Thursday, January 30, 2014

W. Harrison Daniel on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Global

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. W. Harrison Daniel, Associate Professor in the Practice of History and Mission at Candler School of Theology.  Dr. Daniel is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Lord Acton once wrote, “Practically all great men were bad men and that hardly any public reputation survived the exposure of private archives.”[1] Mission historiography has made its business to test this thesis, by visits to many archives to see if any great missionary leaders and their reputations could survive critical exposure. I wonder if the document “Grace Upon Grace” would survive the archival exposure of the United Methodist missionaries trained under it?

I trained General Board of Global Mission missionary candidates at the pioneering Mission Resource Center in Atlanta, Georgia, in connection with Emory University and the Candler School of Theology over the period from 1996-1999.  According to the curriculum there at the time, “Grace Upon Grace” functioned as a type of foundational canonical text. Its role was largely to “rehabilitate” missionary candidates—both the mostly mildly theological conservative candidates, along with the more numerous strongly motivated Western liberal do-gooders. “Grace Upon Grace” presented a well-crafted Wesleyan vision with themes capable to retard the hubris and naiveté of missionary candidates across the entire mainstream Protestant theological spectrum.

My memories are that almost all of the type A and highly motivated  “missionary candidates” had already pretty much made up their mind about which part of the world needed transformation. And they would be able to spot what transformation God through the Grace in the form of Jesus of Christ wanted to birth, once they got out to their chosen field of service.  “Grace Upon Grace” appeared to most missionary candidates to represent just another required read to check off on their “To Do List,” in order to get out into the worldwide Methodist connection so they could change the world with their particular vision. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written by educator Paulo Freire was much more generative in the preparation and execution of our global ministries within the Wesleyan world connexion in 90s and at least through the first decade of the New Millennium.

That pedagogy and its attending specific oppressions were not specifically what “Grace Upon Grace” invited United Methodist missionaries to envision. But it seemed our highly motivated overachieving candidates too often missed transformational opportunities for pairing those documents together – which the Mission Resource Center intentionally wrote into the training curriculum. In historical retrospect, it seemed most candidates just looked through the document to their own illusions about the world.  Were any flawed or even bad men and women, transformed into great, or even effective, missionaries because they read “Grace Upon Grace”?  I would suspect Pedagogy of the Oppressed bore the greater fruit.

I wonder if the mission historiography of those many hundreds of missionaries sent out into the worldwide connexion of the UMC – mostly since 1988 trained under the rubrics of “Grace Upon Grace” – would survive Lord Acton’s measure of history and historiography?  That is not to ask, how does “Grace Upon Grace” stand up to the ever-changing canons of theology and even missiology as practiced (or not) in the academy? That approach relegates Methodist mission to just another expression of our institutional capacities to project and exercise our evolving sense of power across geographies and cultures. Such a project is probably soon moribund, due to our current divided cultural sensitivities and economic constraints – manifest at every level and scale of the United Methodist Connection locally, nationally, and internationally.

Let me suggest another way to analyze the statement: only the opening of the historical personnel files of the missionaries of the General Board of Global Ministries, mapped out against the theological, cultural and humanistic values implicit and explicit in “Grace Upon Grace,” could fully answer the question of how effective that missiological statement was since 1988. The opening of those files and an examination of the motives that moved the missionaries in their application papers would provide a useful baseline for the analysis of the document. Then a thorough examination that tracked the changes in their writings to GBGM (corrected against what they communicated to their supporting churches and conferences) would tell us a great deal about the effect of “Grace Upon Grace.” In the process, it would demonstrate much about the effects of the contexts upon the missionaries and to what degree they acted upon the best of Western intentions within that nuanced mission statement coming in the old age of the “modern” Missionary movement.

The personnel files of the GBGM are understandably protected and unlikely to see the light of responsible historiographical analysis for, say, another 75 years. Another historiographical attempt will be needed by then to supplement the recent GBGM institutional history. So we will not have the data for another two generations to measure “Grace Upon Grace” in either denominational historical terms or the historiographical standards of the academy (deconstruction of any “mission narrative” often through a hermeneutic of suspicion and deep Western post-colonial guilt). Until the institutional files are opened of missionary men and women who read and ingested “Grace Upon Grace” from the view of their own missionary motives, who attempted bravely to be purveyors of a more culturally sensitive connectionalism with our “inviting” indigenous partners,  and who tried their best to attract the attention of increasingly bored UM churches in the late 80s, 90s, and early decade of the 21st century – only measured against such factors can we assess if the General Conference statement “Grace Upon Grace” had any enduring impact in the world parish across that period. If Wesleyans still believe we are preveniently called to work with God through Jesus Christ to reconcile the world back to God, we must do some hard “Lord Acton archival” and historiographical work. One way to interrogate those archives is to subject them the document’s own theology: how was God’s mission embodied in the Grace that is Jesus Christ, expressed through United Methodist structures and translated into the lives of its representative missionaries around the globe?

