Monday, April 23, 2018

Recommended Readings: United Methodism in Germany

In case you missed it, United Methodist News Service has been putting out a series of stories about The United Methodist Church in Germany. While entries in this series go back a couple of years, many of the stories have been published in the last couple of months. Not only are these stories a chance to learn more about United Methodism in another part of the world, most also deal directly with the church as it is in mission.

Among the stories are several about United Methodists seeking revitalized congregations and new ministries in the community.

Also included are several about the history of deaconesses in the German UMC.

Quite a number of the stories address immigration within society and within the church.

The General Board of Church and Society also met recently in Berlin, Germany. Board members were given another glimpse into the German church and German society. GBCS, UM News Service #1, UM News Service #2the Germany Episcopal Area #1, and the Germany Episcopal Area #2 all wrote articles on this meeting.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The Church Exists for Mission

This is the third of a three-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.

Swiss theologian Emil Brunner wrote his now famous statement in 1931 that has redefined the church’s mission: “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning.”[1] As the United Methodist Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the uniting General Conference in 1968 it is a good time to reflect on the mission of the church and purpose of its organizational structure. Sometimes denominations and church structures can experience unintended “drift,” and take on a life of their own. German theologian Paul Tillich cautioned about the important balance between form and dynamics (Spirit) that healthy churches should maintain. Tillich went so far as to caution against an institution becoming too set or rigid in its form and become the object of idolatry.

This reflection will follow-up on my two previous blogs (blog 1 and blog 2) on the global nature of the UMC on the anniversary of Cuban Methodist autonomy. I will revisit the work of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) that examined the organization of the Methodist and then the United Methodist Church in the 1960s and early 1970s. I think that you will agree that many of the issues studied by COSMOS are still relevant today—if not more so.

John Wesley gave the Methodist movement great vision and direction when he wrote in the "Large" Minutes: "What may we reasonably believe to be God's design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land."[2] When American Methodism was launched and ready to become its own denomination Wesley wrote with mixed-feelings:

As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.[3]

This freedom of innovation and the importance of context, as well as connection, has been at the heart of Methodism from the beginning.

In the midst of conversations of unity between The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren, the 1964 General Conference of The Methodist Church continued Wesley’s vision for the global church when it approved this statement: “In the growth and maturing of Methodist churches overseas two basic principles are apparent, in one way or another, in all forms of organization: 1) the principle of freedom, and 2) the principle of fellowship.” Today the conversations of the Commission on the Way Forward still embody these two foci.

To carry out this vision, the 1964 General Conference mandated COSMOS to “study the structure and supervision of The Methodist Church in its work outside the United States and its territories and its relationships to other Church bodies…”[4] Taking up this mantle, the commission held study committees in every central and annual conference outside the United States, as well as consultations with British Methodists and the World Methodist Council. In addition, COSMOS had a major consultation in Green Lake, Wisconsin in 1966. In attendance were 250 leaders from 48 countries including bishops, board executives, clergy and laity representatives from the central and annual conferences around the world. One representative from Singapore, Yap Kim Hao, spoke on behalf of autonomy at the consultation:

Autonomy is not so much a question of self-government or independence as that of the principle of freedom. We are primarily interested and vitally concerned with the Church making her own witness in the social and political environment which is clearly delimited in our world today. We are attentive to the freedom of our people to make an unfettered response to God and His word which is spoken to us in our living situation.[5]

Yap Kim Hao went on to argue at the consultation that Methodist churches in Africa and Asia could not afford to be seen as a western institution imposed upon local people and advocated becoming affiliated autonomous Methodist churches with equal partnerships while still maintaining fraternal relationships with the Methodist Church in the United States.[6] Two years after the consultation, Yap Kim Hao was elected the first Asian bishop of the newly formed Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore in 1968.

Based on its findings from the consultation, COSMOS reported to the 1968 General Conference. They recommended that structural change of world Methodism is “desirable and necessary” and gave the following reasons:

  1. There has been growth both in membership and in the strength of leadership in Methodist groups outside the United States. These groups want greater freedom to make decisions.

  2. The spread of nationalism, finding expression in new nations and a greater desire for independence and self-determination, has created a new climate in which the church must carry out its mission.

  3. Methodist churches outside the United States are now both receiving and sending missionaries. Present structures, created and controlled by a General Conference, 90 percent of whose delegates are from the United States and 90 percent of whose time is devoted to concerns of the American church, cannot give proper consideration to the different conditions of 45 countries involved.

