Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas traditions come from around the world

UMC.org recently ran a story about the increasing popularity of the Las Posadas tradition from Mexico in the United States.  While this may be a new tradition for many in the United States, I believe it fits with and deserves a place in the American heritage of Christmas as a blending of traditions from all around the world.

Many traditional American images of Christmas come from England (carols, figgy pudding, roast goose, etc.) or at least presume a northern climate (snow, fir trees).  But Christmas has long been a global celebration, both in that it is celebrated around the globe and that elements of Christmas tradition are transmitted around the globe.

Wherever it's celebrated, the Christmas story is about something that happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago.  In the last 2,000 years, various countries have added to common Christmas traditions around the world.  Germany gave us the practice of Christmas trees.  Turkey gave us St. Nicholas, and then the USA turned him into Santa Claus.  Bohemia brought us Good King Wenceslaus, and Russia gave us the Nutcracker ballet.  Stollen, fruitcake, and various Christmas cookies have spread out from their central and eastern European homes.  Lights and gifts are traditions that are indigenous to everywhere, and the tradition of making nativity scenes or other artwork that depicts the Christmas story is a global tradition as well.

Certainly, in Christmas as in other areas of culture, there's always the tension between preserving indigenous traditions and welcoming new traditions.  Will cookies displace puto bumbong in the Philippines, or is there room for both?  For Americans, while preserving traditions is important, we would do well to remember that our traditions are always already borrowed and blended.  And in that tradition of blending, there's always room for more.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hendrik Pieterse: Make Disciples, Transform the World: Reflections on United Methodist Mission (Pt. 2)

Today's post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  Dr. Pieterse contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.

Given the danger of focusing too much on human initiative in mission, as I outlined in my last post, what should we do, then? For a denomination wracked by anxiety over perceived decline, is the temptation to take matters into our own hands simply too great, unwittingly perpetuating the distortions of which Bosch and others have warned? Therefore, should we abandon the Matthean commission in favor of, say, Johannine or Lucan themes of mission and discipleship? Some have argued as much.

I, for one, am not yet persuaded. What we need, I think, is not a new mission statement but a coherent ecclesiology to give our disciple-making task the theological depth and missional flexibility fit for a global context. And to that end Grace Upon Grace and GBGM’s Theology of Mission, reflective of the ecumenical consensus summarized in Together Towards Life (TTL), offer important resources. I will mention just one or two.

We should pause to insist, however, that we dare not do our ecclesial reflection without substantive exegetical attention to Matt. 28:19-20—and to do so in the context of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. This exegetical work serves not only to resist the all-too-common habit of using “making disciples for the transformation of the world” as a free-floating mantra in denominational discourse, deliberation, and communication. It serves also—and more importantly—to anchor our mission statement in Matthew’s total account of Jesus’ identity and mission. Surprising, perhaps even transformative, insights might result.

Take, for example, the fact that Matthew intends chapter 28:19-20 as a summary of his Gospel. “[T]eaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (v. 19) thus lifts up the entirety of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, recounted in the preceding chapters, as the pattern of discipleship. The result lends discipleship a prophetic, even costly, edge. Comments Bosch: “To become a disciple is to be incorporated into God’s new community through baptism and to side with the poor and the oppressed. . . . This is what Jesus has commanded his disciples . . .”

As a further example, consider that verse 20, promising Christ’s abiding presence with the disciples is not intended as a spiritual “back up” for however the church happens to define its mission. Rather, it reminds the disciples of mission as divinely generated and directed gift and promise. The church’s mission depends upon and endures as long as Christ’s promised presence.[1] To use mission parlance: the church’s mission is always and forever a function of and a grateful response to the missio Dei. Does the absence of this concluding promise in the Discipline’s citation of the Great Commission confirm the above suspicion that United Methodists tend to sublimate the priority of grace in mission?

Which brings us, briefly, to Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission as resources in constructing a coherent missional ecclesiology. In both documents, and beautifully and succinctly in the latter, United Methodists encounter at least three crucial affirmations:

(1) Mission is always and irreversibly the work of the triune God. Mission is a function of the doctrine of God. Mission is missio Dei.

(2) This means the church’s mission is always and irreversibly derivative, as instrument and servant of the divine mission. Foregrounding the church’s disciple-making charge at the expense of the divine initiative contradicts the logic of the missio Dei and compromises the church’s call.

(3) Mission is a journey of discovery, surprise, repentance, and transformation, as the church encounters in the neighbor a divine initiative that always and irreversibly precedes even our loftiest visions and best-laid plans. Thus mission regains its sense of expectancy and unpredictability. And, as the GBGM document notes, the virtues appropriate to an ever-surprising divine initiative is “openness” and “gratitude,” as we “await the leading of the Spirit in ways not yet seen as God continues to work God’s purposes out in our own day in a new way.”

This understanding of mission, and these virtues of missional discipleship, we Methodists once knew well. Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission are ready resources in recovering these seminal affirmations, however counterintuitive to a denomination so anxious to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.

[1] David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16-20,” in Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, eds., The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church (Eerdmans, 2008), 84, 87-91.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Social Entrepreneurship in the Cote d'Ivoire UMW

Social entrepreneurship is an emerging trend within both the business and nonprofit worlds.  As a colleague of mine who teaches social entrepreneurship explains it, it's "doing good while doing well" - using business skills and tactics to solve social problems and generate revenue for charitable purposes.  There are a variety of examples of what falls under the umbrella of social entrepreneurship, everything from microlender Kiva to shoe-retailer TOMS to solar lamp manufacturer KARIBU.  The Ashoka Foundation is a great place to learn more about social entrepreneurship for those who are interested.

Now, it seems, United Methodist Women in Cote d'Ivoire are getting in on the game.  United Methodist News Service published an article recently on how members of the UMW in Cote d'Ivoire are partnering with social entrepreneur mobile phone company Pubcell CI to earn money for the UMW.  Members sign up for the mobile phone service, which then shares revenue from ads that are displayed on users' phones.

The UMW is looking to take the money it has earned and turn around and invest it in additional social entrepreneurial endeavors.  The UMW is using the money earned from Pubcell plus an additional $1,000 grant from Pubcell to support women who want to start business endeavors to provide a source of income so that they can lift themselves out of poverty.

A couple of generations ago, missions-led development in Africa looked like Western experts coming in to plan and execute large-scale infrastructure projects.  This story, though, represents the future of mission-led development in Africa: African women banding together to conduct their own small-scale social entrepreneurship projects.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hendrik Pieterse: Make Disciples, Transform the World: Reflections on United Methodist Mission (Pt. 1)

Today's post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  Dr. Pieterse contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.

In reading Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes (TTL) alongside Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission (the mission statement of the United Methodist mission agency), it is heartening to note the resonance of major themes in mission theology and practice over the past several decades: mission as initiative of the triune God; the church as missionary by nature and so servant of the missio Dei; mission as holistic (i.e., embracing “dynamism, justice, diversity, and transformation” within the divine aim of “abundant life” for all creation [TTL, 6, 7]), and more.

One difference is striking, though—the absence of the so-called Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) in the ecumenical statement. This passage seems to play no interpretive role in TTL; in fact, it appears nowhere in the document. Instead, Lucan and Johannine commission themes predominate. Now, arguments from silence are notoriously shaky; and so I will resist the temptation to divine the document’s motives for the omission. Yet, given that the Matthean commission serves as the basis for United Methodism’s mission statement (Book of Discipline, ¶¶120-21), its absence in TTL should at least prompt United Methodists to ponder the implications of the emerging ecumenical consensus about church and mission for our continued appeal to the Great Commission as an aspiring global denomination.

