Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Plan now: UMCOM hosting ICT4D conference in September

As we stand on the precipice of 2014, I want to recommend a possible conference for those of you who are in local churches but interested in using technology to strengthen and expand your global connections.  It's the Game Changers Summit: "Dreamers and doers gather to harness the power of technology."  It's being hosted as part of the Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) project of United Methodist Communications.  You can read more about it in the press release or see the main points below.

What's the point of this conference?
The ICT4D movement is a larger movement extending beyond the UMC that looks to use new technologies like cell phone, solar batteries, e-readers, and other devices to help solve social, health, agricultural, and economic development issues.  Technology isn't seen as the sole solution; more traditional forms of development work are needed along side.  Nevertheless, technology is seen as an invaluable asset in finding creative solutions to problems.  Many UMC congregations are already in partnership with each other and other organizations to do the very type of development work (often in Africa or the Philippines) that could be aided by the strategic incorporation of appropriate technology.  This conference seeks to help them do that.

Who is this conference aimed at?
While the sort of international ministry partnerships that are necessary to do successful development work involve partners from the United States, Africa, the Philippines, and sometimes Europe or elsewhere, this conference seems geared toward the American partners in those relationships.  Moreover, the conference is focused specifically on local churches rather than conferences or boards and agencies.  Nevertheless, the conference will be most useful for local churches who already have international ministry partnerships on development issues, as technology is a way to advance those partnerships, not form them.

When and where will the conference be?
The conference will be September 3-5, 2014, in Nashville.

How can I sign up?
Registration is not yet available for the conference, so keep checking back at the conference website through the spring.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Doug Tzan on Grace Upon Grace: Our Missional Heritage

Today's post is the sixth in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Douglas D. Tzan, Visiting Professor of Church History at Wesley Theological Seminary and Assistant Pastor at St. Paul's UMC, Sykesville, MD.  Dr. Tzan is responding to the initial comment on the third section of the document, "Our Missional Heritage," written by Dr. Luther Oconer.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I am pleased to join with colleagues and friends in this exploration of the mission document of The United Methodist Church, “Grace Upon Grace,” and to build on Luther Oconer’s observations on the section entitled “Our Missional Heritage.” Oconor points out the potential for a greater emphasis on “the Wesleyan synergistic understanding of grace” in the document. What stands out most to me is the historiography implicit in this mission statement and its implications for mission.

Both the original document and Oconer highlight that early Methodists, the United Brethren in Christ, and the Evangelical Association were people with a strong missional identity. As Oconer notes, “They saw themselves as missionaries, and their respective denominations as missionary enterprises.” Oconer further notes that the inclusion of names such as Barbara Heck and Harry Hosier in the list of evangelistic pioneers does not fully illustrate the diversity of the United Methodist heritage.

This selection of names, however, does illustrate the guiding historical narrative of “Grace Upon Grace.” The Wesley brothers are mentioned first, for according to this story, “this revival began in eighteenth century England” under their leadership.[1] This English religious movement then flourished in a heroic era in North America at the time of the American Revolution and early Republic, as all the names listed lived during that period. After this golden age, little of interest in the U.S. occurred, as later history of the church is glossed over. From the U.S., however, this movement spread around the world, and this worldwide expansion is treated in subsequent paragraphs.

One need not be a postmodern critic of metanarratives to mark the problems with this story. It recounts a popular myth of United Methodist origins in which Wesley was possessed with a kind of “apostolic genius” that transformed religious life in England and early America.[2] Without denying Wesley’s importance to evangelical Christianity or the stunning growth of Methodism in early America, this narrative obscures, even as it illumines. In this story, the Moravians and Continental sources of Methodist piety disappear. The entire Evangelical United Brethren tradition is recast as a part of an English revival movement. The religious heritage and traditions of African-Americans before they were introduced to Methodism are also ignored, to say nothing of the religious traditions of countless other cultures that make up United Methodism today.

