Thursday, September 29, 2016

Mission and Globalization, Then and Now

I was reading an article in the current issue of New World Outlook, the magazine of UMC Global Ministries, written by Josh Van, a Global Ministries missionary in Malaysia. My recent book, Mission as Globalization: Methodists in Southeast Asia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, examines the beginning of Methodism in Malaysia, and as I read Josh Van’s article, I was struck by the number of similarities between the beginning of the mission 130 years ago and his work now.

1. Collaboration between different branches of Methodism – Methodism in Malaysia started as a part of the American Methodist Episcopal Church, but it also had members and ministers from the British Wesleyan Methodist Church and the American Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Today, Van’s work reflects a cooperation between the Methodist Church in Malaysia and The United Methodist Church.

2. Missionaries with diverse national backgrounds – Early missionaries to Malaysia came from the US, certainly, but also from India, Sri Lanka, China, Australia, Germany, and Sweden. Van is an American citizen but also lived in Vietnam for good portions of his life, giving him an international background too.

3. Mission to migrants – Early Methodism in Malaysia grew among the Chinese, Indian, and European migrants to the area. Today, Van is working with a new migrant group – the Vietnamese – but the significance of mission with migrants continues. Both among the early migrants and the Vietnamese in Malaysia now, the majority of migrants are (were) short-term migrants, who travel(ed) to make money for a limited term and then intend(ed) to return to their homes.

4. Evangelists with ethnic ties to the population – While Western missionaries served important roles in early Methodism in Malaysia, the mission would not have succeeded were it not for the hard work of Chinese and Tamil evangelists and ministers who shared an ethnic background with those with whom they were ministering. Similarly, Van’s Vietnamese ethnicity provides a vital point of contact with those with whom he works.

5. Effects of global capitalism – Many who were attracted to early Methodism in Malaysia were working hard as physical laborers in exploitative businesses tied to the newly booming international capitalism in the area and who were longing for something better. Van does work among a similar group – people who are working hard for businesses tied to international capitalist enterprises but who hope for something more.

6. Mission that addresses substance abuse – Colonial Malaysia was rife with opium (and to a lesser extent alcohol), which was used by exploited laborers as a way to escape from the harsh realities of their lives and used by moneyed interests as another way to extract profit from the marginalized. Methodist missionaries put a lot of effort into preaching against opium. Van mentions emphatically his efforts to combat drinking and alcoholism among Vietnamese migrants in Malaysia today, who use it for reasons similar to those Chinese laborers used opium.

7. English language education as empowerment – Early Methodist missionaries in Malaysia were known for their educational system, which they used as an evangelistic tool, but which also provided an important form of empowerment through training in the English language and business skills such as typing. Today, Van mentions his desire to start English as a Second Language and computer classes so that the migrants with whom he works would have the skills to advance socially and economically.

8. Sharing information through publications – Early Methodist missionaries in Malaysia were adept at sharing stories of their work through a variety of Methodist publications. It is therefore appropriate to have read about Josh Van’s work in one of the successors of such publications, Global Ministries’ New World Outlook.

These parallels between early Methodist mission work in Malaysia and Josh Van’s work nowadays are not just interesting coincidences, though. They demonstrate a larger point. Much of the historiography on turn of the century missions has used an interpretive lens based on colonialism. While we are still living with the effects of colonialism, formal colonialism began dying 50 years ago.

Globalization, however, is still very much with us today. One of the things I try to do in my book is to use concepts associated with contemporary globalization – such as transnational organizations, migration, global capitalism, and English as a lingua franca – as an interpretive lens for mission during that earlier wave of globalization at the turn of the twentieth century. Colonialism is an important part of that, but political and cultural colonialism is not the whole of globalization.

These comparisons between early Methodist mission and Josh Van’s work show the benefits of using such a lens: By so doing, we can discover the ways in which current mission is not only in some ways a new paradigm – a shift from colonialism to World Christianity, perhaps – but also in very important ways the continuation of patterns that were established in the colonial period but not entirely dependent on colonialism. Using a lens of globalization allows us to see such long-term patterns and thus read mission history in a way that provides fresh insights on Christian mission today.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Recommended readings: Faith and migration

Migration has been an important topic du jour in missiology and in broader news and policy discussions. Often such discussions refer to the "migration crisis." While the harmful effects of forced migration especially should not be ignored but rather taken seriously by Christians and policy-makers alike, two recent articles make the argument that it is important to go beyond seeing migration as just a crisis or a problem to be solved.