Many of the connectional and institutional stake holders that control our denomination’s ever changing contested concept of mission and its accompanying ministry orders would do well to revisit “Grace Upon Grace” and ask Actonian questions. Does our Church and its Mission in historical terms show any evidence upon archival analysis that flawed missionaries and the church that formed them pointed with any more clarity towards God reconciling the world through Christ back to God?


[1] Acton quoted in Herbert Butterworth, Christianity and History (New York: Scribner’s,1949), 29.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Methodist Mission and Social Reform - Walter Klaiber on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Reform

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 Bishop Walter Klaiber, Retired Bishop of the Germany Episcopal Area.  Bishop Klaiber is commenting on the fourth section of the document, "Mission: Reform" and responding, in part, to Dr. Ben Hartley's earlier comments on that section.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

It is true that for the Methodist Movement social holiness was from the beginning an indispensable dimension of what Wesley called scriptural holiness. Already in the preface to his collection of “Hymns and Sacred Poems” from 1739 John Wesley wrote the famous sentence: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” Now, it may well be that for Wesley the word social meant not only public welfare but had a much broader meaning embracing everything that has to do with life in the community. But as Professor Hartley rightly emphasizes: Social reform was not a later addendum to the agenda of Methodism but belongs to its roots from the beginning. That “the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5; cf. Lk 4:18) meant always not only to preach the Gospel to them, but also to share temporal goods as well as to strive together with them for better conditions.

We all know Methodism did not always live up to this ideal. And telling the stories of mission may also mean telling some stories of short comings and failure. For example, we have to realize that in continental Europe, and especially in Germany, the Methodist movement was for most of its history not aware of this dimension of its mission. Methodism in continental Europe started as a revival movement and happened to become a kind of pietistic free church which was eager to save souls and to lead people to personal holiness in congregations where brothers and sisters lovingly (and sometimes also warily) were watching over one another. I hope I will not be misunderstood: Of course these people cared for one another and for their neighbors; their preaching and the way they lived together attracted poor and simple people, and their new lifestyle had the effect that at least the next generation climbed up the social ladder. But they were not involved in a struggle for social reform and more social justice – as almost none of the churches in Europe were. To support trade unions, for example, was not in the horizon of pastors or of most members of the church. The only real involvement in social work beyond the local church was the creation of hospitals where even poor people could get medical help by the Methodist Deaconess Orders, a type of ministry that started in Germany. The reasons for this are manifold: one of them may be that Methodists or Baptists were denounced as foreign intruders; therefore they felt they should be especially well-aligned to the governing standards of the society in order to get freedom for their religious message.

This has changed – at least when it comes to the theological awareness for the task of a holistic mission. Most people in the United Methodist Church in Germany will know that we have Social Principles and regard as one of the special marks of our church that the grace of God we share aims as at the shalom in society as well at personal salvation. Methodists took part in the peace movement of the eighties of the last century and were leading figures in the movement for justice, peace and integrity of creation. Our local churches are looking for a ministry which is meaningful for people in need: Noon meals for the poor and the lonely which offer not only food but also community and counsel, support for refugees and asylum seekers which not only cares for clothing and other goods, but also helps them to learn the language and to get access to medical treatment and legal counsel and tries to improve the legislation regarding the acceptance and the legal and social situation of these people. There is a renewed awareness of the problem of addiction, and church-related institutions provide medical care for addicted people, and local churches support self-help groups which work on the problem.

But there are still challenges:

1. When it comes to the struggle for social reform and for real change in the society we will have to work ecumenically. For Methodist Churches in Europe this is a must if only because they themselves are so small that they will only be heard when they speak together with other churches. In the secularized societies of the so called West the Christian Churches will only be taken seriously – if at all – when they speak with one voice. But in a time when even the life of the churches seems to be governed by the rules of the market society (what is your USP?) it is difficult to forge stable coalitions. “We [as United Methodists] need a victory”, said a bishop in view of the success of a major social program. No wonder that there was not much talk about ecumenical cooperation.

