Recently, two 12-year-olds spoke to a convention of 55,000 United Methodists in Zimbabwe. Chelsea Chipendo preached to the revival meeting, which included United Methodists from both annual conferences in Zimbabwe as well as Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. In addition, Tapiwa Makamba recited poetry. Both were well-received by the adults in attendance at the assembly. It's easy to hear this story and think of Chipendo, "Oh, what a remarkable girl." Yet this story is more than just a great human interest piece. It's a demonstration of the theological differences that exist between Zimbabwe and the US, theological differences that, while they do not make global United Methodism impossible, certainly do present challenges to developing common understandings across cultural divides in United Methodism.
To be fair, having a 12-year-old preach to such a large gathering is unusual in Zimbabwe. Indeed, this is the first time such a thing has ever happened. Yet, I think it would be even more remarkable were a 12-year-old to preach to such a gathering in the United States. (Of course, the sort of large-scale revival event at which Chipendo preached at is almost unheard of in contemporary American United Methodism, but that's another story.) The question, then, is why Zimbabweans were willing to let a 12-year-old preach and why Americans wouldn't be, and this turns out to be a question about authority. Chipendo was allowed to speak because she was seen as having sufficient authority to speak by Zimbabwean United Methodist leaders, but American United Methodists do not regard 12-year-olds, even particularly precocious 12-year-olds, to have sufficient authority. That's because Zimbabweans and Americans, by and large, have different understandings of the sources of authority within the church.
For most Zimbabweans, authority in church settings is derived from spiritual power. Spiritual gifts, such as the ability to preach with the Spirit, convey authority that legitimates the exercise of leadership. In Western terms, one could think about Max Weber's definition of charisma. God may tend to confer spiritual gifts in certain ways, but there's no a priori reason why God couldn't bestow the gift of preaching on a 12-year-old girl. If others are convinced that God has so gifted that girl, then she's qualified to preach, even to a large gathering of adults. God's spiritual gifts, demonstrated in practice, bestow that authority on her.
In the United States, most mainline Christians think of authority (in the church and elsewhere) as stemming from training, knowledge, professional credentialing, and/or professional success. In Weberian terms, this is a bureaucratic understanding of authority. We may recognize the some children are particularly gifted in speaking, and perhaps they might address a local congregation on youth Sunday, but we probably wouldn't have them preach to a large gathering of adults, unless perhaps they were speaking directly about youth-related issues. While being a youth might be an indication of sufficient knowledge to speak about youth-related issues, children are too young to have the training, knowledge, and experience to speak about general topics to adults, and they lack any sort of professional credentialing. Thus, they lack authority to speak.
My point here is not that one understanding of authority is right and the other is wrong, but rather to point out how they are different. Moreover, that difference is important for more than just the question of whether or not to let 12-year-olds preach to adults. This difference in understanding of authority has the potential to cause rifts over a whole set of issues related to church government. While that doesn't mean Zimbabweans and Americans can't be part of the same church, it does mean that acknowledging such differences is important to figuring out how to accommodate them.