The other historiographic assumption employed by “Grace Upon Grace” is the way it characterizes United Methodist identity. The term most often employed to describe United Methodism is “revival.” Methodism is defined as a “major Christian revival” in England and a “spiritual awakening in North America.”[3] At times “revival” is used as a synonym for the denomination: “The revival spread with amazing speed” and “shook the land.”[4] Similarly, the United Brethren in Christ and Evangelical Association are described as “revival movements, increasingly important in American life.”[5] Even divisions and church unions are cast as dimensions of revivalism, as these events are described as “the revival movement…experiencing the pain and joy of its failures and its successes.”[6]

While participation in a widespread revival movement was an important part of early United Methodist history in England and United States, it was not the only feature. Looking at the entire United Methodist mission tradition, it is far from certain that revival best characterizes three centuries of United Methodist mission history. United Methodist practices of mission have taken on many shapes and have been nurtured by different spiritualties, emphases, and practices. At times those differences have been the source of conflict.[7] Other times different missional practices have complemented each other well. Itinerant circuit riders could only lead revivals in early America because they were served by the hospitality and spiritual nurture provided by many a Methodist “mother in Israel.”[8] Additional research is needed to illumine the many dimensions of the United Methodist missionary tradition and plumb ways that tradition can inform contemporary mission.

I see two problematic theological issues that emerge from historiography of United Methodism as articulated in “Grace Upon Grace.” First, it does not encourage contextualization of mission. In this vision, missions should seek only to rekindle Wesley’s charisma in a new context. Early American Methodists, however, certainly did not believe their mission was to recreate Wesley’s English Methodism. In fact, they grew even as they became less firmly tied to Wesley’s legacy. They drew on the resources of their young tradition, but also adapted and expanded it to a new context.[9]

Second, this narrative undermines the thesis of the mission statement, that mission emerges out of the fullness of God’s grace. A view of United Methodist history that embraces all dimensions of grace would be concerned with more than just moments of revival when the justifying message of redemption in Jesus Christ is received by a person or community. The work of God’s prevenient grace in the lives of people and communities is also relevant. As such, the religious and cultural factors that shape the reception of United Methodism become pertinent. Likewise, the sanctifying and outworking influence of the gospel in lives and cultures long after revival fires have cooled also matters.

The strength of “Grace Upon Grace” is its grounding of mission in an emphasis on God’s mission of grace in the world, not its historiography. God’s mission has taken different forms through United Methodist history and will continue to do so in the future. That mission will be better served by cultivating among United Methodists a renewed sense of missional identity rooted in an expansive understanding of God’s grace.



[1] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 10
[2] See, for example, Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 103.
[3] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 10
[4] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 14
[5] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 15
[6] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 15
[7] Robert J. Harman, From Missions to Mission: The History of Mission of The United Methodist Church, 1968-2000 (New York: General Board of Global Ministries, 2005), 178-183; H. T. Maclin, "Historical Perspectives of the Mission Society," in World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit, edited by Darrell L. Whiteman, & Gerald H. Anderson (Franklin, TN: Providence House, 2009), 213-221
[8] John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists (New York: Oxford Universiry Press, 2009), 98-99, 271
[9] See, for example, Russell E. Richey, "Early American Methodism," in The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism, edited by Jason E. Vickers, 44-62 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 44

Friday, December 20, 2013

Find-A-Church, Advent, and the global-local tension

Contemporary Americans often like to pretend that the Internet has ushered in some sort of utopic, post-geographic future.  While technology does substantially reshape how we connect across distance (this blog being just one example), it is far from erasing the relevance of geography.  Location still matters, sometimes despite technology and sometimes because it shapes how we can access technology.  That's why it's interesting to reflect on a recent news story about efforts to expand the UMC's Find-A-Church online directory beyond the United States.

On the one hand, the expansion of Find-A-Church beyond US borders seems to be a triumph of technology over geography.  By incorporating all of the United Methodist world into this online portal, the website seems to be erasing the geographic distinctions that so often plague our denominations.  Find-A-Church will no longer will be limited to the US center and marginalize the rest of the world.  That's a good development and represents an appropriate extension of church resources to serve the entire connection and not just the US.

Yet a global Find-A-Church does not end geography within the UMC.  Beyond issues of access or participation, even a perfectly comprehensive and universally accessible list of UMC churches would not end geography.  That's because the entire point of Find-A-Church is to find local congregations, which are what make up the UMC.  The connection may be a global thing that transcends geography, but we experience in most in local ways.  Efforts to institute online communion or other forms of internet church aside, there is no "global church" in the sense of a corporate worshiping fellowship.  The global church only exists in and through its local congregations.