  4. The emergence of the World Council of Churches and regional conferences such as the East Asian Christian Conference raise questions as to how Methodist groups should be related in these areas and be fully participating members of these bodies and at the same time under the jurisdiction of the General Conference. Similar problems exist in Africa, Latin America and India.

  5. A deepening conviction that to drift or make minor shifts in present structures is to decide against a world church; by default annual conferences of Malaysia, Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Peru and Uruguay become autonomous.[7]

The Uniting Conference that was held in Dallas 50 years ago this month accepted the report of the commission and granted autonomy to those annual conferences outside the United States that had requested it, but did not act on any of the recommendations for greater structural change. After unification, COSMOS continued to work for one more quadrennium until the 1972 General Conference, at which time it was disbanded. The United Methodist structure has remained largely the same ever since.[8]

I would posit that many of the issues addressed by COSMOS are still factors today and the church would do well to use this occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of The United Methodist Church to revisit our original purpose so that the structure will always follow the mission of the church.

I have argued in other places that we can maintain an international Methodist connection while simultaneously giving freedom to regional bodies to develop a structure more suitable to their context and culture and in obedience to local laws. I believe that we can create a more fluid structure while also maintaining the two principles established by the 1964 General Conference of fellowship and freedom, or in the words of Tillich “form” and “dynamics.”

We can do all this while continuing Wesley’s vision for Methodism “to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.” He gave early American Methodists this same freedom in 1784, and it remains a good organizing principle for global Methodism. Just as Emil Bruner stated “The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by mission.”[9]

[1] Emil Brunner, The Word and the World, London: World Student Movement, 1931, p.108.
[2] John Wesley, Works, Jackson Edition, vol.8; Baker, 1978, p. 299.
[3] This letter was sent with Thomas Coke and distributed to American Methodists in 1784 along with the Sunday Service and an edited version of the Articles of Religion. Letters of John Wesley.
[4] Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, Report No. 1, Book of Discipline, 1968, p. 1778.
[5] Yap Kim Hao, A Bishop Remembers, Singapore: Gospel Works, 2006, 66.
[6] Ibid, 67.
[7] Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, Report No.1, Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 1968, 1784.
[8] The General Conference has created a Commission on the Worldwide Nature of the Church and they have made recommendations to several General Conferences, but no major structural changes have been implemented. See my 3-part blog on “The Cost of Being a Global Church” November 10, 17, and 24, 2015, www.umglobal.org.
[9] Emil Brunner, The Word and the World, London: World Student Movement, 1931, p.108.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What are your assets?

Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the second of a four-part series on money and relationships in the global church. Dr. Scott is Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of Global Ministries.

Last week, I raised the question of how United Methodists can face the problem of vast economic inequality in the church in a way that preserves relationship between rich and poor without turning those relationships into ones of dependence solidifying inequalities of power. I noted the importance of the rich sharing with the poor, for not to do so would destroy relationship by implying that the rich did not care for the poor. If the rich must share, then, how can they share without creating dependency?

One approach to sharing without creating dependency is asset-based partnerships. Asset-based partnerships can involve partners with varying levels of financial resources working together to address issues in the church and the world, but in a way that is intended to create more equal partnership between all participants, regardless of their level of financial resources.

The key to asset-based approaches is realizing that money is only one form of asset. While Americans are socialized to understand assets in economic terms, an asset can be defined as anything of value, or anything that is helpful for accomplishing work. In Christian theological language, an asset is any gift or grace given us by God.

Certainly, money is an asset, and most undertakings require a certain amount of money. But the important insight of asset-based approaches is that money is far from the only asset. Other assets include knowledge, skills, abilities, relationships, networks, authority, physical resources, and even prayer and spirituality. All of these assets can be necessary to accomplish a project, and thus all of them have value. Therefore, all of them should be recognized as valuable. If we think of assets as treasure, then they should not be understood only as economic riches, but as anything which we actively treasure, which we hold in high value.

The other important tenet of asset-based approaches to partnership is that not only is there a wide variety of assets, but all people and groups have some assets. Not all individuals may have the same level of financial assets, but the poor have other assets along with whatever meager amount of financial assets they do have. They also have knowledge, skills, abilities, relationships, networks, and spirituality. Asset-based partnerships recognize the assets that are contributed by all who participate.

