Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Response from a Hybridized Location: Glory Dharmaraj 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. Glory E. Dharmaraj, a consultant for United Methodist Women.  Dr. Dharmaraj is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

(Para. 24)
We are inheritors of mission, not innovators of mission. We are participants in mission, not proprietors of mission. We are recipients of mission, not owners of mission. Mission belongs to the Triune God. Therefore, we are all partakers and partners in mission, not path-setters or trend-makers of mission. Christian mission has one origin--God. It has one goal—reconciling the world to Christ. Christian mission is not a destination. It is a journey – a journey the whole Church undertakes.

Right from its onset, Christian mission has been involved in cross-racial and cross-cultural engagements. The gospel that was preached and witnessed from the Jewish world of the first century was shared not by Westerners but by the Jewish converts living in the Mediterranean world. The gospel that was carried to all of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the then known world, was done primarily by the early apostles and converts from Judaism.

Today, the global south is the major area of Christian growth. More Christians are living in the global south than in the global north, and the focus of mission today has become multi-directional, “from everywhere to everywhere.” The former "Christian" lands of Europe and North America have seen church participation plummet, and the emergence of new forms of Christian community which have little to do with the established Christian congregations.

We, as inheritors of mission, are called to create new mission and theological categories in the context of worldwide, multicultural, polyphonic and pluralistic societies, as so many variables and uncertainties continue to challenge the followers of Jesus Christ.

(Para. 25)
Women class-leaders during John Wesley’s days, and later on itinerant ministers’ wives, lay women organized for mission in various predecessor organizations of the United Methodist Women, Bible women who undergirded the work of the missionaries in the receiving countries, and deaconesses in urban and rural settings undertook many journeys on one path: witnessing to Christ as embodiments of the church’s dynamic engagement in the world. Women have expanded the church’s vision in the use of inclusive language for God and expansive language for fellow human beings. Women’s ordination and women’s theologies have set milestones in leadership, agency, and decision-making as women.

Gender equity is still a process. Experiences of women differ, and their identities are shaped by intersections of their race, ethnicity, language, culture, sexuality, class, migrant and refugee experiences etc. Postmodernity has shown that there is no universal self. The needs and challenges of women doing theology in the contexts of indigenous communities, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and environmental disasters call for local, regional, and worldwide networks.

Women still have to negotiate their various identities in order to be in sisterhood in an unequal world. Mary Dustin’s well-meaning longing in her poem, “Who is our sister?” (1873) assumes a universal self, and remains a quest: “She is our sister who doth wear/ The robe of womanhood/ One worldwide sisterhood declare/ Beneath the pine and palm.”[i]

The challenge for women, like the rest of the church in the global north, is to move past the modernist past, to find ways forward. Today, a cultural hermeneutics of intersectionality needs to be fully developed and placed in service, for recognizing and respecting the various identity markers that shape women in the worldwide church.[ii] This multifaceted nature of women’s identity is a local, regional, and global reality. Gaps and interstices abound significantly in the lives lived out by women and children. An intersectional approach as well as a means to address the gaps and interstices has to be envisioned. A theology of interstices can help provide moving beyond analyses of the respective contexts to how to build bridges among the various margins. In the midst of their criss- cross journeys, negotiating their various social identities, women claim their baptismal identity in Christ, and bring gifts from the margins to the church.

(Para. 26)
The diverse and pluralistic nature of the church and its particularities are held together in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not a cosmetic or decorative diversity but a shared inclusivity and diversity in the building of the body of Christ. It is not merely empirical but organic. When one part of the body suffers the entire body suffers (I Cor. 12:26). In a mutually intertwined and globalized world such as ours, what the Christian community in one part of the world does has an impact on another part of the world. At the same time, each is an organ of the Body and exists for the sake of the community in which it is situated. The mission and ministry of the church, and all that it stands for, are related to the community where it is lived out.

(Para. 27)
Facilitating mission from the margins is a key missional responsibility today. The giving-receiving-and giving cycle does not begin with a mere sharing of material resources. It involves the sharing of knowledge, experience, technology, human potential, liturgy, wisdom of the church traditions, and anything that would enrich our mutual, witnessing mission and disciple-making ministries.