Perhaps that's a good thing to reflect on in this Advent seasons when we remember the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  God does exist beyond any local instance, but God still recognized the importance of taking on a local body in the form of a baby born in a manager.  Moreover, God becoming local was not a problem for our view of God; it solved the problem of our sin and alienation from God.  Local churches can sometimes be frustrating places because they're where we come face to face with other pressing-on-to-perfection-but-by-no-means-there-yet Christians.  It can be tempting to retreat to platitudes about the world-wide fellowship of believers as an alternative to doing the hard work of getting along with fellow congregants.  Yet Advent and Find-A-Church both remind us that the local is where we meet God.  May you meet God anew in your local church this Christmas time.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jesus is every race

Today's post is by guest blogger William P. Payne, the Harlan and Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions at Ashland Theological Seminary.

In reference to the misguided “Jesus was White” comment, I affirm that God is always culture-specific when God interacts with humans. The incarnation illustrates this truth. Historically, Jesus came as a Jew, a tangible human with a real body that contained DNA. By American standards, Semites are classified as White because the term refers to "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa." Granted, such categories diminish ethnic diversity and build upon a false premise. For instance, how much does a Romani (Gypsy) have in common with an Afrikaner or an Albanian with an Arab? Still, the social construction of race persists and must be acknowledge as an unfortunate fact.

Fortuitously, the church proclaims that Christ is not limited by social constraints or bound by race categories. That is why he takes on the likeness of a variety of peoples when the gospel is properly incarnated in their midst. In the same way that Paul adopted a missionary strategy to become all things to all people (I Cor 9:19-23), Jesus enters into the cultural reality of all peoples when the church adopts culture-specific methods of witnessing to him. He is not foreign to any people! Furthermore, no one should have to cross cultural boundaries to encounter him. He is Asian & African, Latino & mulatto.

Since Jesus is a personal Savior, it is OK for people to think of him in culture-specific ways as long as they do not attempt to restrict Christ to their culture or require others to convert to their enculturated Christ in order to have a relationship with him. At the same time, because the UMC attempts to make disciples of all people groups (Matt 28:19), we want people of every ethnic, national, and racial category to have an authentic, culture specific encounter with the risen Lord.

In sum, since God is culture specific in his dealings with humanity, the UMC needs to take the concept of culture seriously without falling into the sin of ethnocentrism. Regardless, UM clergy can never be satisfied with a monocultural Christ because we are in the business of giving Christ away as we actively seek to translate him into other cultural categories in word and deed.

Merry Christmas to all who wonder after the incarnation.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Luther Oconer on Grace Upon Grace: Our Missional Heritage

Today's post is the fifth in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990) Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Luther J. Oconer, Assistant Professor of United Methodist Studies and Director of the Center for Evangelical United Brethren Heritage at United Theological Seminary.  Dr. Oconer is writing the initial comment on the third section of the document, "Our Missional Heritage."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section “Our Missional Heritage” traces the development of United Methodism on its journey as “Grace Upon Grace” through significant periods in its early history beginning from 1784 to a century afterwards.  It begins by highlighting the actions of the “God of grace” in mission, and the early Methodist people as recipients of God’s grace through mission as illustrated in the opening statement: “We, as United Methodists, were born in mission.” The statement highlights the important place of mission in early United Methodist history. As suggested in Paragraphs 11 and 12, early Methodists, and their United Brethren and Evangelical Association associates, were a missionary people. They saw themselves as missionaries, and their respective denominations as missionary enterprises, as implied in the mission statements of the Methodist Episcopal Church (in 1784) and the United Brethren in Christ (in 1812) noted in the same paragraphs and in Langford’s commentary.[1] For example, in the case of the Methodist Episcopal Church, nineteenth century Methodist historian Abel Stevens wrote:

"Though American Methodism was many years without a distinct missionary organization, it was owing to the fact that its whole Church organization was essentially a missionary scheme. It was, in fine, the great Home Mission enterprise of the north American continent, and its domestic work demanded all its resources of men and money."[2]

Early United Methodists were not mere recipients of God’s mission, they were also active co-participants in God’s mission. This is more faithful to the Wesleyan synergistic understanding of grace, of divine and human cooperation, which, unfortunately, was not pointed out in the section, even though it is supposed to be a narrative about “grace upon grace.” The beginning paragraphs overlooked the implication of God’s prevenient grace, that God’s grace enables human response. This oversight has adversely affected the framing of other of paragraphs in this section, which I will point out later.

