to offer him less. Holiness has been preached very often until it has become a synonym for hollowness. The word has got loosed from Christ and has lost its meaning. Had it kept close to Christ, we would have preached less holiness and more of a Christ who makes men [sic] holy."

E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (The Abingdon Press: New York and Cincinnati, 1925), excerpts from Chapter IX, "What or Whom?"