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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Cultural captivity in the American UMC, part 1

A few weeks ago, Robert Hunt wrote a series of blog posts (post 1, post 2, and post 3) about The United Methodist Church’s difficulties in taking culture into consideration in our conversations about what it means to be a global church. Dr. Hunt, focusing in particular on how decision-making processes are embedded in culture, wrote, “The whole UMC is set up in decision making structures that are distinctly Anglo-American in culture. … These structures are significantly different from those of ethnic minorities within the US, and even more so United Methodists outside the U.S.”

While Dr. Hunt details this argument for United Methodists outside the US, I’d like to pursue just a couple of examples of how this argument plays out within the US, with special reference to leadership rather than decision-making.

Itineracy is a deeply-held value in the UMC, despite a long-term trend toward longer pastorates and notable exceptions at big-steeple church. Yet Anthony J. Shipley notes that frequent changes of pastoral leadership do not fit well with prevailing African-American expectations of church leadership. He writes, “Wherever you see a strong African-American church in an urban center, you will see a pastor who has been there a long time. The way we do business in The UMC, moving pastors every few years, you cannot possibly build a strong church.”[1] The examples of strong African-American churches Shipley provides have all benefitted from longer-than-average pastoral stays.

In another example, Justo Gonzalez has written about the challenges associated with providing theological education to rising Hispanic pastoral leaders in the UMC. Because the percentage of Hispanics with college degrees is lower than it is for other groups and because many Hispanics lack the financial resources and time to complete a three-year M.Div. degree, this pre-requisite for fully ordained ministry in the UMC may be out of reach. Gonzalez states bluntly that “we must acknowledge the cultural captivity of much of our institutional and ecclesiastical life, which prevents us from recruiting and making way for the growing minorities that will soon be the majority of the church.”[2]

The two examples cited address pastoral leadership, but one could make similar arguments related to lay leadership, decision-making, finances, and other areas of organizational life, as well as the much more obvious realm of cultural differences surrounding worship. The examples have been framed in terms of cultural differences related to race/ethnicity, but there are also cultural differences related to socioeconomic class (both Shipley and Gonzalez have strong words on this point, too) or even generation that are also relevant to the church.

The upshot of this difficulty of the UMC in responding to culture is not just the possibility for cultural misunderstandings and conflicts that exists in the global UMC but a real limit to the UMC’s reach in the US. Despite the presence of some very faithful members and leaders of color, we are overwhelmingly a white, middle-class church in a country that is less and less either.

Robert P. Jones’ recent book The End of White, Christian America is surely hyperbolic in its title, but it makes an important point: Christianity is declining among white Americans, and the growth segments for Christianity in America are among non-whites. As this blog has previous reported, the UMC is one of the whitest denominations in the US.

The Pew Forum and others have thoroughly documented the decrease of the middle-class in the US, as more people move either up or down the economic ladder. As this blog has previously reported, the decline in the American middle class parallels the decrease in American UMC membership.

Hence, if the UMC is not able to acknowledge, account for, and adapt to cultural differences domestically as well as globally, we can expect our decline in the US to continue no matter what position we take on sexuality, no matter what revitalization plan we put into place, no matter what sort of restructuring we undertake.


[1] Anthony J. Shipley, “The Future of African Americans and Mission” in Christian Mission in the Third Millennium, ed. Charles E. Cole (New York: General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 2004), 185.
[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, The History of Theological Education. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 139.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Recommended Reading: European bishops on A Way Forward

The Council of Bishops is just over a week away from announcing the membership of the Commission on a Way Forward, as we've previously reported. Thus, by now most of the content of this news article about A Way Forward from the UMC in Germany will not be news to most readers.

Yet the article is worth noting for the last two paragraphs, which give perspectives on the Commission on a Way Forward by Bishops Alsted and Wenner. American audiences have no doubt read perspectives from a variety of American bishops, but in the interests of adding global voices to the discussion, I have translated (with some help from Google) the last two paragraphs below:

"Christian Alsted, the chairperson of the Connectional Table, a type of international church council for the UMC, supports the opinion of the president of the Council of Bishops [Bruce Ough]. The bishop of the Central Conference of Northern Europe asked it to 'respect the decision of the General Conference as the highest body of the church.' The special commission should be granted time and space for their work, 'while we pray that the Holy Spirit gives them the necessary wisdom and insight.' At the same time, 'we should use the opportunity to focus our resources and our attention on the needs of this world, in which God is at work.'

"'Great tasks lie before us,' commented Rosemarie Wenner, bishop of the UMC in Germany, on the current situation. It is, however, possible to give one another room for diversity, 'so long as we are united in the main task: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.' She prays 'that we remain together to set an example that different opinions do not hinder us from listening together to Christ and witnessing to him as the one that reconciles us and the world with God.'"