Asset-based partnerships thus shift the mentality of partnership from “We, the rich, have the money; therefore, we will make the decisions,” to “We are all contributing necessary assets to this project; therefore, we all have a say in how the project will go, since it would not work without all of us.” Asset-based partnerships thus require give and take, listening, and mutual understanding.

Such an approach requires some spiritual effort and humility on the part of the rich. One of the ways in which wealth negatively affects the rich is that it distorts their views of themselves, creating the conditions for pride from assuming that their wealth means that they also have more of other assets than other people – knowledge, skills, networks, and even spirituality. The rich must be willing to not only give up their riches but give up their sense of superiority.

For the rich to open themselves up to recognize and receive the assets of the poor requires some kenosis – some self-emptying. Yet, as Christians, we have the greatest example of self-emptying in Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God, did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Rich Western United Methodists must ask ourselves how we can empty ourselves and become obedient, both to God and to the poor. To do so will require vulnerability, which may run counter to American culture, but it is a direct response to the gospel call.

Despite the spiritual and psychological challenges to the rich in adopting this model, it has been an important one promoted by Global Ministries, the World Council of Churches, and secular development organizations. One expression of such an approach is mission roundtables, which seek to bring together partners around an issue on a relatively equal footing that recognizes the assets of all.

Asset-based approaches do not remove all inequalities. Asset-based partnerships still usually involve rich Christians and poor Christians working together in poor Christians’ countries, not rich Christians’ countries. Rich Christians have by and large not yet recognized that poor Christians may have something to contribute to the ministry of rich Christians in their own home contexts, perhaps an inevitable reflection of a world in which not only wealth, but health, peace, education, and well-being are inequitably distributed.

Persistent inequalities in wealth and well-being that create rich and poor are not God’s desire for the world. Yet, while inequalities do persist, asset-based partnerships address the important and biblical injunction for the rich to share of their wealth with the poor. They are an important part of the solution, especially when combined with other partial solutions, such as my post next week will explore.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Recommended Reading: Matt Rawle, Juan Huertas & Katie McKay-Simpson on #MyHope4Methodism

Ministry Matters, in conjunction with Abingdon Press's Faultlines collection, recently published a post entitled "Finding Hope in the UMC." The article is written by Louisiana Annual Conference pastors Matt Rawle, Juan Huertas, and Katie McKay-Simpson. The piece is an excerpt from their recently-published book The Marks of Hope: Where the Spirit is Moving in a Wounded Church.

The authors center their hope for the UMC in the local church. The article also specifically mentions mission as an aspect of hope.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: My Islamic Neighbor

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 Friendships with Our Islamic Neighbors
The Mission Dialogue Forum of Global Ministries in Atlanta invited an eminent Islamic educator, Dr. Khalid Siddiq, to speak on March 25, 2018.

Dr. Siddiq, who is a Pakistani national, is a medical doctor specialized in endocrinology. He also serves as the director of outreach at the Al Farooq Masjid in Atlanta, which was established in 1980 in response to growing Islamic communities in Atlanta, especially the migrant community. On a usual Friday, nearly 500 Muslims came for Salah. The Masjid founded the Dar-un-Noor School in 1990 that now has about 200 students in grades pre-K through 8, learning traditional academic subjects in addition to Islamic Studies and Arabic.

One of my very first encounters with the Muslim community in the United States was to visit Al Farooq Masjid in Atlanta in July 2017 with Candler School of Theology summer intern to Global Ministries, Luis Velasquez. We both had a wonderful exposure, good welcome and met several people including Dr. Khalid Siddiq at the mosque.

Dr. Siddiq, being a faithful follower of Islam and an academic, offered Global Ministries staff a wonderful introduction to the basics of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. This session was most helpful as the work of the Global Ministries is spreading globally. Interfaith is also important in understanding an emerging U.S. context. I think churches should intentionally be doing more interfaith activities as our multi-cultural society grows.

Demographics Matter
Let us gather some recent empirical data on the religious landscape. Islam is predicted to rise in the United States. There were about 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States in 2017, and thus Muslims made up about 1.1% of the total U.S. population. By 2050, the U.S. Muslim population is projected to reach 8.1 million, or 2.1% of the nation’s total population—twice the share of today.

