Tuesday, August 5, 2014

UMCOR, Armenia and Global UMC Ecclesiology

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) recently published this story about a scholarship program that they administer in Armenia.  Many United Methodists probably didn't realize that UMCOR was working in Armenia.  Perhaps some of them couldn't even say where Armenia is.  (It's in the Caucus mountains north of Turkey and south of Russia.)  Few probably realize that Armenia is actually one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, Christianity having become the official religion in 301AD by decree of King Tridates III.  UMCOR has been there for the last twenty years after Armenia became independent of the Soviet Union.

So UMCOR is operating in what may seem like a surprising place.  What makes UMCOR's presence perhaps more surprising is that there are no United Methodist congregations in Armenia.  UMCOR is not there as part of a proselytizing mission.  Really, Armenia doesn't need that sort of mission, having had Christianity for a millennia and a half longer than the United States.  What Armenia does need, though, is the health, agricultural, anti-human trafficking, nutrition/food security, small reconstruction, education, microfinance, and disaster risk reduction work carried on by UMCOR Armenia.  And because Armenia has these needs, UMCOR is there, carrying out the mission of God.

It is interesting to reflect on the work of The United Methodist Church through UMCOR in Armenia not just for the sake of geographical curiosity but also for the insights this work can give us into United Methodist ecclesiology and in particular the connection and distinction between the church as a membership group and the church as a mission.

In the United States, we tend to think of the church as a organization composed of members along with the associated institutions.  We might think of the UMC mainly in terms of the local church, the annual conference, or the denomination as a whole, but whatever the level of focus, we think of it as an organization made up of members.  As many of the posts in the Grace Upon Grace series on this blog have pointed out, though, it is possible to think of the church in another way: as a group defined not my membership or institutional structures but by its mission, or rather, by its role in carrying out God's mission (the missio Dei) in the world.

As the Grace Upon Grace series has contented, there is a connection between the membership of the church and the mission of the church.  Ideally, the membership of the church and the structures they create are what allow the church to carry out God's mission.  Yet Armenia is interesting because it points out that while membership and mission are connected at a theological level, they are not always at a geographical level.  The United Methodist Church has members in about 50 countries worldwide.  Yet The United Methodist Church is in mission in over 120 countries.  The church is in mission far beyond where it has members.

This points out an important difference in two ways in which the UMC is a global church.  First, we are a global church because we have membership in countries around the globe.  Second, we are a global church because we are in mission around the globe.  Historically, our global membership stemmed from the global mission of American Methodists.  Yet today, our global membership is not synonymous with global mission.  Members outside the US are not missions.  They are parters in mission.  Nor do missions imply the presence of members, at least in local worshipping communities.  Mission overlaps geographically with membership (including mission in the US), but it extends beyond as well.  Being able to separate between these two meanings of the global UMC is important to formulating a global ecclesiology for the church.

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