2. In principle and in theory we are aware of our holistic mission: Evangelism and social work, including lobbying for the poor, belong together. When it comes to the detail on the local level or in our Conferences there is still some debate: What is our main task? Not everybody can do everything, but in small churches or conferences it may even be difficult to tolerate or to accept that some do different things. And in those regions where membership is shrinking, the pressure is great to do those things first which seem to promise a numerical growth. As a bishop I used to say: I would like to have three groups in each church: One who tries to share the message with others, one who cares for people in need, and one who prays for both ministries.

3. Whereas in former times it may have been difficult to be holistic regarding the social dimension of our mission, today it sometimes seems to be difficult and even unacceptable regarding the evangelistic dimension. Should we share our faith e.g. with asylum seekers or refugees who are Muslims, or is it wise to try to integrate people from other Christian traditions into the communion of our congregations? Or are there other ways to share the love of God which we encounter in Christ with people of other religions or traditions without proselytizing them but also not withholding from them what is most precious for us?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Denominations and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  The event involves Christians from around the world praying for the unity of the body of Christ.  This event is a very long-standing one.  The missionaries I studied for my dissertation participated in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity over 100 years ago.  This year's theme is "Has Christ been divided?"

This blog is focused on a particular denominational tradition: United Methodism.  Often, denominationalism can seem like the opposite of Christian unity.  According to the latest figures from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are 45,000 denominations in the world, likely to rise to 55,000 in the next decade.  Many, Christian and non-Christian, look at that figure and shake their heads at the sad state of Christian unity.  Yet the number of denominations has only proliferated over the years, and it is probably unrealistic to expect it to start going down any time soon.

Perhaps one thing to pray for this week, then, is to see how our denominational traditions can contribute to rather than detract from Christian unity.  We don't see a large number of individuals as taking away from Christian unity, even if they have different gifts and graces.  A church with 45,000 member is not necessarily a worse example of Christian unity than a church with 300 members, though it may embody Christian unity in a different way.  It may not be unified in terms of personal relationships between all of the members, but there may still be a unity of purpose, of calling, of vision - in short, a spiritual unity.

Can we think of denominations in a similar way?  Can we conceive of Christian unity in spiritual rather than organizational terms?  The body of Christ is ultimately a spiritual reality, not a reality that is constituted in terms of formal administrative relationships or human power structures.  Such denominations are not (we hope) separate from the body of Christ, but we must not mistake the one for the other.  Denominations are not what destroy Christian unity - it's confusing human organizational structures with the divine body of Christ.  Once we can understand our own ecclesiastical traditions as a part of and not the entirety of the body of Christ, then it is easier to experience Christian unity with fellow Christians from other denominations.

Once we have made that distinction, we can begin to see denominations as endowed with different gifts and graces for the work of Christ, yet still part of some larger form of Christian unity.  Indeed, we need different gifts and graces to carry out the work of Christ.  Paul makes it clear in Romans 12 that these differences are a blessed, not a curse.  We often exegete that passage by applying it to individuals, but might it be possible to apply it to denominations as well?  If so, then denominations can, at their best, be a way of organizing and carrying out complimentary parts of the work of the Christ, a work that is large enough to incorporate all who earnestly seek to be a part of it within its unity.  May our prayers lead us to better understanding of the nature of that unity this week.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rising wealth inequality and the fate of global Methodism

A report on wealth inequality released by Oxfam yesterday included a startling statistic: the world's richest 85 individuals have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population.  This stat and the rest of the findings of the report have been getting a lot of play in the press in the last day and a half, but let me include some of the highlights for those of you who missed them.  The gap between the wealthy and the poor has grown in recent years in all but two countries around the globe, even in traditionally low-wealth inequality countries like the Scandinavian nations.  In the United States, the top 1% collected almost all of the benefits of the financial recovery since 2009, while the poor have gotten poorer in the same time.