Mutuality is not profit-centered. It is a value; it is relations-based; it is a long-term, organic growth paradigm. Mission today cannot be done by the churches in the global south alone, or by the churches in the global north. We need each other, not just as mere organs to function, or merely to meet the needs of the dominant members of the body. We need one another to heal human communities and transform the whole of God’s creation. The connectionalism of the United Methodist Church is an enabler of mutuality.

(Para. 28)
The ecumenical movement, which began in the 1940s in order to bring together European churches, had indeed reached far beyond its boundaries in the 1960s and embraced the global Christian community. But in this century, ecumenism has lost its steam and faces new challenges.

The worldwide Christian community does not have just one mission theology or one universal Christianity but many theologies and many Christianities. This fragmented theology should not be taken as a sign of weakness but a source of strength as all are striving to be faithful followers of Christ in their respective communities as the worldwide body of Christ.

Ecumenicity today has to grapple with more than inter-denominational unity. It has to address multifaith concerns. At times, when politicization and ethnicization of religions tend to create narrow and closed understandings among adherents of various faiths, is there not a call for unity among common humanity? While addressing narrow interpretations of religions, when it comes to people of other religious faiths, we rely on Kingdom principles rather than church principles, as we all share a common humanity. As a community involved in Christ’s mission, we join hands to build a kin-dom where all of us live together in peace, justice, and harmony.[iii]


[i] Quoted in Karen Seat’s “Providence has Freed Our Hands”: Women’s Missions and the American encounter with Japan (Syracuse University Press, 2008), 112.
[ii] The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlè Crenshaw in her article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” in Stanford Law Review. Vol. 43, No. 1. 1989, pages 1241-1299.
[iii] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz coined the phrase, “kin-dom” of God to emphasize relationality, community, and equity as the basis of God’s reign. It is an obvious contrast to systems of oppression and relations of domination.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ministry education program shows international cooperation

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) recently reported that the first two students will graduate this spring from a Spanish-language Bachelor of Theology program jointly run by GBHEM and the Latin American Biblical University / Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana (UBILA).  The program is designed for Spanish-speaking pastors in the United States and involves distance work, sessions in Nashville, TN, and work at UBILA in Costa Rica.  Thus, the education is international, not only in its sponsor institutions but also its location.

The partnership is also a great example of a reciprocal relationship between North American and Latin American Methodists.  UBILA is supported in part through UMC missionary faculty, through Advance Special scholarships, and through UMC mission volunteers teams.  Yet the resources that UBILA brings to its partnership with GBHEM go far beyond those given to it by the North American church.  UBILA contributes its own strengths, expertise, and personnel to help make this ministry-training program a success, and the North American UMC benefits from the services of the Spanish-speaking pastors produced by the program.  Both partners have something to share with each other, and by sharing, they are both able to do more than they could on their own.

GBHEM has been doing a great job recently in expanding its international partnerships, and this program is yet another example of a successful partnership.  It is also an example of how, when two or more groups each share what they have with each other, the sum can be greater than the parts, and each one participating can be blessed.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Modern mission mindsets and the need for ecumenism: Sathianathan Clarke 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. Sathianathan "Sathi" Clarke, Bishop Sundo Kim Chair for World Christianity and Professor of Theology, Culture, and Mission at Wesley Theological Seminary.  Dr. Clarke is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

“Grace upon Grace” is a robust, reflective, and instructive mission statement approved by the General Conference of United Methodist Church in 1988. As a vision statement for Christian mission, it is still remarkably pertinent. It diligently collects and integrates many threads of Wesleyan history (“identity”) to offer pathways for the Church to responsibly respond to “God’s saving activity” for the world (“relevance”). There can be little doubt, as pointed out by other competent historians and missiologists in this blog, that this reclaiming of Wesleyan heritage disregards many small but weighty voices and several invisible but effective bodies. This exclusion, however, gives us more focused and resolute work for the future.  This mission pronouncement awaits the re-assembling and re-appropriation of clouds of mission witnesses that have not been accounted for sufficiently.

