Friday, August 30, 2013

Hendrik Pieterse on a Connectional Theological Imagination

I have referred readers to articles in Methodist Review in previous posts, and I'd like to do so again today.  As great a format as blogs are for fostering discussion, no one's going to read a 23-page long blog.  But sometimes there are things worth discussing that take 23 pages to say.  One such thing worth discussing in Dr. Hendrik Pieterse's piece in Methodist Review from early this year entitled "A Worldwide United Methodist Church? Soundings Toward a Connectional Theological Imagination."  In it, Pieterse asserts that we need to reject center-periphery thinking in the church that privileges the United States as the center of the UMC and everywhere else as less-important periphery.  Instead, he suggests, we need to form mutual, reciprocal relationships through our connectional system.  These suggests are certainly in line with other things posted in this blog, but said in a much more thorough and (hopefully) theologically persuasive way.

The article is available freely online, though accessing it does require the creation of a login for the Methodist Review's site.  I recommend you read it and the other fine work put out by the Methodist Review.  For other articles by the Methodist Review, see www.methodistreview.org/index.php/mr/issue/archive.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The March on Washington & King's global vision

As this rundown of recent news stories shows, there's been a lot of been a lot of excitement leading up to the 50th anniversary today of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  The coverage of the anniversary has been a mix of looking back, assessing the current state of racial equality in the United States, and looking forward to how to continue the civil rights movement in a new era.

Much of the coverage has, appropriately, been very America-focused.  It has examined the history and status of civil rights for African-Americans in the United States, which was the point of the March on Washington.  Yet as we're commemorating this event, we should remember that for King, the civil rights movement was not just about what happened in the United States.  This is the root of the oft-quotes King quote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  King meant the "where" in that quote at least in part in a literal, geographic sense.

King saw the civil rights movement as part of a global effort to combat the "triple evils" of racism, materialism, and militarism.  King understood that these triple evils were not just a problem in the United States, but also affected other countries and how the United States interacted with other countries.  Thus, King took an interest in the situation of the dalits in India, a situation he saw as marked by intra-Indian racism, and spoke out against the Vietnam War, a conflict he saw as driven by anti-Asian racism, capitalist materialist interests, and American militarism.

Moreover, part of what helped King in his civil rights crusade was the sense that how American behaved with regard to race mattered because it affected how America was perceived by other nations.  King emphasized that in order for the United States to be a great nation in the eyes of other nations, it had to live up to its promises and rhetoric of equality for all.  Many of the white political leaders that ended up agreeing with King found that argument persuasive.

The dream King preached about 50 years ago was a dream for the United States and the future of race relations in the United States.  But we would be wrong to remember King as a leader who was only concerned with what went on in the United States.  If King's dream was American, his vision of the beloved community to which God calls us was global.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Online missions as a form of connectionalism

Gavin Richardson recently wrote a piece for UMCommunications entitled "Engage in global mission without leaving your church."  In the post, Richardson suggests that churches can engage in online missions that "could include Skype calls, video testimonies, online prayer rooms and more."  Richardson's suggestions may strike some as provocative, but such a virtual model of missions can help stimulate discussion of what the nature of missions and connection are.

The most obvious way in which Richardson's proposed online missions model challenges traditional definitions of missions is in its understanding of space and travel.  Missions are usually seen as people going from one place to another.  (The term missions derives from a Latin word meaning "sent.")  In Richardson's online model, mission participants are not going from one place to another in a physical sense.  This change is yet another example of the way in which the Internet reshapes how we think about space.

Perhaps more significant, however, is the shift in understanding of the work that constitutes missions in the online model.  Traditional mission trips, especially the sort of short-term mission trips with which most church members are familiar, focus on "doing" something, whether that's leading a Vacation Bible School, building something, distributing food or medicine, etc.  Online missions can't involve the same sort of physical labor, since participants are not physically at the site of their mission work.

Instead, online missions focus on relational and spiritual work and fundraising.  Mission participants can use technology to form digitally-mediated relationships with long-term mission workers in the field.  They can pray for these mission workers and their work, and they can help raise money to support the workers and their work.  The relational aspect seems especially significant to me, as it suggests a relational or, in Methodist terms, connectional model of understanding missions.  The structure of Richardson's proposed online missions places relationship-building at the heart of the mission experience.  Support in prayer and finances flows from things learned through those relationships.  The consequence is to strengthen ministry partnerships across the connection.

Exposing congregants to such a relational model of missions is good way of helping them develop holistic understandings of what mission is.  For long-term, professional missionairies (as opposed to the short-term missionaries most churches send out), relationship-building is the key to any type of work in which they are engaged.  Moreover, such an understanding of missions reflects important theological and ethical principles such as the relational nature of God's self or the need for mutuality in human relationships.