This report raises two questions for me about how this rising wealth inequality impacts The United Methodist Church.  The first is this: One of the church's current Four Areas of Focus is "Ministry With the Poor."  What does it mean for us to be in ministry with the poor in a world in which the poor have an ever-decreasing portion of the world's resources?  How does that affect the types of ministry of which the poor are capable, and how does it affect the types of ministry that they poor need?  Does rising global wealth inequality make ministry with the poor more challenging, and if so, how should we as United Methodists respond?

The second question is this: Methodism has historically grown best among a rising middle class and the aspiring working class.  If, as the Oxfam report suggests, the world economic system is becoming increasingly a "winner-takes-all" system separated into the ultra-rich and the struggling masses, where does that leave Methodism's socio-ecclesiastical "niche."  Other have already pointed out the correlation between the decline of the middle class in the US and the decline of United Methodism in the US.  Currently, the middle class is still rising in Africa and other developing nations, but if increased wealth inequality puts a halt to the growth of the middle class there, will it halt United Methodist growth as well?

Please note that I'm not just calling for the government redistribution of wealth as a solution to this problem.  Wealth inequality is a complex problem, and government redistribution a simplistic solution for those who see it as such and a straw man opponent for those who don't see it as a problem.  As the Oxfam report makes clear, government policies do make a difference, especially those that set the rules of the financial playing field.  Yet so do corporate and individual choices in boardrooms and buying centers around the world.  In order to arrive at a set of communal and individual solutions, however, we must first recognize wealth inequality as a problem.

Also, while I've cast this article in terms of how wealth inequality might affect The United Methodist Church, there are plenty of other religious reasons to be leery of wealth inequality.  One can think of the many biblical statements about wealth, including those by Jesus, the prophets such as Amos and Micah, and even some of the Levitical laws, that recognize the spiritual and moral hazards of wealth and wealth inequality.  One can also make arguments based on such religious values as caring for others, the value of persons, and justice.  In my mind, these biblical and other religious reasons for questioning wealth inequality should be our primary reasons for doing so.  Ways in which wealth inequality may affect the UMC should be of interest to Methodists, but of secondary importance to our general call as Christians to live out the gospel of Christ.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jorge Domingues on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Global

Today's post is the seventh in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Rev. Jorge Domingues, Deputy General Secretary for Mission Theology and Evaluation at the General Board of Global Ministries.  Rev. Domingues is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Almost 200 years after the creation of the first Methodist Mission Society in the United States, we are revisiting “Grace Upon Grace,” the United Methodist mission statement approved by the General Conference in 1988. This section of the document, "Mission: Global," starts with paragraph 24, where the authors recognize that mission was understood “as essential to the being of the church" since the creation of The Methodist Episcopal Church at the Christmas Conference and even before in the Wesleyan origins of our tradition. It is impressive that some 35 years after its foundation, the denomination had already an organized home mission board and soon later was embarking on overseas missionary work. By the middle of the 19th century, the church was supporting mission efforts in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe. This effort, identified as a “global vision enlarged to include all continents” (Paragraph 24), was parallel to the diplomatic and foreign relations history of the United States in its first half century. Christian mission throughout the history has many times accompanied and even intertwined with political interests of expanding nations and the Methodist missionary movement of the early 19th century could be analyzed in that same perspective, unless we take a more in-depth look at what were the “continual discovery of new challenges” (Paragraph 24) experienced in the mission work of a church torn by the issue of slavery.

The women of the church provide a window for this expanded “vision of mission” by making the social ministry and the promotion of women’s and children’s conditions a central tenet of their home and foreign missionary societies. Paragraph 25 of the document makes clear that the missionary impetus of the new denomination had shifted towards the women who were, by the last third of the 19th century, “more than one-half of all missionaries.” The mission statement hints to the combination of “study programs, institution building, generous giving, and innovative service projects” (Paragraph 25) as an explanation for the strong leadership the women provided. Mission was also a channel for women’s organization at a time that women were also taking a much more assertive role in the society. In response to a male dominated institution, the women engaged in practical mission work as a way towards full participation, empowerment and commitment. This energy has continued to challenge the church establishment throughout the history, despite ongoing efforts to control the successful women’s organizations. And the legacy of the women’s involvement in mission can still be seen in the strong and almost stubborn women’s denominational and ecumenical organizations that continue to make God’s mission their own by means of learning, sharing and acting.