Looking at the global scale, it is estimated that by 2050 the number of Muslims worldwide will grow to 2.76 billion, or 29.7% of the world’s population. The share of the world’s Muslims who live in sub-Saharan Africa will increase from 15.5% in 2010 to 24.3%.  Asia, which is home to more of the world’s Muslims (61.7%) than all the other regions combined, will continue to host most of the world’s Muslims (see http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/31/worlds-muslim-population-more-widespread-than-you-might-think/). So, Muslims with their global presence will have neighbors from other faiths in almost in every part of the world.

This changing religious landscape must be taken seriously, must be addressed creatively, and calls us to engage meaningfully if we are to have world peace. In this endeavor, the initiatives taken by Muslims for dialogue are of paramount significance while churches are continuing their interfaith ministries.

Our Islamic Neighbor
As Christians, should we not celebrate our neighbor? What is the significance of interfaith friendships in Mission of God today?

It is of prime importance that the Christians should deal with Islamophobia, prejudices, and misunderstandings that we have about Muslims. This is growing in general, even at the global level, and can be as dangerous as racism. While moderate citizens are very critical of Jihadist segments of the Muslim population, we must know that all Muslims are not extremists or fundamentalists. Quickening negative judgments is not the way.

Understanding the faith of the other is the way of wisdom. On a very basic level, we Christians need to improve our knowledge and awareness of the faiths of our neighbors. It is our missiological responsibility to understand and dialogue with our Muslim neighbors in these challenging times. Jesus’ golden commandment is “love your neighbor,” and loving our neighbor involves understanding her or his faith, culture and lifestyle. While academic study helps, we must go beyond academic knowledge and relate to our neighbor in a living manner in our day-to-day life. Interfaith relationships are not just a technical skill to acquire but also a gift from God to every Christian arising from God’s love.

Sri Lankan Dialogue Experiences
In Sri Lanka where I had my longest ministry thus far, four living major religions are present: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Communities of these faiths live and do things together in a multi-religious society. So, dialogue becomes a daily experience. We called this “dialogue of life.”

The Theological College of Lanka, Pilimatalawa (Kandy), where I taught and was the principal for five years (2010-2015), has a strong ecumenical tradition of interfaith education and work. We have Islamic leaders come and teach the seminary students, who will be in the ministry and mission in the future. Students along with the faculty regularly visit the mosques as part of their educational and cross-cultural exposures. This is a transformational experience for missions. This work helps the future theologians, ministers, and lay leaders to respond to conflict and tensions with more understanding, discernment, and peace-building, leading to reconciliation of all communities.

We have experienced the fruits of this interfaith work for harvesting peace. D.T. Niles, Lynn De Silva, W.J.T. Small, Basil Jackson, Soma Perera, D.K. Wilson, R.S. Sugirtharajah, and Wesley Ariarajah are some prominent Methodists from Sri Lanka who contributed to a greater interfaith understanding in mission and Christian witness in a multi-faith world. Their work reaches beyond Methodism.

The Other as a Partner in a Mission
Can we consider our Islamic neighbors as a partner in mission?

The World Council of Churches’ recent mission statement, Together Towards Life (TTL 2013) (para 93), challenges us in the right direction:

"In the plurality and complexity of today’s world, we encounter people of many different faiths, ideologies, and convictions. We believe that the Spirit of Life brings joy and fullness of life. God’s Spirit, therefore, can be found in all cultures that affirm life. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, and we do not fully understand the workings of the Spirit in other faith traditions. We acknowledge that there is inherent value and wisdom in diverse life-giving spiritualities. Therefore, authentic mission makes the “other” a partner in, not an “object” of mission."

I was also delighted to note the American Society of Missiology has chosen “Interfaith Friendship as an Incarnational Mission Practice’ as its yearly theme in 2018.

My Islamic neighbor is my FRIEND. Best wishes for greater interfaith friendships in God’s mission, and Salam, سلام, Shanthi, Peace!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Money is the biggest problem in the global church today

Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the first of a four-part series on money and relationships in the global church. Dr. Scott is Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of Global Ministries.

The United Methodist Church has a big problem.

No, it’s not the debate over sexuality.

No, it’s not the long-term membership decline in the US or flat membership most places in the world.

It’s not overly bureaucratic boards or creeping congregationalism or theological confusion or any of the other problems commonly named in the denomination.

It’s a huge problem that stabs at the heart of how we relate to each other as a global church, yet it’s also a problem that we don’t talk about. It makes us so uncomfortable, that we avoid even recognizing this problem as one.

This problem is money.

Specifically, the problem is the vast economic inequalities between the different branches of the church and the relational and spiritual distortions caused by these inequalities.