Now something needs to be said about the names meant to represent the major pioneers of early United Methodism, which are listed in the beginning paragraph. While this is obviously a commendable attempt at inclusivity, the addition of Barbara Heck and Harry Hosier, unfortunately, not only do little to represent the diversity in early United Methodism, but also raises questions about other pioneers who were left out of the list. Probably, it would have been better if the framers of the document simply added to the commonly acknowledged pioneers Asbury, Otterbein, and Albright the words, “including a number of pioneering women, men, freed African-American slaves, and immigrants from the British Isles and Europe, helped evoke spiritual awakening in North America.”

Paragraph 13 then moves to discuss the theological content of early United Methodist participation in God’s mission. It is correct to highlight free grace since the emphasis on the universality of the Gospel has easily been a distinguishing mark of early Methodist preaching in the British Isles and North America.[3] Nonetheless, the way it is summarized here as “God’s grace free in all, free to all, free for all” is an unnecessary attempt to update Wesley’s language on the subject. It would have been much appropriate had the framers did not add “free to all,” and simply followed Wesley’s description in his sermon on “Free Grace”:  “the grace or love of God… free in all, and free for all.”[4]

After this, the statement proceeds to highlight the different manifestations of the same free grace through the mention of prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. However, I think the focus given to these three manifestations does not faithfully account for the theological content of early United Methodist preaching. While preachers did presuppose the different manifestations of grace in their preaching, they were much more interested on the end results brought about by these manifestations, namely: awakening, repentance, justification, new birth and entire sanctification. They preached the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ, who awakens us to repentance, justifies us, gives us new birth, and enables us to be perfected in love. Representing the theological content in this manner brings to the fore the God’s action-human response dynamic in Wesleyan soteriology, which is connected to the point I previously made above regarding the synergistic nature of God’s grace.[5]

After theological content, the section continues with Paragraph 14, which succinctly summarizes the phenomenal advance of early United Methodism and acknowledging its role as a revival movement, thereby making it the largest Christian denomination in the 1840s. Schisms and divisions, nevertheless, marred this growth, as shown in Paragraph 15. Paragraph 16 then moves with thanksgiving to God, joining Charles Wesley and a thousand tongues in singing, “The triumphs of his grace” for the victories and even setbacks noted in the narrative. The paragraph further adds another twist by mentioning the shift among early United Methodists in their “dependence upon God” to “human independence” by capitulating to “dubious cultural values.” This then reinforces my point about the need for the document to have made clear in its earlier paragraphs the human response element in grace since that can help the reader make more sense of this very important twist in the narrative. It is our “human independence” moments or times of resistance to God grace that led us to failures in our history.

These moments of “human independence,” furthermore, do not connect well with the conclusion in Paragraph 17, which closes the entire section with the beginning statement: “Grace creates mission; grace corrects mission.” Indeed, mission originates from God’s grace since mission is missio Dei. Accordingly, if we allow that mission is mission Dei or the mission of God, therefore it should not be subject to correction. What is really subject to correction is us.  When we yield to episodes of “human independence” as we participate in God’s mission, God’s grace moves to convict or correct us. Probably, the sentence would have been enhanced if it were worded differently: “Grace creates mission; we participate in this grace through mission; grace corrects us.”  Again, as I have suggested previously, this narrative would have been much faithful to our early United Methodist missional heritage had it explicitly highlighted this Wesleyan synergistic understanding of grace.