Most readers of this blog are well aware of the checkered, and often deeply troubling, career of the Great Commission in the history of Western mission, especially in its heyday during the late 1880s and into the first third of the twentieth century. Interpreted as a command to be obeyed (“Go!”), and riding the tide of Western social, economic, and political power in league with a taken-for-granted inferiority of the receiving cultures, Matt. 28:19-20 was often pressed in the service of Western Christian expansionism. At least in part bolstering this Western missionary chauvinism and its resultant cultural tone-deafness, as David Bosch has pointed out, was a gradual foregrounding of human autonomy and agency, reflecting the contest with divine providence and power in some quarters of Enlightenment thought. Tellingly for us Methodists, Bosch calls this foregrounding of human agency “the gradual ‘Arminianization’ of Protestantism, evidenced . . . by the rapid growth of (Arminian) Methodist and Baptist churches in the United States . . .”[1]

Now, we would surely want to debate Bosch’s claim. Yet it is worth noting that a significant cadre of United Methodist scholars have detected a similar dynamic at work in our current employment of the Matthean commission. The foregrounding of “making” language in the Discipline’s description of our mission (¶¶ 120-122), they complain, obscures the priority of grace in mission, focusing on “what ‘we’ do, rather than the primacy of God’s grace and power.” In so doing, and perhaps inevitably, disciple-making becomes a “system,” with disciples as “output” or “product.”[2]

Should it surprise, then, given the deep anxiety in the U.S. church, fuelled by decades-long rhetoric of decline, that the already tenuous depiction of the grace-faith dynamic noted above should deteriorate into a full-blown obsession with “fixing”—with rightsizing church structures, with membership metrics and “dashboards”?

Buried in this frenzy is our deep-seated Methodist commitment to an accountable faith—a discipleship that is actively guided and shaped in all its dimensions, from individual devotion to denominational structures, by the rhythms of the means of grace. As Randy Maddox and others have reminded us, at our best, “making disciples” is always the function of that delicate synergy of divine initiative and human response.[3]


[1] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts In Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991), 343. See also David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16-20,” in Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, eds., The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church (Eerdmans, 2008), 84, 87-91.
[2] Thomas Frank, Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the UMC (Abingdon, 2006), 163. See also Sarah Heaner Lancaster, “Our Mission Reconsidered: Do We Really ‘Make’ Disciples?”, Quarterly Review 23/2 (Summer 2003): 117-30.
[3] See Randy Maddox, “Wesley’s Prescription for “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ”: Insights for the TwentyFirst-Century Church,” Quarterly Review 23/1 (Spring 2003): 7-14.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sex, Money, and Episcopal Disobedience in the UMC

As part of the on-going debate within American United Methodism about homosexuality, questions have been raised about consequences in cases of episcopal disobedience when UMC bishops support or perform same-sex marriages.  Yet at the same time, another controversy about episcopal disobedience is brewing that may be just as divisive, though in different ways.  I refer to the case of African bishops potentially mismanaging or misusing church funds.  There have been three such cases within the last few years: West Angola Bishop Gaspar Joao Domingues' case was resolved, showing no wrong-doing on his part.  East Angola Bishop Jose Quipungo continues to work with GCFA to resolve his case.  Then there is the case of East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula, who has thus far refused to cooperate with an investigation into how he used $3/4 million dollars in denominational funds plus over $100,000 more from the Western Pennsylvania Conference.

In the American fight about same-sex marriage, proponents advocating sanctions for bishops can point directly to an item in the list of chargeable offenses (P. 2702) in the discipline: "conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies."  Two more of the items in the list [(e) and (f)] could also be germane.  Remarkably, however, misusing nearly a million dollars is not an item directly on the list of chargeable offenses.  While conservative American UMs used African votes in 2004 to write in specific mentions of the misdeeds related to sex that they were most concerned about, they did not return the favor and write in specific mentions of the financial misdeeds that might be most relevant to the African church. If Wandabula were ever convicted of embezzlement (which has not currently been alleged and is less likely in Uganda than the US, even if he had embezzled), he could be charged with that offense under church law.  Otherwise, if his case is not resolved and charges were brought, they would have to be under the general categories of (d) "failure to perform the work of the ministry" or (e) "disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church."

If Wandabula's case were to continue to be unresolved and eventually result in charges, such a judicial case would raise a whole host of tricky issues for the UMC.  In addition to the merits of the case, there would be questions about cross-cultural understandings and expectations, racial bias, and Americans' sense of superiority, all of which would have the potential to create wide rifts between the American and African branches of the church and rifts within these branches as well.  If the evidence against Wandabula were to be overwhelming, other African bishops would likely not support him, but if the case were not cut-and-dried, then there would be a process of taking sides between Wandabula and the predominantly US-controlled boards and agencies.  Indeed, if such a case happened and the evidence was not overwhelming against Wandabula, it could be just as divisive within the UMC as a whole as the current debate about same-sex marriage has been within the US.

Therefore, let us pray that Bishop Wandabula has a change of heart and works with GCFA to resolve the outstanding issues regarding his financial management.  Let American United Methodists be mindful, too, that same-sex ordination and marriage are not the only thorny issues out there with consequences for United Methodist polity and practice.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Arun Jones: Some Thoughts on Together towards Life

Today's post is written by Dr. Arun Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology.  Dr. Jones contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.

There is much to admire about this statement on mission and evangelism put out by the World Council of Churches.  Some of these admirable points are its emphasis on the importance of life in all its fullness; its ecological concerns; its holding together the necessity of evangelism and of working for justice, peace and freedom; its concern for the poor and the marginalized; its condemnation of idolatrous treatment in some quarters of current global capitalism (as an ideology and not, I assume, as an economic arrangement); its call to conduct mission and evangelism in humility and with respect for others.  Responding to the persisting importance of Pentecostalism and charismatic forms of Christianity around the world, it lays heavy stress on explicating (from a WCC point of view) the work of the Holy Spirit in mission and evangelism.  

I am going to respond to the treatment in Together Towards Life (TTL) of the topic of missions from and to the margins, which has become an interest of mine.  In this regard, I find TTL a rather frustrating work, because it wants to make the case for the importance of mission from the margins, while itself seemingly unaware of its location in the center of western Christian world.  Allow me to illustrate.

Early on (¶ 6) the document says that “mission has been understood as a movement taking place from the centre to the periphery, and from the privileged to the marginalized.”  This in itself is a highly debatable claim.  In the book of Acts, for example, while geographically the gospel goes from the Jewish center (Jerusalem) to the margins (Rome), in terms of the privileged in society the movement is exactly the opposite:  the apostles in Jerusalem are socially insignificant while those who hear and positively respond to the gospel at the geographic margins (the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, the priest of Zeus at Lystra, Lydia) are socially more privileged.  Geographic and social marginality do not always coincide.  And Christian history is full of marginal people – from slaves like Patrick in Ireland in the 5th century to 20th century catechists, teachers, Bible women, and ordinary lay Christians in the non-western world – who have been the keys to Christian mission.  So when TTL continues, “Now people at the margins are claiming their key role as agents of mission and affirming mission as transformation,” this actually is not a contemporary phenomenon.  In fact Christian mission has ordinarily been conducted by marginal persons.  It seems to me that the authors of TTL are unaware of how much their perspective of mission is molded by their location in the centers of Christian thought and practice.

My suspicions are not allayed in ¶ 37: “Mission from the margins calls for an understanding of the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, and local contextual realities.”  Actually, it is precisely those of us who are located in the centers of educational, political and economic power that try to understand the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, etc.  Those carrying on missions at the margins typically do not have access to the resources of the centers to engage in such analysis.  Thus Samuel Escobar writes, “These days in Spain, mission is taking place in new and creative forms.  I know several Latin American evangelical women migrants who earn their living caring daily for old people in Madrid or Valencia and who share with them spontaneously about the Good News of God’s love in Christ” (International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38:4 (Oct. 2014): 193).  Such is the mission taking place at the margins, by hundreds of millions of poor and underprivileged Christians all over the world, some of whose theologies would profoundly trouble me, I am sure.  Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe that “the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, and local contextual realities” need to be understood.  I make my living trying to understand them.  But I do so from a place of privilege at the center: not as a Latin American maid in Spain or a Filipina maid in Bahrain.  I do not want to presume to speak for the missionaries at the margins, which parts of TTL seem to do (¶ 38, for example).  Moreover, I also strongly believe that conversation, communication, and all sorts of exchanges between Christians at various locations of power need to take place all the time in order for the health  of the  mission  of the church universal.  Ironically, we can isolate mission at the margins by romanticizing it and claiming we are for it without really engaging it.