The newly born denomination’s understanding of mission and the boldness of the women who followed set the tone for a church that has not been contained by borders, wars or even division. And sometimes it was from its failures that the church took courage to continue responding to the call to be in God’s mission. Paragraph 26 reminds us that both achievements and failures have to be acknowledged as full of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The “intermixing of mission activities with national ambition, economic gains, and cultural values” was not the only external motivation for mission efforts to sprout. Humbling experiences such as the defeat of the Confederation also provided for mission expansion and outreach. Significant numbers of families who had lost their living after the Civil War migrated to Brazil, and even before the American church recognized and answered their request for a missionary assignment, they were accompanied by a clergyperson, Junius Newman, who responded to the mission challenge. Not surprisingly, the women followed and soon the first Methodist school in the country was inaugurated by Miss Martha Watts. The early experience of the Methodists in dealing with the challenges of their time is still an inspiration for a United Methodist Church that is struggling with this generation’s cultural values.

These contemporary challenges come both from inside and outside the church and are unique to our generation. At the same time that the center of Christianity has moved to the global South, there has been a “shift of the mission concept from ‘mission to the margins’ to ‘mission from the margins’” as stated by the World Council of Churches on its new affirmation on mission and evangelism, Together Toward Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, approved by the Central Committee in 2012. Paragraph 27 of Grace Upon Grace is prophetic in recognizing some 25 years ago that “we live in a time of basic reordering of international Christianity” and that Christians all over the world would “be receiving as well as sending missionaries.” The General Board of Global Ministries has also embraced this new concept in affirming that “mission is from everywhere to everywhere” and making it concrete in the fact that we have the most international missionary work force in the history of Methodism. The idea of empowering the margins of our world is not new to the understanding of mission by The United Methodist Church, as we referred earlier to the mission societies of the young denomination and the early women’s mission organizations. Nonetheless, this concept also doesn’t cease to evolve. The margins are not only in the distant mission fields in Africa or Asia, and the center is not only in the rich metropolises of the Global North. Poverty, greed, injustice, exclusion cut across all nations and challenge the church to find God’s mission at our doorsteps. So, beyond being listeners and teachers in a new “dynamic relationship,” we are called, with even more urgency in the 21st century, to “reshape our sense of mission responsibility” with “humility and gratitude” (Paragraph 27). This is a call and a vocation for a church that has not shied away from difficult debates in the past and that continues to be called into God’s mission.

Finally, this section of the mission statement concludes with a profession of faith on ecumenism and cooperation as essential for God’s mission and the church’s involvement in it. It is true that many of the leaders that created the modern ecumenical movement come from our tradition. Even in the life of the World Council of Churches we can see that 3 of the 7 general secretaries that have led that organization were Methodists from three different continents, fruit of the missionary work of our predecessors. But paragraph 28 was not able to foresee the weakening of the institutional ecumenism due to the weakening of the traditional churches that sustained it. It also didn’t recognize the push for more denominational evangelistic efforts than in previous decades. Soon after the 1988 General Conference approved this statement the United Methodist Global Ministries was starting or supporting the start of United Methodist Missions in places where we had not been before or not for many decades, sometimes with little cooperation with other Christian churches. And even though many have labeled this new missionary fervor as a resurgence of denominationalism, I believe that a true ecumenical community can only be complete with the beauty of all of our traditions being valued and respected. By responding to today’s mission call, The United Methodist Church is reaffirming “our mission intention … to be global and ecumenical” (Paragraph 28).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Human Trafficking Awareness Month and the global scope of the problem

By Presidential proclamation, January 2014 is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month in the United States.  One of the reasons for choosing January in the United States is that it's the run-up to the Super Bowl, which has become a focus for anti-trafficking efforts in the US, including this effort by the United Methodist WomenThis webinar by the General Board of Church & Society also relates to Human Trafficking Awareness Month.  I'm glad that this important issue is getting attention in the United States and proud that the UMW and GBCS are among the organizations involved in the fight against human trafficking.

Even though January has been proclaimed "National" Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month in the US, one of the reasons this issue is so important is that it isn't just a national problem in the US.  Human trafficking is an international and even global problem, and our anti-trafficking efforts as Christians and as United Methodists should be sure to keep the scope of the problem in mind.  Some aspects of human trafficking in the United States, such as sex slavery and forced prostitution, draw upon primarily (though not exclusively) domestic sources of trafficked humans, but many others, such as the restaurant industry, cleaning services, and other manual labor jobs depend upon international flows of trafficked humans.  The issue of trafficking in the US is not distinct from the issue of immigration, nor is it separate from the broader economic and migratory flows of globalization.