To be fair, The United Methodist Church is not alone in this problem. We live in a world of vast disparities in wealth, the result of a capitalist system designed to accumulate ever greater amounts of wealth for those who already have it. Many indicators show that wealth distribution globally is becoming ever more unequal. The tiny number of ultra-wealthy hoard every larger percentages of the world’s total wealth, while millions live on pennies a day.

Yet even taking the ultra-wealthy out of the picture, the financial disparities between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or between Norway and Liberia, are still stark. The US’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is 72 times that of the Congo. Norway’s is 78 times that of Liberia.

The UMC operates in several of the world’s wealthiest countries, but also in several of the poorest countries in the world. The world’s inequalities are our inequalities. We cannot pretend that the problem of wealth is a problem only for the Bill Gates of the world; it is a problem for the Western church generally. While our missionaries may come from everywhere and go everywhere, our money does not.

Again, this problem affects more than just United Methodists. This problem applies to World Christianity as a whole. The World Council of Churches has been wrestling with how Christians can be in partnership with one another across vast economic inequalities for decades. Yet the World Council of Churches has at least been facing and trying to come to grips with this problem. Despite statements in the Book of Resolutions, The UMC as a whole has yet to fully acknowledge this problem as such.

Wealth inequality in the church is a problem for several reasons. To begin with, there are the many, many biblical teachings on wealthy, poverty, and economic justice that speak of God’s concern for the poor. Money is an overriding concern for Jesus and the rest of the Bible, but rarely for the Western church. A full review of the Bible’s teachings on money is beyond the scope of this post but suffice it to say that our current capitalist world does not reflect the biblical ideals of a just economic community. Moreover, John Wesley reflected this biblical concern for the poor in his own ministry.

Second, as Jonathan Bonk and others have pointed out, wealth disparities in mission can distort the very message of the Gospel and how it is heard and understood, both by those with wealth and by those without wealth who encounter wealthy ambassadors of the Gospel. Many United Methodists would disparage the prosperity gospel, but how often do wealthy Western United Methodists unwittingly propagate just such a gospel by implying that the result of becoming Christian is to become like wealthy Americans?

Vast wealth inequalities also make it impossible to have healthy relationships among branches of a global church with dramatically different financial resources. Wealth inequality places the church in a dilemma:

On the one hand, were rich United Methodists not to share any of their resources with poor United Methodists, it would destroy relationship because it would imply that the rich did not care about the poor.

Yet, if rich United Methodists do share their resources with poor United Methodists, it is difficult to do so in a way that does not create patron-client relationships between rich and poor. In such relationships, the poor become subservient to and dependent upon the rich, who then have disproportionate power over the poor. Such power imbalances are difficult to reconcile with a Gospel and a polity that theoretically affirm the worth of all, regardless of how much money they have.

As I said at the beginning, the problem of money is a big problem. There are not a lot of easy solutions. The problem of money may even be more difficult to resolve than the debate over sexuality in the church.

Nonetheless, over the next three weeks, I will look at three possible partial solutions. The first is asset-based approaches to relationship building; the second is reducing the amount of church structure required in all locations; the third is a self-supporting approach to church and mission. The first approach seeks to create more equitable approaches to sharing. The second and third seek to reduce dependency by poorer branches of the church on the richer branches. None of them is the entire solution, but all may be pieces of how we as the church can build a just, loving, and equitable global fellowship.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Plan Now: Methodist Mission Bicentennial Conference

The Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest denomination-wide mission organization in American Methodism, was founded on April 5, 1819. That means the 200th anniversary of its founding will happen in just under a year.

As part of the celebration of this milestone in Methodism, Global Ministries, in collaboration with Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, will be hosting a Methodist mission bicentennial conference called “Answering the Call: Hearing God’s Voice in Methodist Mission Past, Present, and Future.”

The conference will celebrate Methodism’s mission heritage and look to the future of Methodist mission. Rev. Dr. Arun Jones, Bishop Mande Muyombo, and Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath will be featured speakers. Joy Eva Bohol will present a youth address.

The conference will be held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, at the Emory University Conference Center Hotel, April 8-10, 2019.

Those interested in attending can indicate their interest here. The application found through this link is a non-binding pre-registration. An official registration system will be available later.

For academics, students, and mission practitioners, a call for papers is available here. The deadline for submissions is June 30, 2018, and selected papers will be announced after that.