Finally, the perspective and voice of the center erupts once again in ¶ 101:  “We are servants of the Triune God, who has given us the mission of proclaiming the good news to all humanity and creation, especially the oppressed and the suffering people who are longing for fullness of life.”  It is hard to see how this affirmation squares with the warning against mission “directed at people on the margins of societies” (¶ 41).

I hope my criticisms of one part of TTL do  not  leave the  impression  that I believe that the statement is not worth reading, thinking about or engaging in theory and practice.  Obviously, I have engaged the document myself!  It is precisely because TTL is such an important document, with so much  that is salutary in  it, that I believe it should be carefully studied by  students and practitioners of mission.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving Tuesday, the Advance, and Kickstarter

Let me begin this post by encouraging you to donate to the UMC's global work on this Giving Tuesday.  I'll even put the link here for you to do so.  In fact, do that now, before you read the rest of this article.  If you want to encourage others to donate as well, both the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) have resources to assist in that.

Now that you've donated, I want to talk to you about the Advance, which is the system through which individual donations to denominational projects of the UMC are collected.  The Advance is in many ways a fantastic system.  100% of donations go right to those projects; there's no overhead taken out.  The system has been around since 1948, having proven to be a durable model.  Over 3 million gifts totaling more than $1 billion have been given through the Advance.

The way the Advance works is that donors look up the individual project(s) they want to give to and direct money specifically to that project/those projects.  There's even a handy search interface that allows donors to search by missionary, region, type of work, population, or disaster.  Donors can also give to general needs for either GBGM or UMCOR.

This approach to giving has a lot in common with Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which have become popular sites for facilitating an approach to collecting donations and raising money known as "crowdfunding."  Yes, that's right, the UMC was crowd-funding through the Advance 60 years before it became popular.

Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the Advance all have the great advantage that they're a democratic approach to deciding what gets funded.  If people want a Veronica Mars movie or a Tesla museum and are willing to help pay for it, they happen.  If people want wells and toilets in Liberia and are willing to help pay for them, they get built.

But here's where the analogy breaks down. Kickstarter and Indiegogo help fund things that will (presumably) benefit the people donating. Donors get to choose the ways in which they want to benefit.  With the Advance, it's largely Americans choose what will benefit people elsewhere around the world.  People don't get to choose what will benefit them. It's a little bit like if Bolivians were allowed to decide whether or not there would be a Veronica Mars movie or a Tesla museum.

That doesn't mean that Americans always make bad decisions or that Americans shouldn't donate to the UMC's work elsewhere around the world, but it does put people elsewhere around the world at the mercy of American donors, which creates a power inequality.  There are many inequalities in how the UMC is structured and operated, but this inequality in donation money is an important one to notice because it shapes other inequalities.  So, on this Giving Tuesday, donate, but donate and be aware of how your donations shape the UMC.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Circuit Riders in the Eastern Congo

The General Board of Global Ministries recently published a story about the missions/evangelism strategy that the UMC is employing in the Eastern Congo Annual Conference.  This strategy is to go around to small villages and cultivate churches there, even if they are small churches, rather than focusing on large urban areas.

I couldn't help but note the similarities between Eastern Congo's strategy and the classical American Methodist model of expansion, the circuit rider.  While I'm sure pastors in Eastern Congo aren't on horseback with long coats and wide-brimmed hats, it is essentially the same model: Bring the gospel wherever there are people, no matter how small a group.  It's an admirably democratic approach to evangelism.

Yet this strategy has its drawbacks, though the Congolese seem aware of them.  The article states, "Having a large number of small local churches may prove to be financially unsustainable, as it is difficult for small congregations to attain self-reliance. There may not be enough people involved to maintain the facilities or even to pay the pastor."

My wife serves as a local pastor for three small, rural United Methodist churches, legacies of American Methodism's circuit-riding days.  These churches are filled with faithful people, but there are definitely questions about how they will maintain the facilities and pay the pastor.  Of course, that's complicated by the dynamic of decline membership in American Methodism, but a part of the problem is a commitment to having a church in every small hamlet.

I'm glad that Eastern Congo is raising these missiological questions now.  I think the solution to the problem of resources in small towns is not to abandon the strategy of rural evangelism.  God's grace extends everywhere, even small towns and villages, and God's mission needs people to take it to these places.

Instead, the commitment may come in rethinking what sorts of infrastructure is really necessary to be a church.  I am sometimes grateful for the faithful servants who bequeathed a legacy of beautiful and holy buildings to my wife's congregations.  But I also wonder if they didn't give a double-edged sword to their spiritual heirs.  Did they lock the current congregations into a particular way of being and doing church, one that might no longer be the most relevant?

Perhaps the Eastern Congo can learn from the circuit-riders' legacy in the US.  We should think twice before committing to significant infrastructure that will be expensive to maintain and limiting to the types of ministry that are possible.  I am glad that the pastors of the Eastern Congo are continuing the spirit of the circuit riders, and I pray that their efforts to build the kingdom are even more successful and more durable than those of the American circuit riders of old.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ebola, ISIS, and death in the UMC

Ebola and ISIS have been making scary headlines for months now, but in the last couple of days, they have made a particular impact on The United Methodist Church.  News came yesterday that Dr. Martin Salia, the chief medical officer and only surgeon at Kissy United Methodist Hospital in Freetown, Liberia, had died while being treated at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.  Dr. Salia is not the only person associated with the UMC to die of the disease, but his selfless role as a leader and servant in the fight against the disease made his death particularly hard for many in the UMC.  At the same time, on Sunday, the White House confirmed the killing of Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, an American medical aid worker, by ISIS in Syria.  Yesterday, UM News Service reported about Kassig's United Methodist parents in Indianapolis, IN.  Kassig had converted to Islam during his captivity over the last year.  Kassig is also not the first to die at the hands of ISIS, but perhaps the first with connections to the UMC.

Thus, the UMC is mourning this loss of two brave servants who sought to help others even in the face of danger and possible death.  Both men were seeking to preserve the lives of others through medical care, but both lost their own lives.  Their stories are both inspiring and tragic.  They also raise larger questions of how we as individuals and as a church respond when faced with important but dangerous humanitarian situations: Do we engage, or do we protect ourselves?

Both Dr. Salia and Mr. Kassig chose to engage, and I hope others in the UMC will follow them.  Our faith encourages us to serve others, even at the risk of our own lives.  As Mark 8:35 says, "Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their lives for me and for the gospel will save it."  Though safety and security are good goals, we must be careful lest they become temptations that would keep us from doing what God calls us to.  Dr. Salia was clear that his work was a calling from God.  He told UM Communications, "I see it as God’s own desired framework for me. I took this job not because I want to, but I firmly believe that it was a calling and that God wanted me to."  Calling may sometimes be a calling to self-sacrifice, as in the case of Salia and Kassig.  But while the world may fear death, we as Christians are not called to fear or deny or avoid death.  We are called to overcome death through the resurrection made possible by Jesus' own death and resurrection.

Dr. Salia and Mr. Kassig deserve our prayers and gratitude, and their families also deserve our prayers and support.  I hope the lesson we take from their lives is that service is worth it, even when it comes at the ultimate cost.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thomas Kemper on Together towards Life

Last week, this blog began an examination of Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, the new affirmation on mission and evangelism adopted by the World Council of Churches.  While our examination of this document will be primarily focused on its use as a teaching tool, especially in United Methodist contexts, I thought it appropriate to refer readers to a theological assessment of the document by Thomas Kemper, general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries.

Mr. Kemper's remarks originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, but they can also be accessed on GBGM's webpage.  In the piece, Kemper affirms and analyzes four themes from Together towards Life, "the concept of missio Dei, mission theology grounded in the Holy Spirit, “mission from the margins,” and the inclusion of health, healing, and wholeness".  Kemper's piece is well worth a read for United Methodists interested in engaging with this document as a way to stimulate fresh thinking, reflecting, and learning about mission.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Form vs. Function in the Worldwide Nature of the Church

Earlier this year, two great pieces about the worldwide nature of the United Methodist Church appeared on the Connectional Table's "About the Connection" blog.  The first, from August, is written by Judi Kenaston, Chair of the Commission on General Conference.  In it, she reflects on what has made her United Methodist before moving on to comment on the challenges of thinking about the UMC as a worldwide church.  She concludes, "We may need to let go to create a new vision for the World Wide church."  Among the things that United Methodists may need to let go of are "our U.S. centric world view" and "personal priorities."