If that is true for the United States, it's true for other parts of the world as well.  Human trafficking, in all its many forms in all the many places it happens around the world, is often connected to the global movement of money, goods, and people.  Whether it's Brazilians forced to produce rubber for international markets, sex slaves trafficked from Eastern Europe to Western Europe, child soldiers in international wars in central Africa fought for control of global commodities, forced prostitutes serving global sex tourists in Thailand, or debt slaves producing agricultural products for export in India, human trafficking is frequently an issue that extends beyond the borders of any one country.  That's why it's important for organizations like The United Methodist Church, which also have connections across countries, to use those connections to help combat this issue.

If you want to learn more about this issue, there are a number of good books out there.  I recommend Kevin Bales' Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, E. Benjamin Skinner's A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, and David Batstone's Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade--And How We Can Fight It.  In addition to the UMC's efforts, Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves are among the best anti-human trafficking organizations out there.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ben Hartley on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Reform

Today's post is the seventh in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission and Director of United Methodist Studies at Palmer Theological Seminary.  Dr. Hartley is commenting on the fourth section of the document, "Mission: Reform."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
 
In paragraphs 18-24 Grace upon Grace continues to recount “our missional heritage” by drawing attention to previous Methodist reform movements which attacked the problems of slavery, unjust labor practices, alcohol abuse, poverty, and economic injustice. A very similar litany of past Methodist involvement in addressing these problems could certainly still be given today – twenty-five years after the writing of Grace upon Grace. It may be helpful, however, to reflect a bit about how one might tell this nineteenth century story of mission as social reform differently today. Our perspective on historical events is always shifting.

I was struck first by the way Methodism’s holistic ministry of biblical justice and evangelism was described in paragraph 18: “The revival movement which began with an emphasis on personal regeneration extended into social reform.” Historically, this description certainly suggests a shift in emphasis. But does it downplay the extent to which social reform was integral to Methodist mission from the start? Wesley’s anti-slavery writings and his “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions” are just two examples to which one may point to highlight such holism. Theologically, I am also critical of portraying the 19th century Methodist reform efforts as mere “extensions” as if they were a kind of second step beyond a focus on personal regeneration. For most nineteenth century Methodists mission as social reform was seen as part and parcel of their view of sanctification. (Grace upon Grace does a nice job of highlighting the importance of this doctrine in paragraphs 9 and 43.) Frances Willard, John R. Mott, E. Stanley Jones and many unsung heroes in the anti-slavery and organized labor movements were driven to do their work at least in part because of their life-transforming experiences of sanctifying grace. They sought to bring into reality an evangelical synergism of what E. Stanley Jones called “Christlikeness universalized.”

It is important today to tell these stories of mission as reform in such a way that they do not get reduced to mere do-gooder activism or as Methodism’s “extension” beyond personal regeneration, or as an adoption of Social Gospel ideas which were imported to Methodism from other theological movements. It was frequently these things as well, but for many 19th century Methodists, their work in mission as social reform was powered by a profound conviction about holiness. God’s sanctifying grace propelled them to the streets as well as to the far side of the sea. This is easy to forget at a time when teaching about holiness is at best unfashionable in many UMC congregations in North America. We will need to find new language to express this hallmark of the Methodist movement in such a way that it captures our imaginations, but it ought not be given up. A few weeks ago I was asked to attend a meeting of the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium by the UMC’s Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. This gathering of about a dozen denominational leaders who identify with the Wesleyan holiness tradition was a reminder to me of what many United Methodists could gain from some ecumenical relationship-building at a local level. Our closest Wesleyan cousins share in our history of social reform and in our teaching about sanctification.

When we are telling these stories of mission as reform, it is also important to point out that they are ongoing stories. Paragraphs 18-23 in Grace upon Grace are a reminder that the scourge of human slavery is not only a historical victory for Methodists but remains a challenge for the contemporary church. The problem of human trafficking is gaining a great deal of traction among Christians in North America at the moment. This is surely a hopeful sign. I fear, however, that other related problems are being somewhat ignored in the face of this important movement to end human trafficking today.