Thursday, August 18, 2016

UM & Global updates

Astute readers may have already noticed two changes to UM & Global in the past month and a half.

The first is actually a change for the blogmaster, rather than the blog itself. As you can see in the "About Me" section at the bottom of the page, I have a new position as Director of Mission Theology for Global Ministries of the UMC. While Global Ministries previously provided some financial support for the blog, this is a much closer relationship to the agency for me.

This change in my status will not, however, affect this blog. This blog continues to be a project of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, not Global Ministries. The materials posted on this blog, whether written by me or other commentators, continue to reflect the opinions of the individual authors and do not represent the opinions one way or the other of Global Ministries.

Moreover, the blog will continue to feature the same mix of solicited and submitted posts, recommended readings, and my own commentary as it has in the past. It will continue to focus on our six main content areas: mission, global United Methodist ecclesiology, global social issues, culture and diversity, ecumenical and interreligious relationships, and international Methodist partnerships.

The second recent change for the blog is the creation of a new Facebook page for the blog. In addition to announcing new posts on Twitter, they will also be posted to the Facebook page. I believe this addition will allow the blog to have a greater reach than previously possible through just the website and Twitter.

Thus, I encourage readers to like us on Facebook themselves and to share our page with other United Methodists as well.

Thanks again to all who read, share, and write for this blog. Here's to continued conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Recommended readings: European annual conferences and migration

Following are two stories about how European United Methodists continue to undertake work relating to migration:

First, migration was a significant topic of discussion at the meeting of the Switzerland-France-North Africa Annual Conference, held July 16-19. The conversations around migration led to the annual conference adopting an official statement on migrants and refugees. The statement traces themes of migration in the Bible before making connections to current reasons for migration and ethical principles for responding to migrants. A report on the conference and the text of the statement can be found in this story (in French) from the annual conference.

Second, a video entitled "Willkommen" ("Welcome") produced by German United Methodists about their work with refugees was shown at the annual conference of the Methodist Church in Britain in July. The video made a significant impact on conference attendees, as reported in this article (in German) from the UMC in Germany. The end of the article also mentions continued discussions of migration at this summer's annual conferences in Germany. More information on the video and related educational materials can be found here, and the video can be viewed online in German and English versions.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Bill Mefford: A Litany for Persecuted Christians in the Middle East

Today's post is contributed by Dr. Bill Mefford. Dr. Mefford is Faith Outreach Specialist for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Prior to that position, he was Director of Civil and Human Rights at the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). His post takes the form of a litany calling for justice for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

With great concern and sadness we recognize the persecution of our brothers and sisters in Christ happening throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity. Like many religious groups in the region, Christians have been forced to endure civil wars and unrest as groups vie for control. In addition, Christians have been targeted for persecution from Islamic extremist groups that have arisen in the chaos across the Middle East.

The percentage of Christians living in the Middle East has declined precipitously in recent years due to regional unrest, the collapse of national governments and ensuing economic turmoil, and targeted persecution from violent Islamic extremists. The factors creating unrest in this area of the world are complex. We doubt there is a single solution that will bring peace.

We are especially aggrieved by the persecution our sisters and brothers in Christ are facing. The United Methodist Church has long stood against religious persecution and urges “policies and practices that ensure the right of every religious group to exercise its faith free from legal, political, or economic restrictions.” (2012 Book of Discipline 162-C)

We call for an end to blasphemy laws that curtail the full expressions of faith for all people including Christians. We call for all nations to abide by article 18 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

We recognize that in many nations, unrest or even civil war have made protection of religious minorities difficult. Without governmental protections, fair and effective law enforcement does not exist. Thus, religious minorities have become targets of extremist violence. Civil society, including religious and faith-based bodies, thrive under conditions of democratic transparency and inclusion.

We call for all people to promote religious freedom wherever they reside, and to abstain from religious discrimination of any kind. All religions must be wary that their interpretations of their sacred texts and teachings do not allow discrimination and violence.

We urge United Methodists to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ for “when one member of the Body suffers, all suffer.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)

We urge President Obama, as we do all world leaders, to make religious freedom a prominent part of their diplomacy with all nations, particularly with nations in the Middle East.

We call on all nations to protect religious minorities and to allow for the full expression of religious beliefs for all of their citizens.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Recommended reading: A Message to the Global UMC from UMC Africa Initiative

While much has been written by Americans about American perspectives on the Commission on a Way Forward and the possibilities and perils of its work for the future of the denomination, few voices from outside the US have been lifted up in that conversation. Thus, it is with interest that I pass along a significant African voice's statement on that nexus of issues. The statement comes from the UMC Africa Initiative, an effort by African UMC leaders to coordinate African General Conference delegates and advocate for African concerns at General Conference. You can read more about the UMC Africa Initiative in this UMNS story.