The second post, from September, is by Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of GBGM.  He analyzes the language we use to talk about the UMC and makes a distinction among global, worldwide, and international and a distinction among ministry, vision, and structure.  He concludes that the UMC's vision and ministries are worldwide in scope, if not quite truly global in the sense of extending to every corner of the world, but our structures are international, in that they extend to many countries, but not nearly the whole world. Secretary Kemper's distinctions in terms are helpful.  Though this blog discusses questions related to structure, we also try to feature conversations about vision and ministry around the world and hopefully thereby earn our title of "UM & Global."

It is further illuminating to combine Mr. Kemper's and Mrs. Kenaston's reflections.  Questions of structure are often what cause the most conflict in the UMC.  Yet Kenaston's suggestions for letting go deal not with structures, but with questions of vision and ministry.  She calls for a change in how we view the world and how we set priorities for our work in the world.  Largely her calls are a challenge for American United Methodists to undergo a process of self-abnegation and self-limiting to make space for what the Spirit is originating elsewhere.  That process of self-abnegation must apply to liberals, evangelicals, and all other factions in the American UMC, who are all guilty of seeing and using our fellow United Methodists as pawns or players in American debates (as this blog has previously highlighted).

Moreover, unless we can open ourselves up to being led by the Spirit on questions of global or worldwide vision and ministry, it is unlikely that we'll be able to adequately solve questions of international structure.  As the architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, "Form follows function."  That dictum is as true in building organizations as it is in building houses.  If we try to solve our problems of structure without first addressing questions of vision and ministry on a worldwide scale, we are likely to get the process backwards and let our form dictate our function.  If we let our organizational structures or budgets or institutional policies determine our mission, then we're not letting the Spirit lead us in the missio Dei.  We'll be left building factions, defending privilege and power, and playing political games.

Form follows function.  What functions is the Spirit calling us to perform as a global UMC?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reflecting on Together towards Life

I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in a consultation organized by the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) two weeks ago in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  The consultation was focused on discussing ways to develop curricula to help teach the WCC's new affirmation on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  The affirmation was adopted by the WCC Central Committee in Crete in 2012 and presented to the entire WCC at their assembly last year in Busan, Korea.

Not only was the experience of being in South Africa with mission scholars and practitioners from around the world an exciting experience for me, I found Together towards Life itself to be an exciting and challenging document.  The document shows real theological and spiritual depth in its focus on the missio Dei, the self-giving love of the Trinity, and the role of the Holy Spirit in mission.  It reflects contemporary mission thinking in affirming the value of a diversity of cultures, noting the impact of migration, and highlighting the important place the poor and those on the margins have as agents of, and not just recipients of, mission.  The document challenges its readers in its call to think of mission and being from the whole creation to the whole creation, in its strong criticism of the system of global capitalism, and in the questions it raises about God's activities in other religions.

There is much to praise, critique, and dissect in this document, a process that has already begun in other forums.  This blog, as a project of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, will be looking at Together towards Life over the next couple of months as well.  We will not be giving it a thorough read as we did with Grace Upon Grace.  Our examination of that document reflected our identities as United Methodists.  Our treatment of Together towards Life will instead reflect our identities as professors of mission.  We will be continuing the discussion begun in Pietermaritzburg and elsewhere of how this document can be used to train clergy, missionaries, and laity.  Although the document is an ecumenical document with wide appeal, we will focus primarily on its applications within United Methodist contexts.  I hope you will join us as we see what the Spirit may be seeking to teach us through this document.  Look for the Together towards Life tag to follow posts in this new series.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The global appeal of holy conferencing

The Council of Bishops is currently meeting in Oklahoma City, OK.  As part of that meeting, they heard a presentation yesterday by Candler School of Theology Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies Kevin M. Watson on Christian Conferencing.  United Methodist News Service live-tweeted the presentation.  Reactions from the bishops that UMNS captured included positive responses by Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area and David Yemba of the Congo Central Conference.  According to the UMNS Twitter feed, "Bp. Alsted asks how can we live into Christian Conferencing at #UMCGC in 2016," and "Bp. Yemba: Christian Conferencing is our heritage that we need to reclaim. Don't wait until #UMCGC in 2016."

As an American, I am exciting to see the main interest in the concept of Christian Conferencing at the Council of Bishops coming from outside the United States.  In the United States, it can seem at times like "Christian conferencing" or "holy conferencing" is a euphemism for "arguing about homosexuality."  In contrast, neither the Nordic countries nor the Congo are arguing about homosexuality in their United Methodist churches, albeit for very different reasons.  Yet the concept of Christian conferencing still has resonance for these two bishops.  Both bishops recognize this spiritual practice as an important part of our Methodist heritage and common life.

This is a positive reminder to Americans.  "Christian conferencing" or "holy conferencing" is not only about arguing over LGBT ordination and gay marriage.  It is a means of living with and relating to each other as sisters and brothers in faith on a variety of issues.  Gay marriage and LGBT ordination may be the issues of the day in the United States, but there will be and are other issues on other days and in other places that also call for loving, mutual conversation about God's will.  Americans must resist the temptation to make everything about and only about debates on homosexuality.  Our Christian calling, including our calling to treat each other with love as we work towards perfection, is a calling on all areas of our lives.  Debates about gay marriage and LGBT ordination may be important to both sides for good theological reasons, but we do a disservice to the concept of Christian conferencing and to our faith as a whole if we reduce it to one issue.  God is at work in the world in many ways, and we would do well to engage in holy conferencing together to discern the full variety of those ways.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why Julu Swen & Phileas Jusu' top UMC communicators award is significant

In case you missed it, United Methodist News Service reported earlier this week that Julu Swen of Liberia and Phileas Jusu of Sierra Leone were awarded the United Methodist Association of Communicators' 2014 United Methodist Communicators of the Year Award.  In bestowing the award, the UM Association of Communicators cited Swen and Jusu's work in covering the Ebola epidemic.  This award is a significant story for at least two reasons.

First, it's significant that two Africans won the top award.  All of the other awards announced by the UM Association of Communicators were given to Americans working for one of the American annual conferences, UMNS, UM Communications, umc.org, or UMW.  In part, this reflects the resource differential between American annual conferences and annual conferences from the Central Conferences.  American annual conferences have more money to pay staff to focus on communications for the annual conferences.  But both Jusu and Swen work (at least in part) for annual conferences as well.  We should not assume that annual conferences in the United States are the only ones with messages to share or the resources and savvy to share them.

Second, it's significant that Swen and Jusu won by reporting on an issue of international significance.  Much of the communication generated by annual conferences is directed at internal audiences - ministers and members of those annual conferences.  That's usually appropriate.  Nevertheless, we should remember that what we do in annual conferences can matter to the rest of the connection as well.  Indeed, that's one reason why United Methodism's connectional system is significant - it allows for sharing and communication beyond geographic boundaries.  Certainly the serious nature of and international interest in Ebola helped garner Jusu and Swen's reporting attention, but there are other stories coming out of annual conferences that are worth being shared beyond the boundaries of the conference, even if they are less dire than Ebola.

Congratulations, then, are in order to Swen and Jusu.  This blog has been a fan and supporter of Swen in particular since before the Ebola outbreak, and it's nice to see him so recognized.  May we all be inspired by their work.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Valuable Themes and Unresolved Concerns: Thomas Kemper on Grace Upon Grace: Renewal (Part II)

Today's post is the the second of two concluding posts 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 mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries. Mr. Kemper is commenting on the last section of the document, "Renewal." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

We come now to the end of this series of blogs that has explored the continuing relevance and value for mission of Grace Upon Grace, the last official and comprehensive United Methodist statement on mission theology adopted in 1988, closing with the document’s final paragraph (66), 18 lines on the topic of “Renewal.” Having already enumerated two themes from Grace Upon Grace that I find enormously valuable for the renewal of our understanding of and involvement in mission in the first quarter of the 21st century, I now conclude by proposing two clusters of concerns I think were undeveloped in 1988 but must be satisfactorily addressed today if we are to be viable as a church engaged in the missio Dei. Again, my reflections are those of a missional professional, a practitioner, a layman, not a formal theologian, having been a missionary in Brazil with my wife from 1986 to 1994, and now serving as a mission agency executive.