As a 1980s theological statement, “Grace upon Grace” is also a mission affirmation that exhibits the ethos of modernity.  At the other end of the twentieth century, it aspires to continue the goal of the 1910 World Missionary Conference “to develop the whole church for the whole world.” Thus, it lifts high a modern meta- vision for the church in the world, even if responding in grace to the Gospel. To that end, the UMC statement aims to establish “the norm of mission,” which in turn can “mold the form of mission,” as the Church offers itself anew to “the Gospel of grace.” It is this “Gospel of Grace” that impels Christians “to evangelize and serve the world, which God in Christ ‘so loved’.” (Introduction) Here too one can submit that it is our responsibility in the twentieth-first century, which lives within the hybridity of the modern and post-modern world, to purge the overconfidence of the former and absorb the modesty of the latter in construing norms and shaping forms of Christian mission.

Before opening up one avenue for critical discussion within the “Mission: Global” section, let me say what struck me. First, there is a celebration of the role that African American ex-slaves (para 25) and “women of the Church” (para 26) played in mission to the world. Yet this is in tension with the more passive representation of Native Americans. The mission theology of this UMC statement can surely take on an interpretive framework that focuses on “mission from the margins.” This shift in focus for considering the agency of God’s mission on earth is propagated in the document produced by the Council for World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) and accepted as the new Affirmation of WCC at it General Assembly in 2013. The UMC statement may contain elements of “an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalized.” (Paragraph 38 from this document entitled “Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.”) Second, there is a realistic acknowledgment of the achievements and failures of global mission when “survey[ing] the past and look[ing] to God’s future.” (Para 26) This nicely dovetails with a new relational paradigm that will accompany the international church in mission. The dynamic relationship of mutual listening and teaching will thrive within the spirit of humility and gratitude. (Para 27) Third, the ecumenical spirit of mission in its move from the local to the global is affirmed in the past even as it continues to be respected for future mission (Para 28). Such collaboration envisions cooperation among members in the body of Christ as the Church serves the world.

From my own experience of writing and reflecting on mission from an Asian, more specifically Indian, context, there is one major global shift that needs to be reckoned with as we discuss how we can extend the relevance of “Grace upon Grace” in our twenty-first century. If the twentieth century represented the spirit of Christian ecumenism, I submit that our twenty-first century is an age of wider, fuller, and knottier interreligious ecumenism. The same grace that was generously shared with other Christians may need to be stretched graciously to embrace other children of God. Mission not only needs to be founded upon “grace upon grace,” where the body of Christ is united in love, but mission also needs to be funded by “grace alongside grace” where the entire body of God is incorporated into love. I believe that the multi-religious convergence of the twenty-first century calls for a bolder step of acknowledging common grace that we have with all other faith traditions, even as we respectfully share the received grace that Christians have been gifted in Jesus Christ.  Such an acceptance of common grace hidden within the surplus of Divine Trinitarian grace (I suggest we think of this as “grace alongside grace upon grace”) takes nothing away from the grace that embraces us in Jesus Christ. Instead such a dynamic and free circulation of common grace honors the surplus of divinity captured by the inexhaustible riches within the Triune God, even as it accounts for the cloud of strange and different witnesses to grace scattered all over the human family. I believe that “humility” before the capaciousness of God’s grace and “gratitude” for the specificity of Christ’s grace will ‘reshape our sense of mission responsibility” (Para 27) in new and fruitful ways.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Learning to be ecumenical from the global UMC

As reported by the United Methodist News Service, results from a recent survey of United Methodist bishops in the church's Central Conferences indicate a good deal of ecumenical and interfaith work going on in the UMC outside of the US.  This work takes on a wide variety of forms, though peace building is particularly important, as are community development projects.  While there are always dangers of losing our distinctive theological witness to God in ecumenical and interfaith work, I think these findings are both good news for The United Methodist Church as a whole and another way in which American United Methodists can learn from their brothers and sisters abroad.

First, it is good news because it shows that United Methodists are living out their faith in the world beyond the walls of the church.  The world is filled with people who are not United Methodists, so if we are to be engaged in the world, we must be engaged with non-Methodists.  Moreover, the world is filled with needs, and as retired Bishop Walter Klaiber pointed out on this blog recently, in many areas of the world, in order for United Methodists to successfully witness to the world and work for its betterment, we must do so in concert with other people of faith traditions.  United Methodism does not possess the resources, numbers, or prestige in most places that can allow it to transform societies on its own.  Instead, Methodists around the world recognize that if they are to live out the gospel, they must do so in cooperation with other Christians and even people of other religions, not by going solo.