The problems of poverty and food insecurity in the U.S. and around the world are as significant now just as they were when Wesley penned his essay, “Thoughts on the Scarcity of Provisions,” in 1773. New challenges of climate change, access to clean water, sanitation, and future food price increases require continued commitment of Methodists around the world for years to come. We also need to celebrate and be thankful for the success stories of poverty reduction in many countries throughout the world. While much work remains to be done I think it is important that Christians acknowledge the good news of reduced poverty rates in many countries. There are personal stories behind these positive statistics. I recently found the Bread for the World 2013 Hunger Report to be rather encouraging reading in this regard.

Finally, Grace upon Grace describes “social transformation” in the early 20th century as a “new frontier in mission.” Methodists like to speak of new frontiers even when they are not really new. Still, the size of the task, the complexity of the problem, and the energy and hopefulness to address it doubtless made Methodist workers in social reform feel like they were on a new frontier to which God had called them. When we tell the old story of Methodists’ mission as social reform we also must find new ways of telling that story so that it too feels like a new frontier of self-understanding.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2014: The Year of Methodist Higher Education in Africa?

While the news stories about Africa that (unfairly) get the most play in the US tend to be negative stories about war or disaster, there's been a lot of good news coming out of the continent recently too.  Sub-Saharan Africa is poised to be a world-leader in the rate of economic growth, technology is booming, and there is even good news from the fight against AIDS.  One of the under-reported positive stories from the continent is the growth of higher education, and Methodist-affiliated institutions are an important part of that story.  Yet stories about Methodist higher education in Africa may be getting more attention in 2014.

Centenary College of Louisiana, a UM-affiliated school, began that trend last fall, with a fantastic six-page article in its college magazine about African higher education in general and United-Methodist colleges such as Africa University and Kamina Methodist University in particular.  It's a well-informed article and well worth a read.  You can read more about UM colleges and universities in Africa from a previous post on this blog as well.

United Methodist-affiliated theological education has been in the news as well.  This blog has previously shared stories about UM theological education in Africa, including the use of e-readers at Gbarnga School of Theology.  Blogger and UMC worker Julu Swen wrote a piece just a week and a half ago providing additional information about changes and new projects underway at Gbarnga.  Africa University has released a book series on theology by African theologians, which should be a good new resource for theological education this year.  Moreover, the Central Conference Theological Education Grants that will be awarded this year (the application deadline is January 30) will likely lead to more new initiatives in African theological education this year.

Finally, if anyone is in doubt of the potential impact of Methodist higher education in Africa, she or he need only to look back to one of the biggest stories of the end of 2013: the passing of Nelson Mandela.  Mandela was raised in Methodist schools, which gave him the skills and confidence necessary for his life's work.  As we look forward to 2014 as a year of Methodist higher education in Africa, let us pray with expectation to see the additional leaders that education will rise up, for the continent and for the world.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Plan now: World-Wide Methodist Songfest in May

On Tuesday, I mentioned one upcoming global Methodist event: the Game Changers Summit hosted by UMCom in September.  Today, as we're now officially into 2014, I'd like to mention another global Methodist event coming up this year: the World-Wide Methodist Songfest on May 24.  This collection of locally-organized events was initiated by the World Methodist Council and the New Room in Bristol to commemorate the 275th anniversary of John Wesley's Aldersgate experience.

What is this event?
It's a world-wide songfest, or a global hymn sing, in which Methodists (and not just United Methodists) from around the world will all hold local hymn-sings to celebrate the 275th anniversary of John Wesley's Aldersgate experience, the moment when John Wesley found his heart "strangely warmed" and experienced assurance of the forgiveness of his sins in Christ.  The idea is to gather together to sing hymns and Methodist songs for forty-five minutes, any hymns and Methodist songs the local organizers may deem appropriate, and then cap it off by singing, "O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" at the exact time of Wesley's experience.

Who is this event aimed at?
All Methodists everywhere.  It doesn't get much more broadly Methodist than singing hymns.

When and where will the songfest be?
The event will happen on Saturday, May 24th at 8:00pm/20:00 local time and culminate with singing "O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" at 8:45pm/20:45 local time.  The songfest/hymn sing will be happening in local Methodist congregations.

How can I participate?
You can contact your local Methodist congregation to see if they are planning to participate.  If not, consider leading the organizing efforts.  The time and day are set; you would only need to arrange music leaders and publicity.  While you can contact the World Methodist Council or the New Room, Bristol to notify them of your participation, that is not necessary.