I find Grace Upon Grace lacking in two major ways. First, at least to my mind, it neglects health, healing, and the care of creation as dimensions of the missio Dei. By health and healing I mean more than humanitarian relief and medical services. I also mean spiritual and emotional healthiness, wholeness of person and wholeness of community. Care of creation relates to individuals, families, communities, nations, and to international relations. It incorporates ecology and the use of resources, which has strong economic implications. Mission needs to grapple with broad economic challenges, especially regarding the poor and the conservation of nature.

A second cluster of concerns is the failure of Grace Upon Grace to discern and take into account the mission energy of mission-founded churches in the Global South and Asia. That could even be seen in 1988. We Methodists have been deplorably slow in noticing something that was evident as early as the world missionary conferences of the late 1940s and 1950s that the younger churches are alive and potent with the Gospel and seen by other communions. We have too long navel-gazed about our denominational “worldwide nature” and allowed our structures get in the way of letting loose the gospel energy of our mission progeny. This relates, of course, to the shifting Christian center of gravity from Europe and North America to the global South.

The World Council of Churches’ 2013 statement on Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes—a wonderful title for excellent work—takes serious account of the implications for mission of the shifting demography. It recognizes and celebrates not the hope but the reality of mission from what was once seen as the margins—mission in Africa and Korea and Brazil that is alive in indigenous cultures but also reaching into the old Christian heartlands of Italy, Canada, England, and Oklahoma City with the ringing, compelling word and work of the Lord. We of the West may still have the dollars and euros but we are not the only, maybe not the primary, proponents of the missio Dei anymore. God has other missionaries too, and we are thankful that some of them from the Congo, and Colombia and Hong Kong and Ivory Coast are enlisting in service through The United Methodist Church. There will be more—of that I can promise you. There will be many, many more. I truly believe that God really is in charge of mission and will see to that.

Grace Upon Grace will remain a worthy landmark—a clear statement of faith and hope—in our mission pilgrimage. It is dated more by its omissions than its commissions. I keep a copy ready at hand on my desk.

I also keep handy a much shorter document, a statement of only some 850 words on mission theology drafted and adopted at the end of the last quadrennium by the directors of the General Board of Global Ministries. It contains a paragraph on grace at work but it is the last affirmation I want to quote in ending these reflections, for it reminds us of an essential reality of the missio Dei in this and any century:

"The Spirit is always moving to sweep the Church into a new mission age. With openness and gratitude we await the leading of the Spirit in ways not yet seen as God continues to work God’s purposes out in our own day in a new way."

(The full statement can be read online at http://www.umcmission.org/Learn-About-Us/About-Global-Ministries/Theology-of-Mission)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Race, gender, and nationality on UM & Global

Over the last two weeks, I've reported on the percentage of authors by race, gender, and nationality among those blogs submitted to Methoblog and on umc.org's Blogs and Connections page.  This week, it's time to turn the analysis inward and look at who's writing on this blog.

To start with, I as a white American male have written about 2/3rds of the posts on UM & Global over the lifetime of the blog.  As a regular rule, I write the Tuesday post, and a guest writes the Thursday post, but there are weeks where there's been no guest writer, and there were a couple of months at the beginning of the blog that I wrote exclusively.

The guest writers are invited from a network of professors, mission practitioners, and church leaders.  Thus, it is a curated collection of voices, as I discussed last week.  Guest writers are selected by a steering committee for this blog composed of four members of the United Methodist Professors of Mission including two white American males, one white European male living in America, and one white American female.  All but two of the guest writers were living in the US at the time of writing, though I know from personal contact that several of them are originally from countries other than the US.  Where that's the case, I have identified them in the statistics below by their continent of origin.  When I was in any doubt, I assumed the writer was American.

Out of our 31 guest writers, 11 (35%) are white American males, 4 (13%) are white American females, 4 (13%) are white European males, 3 (10%) are Asian-American males, 3 (10%) are Asian males, 2 (6%) are Latino-American males, 1 (3%) is a Latino male, 1 (3%) is an Asian-American female, 1 (3%) is an Asian female, and 1 (3%) is an African-American female.  That leads to 77% male authors, 71% American, and 61% white overall.

As the numbers show, there's been a noticeable gender imbalance in our authorship, reflecting in part gender biases in the academy.  African-American and especially African voices are under-represented on this blog.  There are some technological and linguistic challenges in including African voices, but that's not an excuse.  It is our intention at UM & Global to develop a more representative collection of United Methodist voices from around the world.

The single biggest thing UM & Global could do to present a more representative collection of voices, though, would be for me to write fewer of the posts.  That's actually a plan in the works.  While I will continue to manage the technology aspects of UM & Global and will continue to contribute posts, it is our intention to transition in 2015 to a format more similar to that used by UMC Lead, where there is a collection of regular writers for the blog, of which I will be only one.  These writers will come from among United Methodist professors, missionaries, theologians, and church leaders from around the world.  It will still be a curated collection of voices and probably still not be entirely proportional to the membership, but I do want be sure we are including a set of voices that reflects even if it does not quite proportionately represent the racial, gender, and national diversity of the UMC.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Valuable Themes and Unresolved Concerns: Thomas Kemper on Grace Upon Grace: Renewal (Part I)

Today's post is the the first of two concluding posts 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 mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries. Mr. Kemper is commenting on the last section of the document, "Renewal." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Begun last November, this series of blogs has explored the continuing relevance and value for mission of Grace Upon Grace, the last official and comprehensive United Methodist statement on mission theology adopted in 1988. We come now to the document’s final paragraph (66), 18 lines on the topic of “Renewal.”  This short section presupposes everything that has come before on vision, mission heritage and reform, mission scope and agenda, and the transforming, supporting nature of grace itself. A range of deeply committed missiologists have looked at every section asking whether Grace Upon Grace provides foundation and/or vision for United Methodist engagement in God’s mission in the present century. My reflections here under the banner of “Renewal” must begin by acknowledging with appreciation all of the earlier blogs. They have significantly informed my mission understanding.

By and large, the contributors to the series find continuing value in the more than 25 year-old document, especially the emphasis on the inseparability of grace and mission. There is widespread agreement on mission as grace in action, and near unanimous appreciation for both the Wesleyan interplay of personal piety and social holiness, the Methodist capacity for missional contextualization, and reliance on the Holy Spirit.  There are divergent views on Grace Upon Grace’s treatment of Christian mission history in general and Methodist mission history in particular and on whether sections heralding diversity point to realities or are merely oratory.  I would agree with both these values and these questions.

The final lines on “Renewal” offer little new to the document. They are valedictory in much the same way as the ending of some of Paul’s epistles: confident, grateful, a bit flowery. The passage quotes the Great Commission, and actually concludes with the benediction from I Thessalonians 5:28: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Amen is about all that could be added to that.

I will use my space in this blog post to enumerate two themes from Grace Upon Grace that I find enormously valuable for the renewal of our understanding of and involvement in mission in the first quarter of the 21st century, and in a following post, I will identify two clusters of concerns I think were undeveloped in 1988 but must be satisfactorily addressed today if we are to be viable as a church engaged in the missio Dei. My reflections are those of a missional professional, a practitioner, a layman, not a formal theologian, having been a missionary in Brazil with my wife from 1986 to 1994, and now serving as a mission agency executive.

The two aspects of Grace Upon Grace that I find most profound, most useful, for mission today and in the future are:

1. Missio Dei” as our starting point. The term has grown steadily more pervasive in the mission vocabulary since 1988. The phrase, borrowed, I understand, from Augustinian roots, surfaced in post-World War II international missionary conferences [notably at Willingen in 1952] but did not gain strong traction until the early 1980s, partly in the context of preparation of the 1982 World Council of Churches document on mission and evangelism. I have informally heard that the late David Bosch, a Roman Catholic from South Africa, strongly influenced that covenant; at least, Bosch became one of the most well-known advocates and interpreters of missio Dei. It has become commonly used in most communions and confessions. The recognition that mission is of God is a major corrective to thinking that we are as humans have a mission to which we invite God’s endorsement and seek divine approval in building the kingdom. Mission and grace comingle, are inseparable. This was powerfully emphasized in my missionary training. But the very commonality of the term and concept gives me pause, as I will explain in my next post.

