Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Middle-class Methodists and church growth/decline

A couple of years ago, Dr. Dana L. Robert and I wrote an article about the growth of The United Methodist Church around the world.  In the article, we tried to bring a comparative perspective to the differing rates of church growth or decline globally.  Our point was that comparisons between the rate of growth and decline in different countries cannot always be taken at face value.  There are a host of factors that may go in to explaining the growth or decline of United Methodism, and growth or decline cannot be used as a simple indicator that United Methodism in one country is doing things "right" while United Methodism in another country is doing things "wrong."

We made that point by comparing the growth or decline of United Methodism by country to the growth and decline of other denominations, but I was reminded of our article yesterday when I saw another comparison: a comparison between the decline of United Methodists as a percentage of the US population and the decline of the middle class as a percentage of the US population.  Laura Felleman, a UMC elder in Nebraska, posted these charts, showing a 99% correlation between the decline in the middle class in the US and the decline in United Methodism.  Rev. Felleman does not make it clear what data sources she is using to generate the graphs, but the results are striking.

By the 20th century, Methodism (and subsequently United Methodism) had become largely a middle-class religious affiliation in the United States, and it has remained that way ever since.  Yet it is not only in the United States where United Methodism is associated with middle class status, a point Dr. Robert and I raise in our article.  Moreover, in much of the world, the middle class is growing.  Thus, growing United Methodism in Africa, for instance, makes sense sociologically against the background of a growing African middle class.  As the middle-class social niche of the church grows or contracts, that either furthers or limits the church's ability to grow.

I am not claiming that the standing of a country's middle class is the only item determining the growth or decline of United Methodism.  Yet, as Rev. Felleman reminds us, our analysis of the fate of the church, especially in making cross-national comparisons, would be incomplete without this data.

P. S. If anyone knows of good, reliable, cross-national data on the change in countries' middle classes, I would be interested in looking at it to determine the amount of correlation between change in a country's middle class and change in a country's United Methodist population.  Please respond in the comments below if you can suggest such a data source.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Congolese Conferences and Their Partners

United Methodist News Service recently published an article on the UMC Connections blog about a ministry planning session conducted by the Central Congo Episcopal Area.  The content of the article reports good, collaborative planning for mission by the Central Congo Episcopal Area and other denominational entities.  I do have a question about a term used in the article, though.  The article refers to collaborative planning between two Congolese Annual Conferences and their "overseas partners."  Yet, when one looks at the list of partners involved, the majority are denominational boards and agencies: the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries,  the United Methodist Committee on Relief,  United Methodist Women,  and the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.  Only one partner is another Annual Conference located overseas from the Congo Annual Conferences: the Peninsula-Delaware Annual (regional) Conference in the United States.

I raise this point because, in my mind, the language used implies an inequality between how we view Annual Conferences in the United States and how we view those overseas.  If an article was written about an American Annual Conference making ministry plans in cooperation with GBGM, UMCOR, UMW, and GBOD, we wouldn't refer to them as "national partners."  We would refer to them as "denominational agencies" or something similar.  Even if another Annual Conference were involved, I think the term we would use would still be something like "denominational partners."  Referring to GBGM, UMCOR, UMW, and GBOD as "overseas partners" of Annual Conferences in Africa implies a linguistic and conceptual separation between these African Conferences and the denomination-wide ministries.  It implies that African Annual Conferences are less than fully entitled to receive from the resources of our connectional, denomination-wide boards and agencies.  It implies that they are Other, "over there," and that the act of partnering with connectional boards and agencies, which is natural for American Annual Conferences, is instead remarkable for African Annual Conferences.

Again, I'm glad that these two Congolese Annual Conferences are working with a variety of boards and agencies as well as the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference.  I'm just suggesting that we need to pay attention to how we refer to such partnerships and consider what the language we use implies about our understanding of the connectional life of our denomination.

~Authored by David W. Scott

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Education and internationalism in the UMC

Two recent stories published by the UMC Giving website made me think about the relationship between education and internationalism in The United Methodist Church.  The first story shared reflections by three students at United Methodist-affiliated Africa University.  Each student was describing the positive aspects of their experiences at the school.  All three of them mentioned the international makeup of the student body, with students coming from all over the African continent.  The chance to interact with other Africans from other countries had been a meaningful and educational experience for these students.

The second story described study-abroad experiences by students at the eleven historical black colleges and universities (HBCU) that are supported by the UMC's Black College Fund.  The article also made mention of international students studying at these HBCUs.  Both students and administrators in the article commented on what a meaningful learning experience study abroad was and how it broadened students' horizons.