That attitude is perhaps one of the ways in which American United Methodists can learn from our sisters and brothers around the world.  In the United States, United Methodism did once upon a time have the resources, numbers, and prestige to have a significant social and political impact by itself.  Those days are long past, but many in the denomination pine for their return.  United Methodists in other countries are uninhibited by such a past, and it leaves them freer to engage in ecumenical and interfaith efforts that are productive for both the church and society as a whole.  If American United Methodists could catch that spirit of cooperation on behalf of peace, on behalf of Christian cooperation, on behalf of caring for the poor, imagine what might be possible in the United States as well.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A European view on UMC mission - Hans Växby 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 Bishop Hans Växby, retired bishop of the Eurasia Episcopal Area.  Bishop Växby is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

As a theological reflection, Grace Upon Grace, is an excellent document for the head. It is a good summary of central Christian thinking, United Methodist history of mission, and reminder of Wesleyan emphasis. As such it also challenges the heart to be moved by God’s grace in past times and evokes passion for mission and ambition to live up to the standards set by our foreparents. Its real value, however, is measured by what it makes our hand practice. Our Doctrinal Heritage[1] concludes, “These distinctive emphases of United Methodists provide the basis for ‘practical divinity,’ the experiential realization of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the lives of Christian people. These emphases have been preserved not so much through formal doctrinal declarations as through the vital movement of faith and practice as seen in converted lives and within the disciplined life of the church.” It is true that we too often are so occupied by our doing that we forget our being, but being cannot be understood if it is separated from doing – even in a theological and reflective document. “A grace-formed church is one which responsibly participates in God’s action in and for the world,” (italics added) as it says in the Introduction of Grace Upon Grace.

The weakness of Grace Upon Grace is that it not clearly enough points to the implementation of the Gospel, the practical divinity it gives the basis for. This is especially evident when it comes to paragraphs 24-28, “Mission: Global.”

Paragraphs 24 and 25 give an historic summary, on which one could find reason only to make minor comments in the margin.

Paragraphs 26 and 27 give a strong and inescapable picture of being written from an American standpoint. It is unfortunately not a document of a worldwide church. Hence my following comments:

Paragraph 26 opens with the statement, “A comprehensive world view has characterized our church’s outreach,” expanded with “To see the world as one.” Here is an underlying challenge, mostly overlooked. When we say “to see the world as one,” where do we stand when we look at the world? Subconsciously, we see the one world from the standpoint of the privileged and resourceful Western world. Needless to say, the same one world may look very different seen from another regional, political, financial, or cultural situation. The document recognizes both “the intermixing of mission activities with national ambition, economic gains, and cultural values,” and our “failures,” but it fails to say that we are a United Methodist Church also in Angola, Manila, and Bulgaria, etc. We are one United Methodist Church all over the world. And the annual conferences, local churches, and missions we meet abroad are not a number of mission objects, but mission allies.[2]

As long as we talk about mission on the national and regional level, we are functioning as a connectional church. But as soon as we turn to mission in another part of the world, we too easily slip into becoming a mission agency. We talk about partnership and friendship, and the blessings of this are real and rewarding. But the framework is mostly time-limited projects. Also when we support indigenous mission workers, it is more often in the form of a project. And if we are not mindful, and often we are not, we fail to talk about stewardship and helping the indigenous church to build up self-support and an economy of its own. We are not only called to give help where needed, but also to develop a sound and mature church on the global level.

All this is not only about our doing; this is highly a matter of being. Actually we can’t do very much more than we are doing – I’m deeply impressed and thankful for all that the General Board of Global Ministry, Mission Society, annual conference mission agencies in USA and Europe, local churches around the world, and individual Christians are doing. No, we probably can’t do much more, but we can be much more. And the weakness of our Mission Statement becomes evident when it fails to address this when it goes on with the challenges ahead in Paragraph 27.