In their recent New World Outlook article "The Development of Faith During Migration," Michael Nausner and Tsaurayi Kudakwashe Mapfeka seek to shift views of migration from the negative to the neutral. They write, "We, the authors of this article, believe that migration is not necessarily a crisis to fight but a basic living condition that has existed since humans first populated this planet." Moreover, this "basic living condition" has special significant for Christians. A careful reading of the Bible, they assert, will yield "a migratory understanding of Christian identity."

In the same issue of New World Outlook, Thomas Kemper goes a step further by arguing that migration can be seen not just as a given fact of Christianity, but as a positive force in Christian history. Accordingly, he titles his article "Migration as Blessing." In it, he traces the important contributions migration has made to Christianity, especially in the realm of mission.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Glory Dharmaraj: From Salinization of Mission to Uberization of Mission

Today's piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women.

In the timeless twin Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, the hero of the sequel, Odysseus, undertakes two major journeys in his lifetime. The first one is an outward journey full of overseas expeditions and escapades, wars and conflicts, dominance and triumph. The second one is a sober one without much outer paraphernalia but with a deeply ingrained truth of an inner journey. Both the journeys throw light on a key functional tool of his mission: a sailing oar.

Beyond Salinization: A Journey
After twenty years of ceaseless outbound seafaring adventures, Odysseus comes home, and undertakes a second journey. This second journey away from home is a spatial reversal of his former sea-bound journey.

In this journey, the hero carries his sailing oar balanced on his shoulders, as a visual symbol of what he has achieved so far, until he arrives at a place whose people know nothing of sails, sea, or salt. As he is carrying the oar, well-balanced on his shoulders, a traveler from the inland region puts forth a stunning yet innocuous query: “What is the winnowing fan” you are carrying? A functional tool of a life time of work is being misrecognized! A sailing oar for a winnowing fan!

It is the end of an era. It is time for Odysseus to go home. That is what he does. He plants his sailing oar in that unknown soil, offers a ritual ceremony, and goes home! Erstwhile tools are inadequate to navigate a new landscape.

Changing tools of mission
In his book The Death of White Christian America, Robert Jones frames an edificial approach to American Protestant Christianity, and laments the decline and loss of denominational and ecumenical influence over the past decades on the cultural and political landscape of the nation. The three major buildings mentioned in his book are The Methodist Building on the Capitol Hill, The Interchurch Center on the upper west side of New York City, and the Crystal Cathedral in California. What Jones bemoans is the loss of institutionalized Protestant Christianity that has wielded an enormous cultural and political leverage in yester years. His findings do not spell the end of Christianity in America but a yearning to re-imagine and reform it!

There is an unspoken yearning in many of us, white or non-white, for a Christianity that can reform, reimagine and-reinvent, and take an engaging and appealing responsibility with the diverse social, cultural, and religious cultural milieu of our time. As the Protestant Christian world is getting ready to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of Reformation, it is a good opportunity for our own denomination to reinvent and reform the structure and polity, and find new ways to proceed into a renewed missional future, and take transmuted ecclesial action. It is not an easy task. But we need to start somewhere, as we stand on the threshold of another axial age when the functional tools erstwhile mission era are unusable in a newly emerging context.

“Uberization of mission”
During an informal conversation with Harriett Olson, General Secretary of the United Methodist Women, about the emerging Uber entity in rideshare and business, and the healthy imagination we should have for our mission today, she exclaimed with enthusiasm, and uttered, “Uberization of mission”! Indeed, healthy imagination helps us form deeper connections through integrated content strategies, right time, right channel of communication, and creative story-telling that inspires action. What happened to consumer services like taxis with Uber will happen to other areas of business services as well. It is not a question of how, but when.

In the past, businesses and companies relied primarily on their brand name to lock in customers by building trust around their product and offering services. Modern day customers expect convenience, experience and flexibility. They also expect a communal engagement and mutual transaction experience as self-serve as possible. In other words, customer experience is the key point around which all systems, people and processes function. Taxis treated consumers as commodities, and Uber grouped these discontented customers to fashion the largest consumer transportation corporation in which cars are now the commodity. An aggregate disruption! Uber business models are being emulated in other fields, from daily chores like grocery shopping to legal service whose workforce is not full-time employees.