2. That mission/grace is active is a point strongly underscored in Grace Upon Grace and an insight to which current missionaries, especially the younger one, strongly resonate. I find in our classes of new Global Mission Fellows—42 this year—an enthusiasm to follow an active God. Yet I do not think that we have yet honed or refined an adequate language for speaking of how we as people of faith link into the active, grace-filled missio Dei. What terms and images do we have to name the “how” of church and people becoming part of God’s mission?  Very few.  We say that God is at work in all places and we must discern the where and join in, but what is the process of discernment that leads to grace-filled affiliation with the divine intention?  We cannot resort to a “what is to be will be” theology. How do we decide which mission opportunity to seize upon? I found it instructive in the series of posts that when confronted with the practicalities of discernment, as well as to illustrations of what we mean by “global,” missiologists tell stories of heroic missionaries or other servants of God and the church.  Perhaps this is not only appropriate but necessary, that we incarnate the concept of missio Dei in specific disciples, real people whose lives illustrate the action component of mission/grace. Have we any other option?  Was not the mission originally incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, a human being? We must pray that God continues to give us compelling examples of heroic mission.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Curation, representation, and democratic discussion in the UMC blogosphere

Last week, I wrote a post in which I demonstrated that white American men write the majority of posts in the United Methodist blogosphere, at least as measured by those blogs submitted to and compiled by Methoblog.  This week, I want to follow up by looking at another source of blogs in the United Methodist world: those blogs posted to the Blogs and Commentaries page on UMC's official website.  The Blogs and Commentaries page includes both links to articles on external blogs (including blogs by UMC boards agencies) and some content hosted by umc.org itself.  It is curated in that the articles included are there by choice, not automatically populated, though I don't know the curation policies used to select blogs.  Both in its mix of off-site and on-site material and in its curated nature, the Blogs and Commentaries page is different from Methoblog.

I was able to load articles from 25 authors whose race, gender, and nationality I was able to determine.  All but two of these authors wrote a single post.  Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications, wrote several of the posts, so I'm going to analyze just the number of authors, not the number of posts, since any difference is almost entirely a result of Larry Hollon.

What do the numbers show? 36% of authors (9 of the 25) were white American men.  28% were white American women.  12% were African-American men.  8% were Latino-American women.  4%, 1 author, was an Asian-American man.  1 author was an Asian-American woman.  1 was a white European woman.  1 was a black African man.

These numbers are certainly more representative of the UMC as a whole than the numbers I found for the blogosphere in general last week.  Africans and Asians are still underrepresented, but there's a decent sampling from among domestic US groups.

These results show that curation matters.  The best way to have a relatively representative collection of voices in the blogosphere is to select those voices rather than wait for those voices to come to you.  This approach is also that taken by UMC Lead, a curated blog site where nearly half of regular contributors are women and at least a quarter are people of color.  That's also the approach taken by UM Insight, whose numbers I haven't had a chance to crunch.  It's the approach taken by this blog too, for its posts written by authors other than me, though I'll say more about us next week.

Of course, curation implies its own type of privilege - some people are chosen to be heard, confering privilege on them, and other voices aren't.  Those choices may serve good ends, like assembling a representative collection of United Methodist voices (however you may want to define that), but at the end of the day, it's not a system where anyone who wants can speak.  Yet, as demonstrated last week, a system where anyone who wants to can speak can end up dominated by those who speak louder or more frequently than others.

What we may be forced to admit is that there are at times tradeoffs between different standards for what counts as democratic discussion online (as in other settings).  Openness and representativeness don't necessarily coincide, and we may have to make choices between which of these is a more important criteria for democratic discussion.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Struggle and Triumph of Grace: Jacob Dharmaraj on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

Today's post is the latest 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 mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. Dr. Dharmaraj is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Mapping the struggle:
Our world today is relentlessly threatened by ruthless tyranny, soulless greed, exploitative human trafficking, wide economic disparity, and environmental degradation. In the religious front, old models of ecclesial life and traditional forms of spiritual practices have been reduced to and deemed as antiquated and inadequate observances. Systemic barriers relating to race, class, gender, and other discriminations have created impoverished communities worldwide.

By 2050, global population will balloon to 9 billion. In coming decades, mass consumption, economic transition and limited natural resources will intensify competition for basic human necessities such as water, housing and food. It will create tension in multiple levels. It will also defy nature’s sustainability, accelerate global warming, and further endanger the fragile ecosystem.

The United States is rapidly changing. The nation will morph into a majority-minority country in a couple of generations. Our potential church membership base will change. Further, the traditional map of the aged church has become archaic and obsolete; the functional compass of our historic mission is warped and broken. The spiritual navigation system of our congregational gathering and worship has radically been altered. The religious topography has become pluralistic and new-fangled.

Contrary to the conventional notion that modernization and globalization would usher in the decline and demise of religious beliefs and practices, we watch and observe endemic resurgence of radical forms of religions in world affairs.

As a faith community, we have a great stake in preserving God’s creation for future generations, preventing any form of global disaster, and work for shalom.

Grace for grappling with the issues of our times:
We need to move beyond being mere wearers of faith badges. We must be ready to reach beyond denominational boundaries and religious fault-lines to connect with those around us – partners and allies -who are engaged in the transformation of the world. We need to be in “the womb of mutuality and we need to be swimming in the same water as everybody else” engaged in bringing about transformation.

Since the task before us is immense and monumental, our ecclesiology must have room to accommodate “secular prophets” such as environmentalists and human rights organizers who are already active in the kingdom of God.

Therefore, we need to work for the transformation of structures of injustices by critically analyzing social realities through lenses of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, and identifying the interconnected web of oppressive forces, and finally, honoring the agency of the marginalized, and working with the beleaguered in seeking a just solution. This progression involves building alliances and coalitions with secular and other faith-based agencies, collaborating on strategies for transformation, and walking in solidarity with those at the margins.

We also need to remind ourselves that change is inevitable and transformation is a choice. The path to transformation runs straight through action. This is the right time to put our knowledge into practice.  Action is a kind of everyday miracle.  Knowledge certainly helps, but transformation occurs only when we enact our ideas and implement our visions. We must bear in mind, If we want to save the drowners, we need to be swimmers.

Witnessing to Christ in times such as this:
The United Methodist Church has been called to witness to the Gospel and invite persons to experience the fullness of life Jesus Christ offers. As a first order of business, the church’s mission and ministry today is to be relevant and become effective.

I submit the following recommendations for consideration as we strive to be authentic witnesses to the Gospel:

While we, as a denomination, are determined to stay the course, we also need to create a meta-mission-theology which takes the mosaic landscape of changing migration patterns which impacts the global nature of the church, plurality of cultures, and resurgence of world religions into serious consideration. This theology also ought to interact between the global and local, intercultural and transcultural, monolingual and polyphonic, mission and evangelism, proclamation and social justice, and Christianity and other living faiths.

Since the connectivity and engagement of a vast majority of members of the UMC are un-tethered, we are to create a UM Christology that clearly defines and distinguishes our belief in Christ from other competing allegiances. A theology or a set of guidelines that blithely confess “all religions are the same” would undercut the very foundation of the church and the new and abundant life offered in Jesus Christ.

Creating and fostering synchronous collaboration between the diasporic community that is readily available in the pews and pulpits of our denomination and the denomination’s leadership at various levels, and crossing borders to employ these rich but much neglected U.M. diasporic communities would yield positive and lasting results. It would richly enhance our interactions with people of other religious faiths and in witnessing to the neo-immigrants who move into our neighborhoods as well.

Receiving the gifts from the margins of the growing church at the global south helps us, as we strive to “update” and “recalibrate” our missional engagements, I strongly believe that mutuality in mission as a designed mission theology will fill in the gap, serve as a catalyst, and enable us to confront the current storm; for mutuality doesn’t just react to crises, but proactively prevents them.

