Should The United Methodist Church be a global church?
This question takes us beyond our usual preoccupation with geography and statistics (“Are we a global church?”) to the matter of core identity: “Should it be our mission as a denomination to be a global church?” These two questions, related but quite different, often get muddled in our churchly conversations, as in the popular slogan “the worldwide nature of the UMC.” The first question is empirical and, depending on the measures used, can be affirmed or contested. The second is theological, and brings us closer to what is (or should be) at stake. And here, depending on how we interpret the theological issues at stake, our answer might be yes or no, or both. Let me suggest two such issues for comment.
The first issue, raised anew by a number of United Methodists in recent years, tags the impact of our globalizing efforts on relations with our Methodist family around the world. Should United Methodists really initiate mission efforts in places where a Methodist presence already exists? Or should we rather put our (substantial) resources toward shared mission there? A perceived United Methodist go-it-alone-because-we-can attitude has caused considerable resentment in various places. To be sure, United Methodist unilateralism is by no means unique among the world’s churches, regardless of tradition or hemisphere, as ecumenism’s current woes attest. So, perhaps a different sort of question might help us test our global aspirations: Is it our belief that United Methodism is so valuable, perhaps even indispensable, that it warrants our competing with our Methodist kin? Put differently: Is there something so inadequate or missing in other Methodist expressions that they need our contribution to supplement, correct, or complete them? If yes, in what does such United Methodist uniqueness consist? If not, then exactly what ultimately drives our desire to expand? I for one am quite unsure that we’ve done the work yet to answer such questions with theological integrity.
Yet, and moving on to the second issue, United Methodists’ desire to be a “global” church holds great transformative promise. At present, our “diversity” remains safely separated by oceans, engaged primarily through mission trips and contentious General Conference debates. What if we took seriously that “the globe” is now in our backyards? How might such recognition inspire a U.S. United Methodist Church that is still 93 percent white to resemble right here the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages . . .” (Rev. 7:9)? How might such questions challenge current assumptions about what “vital congregations” should look like? Or about why, where, and among whom we should start new churches? How might such an expanded global imagination offer fresh perspectives on our ecumenical commitments?
To the serious pursuit of such theological questions in the interest of our “worldwide nature” I say a resounding yes.