Our historic mission imagination has always been fired by biblical theology and tempered by pragmatism. As we are well aware, theology is an activity of the imagination as much as of reason, in which we seek to transcend boundaries and move forward

We now get a kaleidoscopic view of happenings as they unfold, often in real time, on our computer screens and handheld devices. History is not impartial or identical with truth, but the internet doles out to us a newfound vantage on the totality of passing time. Today we should become more aware of our missional responsibility with our ever morphing culture. The Church needs to develop and forge new ways to enter into a dialogical relationship with the surrounding culture and its people as they are closely linked to questions concerning the value of an individual, core human need, the meaning of human existence, and action, and especially their relationship with one another and creation. At this level, mission engagements should give priority to promoting a renewed and vital synthesis between faith and culture.

In the larger context, mission scholars as well as mission practitioners have a responsibility and burden to offer a more expansive landscape, and create spaces for the students and constituents, laity and clergy, so that they can imagine and dream of their ecclesial future, ritually bury the “old oars,” come up with workable winnowing tools, recognizable gears and apparatuses for negotiating the discontinuous changes in our missional journey. Let us not lament the losses of our cherished past, rather let us clang the bell of warning to the evils of unjust society and dehumanizing values, and create and facilitate spaces for innovating new functional tools!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Recommended readings: North Atlantic Missiology Project papers

Those looking for scholarly articles on mission will want to act by the end of the month to take advantage of a free online resource, the North Atlantic Missiology Project/Currents in World Christianity Project paper collection. The collection will be available through Sept. 30th.

Yale Divinity School librarian Martha Smalley writes of the collection:

"The North Atlantic Missiology Project (NAMP) and its successor, the Currents in World Christianity Project (CWC) ran from 1996 to 2001, based in the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia.

"A large number of papers were generated by these projects, many of which have been on a CD available through the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. With the agreement of the Centre and of Dr. Brian Stanley, who was the coordinator of the projects, we have posted the available papers online at

"These papers should not be quoted or republished without the consent of the authors. The papers made available online here are those which had not otherwise been published as of 15 November 2003. It is possible that some of these papers have been published since that time."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wonder, Love, and Praise: An Invitation to Conversation

The United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order has drafted a statement on ecclesiology for The United Methodist Church entitled “Wonder, Love, and Praise.” General Conference 2016 affirmed further study and refinement of the document during the next quadrennium, with the goal of adopting a revised version at General Conference 2020 to stand alongside such other official theological statements of the denomination such as “This Holy Mystery,” on the Eucharist, and “By Water and the Spirit,” on baptism.

There will be several avenues for assessing and reflection on “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” but UM & Global is inviting its readers to participate in their own conversation around this document. In particular, UM & Global encourages its readers to read the document and reflect on such questions as the relation between church and mission in the document, the attention to the church as a world-wide phenomenon in the document, the Wesleyan and Methodist distinctives noted in the document, etc.

Readers are invited to submit their theological and missiological reflections on the document to the UM & Global blogmaster, David Scott, by email to david.wm.scott (at) Submissions should be between 700 and 1,000 words long and should examine the document from a scholarly (though not necessarily formally-cited academic) perspective.

While it may not be possible to feature all submissions on the blog, the intention is to host a scholarly conversation about the document through the blog. It is our hope that this conversation will not only be of scholarly interest but will be able to influence the revision of the document over the next quadrennium.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Young people's voices on a global UMC

Amongst the large amount of commentary on the present and future of the UMC right now, it's important to listen to (among others) the voices of young adults and those outside the United States. Thus, I'm happy to pass on the following two articles:

The first is a commentary by Mighty Rasing, a young adult from the Philippines, on the "Challenges of Being a Global Church," written for UMC Young People's Ministries.

The second is a set of follow-up interviews with young adult delegates to General Conference 2016, mostly from the United States and Africa. They had been asked about their hopes for General Conference before the event. In the follow-up, they comment on their experiences after the fact.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Ben Hartley: The Trials of Ecumenism

Today's post is by Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley. Dr. Hartley is Associate Professor of Christian Mission at the College of Christian Studies at George Fox University. He also blogs at

Ecumenism is tough. For people who have been involved in ecumenical conversations over many years this is an obvious insight. Many Christians though have the impression that ecumenical dialogue or ecumenical cooperation is something that is easy – or at least should be. The impatience some people and institutions exhibit with regard to building ecumenical relationships is partly based on this mistaken impression.