In the final analysis, we should never hesitate to migrate from the spirit of scarcity to the spirit of abundance, from the spirit of defeat to the spirit of opportunity, from the spirit of abandonment to the spirit of empowerment, and from the spirit of helplessness to the spirit of confidence and come up with contextual theological paradigms for mission today. I am convinced that the iterative theology of mission in the 21st century is the theology of mutuality.

We are not alone in this journey. The God of the Bible is with us. This is not the first time we have gone this way before. Just as T.S.Eliot has said in his poem, The Rock, “And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.” We are reminded to break the shackles of the past and emphasize newness, openness, innovation in order to be transformed and be transforming. God’s abundant grace and assured presence is with us: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65: 17). In times such as this, may we unapologetically “account for the hope that is in us,” the grace we received in Christ (I Peter 3: 15).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Does the blogosphere reinforce white, American male privilege in the UMC?

I am a white, American, male.  In this regard, I look a lot like most bloggers in the United Methodist blogosphere.  I was reflecting on this fact after reading a post by Drew McIntye in which he questioned Jeremy Smith's critique of the proposal to close General Conference as only coming from white men and pointed out that Jeremy was himself a white man.  I thought to myself, "Here are white American men arguing with each other about their whiteness.  Isn't that how the blogosphere goes?"  I decided, as a white American man, to do some research to see how extensive the white American male perspective is in the UMC blogosphere.

I chose as my source last week's blogs posts on the Methoblog platform.  I included everything posted from Sept. 30 through Oct. 6, with the exception of posts by GBGM (which I'll talk about next week), stories from UMC (which are news, not opinion), posts from UM Insight (which are re-posts), and posts where I could not determine the gender or, if male, race of the author.  That left me with 183 blog posts written by 92 authors in the last week.

Of these 183 blog posts, 79% were written by white American men.  14% were written by white American women (and 1% by a white American woman working abroad), 2% by American women of indeterminate race, 2% by white men from the British Isles, <1% by an Asian American male (a single post), and <1% by a Filipino male (a single post).  There were 0 blogs written by African-Americans, 0 blogs written by Hispanics, and 0 blogs written by Native Americans.  Of the authors, only 76% were white American males.  This is because white American males made up a higher percentage, 84%, of the frequent bloggers (more than twice a week, the average for all bloggers).

Whichever set of numbers you use, the conclusion is clear: white, American men have a voice in the blogosphere that is about three times as great as their proportion of the UMC membership.

First, a couple of caveats, and then some interpretation.
1. Methoblog does not include all blogs written by United Methodists.  African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and UMC members from outside the US may be writing lots of posts that aren't included in Methoblog's roles.  Even if true, this still seems like an issue to me, as it means there are separate online conversations by race and nationality in the UMC.
2. I relied on pictures of people to determine their race, and racial identity is not always something that is easily identifiable by sight.  That being said, it's unlikely that I'm wrong in enough cases to significantly alter the results.
3. Sometimes people write about things other than the UMC in their blogs, and sometimes people have guest bloggers write on their blogs.  I didn't read every single blog posted.  (I do have a job.)  I did try to determine authorship of posts on multi-writer blogs.  Again, these considerations probably apply only in a few cases, and that's not likely to significantly alter the results.

Even given those caveats, the conclusion seems to remain: white American men have a voice in the UMC blogosphere that is disproportionately large compared to their percentage of the UMC membership.  Now, there are two interpretations one could take of this fact.  First, one could assume that this reflects pre-existing white American male privilege.  White American males have more access to positions of power and to technology than other groups, and this makes them more likely to write blogs.  In this interpretation, the high proportion of white American male bloggers is a result, not a cause of other forms of privilege.

A second interpretation would see this inequality as causing or reinforcing white American male privilege.  While differences in other forms of privilege may explain some of who blogs and some of who doesn't, if the blogosphere becomes a forum for decision-making in the UMC, it means that those decisions will primarily be made by white American men.  If white American men receive a disproportionate voice in making decisions because those decisions are made in the blogosphere, then the blogosphere has not only reproduced by reinforced other forms of privilege.

I'll continue investigating this issue over the next several weeks, looking next week at blogs by the General Board of Global Ministries and other official church agencies and then finally critiquing this blog and examining the collection of authors it has hosted.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Cooperative Ecumenism: Glen Messer on Grace Upon Grace: A Church Formed By Grace

Today's post is the latest 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 mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Glen Alton Messer, II, the Associate Ecumenical Staff Officer of the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. Dr. Messer also teaches Christian History and Methodist Studies and is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Yale Divinity School. Dr. Messer is commenting on paragraph 54 on "global awareness," from the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Paragraph 52 of Grace Upon Grace gives a strikingly clear statement about how United Methodists are to understand ‘ecumenism’ — and in so doing, gives important guidance as to how the relationship between mission and ecumenism is to be understood. Among those working in the field of Ecumenism, there are many variations upon what the word means. The Vatican Council II statement on the subject (the decree on ecumenism entitled, “Unitatis Redintegratio”)[1] makes clear in its name the understanding of the term from a Roman Catholic perspective — the goal of ecumenism is reintegration of Christians separated through centuries of schism. Among many Protestants of Europe and the United States, ecumenism — or “Christian unity” — has been less an institutional goal than one of varying degrees of co-operation and fellowship. Many of the social reform movements, tract societies, and Sunday school efforts in the 19th century are good examples of this practical understanding of ecumenism. Striving for greater co-operation, we find the 1910 Edinburgh Conference trying to avoid competition among Christian churches and unnecessary duplication of efforts (e.g., building one hospital instead of two, etc.). And, while the Edinburgh Conference is often mentioned as the birth of the modern Ecumenical Movement, the Conference did not push in the of direction institutional consolidation.[2] With many options for how to understand the concept, Grace Upon Grace gives some shape — with the authoritative voice of General Conference to back it up — to how to understand the goals of United Methodist ecumenism and how these relate to the work of mission and the overall life of the church.

Central to this paragraph’s “ecumenical affirmation” are ecclesiological claims regarding the basic understanding of the very nature of the meaning of “church.” It states that, “Mission is ecumenical as we seek to live in cooperation and communion with the many authentic Christian communities that God in grace calls into existence.” This is not a vision of God’s church as broken and shattered into parts because of its various institutional manifestations and groupings of people into various Christian traditions. Instead, the communities are called into being through God’s grace — as expressions of God’s creativity — with the expectation of mutual recognition of kinship in the faith and life of God in Christ Jesus. Just as God did not make only one person to be “the” Christian, neither did God make only one institutional expression of church to be “the” church. Our unity is found in God and in our living the Christian life shown to us in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Our unity is in the grace of God experienced through God’s Spirit. And so, paragraph 52 concludes, “We desire to live in communion with all who are in communion with Jesus Christ. We are thankful for all sisters and brothers in Christ and we seek unity amidst our diversity.”

In many respects, this statement expresses a positive view of God’s creativity in multiplicity (expressed in our “unity amidst our diversity”). Typical of many Wesleyans over time, United Methodists often have tended to look at the glass half-full and have held to the expectation of its being filled (to overflowing); rather than moaning that it is half-empty and that God’s calling new Christian communities into being is evidence of the shattering of the one church. What is at stake is the question of relationship. How will we live together with other Christians in faithfully giving witness to the Gospel and the active love of Christ Jesus in the world? United Methodists have expressed in this statement that they are willing to call “Christian” all those who are in “communion with Jesus Christ.” There are no doctrinal or ecclesiological litmus tests that must be performed before we are willing to extend our hand in love and fellowship towards those who are fellow laborers called by God to work for God’s Kingdom. Our energy is applied elsewhere — in the desire to heal a broken world, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and offer hope to those in despair. It is a practical sense of ecumenism, a practical sense of ecclesiology — and a practical sense of mission.

That said, this “ecumenical affirmation” is in no way a surrender of a Wesleyan Methodist identity or a timidity about expressing that identity in how we live the Christian life. Just as other Christian communities have been affirmed in their authenticity, the statement no less applies to United Methodists as well. While we can look upon this statement as declaring that we seek to embrace other Christians in an effort to co-operate in mission together, it is important to be authentic in ourselves as expressions of God’s creative grace, not hiding our light under a bushel. Unless we make ourselves “present” by offering ourselves as ourselves to others, we invite others to an empty embrace in which their arms circle around nothingness. Being United Methodists in mission and ecumenism “inseparably bound” together we need to be more than ‘polite’ — trying to draw attention away from any possible points of difference. We need to add our voices to conversations and add our ideas to co-operative efforts. Our “ecumenical affirmation” in this paragraph is a challenge to be confident in who we are and affirming of others whom God calls to the Christian life in different communities.