Paragraph 27. Being is about values and attitudes, because the values we teach become attitudes among individuals, and attitudes create action. There is an obvious interrelation between attitudes and actions.

The global mission awakening in the 19th century didn’t come from nowhere; it came from the already established urge to share the faith and from the growing awareness that the world was much bigger than perceived in daily life, and it was enhanced by the passion of individuals and the rise of multiple forms of organizations (Para. 24). Two centuries later, when the one world has become as close and accessible as the next village down the road, the mission statement of the church would have been stronger with an addition to Paragraph 27: Moving towards a new century we need to be prepared to implement the connectional thinking in the whole worldwide United Methodist church.

Paragraph 28 would improve with an additional sentence: In the century ahead we want to further develop the cooperation with Ecumenical Partners worldwide as we do in our local churches and annual conferences.

[1]Disciple ¶ 102
[2] A distinction made by the Hungarian-Swedish missiologist, Hanna Hodacs in her "Converging World Views: The European Expansion and Early-Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Swedish Contacts"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

So the seeds of change are sown

A while back, UMCommunications ran this story about a FrontlineSMS training with a youth group at Galilea UMC in Blantyre, Malawi.  (This blog has previously reported about the FrontlineSMS project in Malawi.)  At first, this may not seem like the makings of a significant story - just one church, only the youth group.  Yet we should pay attention to this story, for it represents how the seeds of change are sown.

We may not think that "just one church" being trained in a new technology is significant.  Sure, we may believe in the power of technology to transform the world, but partly we believe that because technology is ubiquitous.  How much can technology transform the world if it's only in one church?  Yet, as anyone familiar with tech development knows, before technology becomes ubiquitous, it must be used by product testers, have an initial roll-out, and be taken up by early adopters.  Galilea UMC isn't "just one church"; they're among the early adopters that will make it possible for this technology to be used by many churches.

We may not think something that applies "just to the youth group" is significant.  Sure, most churches want a thriving youth group, but it is often easy for us to differentiate between the work the youth group does and the "real work" of the church, work we associate with budgets and committees and the like.  Yet budgets and committees are not the real work of the church.  They exist to make real work, i.e., the application of the gospel in and to the world, possible.  The Galilea UMC youth are already running programs that carry out the work of the church.  Learning how to use FrontlineSMS is just as much preparing to do real work as is sitting in a committee, if not more so.

Indeed, our entire faith is predicated upon the belief that what a small group of mostly young people does in one particular location can transform the world.  Jesus wasn't incarnated everywhere is some sort of global roll-out of God-with-us.  He was born in one place, started his ministry in one town, and spent the entirety of his ministry in only that portion of the globe that could be reached by walking from where he started.  Moreover, Jesus was under 35 for the entirety of his ministry, if not enough to put him in the "youth group" demographic, certainly enough to qualify him as a "young adult" in the UMC.  We may presume that a number of his followers were too.  Yet, despite starting out in "just one synagogue" with "just a bunch of young adults," Jesus' ministry, life, death, and followers have transformed the world, and we proclaim that belief as the good news of the gospel still today.  The seeds of change must be sown somewhere, and a youth group in Galilea UMC, Blantyre, Malawi, is as good a place as any to do so.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dana L. Robert 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. Dana L. Robert, the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Missions and Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology.  Dr. Robert is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

For United Methodists who might be reading Grace Upon Grace for the first time, the topics addressed by paragraphs 24-28 contain the popular understanding of John Wesley’s statement “The world is my parish.” When we United Methodists think about mission, we often think “global.” Our classic understanding of mission for the past 200 years has included the sending of missionaries around the world. Methodists go into all the world as “bearers of grace” (par 26). Our Christian hope leads us to see the world as God sees it--not merely as a set of challenging and dangerous human divisions, but as a community. Global mission reminds us that despite our own sins and limitations, we seek to live in the world as one “Body of Christ” (par 26).

One important theme to unpack in these paragraphs is our history of interracial and male-female partnership in the launching of “foreign” missions. Aside from Canada and the Caribbean, the first major overseas mission field for U.S. Methodists was Liberia.  As African-American Methodists migrated across the U.S., served as sailors aboard ships, and emigrated to Liberia and the Caribbean, they took their faith with them. The man whose work inspired the founding of the Methodist Missionary Society in 1819 was African-American John Stewart, pioneer missionary to the Wyandott Indians of Ohio (par 24). Methodists in New York, both black and white, raised money to support his work.