[1] For Langford’s commentary, See Thomas A. Langford “Study Companion,” Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of the United Methodist Church, John O. Gooch, ed. (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990), 12.
[2] Abel Stevens, The Centenary of American Methodism: A Sketch of its History, Theology, Practical System, and Success (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1866), 187; also quoted in Russell E. Richey, “Organizing for Missions: A Methodist Case Study,” in Daniel H. Bays and Grant Wacker, eds., Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 75.
[3] See, for example, Jason Vickers, “American Methodism: A Theological Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism, ed. Jason Vickers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 15.
[4] See John Wesley, Sermon 110, “Free Grace,” § 2, in Sermons III, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 3 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, CD-ROM edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976–).
[5] For an extensive treatment on Wesley’s soteriology, see, for example, Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 49-307.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The UMC and global health work

I'd like to pass along two recent news stories about global health partnerships that The United Methodist Church supports.  The first is a report by Donald E. Messer on the recent International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.  Messer is executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS and attended the conference. The second is a story about recent pledges to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.  The United Methodist Church was one of a number of partners pledging financial support of the fund.  Both of these stories demonstrate the UMC's important work on "improving health globally," one of the denomination's Four Areas of Focus for ministry.

These stories are not only important because they fit with this ministry focus.  They are also important for two things they teach us about the nature of ministry partnerships that seek to tackle global issues.  First, they teach us that such work really does involve international ministry partnerships.  It might be possible to read the story about the financial pledges to the Global Fund and think it was just a story about Western generosity to solve problems "over there."  But that's not how the fight to end AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria works.  It's not just a process of Westerners giving money.  It's a process of Westerners, Southerners, Easterners, people from all around the globe coming together and pooling their resources, knowledge, and expertise to create comprehensive, systemic solutions to these global health problems.  The necessary cooperation of and contribution by partners in many countries is especially well highlighted in the story about the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.  The congress was not a bunch of Westerners out to fix someone else's problems for them.  It was a collaborative approach by people from many backgrounds to fix a common problem.

Second, these stories teach us that, as important as international ministry partnerships within the UMC are, international ministry partnerships that reach beyond the UMC are important too.  Neither the Global Fund nor the International Congress are instances of United Methodists going it alone.  Instead, they are both stories about United Methodists working with others - other Christians, people from governments, business, and other secular backgrounds, and even people from other religions - to achieve shared goals.  Moreover, rather than weaken the Christian witness in The United Methodist Church's anti-disease efforts, these sorts of collaborations strengthen that Christian witness.  They make the church's efforts more effective and therefore a better witness, and they also make the church's efforts known to those outside of the church and therefore a wider witness.

When we read such stories of the church's work on global health or other global issues, we should do more than just pause to feel good about our generosity or stop to wonder why we're involved in "secular" efforts.  Instead, we should reflect on how carrying out God's mission in the world involves calling forth the gifts that God has given to all of God's people.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Elizabeth Tapia on Grace Upon Grace: Our Unifying Vision

Today's post is the fourth in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990) Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Elizabeth Tapia, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries.  Dr. Tapia is responding to a previous piece by Daniel Shin on the second section of the document, "Our Unifying Vision."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I am pondering this Advent season the meaning of God’s grace. Grace is grace, the unconditional love of God gracefully revealed in humble, tender, immigrant Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, a simple Palestinian woman named Mary received the grace-filled word that she would become the mother of the holy child to be named Jesus, the Son of God. Out of God’s abundant love for human kind and creation, God reveals, God graces, God loves. Like Mary, our souls magnify and rejoice in God our Savior. Like Joseph, we stand in awe and ready to savor God’s grace in the midst of uncertainty and fear.

Upon reading the section on “Our Unifying Vision” in the 1988 UMC mission statement, I pondered on what it means to be grasped by God’s abundant grace, what it means to be embraced by God’s self-giving,  what it means for the church to be “transformed by grace”, and what this “unifying vision” implies.  Who constitutes the “Our” in this phrase? How will a single vision unify a multi-diverse group of people called the United Methodists?  How does this unifying vision find multiple dimensions in the global nature of the church?  I have no ready answers.

The statement emphasizes the biblical rootedness that our unifying vision of mission is proclaiming and witnessing to the God of Grace in Christ, and that to “be in covenant with God is to be called in mission.” 

“We need a dual vision that focuses on Christ and our specific context,” writes Daniel Shin. I agree with his thought.  I like his emphasis on the universal scope of God’s mission and the varied manifestations of God’s mission depending on one’s specific and historical contexts. 