The idea of taking a mission trip through the internet may seem like a strange one.  Yet churches would do well to try this model, especially as a means of fostering conversations about what mission means.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Indigenous leadership for UMC youth

Last week, I wrote a piece about an upcoming leadership development trip to England for American United Methodists.  I indicated that there may be good things for United Methodists to learn about leadership and discipleship by putting people from different cultural and national traditions into conversation with each other.

Over the weekend, the UM Reporter published an article about the upcoming 2013 Young Africa Leaders Summit.  This summit occurred in May and is the first of four such annual summits.  Its purpose is to help young African leaders in The United Methodist Church learn principles of leadership indigenous to the cultural of the Nilotic sub-Saharan African people.

The summits in Africa are just the first of leadership summits for young United Methodists around the globe.  The Philippines will be hosting a summit in October, and plans are in the works for similar summits in Europe and the United States as well.

While this is not yet the cross-continental leadership work I suggested in my piece last week, I think such youth leadership summits are an excellent step for United Methodists for several reasons.  First, while they're not yet global, they are international, and that feature will help participants to think about their national traditions and problems through new lenses, as I'd hoped for last week.  Second, the conferences seem designed to demonstrate to youth that there's more than one way (i.e., the white, Western way) to think about leadership.  Third, going along with that, the conferences are dedicated to developing previously ignored indigenous traditions of leadership.

All of this exploration of various understandings of leadership can only be good for the UMC, for when the church calls out to its members for leadership, voices from all of God's people will be better prepared to answer that call with the unique wisdom with which God has gifted them.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Learning Wesleyan Leadership in England

The General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) is sponsoring a "Wesleyan Pilgrimage" to England next July.  The 10-day trip promises to focus on "An Immersion in Wesleyan Leadership."  The trip will visit sites associated with John and Charles Wesley and the origins of the Methodist movement in an attempt to learn principles of leadership that the Wesleys employed.

This trip follows up from a similar trip that six young-adult UMC clergy from the United States took in 2012.  A video released by GBOD chronicles that trip.  In the video, an explicit connection is made between the purpose for learning through the trip and the membership decline of the UMC in the United States.  The participants talk about the pressure as young adult pastors to turn around the denomination and how the trip renewed and encouraged them in their ministry.

The strategy of looking back to one's roots to solve present problems is age old.  Thus, an approach that tries to solve the membership woes of the contemporary UMC in the United States is not surprising.  Another frequent approach to try to solve the membership problems of the church in the United States is to look at branches of the UMC elsewhere around the world where numbers are increasing, deduce lessons from those countries, and then try to apply them to the United States.  Both approaches have their pitfalls but can help Americans to think outside their own cultural matrices.

What struck me as I was watching the video is how infrequently we try to combine these two strategies.  The six clergypersons on the trip were all serving in the United States (though one was originally from Kenya).  They were asking our British heritage questions about their American context and then trying to hear the answers from their American perspectives.  But what would it look like if Americans, Africans, Europeans, and Asians were to go on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Methodism to learn together?  How might the answers that John Wesley provides to the problems of the church in the United States sound different when given from a Zimbabwean perspective?  Or what might the Oxford Club have to say to Russian Methodists through Filipino voices?  Looking to our past and looking to our sisters and brothers around the world for advice about the problems we face are sound strategies.  We should remember that they can be combined and, indeed, may be richer when they are.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Visitor Facilities Planned for Oldest Methodist Building in the World

As I've mentioned before, history is one of the important threads that ties Methodists (United or not) around the world to each other.  This recent article describes new plans being laid at one of the most important historical sites in Methodism: the New Room in Bristol, the first building to be build by John Wesley specifically as a Methodist building.  The New Room is seeking funds from the British government (through their Heritage Lottery Fund) to construct a new three-story building adjacent to the New Room.  This new building will house archives, a library, a lecture hall, a kitchen, and an elevator.  The project will allow more people to visit and learn Methodist history at the New Room.

The project seems like a good example of well-laid plans to make improvements that will expand people's access to Methodist history.  The new building serves good purposes and is being designed to fit with its settings.  Ironically, though, by building a new building at the site, the plans also change that history a bit.  Nevertheless, that's not necessarily a problem.  It's more like the Heisenberg principle of historical preservation: it's impossible to both allow people to observe a historical site and keep it exactly the way it is.