For the past five years I have served as one of the United Methodist delegates to the Faith and Order conversations of the National Council of Churches of Christ. I have come to deeply value these conversations as I have also grown in my appreciation of ecumenism’s close tie to God’s mission in our world today.

That may be especially true for the people called Methodist. The depth of Christian fellowship exhibited in early class and band meetings was not incidental to the missionary zeal Methodists felt in their bones. Those early class and band meetings drew people from a wide array of Christian backgrounds – from Quaker to Catholic – and you can be sure that this diversity of background in the Methodist movement caused plenty of challenges, both then and now.  (For a good reflection on this in light of United Methodism’s current challenges see Glen Alton Messer’s recent blog.) Diversity of outlook and practices can also promote excellence in mission even if, in the process, working through our differences can also bring tremendous strain.

At our last National Council of Churches meeting in May I came to a new appreciation of that strain even as I hope it will eventually serve to strengthen our witness together going into the future. The incident I bring up here certainly can help promote reflection about the interrelationship of mission and ecumenism, and it is for that purpose that I share it here.

Toward the end of our three-day May 2016 “Christian Unity Gathering” in Baltimore, Maryland an invitation was extended over a lunch meeting for people at this meeting to pose for a photograph around a banner that read “We stand by our Muslim neighbors.” This photo invitation was born out of a desire of many (likely all) in our group to oppose the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in American society. The vast majority of Muslims around the world are, of course, not terrorists, so sure, let’s have a picture in front of a banner.  Sound simple?  It wasn’t.

An Eastern Orthodox representative at this gathering voiced strong opposition to the idea of posing by a banner that expressed solidarity with Muslim neighbors. He did not deny the reality of dangerous anti-Muslim sentiment in America, but he was also all too aware that in other parts of the world Muslim neighbors were killing Christian neighbors. So many of these Christian neighbors are Eastern Orthodox. He would not be standing by any banner that afternoon.

In this moment of ecumenical conflict over lunch all of us in the room realized in a new way that to stand by a banner that read, “We support our Muslim neighbors” raised difficult questions we needed to work through. Around my little table of eight I spoke out loud a question I was repeating in my mind: “Who is my neighbor?” It was something I practically murmured under my breath, but a chance lull in the conversation was such that it was heard by everyone. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, the question is posed by a young lawyer in order to “score points” in a debate against Jesus. My question, I hoped, was more genuine.

The questions kept emerging in my mind and those of my friends around the table as we contemplated what we would do when picture-taking time came later in the afternoon. “What does it mean to ‘stand by’ a neighbor when another neighbor of like religious faith in a different place is killing other neighbors?” “Can I so simply make a distinction between American Muslim neighbors and Muslims and Christian neighbors in Syria or Pakistan?”  “Should I instead stand by my Eastern Orthodox neighbors who were refusing to be in this photograph? If so, why would I do that?” Was the decision to have this picture be taken made in the right way? If not, why not? How will the picture be used? How will it be interpreted by others?

Again, ecumenism is tough. What would you do? As for me, I chose to join the dozen or so people who refused to be in the picture. I did so for several reasons but mostly because I believed my most immediate neighbor at that gathering whom I needed to build a stronger relationship with were my Eastern Orthodox brothers in Christ. Indeed, I had a meaningful conversation with a fellow deacon (from the Orthodox Church of America) during the picture-taking session as we chatted in the hallway outside the hotel banquet room. Most of the people gathered at this event posed with the banner for a photograph. I look forward to further conversations with them at our next meeting about why their no less prayerful decision was different from mine.

There will be plenty of opportunity for those conversations in the next two years. I am a co-facilitator for a group in the NCC that is tasked with the responsibility of responding to two related World Council of Churches documents – one short (7 pages), one long (45 pages) – about Christian identity in a multi-religious world. The short version was jointly approved by the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue as well. I look forward to talking about these documents with my students this semester too in a course intended to teach doctoral students in psychology about world religions. I invite readers of this blog into the conversation as well. Feel free to e mail me or to respond to this blog right here. Ecumenical conversations may be tough sometimes, but “so the world may believe” (John 17:21) it is vital that we give it the attention it deserves.