The ability to function as a global denomination is predicated on cross-cultural understanding.  These articles show that one of the ways in which the UMC promotes such cross-cultural understanding, both for its own benefit at the benefit of the world at large, is by supporting institutions of higher education.  These colleges and universities are often where United Methodists (and others) first form real relationships with people from other countries, relationships that lead to great understanding, acceptance, and potential collaboration for the kingdom of God.  These colleges and universities thus deserve support in prayers and financial giving from those who are committed to the UMC as a global denomination.  More information on supporting these connectional ministries can be found in the links above.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Methodists and Mandela

Following Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday this week, the United Methodist News Service ran a piece yesterday about the influence that Methodism had on Nelson Mandela and his influence on various United Methodist leaders.  Mandela benefitted from a good education provided by the autonomous Methodist Church in South Africa.  Mandela is not alone in the regard.  Many African (and Asian) leaders have been reared in the schools that Methodist  missionaries started.  The Methodist school system has been one of the great gifts from Western Methodists to Methodists elsewhere around the globe.

Yet Mandela shows that that gift is by no means a one-way gift.  The inspiration and testimony to truth and justice that Mandela proved to the rest of the world, Western Methodists included, shows that those in the West have received back from the gift of schools that they gave because of Christian faithfulness to others around the world.  I think that's what is most important to take from the UMNS piece - the reciprocal influences between Africa and the West.

That idea of reciprocity should be an important part of how we think about the global UMC.  Granted, the Methodist Church in South Africa is autonomous and not affiliated with the UMC.  Indeed, there is a UMC in South Africa with a complicated relationship to the Methodist Church in South Africa.  Yet the point remains - those United Methodists in the West must think not only about what they give in missions elsewhere around the globe, but what they receive.  Sometimes, as in the example of Nelson Mandela, it's quite a lot.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What can the UMC learn from British Methodists re-envisioning mission?

The Methodist Church in Britain held its annual conference over the last week.  One important decision to come out of that conference was to fully integrate the Methodist Missionary Society into the rest of the denomination.  In its announcement about the move, the church stated, "We have a unique opportunity to assert the understanding that the mission of the Church is one in which work at home and overseas is essentially the same mission."  David Friswell, Leader of World Church Relationships, added that "God's mission [is] one mission for all people wherever they call home." This move shows a dramatic move away from a colonial, metropole-missions or center-periphery understanding of the Methodist Church in Britain.  In this decision, the Methodist Conference asserts the equality (and similarity) of all areas of mission and ministry for the church.

The United Methodist Church still draws distinctions between its work in the United States and elsewhere around the globe in several ways.  Perhaps most obvious are the differences between the Central Conferences and the U.S.-based Jurisdictions.  Like the Methodist Church in Britain up until this point, the structure of the denomination's agencies also reflects a colonial privileging of the home body.  Most denominational agencies, while not operating entirely in the U.S., are nonetheless heavily U.S.-focused.  The UMC maintains a General Board of Global Ministries, tasked with furthering the church's work around the world.

What would it mean for the UMC to affirm along with the Methodist Church in Britain that "God's mission is one mission for all people wherever they call home?"  How would such an affirmation not only change our structures but change the ways in which we think about the relationships between the various branches of the UMC?  How would it change our understanding of mission and ministry?

These are all questions worth asking, and the Methodist Church in Britain's decision should be taken as an occasion for United Methodists to ask themselves those questions.

Friday, July 12, 2013

United Nations World Population Day

For those of you who (like me) missed it, yesterday was United Nations World Population Day.  In honor of the day, Rev. Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson, professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and an ordained United Methodist elder, wrote this blog post raising questions about reproduction, our views of women, and how we read the Bible.

Rev. Dr. Anderson's post raises two points that I think are relevant to the global nature of The United Methodist Church.  First, it's another example of that social issues are out there crying for the application of Christian principles and compassion.  The role of women and the issues surrounding reproduction may vary from country to country, but they are nonetheless global social issues.  The church's response to them must take into account these local differences, but it can perhaps also benefit in some way from global coordination.