The statement, written primarily by Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of the UMC Gbarnga School of Theology and long-time prominent voice among African United Methodists, mainly articulates a forceful argument for biblical supremacy in the life of the denomination. As part of that overall emphasis on the Bible, the statement calls for continuing the denomination's current stance on homosexuality. The statement also calls for the continued unity of the UMC, provided that the Bible remains supreme.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jacob Dharmaraj: An Office of Christian Unity & Interreligious Relationships or a Research Institute?

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

It is encouraging to know that the Council of Bishops (COB) is in the process of moving the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships (OCUIR) to Washington D.C., and hiring six new staff. COB’s tacit acknowledgment that the old model was procrustean and needed restructuring is indeed admirable. Unquestionably, our denomination needs clarity in our understanding of Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology in the context of interfaith or multi-faith relations, which COB strives to address. Just like great apps such as “WhatsApp” or “Yelp” and others enhance our daily social interactions with our peers, a great missional and theological app can enhance, inspire, and illuminate our ministry of witness.

Since the emerging new world is remarkably similar to the Greco-Roman pluralistic domain, it offers new challenges every day in our collective struggle to witness our faith in Jesus Christ. With the ostensible questioning of traditional religions by modern scientific, philological, and archaeological discoveries, and by application of various theoretical apparatuses such as deconstructionism, phenomenalism, etc., the foundational beliefs of Christianity have been challenged to the core. Christianity’s relationship with people of other faiths and the Body of Christ has to be clearly defined in today’s context. We sincerely hope the creation of this office will lead us to the next higher level.

Nonetheless, I had a question while I was reading on-line the purpose of the office and the responsibilities of the staff. The program responsibility of this office in Washington D.C., at least theoretically, comes close to the very purpose of the mission board. Let me clarify.

Anyone who is committed to Christian mission will undeniably agree that mission and evangelism are two sides of the same coin. Mission lays out the road map and evangelism connects all of us with the Author and Creator of all. I believe that the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) has got the expertise, experience, and potential resources in working with ecumenical groups and interfaith communities. By theoretical definition of mission, the functional role and responsibilities of this office come close to the mandate of Global Ministries. If we house the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns under Global Ministries, our denomination will reduce the replication of our missional tasks.

Mission Conferences Speak
Let me submit one historic reference. The global ecumenical mission conference held in Jerusalem 1928 was dominated by the debate between Hendrick Kraemer and William Hocking about ministry with people of other living faiths. This debate spilled over to the ecumenical Conference held in Tambaram, India in 1938 in which Karl Barth, E. Stanley Jones, and others continued the conversation. These and all the subsequent ecumenical mission conferences held in the 20th century discussed and deliberated the church’s interaction with people of other faiths under the umbrella of mission and evangelism, but never as an isolated task.  This office in Washington D.C., can be justified to function apart from Global Ministries only, I submit, only if it were to be established to function as a Think Tank.

Research Institute Model
As a Think Tank and under the governance of the bishops, this office would be able to produce quality resources which will equip our constituents to know what they believe and why they believe. It will help us overcome the sophomoric spasm of multiculturalism and ecumenism, and nurture an informed religious community that is equipped to rethink in knowledgeable ways. Most importantly, this office would help all of us focus on the challenges we face as a denomination rather than the progress we have made; it will take us from the present-day corrosive culture of consultancy to the primary goal of finding answers. Lastly, it will be multi-disciplinary, and where appropriate, it will be multi-theological.

On the other hand, if it were to function as a program office, it will look for answers outside the problem and will continue to impose externally formulated ripostes. The Think Tank model will also help us come to grip with the problems we face, identify the questions and assumptions we have, and most importantly enrich us to articulate theology from the core of our Christian convictions.

If we want people to join the United Methodist movement in the transformation of the world, we need to be intentional about developing intellectual leadership and put together a team that would better communicate what we are and who we are. It is not just enough to minister with the poor and marginalized. We must develop and cultivate scholars and intellectuals who can minister to the movers and shakers of our society which include the intellectuals and affluent from all religious backgrounds.

As COB strives to re-ignite the engine of the denomination’s mission with people of other living faiths and create a public theology, and as it is committed to move past education for maintenance to education for mission, we request the leadership not overlook the rich resources readily available within the diasporic community among us. They will be an asset and strength in our missional engagement, as they know many languages, several cultures, and various sacred scriptures of major world religions. Our sacred history itself corroborates the necessity of engaging the diasporic faith community as our society becomes multi-contextual and pluralistic. For example, the Septuagint, commonly known as LXX or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was translated from Hebrew to Greek for the scattered Hellenistic Jews. They recruited and engaged seventy scholars from the diasporic community. Can our beloved United Methodist Church and COB have such a grand vision for our larger society and tap the untapped rich resources that are readily available among us?

In the final analysis, the unanswered question is this: Is the Office of the Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships envisioned as a programmatic office or a research institute? The answer determines where it should be housed: GBGM or the COB.