One of the great gifts of the Mission Movement of which we are a part — out of which Methodism came into being, in fact — is that mission work has called various communities of Christians together. The work of love has drawn us from relative isolation in our own communities to realize that the ‘scandal of disunity’ is a failure to be united in love and compassion towards all Christians, all persons, and all Creation. United Methodists in mission are engaged in the work that strives towards unity through our faithfulness in the work of ministry by which we love as Christ loves and live as Christ lives.


[1]For the full text of this document in English, please see, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html.
[2] John N. Collins, "Theology of Ministry in the Twentieth Century: Ongoing Problems or New Orientations," Ecclesiology 8 (2012), 12-13.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What is world communion?

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday in The United Methodist Church. This begs the question: What does the UMC mean when it talks about "world communion"?  We will look at three different answers in this post.

On the most practical level, World Communion Sunday is one of the six Sundays of the year that the UMC has designated as denomination-wide Special Sundays, where special offerings are collected to serve specific ministry purposes in the church.  The offerings from World Communion Sunday are split.  Half goes to scholarships for ethnic minorities in the United States; half goes to the Central Conferences outside the United States to be used for educational purposes.  This happens through three programs: the World Communion Leadership Development Program, the Ethnic Minority Scholarship Program, and the Ethnic In-Service Training Program.

On a second level, one might think about the "communion" mentioned as the sacrament of communion.  Since World Communion Sunday is on the first Sunday of the month, many United Methodist churches will be celebrating communion this Sunday.  World Communion Sunday thus becomes a chance to think about how people all over the world are celebrating communion on the same day.  This sacrament unites us on levels of both practice and theology.

This leads us to a final notion of world communion: "communion" as being joined together, as the etymology of the word would suggest.  On World Communion Sunday, we celebrate how the church around the world is joined together as one.  In the UMC, we are joined together by denominational structures and organizational and financial considerations.  We are also joined together in a spiritual sense, though.  As Jesus prayed in his petition to God for unity among his followers, "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us." (John 17:21)  We Christians are all united because we are all part of Jesus and God the Father through Jesus.  Therefore, we are connected to one another.  We might also think of the body analogy in 1 Corinthians 12 here.

The 1 Corinthians 12 passage reminds us of a corollary of this interpretation of world communion: we are joined to people who are different from us.  Perhaps that difference is, as this blog frequently highlights, a difference of culture and nationality.  Perhaps that difference is, as much of the rest of UMC blogosphere has been talking about, a difference of theology or views on sexuality.  That difference can take other forms as well.  The bottom line, though, is that if we're connected to Jesus, that also means we're connected to fellow Christians, even fellow Christians that we may not agree with or like or want to be connected to.  Yet this too is a sign of grace - that God's love, God's fellowship, God's communion is greater than we are, that the Spirit overflows our boundaries and runs into the entire world, bringing the good news with it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Overcoming religious divisiveness: Robert Hunt on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

Today's post is the latest 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 mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology. Dr. Hunt is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Grace upon Grace draws upon a central concept, “Grace received is motive of mission.” (Para 61) to address two issues that remain as relevant today as when it was written: the ways in which humans are divided by "nation, color, clan, creed, or culture,” (para 62) and the reality of plurality of religions and ideologies. (para 63)

What is interesting at a distance of decades is that nation, color, clan, creed, and culture are seen as almost intrinsically divisive so that mission is “resisting principalities and powers to love across boundaries,” while religions and ideologies are characterized as part of the “broader community” in which God’s grace is preveniently present. Thus grace received motivates resistance on one hand and "listening sensitively" on the other.

Reading these paragraphs in 2014 I am struck by the naiveté with regard to religious differences, as if they could be dealt with in the framework of a universal prevenient grace in tension with the universal claims of the gospel rather than the divisiveness of the principalities and powers.

The fact is that we find across the Muslim world Islamist zealots engaged in the systematic killing of all non-Muslims and even Muslim sectarians as well as the complete destruction of non-Muslim culture. In Europe we have rising anti-Jewish acts and vitriol from across Europe’s religious and political spectrum. And in Jewish Israel there is the specter of rising violence toward Arab Muslims. In India a Hindu nationalist party has taken power, shaking further the tenuous ground on which non-Hindus, and particularly Christians already stand in a nation where thousands have died in recent years in Hindu attacks on Muslims and Christians. In Burma the UN has confirmed Buddhist attacks on Muslim minorities, leading to both death and widespread destruction. Nor are American Christians free of guilt in this regard. If not yet expressed so violently, Pew Foundation surveys show that Christian attitudes toward many non-Christian religions range from negative to virulently hateful.

But let us assume, for a moment, that those reading this document are, or want to be, free from that kind of bigotry. Is it enough to listen sensitively and with equal sensitivity present the claims of Christ?

I fear not. Religions and ideologies are every bit as much a creation of and tool of human sin as nation, color, clan, creed, and culture. We must recognize that they are, all of them including our own, a realm in which evil is actively at work in the world today even as we recognize that God’s prevenient grace is present also.

And this calls for a missionary analysis of the religions that goes much further that Grace Upon Grace.

A beginning would be to recognize that none of the so-called “world religions” has actually realized its claims to transcend human divisions based on ethnicity, culture, tribe, and clan. They are not what Grace Upon Grace imagines them to be. On the contrary they are, practically speaking, partners in divisiveness with these other forms of exclusive identity. All, including our own, are in thrall to the principalities and powers.

Put less abstractly, within none of them has there emerged a popular consensus regarding the actual social and political mechanisms necessary for fruitful living in a peaceful, multi-religious, nation and world. Christians are largely stuck in Enlightenment concepts of nationhood and civil religion. The great majority of Muslims continue to harken back to essentially medieval concepts of religiously plural states. Hindus have come no further, or at best are divided between pre-modern and modern views. Israel, supposedly a secular state for Jews, continues in an internal crisis of identity related to religion that is partially to blame for its failures with its neighbors. And where Buddhists control government (Thailand, Burma) they likewise cannot imagine a truly religiously plural society and are thus beset by sectarian conflict.

This is not to deny the existence of vigorous “public theologians” in the midst of these religions. It is simply to note that they are a tiny, largely unheard and unaccepted voice.

Seeing this requires that perhaps we view religions, including our own, differently. Religious traditions never interact. Only religious people and religious communities interact. Faiths never interact, only faithful people and communities. Religion never appears to us except in the guise of its gathered followers, just as Christ never appears to others except in the guise of churches.

And this means we need, now more than ever, a dialogue grounded in the political and social realities of a religiously plural world and not in airy conversations about theological abstractions. We need dialogue that leads directly to reconciliation and common action to build communities, not intellectual assent (or dissent) regarding irreconcilable dogmas. And we need a dialogue not among scholars and theologians, but among the real leaders of our religious communities and their real followers.

Above all we need a dialogue focused on the nature of a modern multi-religious state. Anything else is whistling in the rising hurricane of religious bigotry and violence that increasingly makes use of state powers.

Without this, dialogue itself becomes a tool of the very principalities and powers that we must resist.

At the center of paragraph 63 are two statements about what faith requires. Both should earn easy affirmation. “Our faith requires that we present our commitment with integrity; our faith requires that we respect the integrity of others.” Too easy.

In today’s world what Christian faith requires is a vigorous apologetic in the face of vicious intellectual attacks from both non-Christians  and anti-Christian ideologues. What faith requires is that we respect others enough to hold them accountable for their words and actions, and to hold ourselves accountable for our own undertaken in the name of Christ. What faith requires is that the innocent, the widow, the orphan, the weak, the poor, be protected regardless of their religion and often in spite of it.

What faith requires is an open eyed recognition that religion is at least as much a problem as a solution to the violent divisiveness in our world, and that unless all religious people find a way together to imagine otherwise, it will rightly be rejected by coming generations. There was a time before Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Unless religious people begin to engage in real dialogue there will come a time when they are no more.