Second, Rev. Dr. Anderson's post reminds us of the ways in which our heritage as Christians and as Methodists can assist us in responding to those issues.  Rev. Dr. Anderson addresses not just our social attitudes in general but how we read the Bible.  As Methodists, the Bible is the crucial foundation of our theology.  We do, as Rev. Dr. Anderson points out, bring interpretive lenses to the Bible, but that does not mean the we can neglect it.  Instead, the Bible must be an important resource in whatever issues the church engages with around the world.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

US-Finland-Zimbabwe UMC Water Partnership

Here's another great example of the type of international collaborative ministry that's made possible through The United Methodist Church:  This article describes a partnership between UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief), Pittsburgh-area UMC churches, the UMC of Finland, the UMC of Zimbabwe, and local Zimbabwean partners to make clean water more readily available in the Zimbabwean town of Nyadire.

One of the things that makes this story an especially good example of the types of partnerships that are possible through the UMC as a global organization is that it's not just a two-pole, one-way arrangement.  Of course, countries giving assistance are never solely givers - they receive from the process too.  But this instance of international ministry partnership shows that when partners come together from several places all around the world - the US, Finland, Zimbabwe - they can accomplish more than when one group tries to do alone something for another group.

Moreover, this example of international ministry partnership was made possible by the additional participation of UMCOR, the denominational agency.  Thus, there's really four United Methodist partners here - Zimbabweans, Finns, Americans, and the denomination as a whole, which ideally transcends national boundaries.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

American Independence Day & Lithuanian Statehood Day

Thursday was the Fourth of July, aka Independence Day in the United States, the biggest patriotic festival of the year.  The holiday commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence (from Britain) on July 4, 1776.  Americans across the country celebrated with fireworks, speeches, music, backyard cookouts (featuring classic American food such as hamburgers and sweet corn), and lots of American flags.

Today is the sixth of July, aka Statehood Day in Lithuania.  Statehood Day commemorates the coronation of King Mindaugas, the only king of Lithuania, in 1253.  It's only one of three holidays commemorating important beginnings for the Lithuanian nation (the others recognize the restoration of the nation in 1918 and 1990), but it will nevertheless be observed by speeches, music, celebration, and flags, not that differently from Independence Day in America.

There are United Methodists in both countries.  I know that many United Methodists in the United States will hear Independence Day referenced in their worship services on Sunday.  Some United Methodist congregations will no doubt sing various patriotic hymns as part of the worship, and American flags will be in the sanctuaries of many American United Methodist Churches.  While I'm less certain of this, I suspect that Statehood Day may get some references in United Methodist worship in Lithuania this coming Sunday as well.  Mindaugas was the first Lithuanian ruler to convert to Christianity, though he (like most medieval rulers) was not a paragon of Christian virtue.  While Lithuanian United Methodists won't be singing, "God Bless America," that doesn't mean they won't be proud of their country and happy to celebrate it.

The juxtaposition of these two national holidays and the roles that they play in the lives of United Methodists in both countries raise some questions about the global nature of The United Methodist Church.  How does the UMC as a global church encompass the patriotic fervor of citizens of a host of nations?  How does it affirm the importance of national community while simultaneously reminding United Methodists that we are all ultimately citizens of heaven first and foremost?  How does United Methodism accommodate itself to national settings while at the same time forging international connections and religious bonds?  These questions are not easy to answer, but as you're in worship this Sunday, wherever that may be, spend a few minutes considering them.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Listening to African wisdom

Bishop Michael J. Coyner of the Indiana Conference wrote a recent article in the United Methodist Reporter entitled "Wisdom from Africa."  In this article, Coyner describes things he has learned from his African episcopal colleagues about what makes churches grow.  Coyner mentions prayer, love, and indigenous worship.  I think such an article, which makes it clear that American United Methodists have things to learn from United Methodists in Africa (and elsewhere around the world) is a good first step toward conceiving of a more reciprocal relationship between the various national branches of The United Methodist Church.  If the UMC is to be a global church, we must not think that Americans are always the ones with the knowledge or wisdom that must be sharing with the rest of the world.  The exchange of ideas must go both ways.

Yet, while Coyner's article is a good first step, I would suggest there is a necessary second step that must happen for relationships between different nationalities of United Methodists to be truly reciprocal.  Coyner's article is about what African wisdom might contribute to the conversation on a very American United Methodist concern: the decline in church membership.  Thus, the article describes African answers to American questions.  While it's good to look to Africans for their wisdom and their answers, if we are to get to true reciprocity, we must not only listen to African wisdom as it relates to American questions, but to listen when Africans tell us their answers to their own questions.  A truly reciprocal relationship lets both parties share what's on their hearts without either party doing all the talking or setting all of the agenda.  Coyner's article is a good step in that direction.  Let the rest of us keeping stepping toward that goal of reciprocity.