What I take away from this “Our Unifying Vision” section of a twenty-five year old mission document are the following:
1)    “The New Testament churches are communities in mission”.  (Grace upon Grace, Para. 4)
2)    “The people of God are wholly dependent upon the grace of God.”  (Grace upon Grace, Para. 3)
3)    “Jesus Christ defines grace: Immanuel, God with us as a person…grace is God’s way of being in the world, the expression of God’s own self.”  (Grace upon Grace, Para. 5).

Daniel Shin’s comment on the widening gap between the rich and the poor, ongoing slavery and “global colonization that adversely affect[s] women, children and the nonpersons of the world” is a strong call for reexamination of the motive, message, manner and process of churches’ participation in God’s mission. How are our present day church communities in mission? Are our churches like “field hospitals for broken souls,” to use the phrase of Pope Francis? Are all Spirit-led, singing and worshipping together in multiple languages, preaching the gospel in word and deed? Are all included, are all genuinely welcomed, with resources shared and no one in want?

And if we are God’s people wholly dependent upon the grace of God, why do we worry too much about who gets the credit, where the resources will come, what petitions will be calendared, whether one breaks or follow the Book of the Discipline in its entirety?  We follow Jesus, and the Jesus Vision is tied in with the Kindom Vision.

Our typhoon-devastated sisters and brothers in the Philippines, my homeland, lost everything. Those who survived this tragic disaster are spiritually, literally and wholly dependent on the grace of God. Many of them had not read this document, but I believe that through the praying-loving-sharing-giving acts of kindness of people around the world, including the United Methodist world-wide connection, they are embraced by God’s grace. Emmanuel, God-with-us, is not a noun, it is a verb.

Part of the message of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches that met recently in Busan Korea reads, “God our Creator is the source of all life. In the love of Jesus Christ and by the mercy of the Holy Spirit we, as a communion of the children of God, move together towards the fulfillment of the Kingdom. Seeking grace from God we are called, in our diversity, to be just stewards of God’s creation.  This is the vision of the New Heaven and Earth, where Christ will ‘fill all in all’ (Eph 1:23)”.  From my Filipina Christian perspective, such an ecumenical and ecological move can unify believers in  envisioning, by God’s grace, a world filled with justice and peace.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

United Methodist colleges and the global connection

The United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) reported yesterday on the results of a survey sent to United Methodist-affiliated colleges and universities in the United States.  The survey asked about their interest in partnering with the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM).  Encouragingly, the survey found a good deal of interest on the part of United Methodist colleges and universities to be more involved in promoting and partnering in the global work of GBGM.

The survey asked about several forms of potential college/GBGM collaboration: alternative break trips, promoting missionary programs, student exchanges with Africa, and jointly developing courses about cross-cultural learning.  While I think all of these forms of collaboration are potentially exciting, I want to praise the last two in particular.  (Incidentally, while the majority of survey respondents were in favor of all of these options, the last two received the fewest positive responses.)

I think student exchanges with Africa and courses about cross-cultural learning have the potential to greatly benefit both students at United Methodists institutions of higher education and The United Methodist Church's efforts to become a coherent and equitable global denomination.  Earlier today, in my job as a professor, I listened to a presentation by the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College.  The presentation summarized what components of a college education the Center had found had the greatest impact on student learning during college.  One of those components was "Interactional Diversity" - interacting with people whose economic, social, racial, ethnic, political, religious, or personal backgrounds were different from one's own.  Giving students at American United Methodist colleges and universities opportunities to interact with others of different backgrounds through student exchanges with African colleges and universities and through coursework focused on cross-cultural learning seems like it would directly provide students with the types of experiences that research has shown promote student learning.

At the same time, these experiences can also benefit the UMC as a whole, not just individual students.  Certainly, not all students at UMC-related schools are themselves United Methodists, nor would all of the students who might participate in these programs be United Methodist.  Nevertheless, by providing at least some United Methodist students the skills to learn from others of different cultures or, even better, the opportunity to travel from the United States to Africa or vice versa and study with United Methodists from other cultures, we would be developing members of the UMC that have the cross-cultural skills necessary to negotiate the tricky terrain of crafting a global denomination.

Certainly, building a global UMC requires many partners collaborating on many projects.  I am encouraged, though, that American and perhaps African UMC-related colleges and universities are exploring more ways to partner with the GBGM.  Such partnerships can only bring good results for students, for the church, and ultimately for the world.