For Methodists who want to use the New Room as a way to continue to teach about Methodism and help Methodists form a Methodist identity, access trumps lack of change.  I think that's as it should be too.  If the past is to be of service to the present, it must be accessible by the present.  Sometimes, that means telling stories, writing histories, and preserving documents.  Sometimes it means building a new building for visitors.  While the second may seem more intrusive upon the past, that doesn't mean it can't be a good idea if done well.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Technology limitations and the global church

Yesterday, I blogged about a couple of stories of United Methodists coming together in partnership to successfully deploy technology to further ministry in Africa.  Today, I'd like to take a look at some of the limitations of technology as a ministry tool in Africa and elsewhere around the world.

This reflection was inspired by discovering that UM Communications offers on online course in "United Methodism 101."  The course includes four modules and costs $10.  In itself, that's great.  It's a good thing for people to have more opportunities to learn about our denomination, and this resource may be especially useful for new members in small churches without the ability to do an extensive new member training.

Nevertheless, seeing this course and thinking about its potential uses made me reflect on the way the Internet is often talked about in American circles: as this revolutionary technology that totally reshapes or even erases geography.  Yet while the internet does significantly reshape geography and people in disparate locations can interact, it does not erase geography.

Geography still matters, even in the internet age, largely because geography is connected to access to the internet, as this series of visualizations nicely shows.  Africa is connected to the internet, but not nearly as connected as North America or Europe.  Thus, while online courses on United Methodism are a great resource for Americans and maybe Europeans, they're likely to be of limited use in promoting knowledge of the UMC in Africa.

Two other reasons why the internet is limited in its use to bring together United Methodists across the globe are language and cost.  This online course and much of the rest of the internet are in English.  While many United Methodists Africans, Asians, and Europeans do speak English, many do not.  English can only reach a limited audience.  Moreover, while $10 US is not that much for an American to spend on learning about Methodism, that price is much more expensive in a country with a significantly lower average annual income.

I'm not saying that this online course is bad, nor am I saying that the Internet is of no use in helping forge a global United Methodism.  I am saying, however, that as amazing as technology is, it is still limited in what it can do - limited in function, distribution, price, and access.  United Methodists should use technology to build global connectionalism, but they should also be aware of its limitations.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Technology successes and the global church

This week, I'm going to write two posts about the possibilities and limitations of technology in helping to foster ministry and collaboration in the global UMC.  This first post will focus on a couple of successful implementations of technology.

The first of these stories comes from Malawi.  There, United Methodist Communications and the Church of the Resurrection (Leawood, KS) sponsored a workshop on ways to use cell phones to facilitate communication for ministry purposes.  These tech solutions include the use of mass text messages to communicate (Frontline SMS), cell phones as a way to track medical data (Medic Mobile), and technologies to create more stable or widely available power supplies for cell phones and other devices (Inveneo and solar chargers).

The second story comes from Liberia, where the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), General Board of Discipleship (GBOD), United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH), and Gbarnga School of Theology are partnering together to distribute e-readers to theology school students.  These e-readers will come with a variety of texts necessary for pastoral training.  Despite limited electricity or internet access at Gbarnga, the project provides a better and cheaper method of making these training materials available than shipping traditional books.

Part of what makes these projects a success is that they rely on relatively cheap, widely available forms of technology.  The rate of cell phone usage in the developing world is actually greater than that in the developed world.  Even though e-readers are more expensive, at about $70/piece, they are still considerable below the price of a computer.

Another factor in making these projects a success is that the software or content necessary to use the devices is relatively cheap.  Frontline SMS and Medic Mobile are both free.  UMPH was able to make e-reader content available at substantially lower prices than normally available.

Finally, neither of these projects requires significant infrastructure to support it.  Cell phones run on an existing private infrastructure.  The e-readers can be used without continuous internet access or electrical supply.  Using these devices doesn't depend upon maintaining a fragile or expensive system.

Tomorrow, I'll look at a form of technology less likely to be implemented as a form of connection building and examine some of the limits of technology-driven global partnerships.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Green roofs and Methodist earth care

This news article reported recently on how the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC, owned by the General Board of Church and Society and inhabited by several United Methodist and other Protestant groups, installed a green roof early last month.  Green roofs, that is, roofs covered with a variety of grasses and other plants, are a growing trend in urban architecture.  They are touted as an environmental benefit by reducing heating and cooling costs, reducing run-off water, and reducing pollutants entering the water system.

By installing this roof, GBCS is witnessing to the importance of the environment, not just as a local Washington issue, or even a national issue, but a global issue.  Installing a green roof on one building may seem like a small thing, but it contributes to making a difference on a much bigger issue, just as a $10 donation to Imagine No Malaria may seem like a small thing, but contributes to making a difference on a much bigger issue.

Of course, while Scandinavian members of the UMC would probably applaud GBCS's desire to care for the environment, they would find green roofs to be nothing new.  They've been using green roofs (sometimes with goats on them!) for centuries, as these photos show.