Of mixed African and European descent, John Stewart (1786-1823) was born a free man and Baptist in Virginia.[1]  Robbed on his way to Ohio, he attempted to drink himself to death.  He joined a Methodist camp meeting near Marietta and obtained spiritual relief from his agony of soul.  Stewart became ill from resisting a call to preach and only recovered after agreeing to obey God.  He heard God’s voice telling him to preach to the Indians. When he reached the Wyandotts in 1816, Stewart began singing and preaching to them, warning them to “flee the wrath to come.”  His ministry resulted in the conversion of chiefs, leading women, and others.  As was often the case on the frontier, rival missionaries quickly appeared on the scene to steal Stewart’s converts. They accused him of having no credentials from any organized group of Christians.  Stung by the accusation but supported by his native converts, Stewart approached the Ohio Annual Conference and requested ordination.

Today John Stewart would probably not meet the educational standards required for ordination . But in 1819, the Ohio Conference recognized his call from God as part of the divine plan for the expansion of Methodism, and it immediately licensed him.  The conference collected money for his work and appointed a regular missionary to follow with a circuit.  Back in New York City,  Methodists heard of Stewart’s success and promptly organized the Methodist Missionary Society to raise money for missions and book publishing.  Of the nine ministers who founded the society, six had been circuit rider/missionaries in Canada.  Methodist women founded the New York Female Missionary Society, which assisted the missionary outreach through fund-raising, an idea that quickly spread to Methodist women in Albany, Boston, and other Methodist centers.   In 1825 the women’s society sent a circulating library to the Wyandott Indians. The women’s society’s greatest success came a few years later as the core support for the new Liberia mission.  These two societies, one general and one female auxiliary, were the first significant voluntary organizations American Methodists founded specifically for the global mission of the church.

The example of John Stewart demonstrates the Methodist pattern during the early nineteenth century--expansion in obedience to the Holy Spirit, backed up by sound organization.  Despite requests in 1824 by African-American settlers for a missionary to organize churches, no experienced pastors would volunteer because of Liberia’s reputation as the “white man’s grave.”  Finally in 1832 the widower Melville Cox of Hallowell, Maine, volunteered and was accepted because he was already dying of tuberculosis anyway.  When told by a heckler at Wesleyan University that he would die in Liberia, Cox replied that his epitaph should read “Let a thousand fall before Africa be given up.” Surviving three months, Cox nevertheless organized the Liberian church according to the Discipline, planned a school, bought a building, and held a camp meeting.  The first reinforcements after his death lived about a month, with only one unmarried woman missionary who remained.

Over the decades, most missionaries to Liberia died or were invalided home.  Despite a permanent haze of malaria and the deaths of nearly all her colleagues, the Liberia missionary who provided continuity for nineteen years (1837-1856) was the teacher Ann Wilkins. Her call to Africa came at a camp meeting, when she put the following note into the offering plate, “A sister who has but little money at command, gives that little cheerfully, and is willing to give her life as a female teacher, if she is wanted.”[2] Wilkins was sustained by her holiness piety and money, prayers, supplies, and correspondence from the New York Female Missionary Society. She founded the first Methodist girls’ school abroad. Her correspondence with her mother also reveals that she was separated or divorced from her husband.

Paragraph 26 reminds us to recall the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before. What we find in the stories of our “saints” is ordinary people called and equipped by the power of God’s grace to do extraordinary things. An unlicensed visionary, a superannuated tubercular, a lay woman of uncertain marital status--these were the pioneers of what had become by the early twentieth century the largest American foreign mission.  The stories of John Stewart, Melville Cox, and Ann Wilkins remind us that Global Mission is the narrative of grace upon grace. [3]

Recalling the origins of Methodist missions to Africa also reminds us to trust the Holy Spirit as we experience the internationalization of United Methodism today. Paragraph 27 of Grace Upon Grace notes that we must “be prepared for fundamental changes occurring in the world church. Christian population is growing most rapidly in Africa and Asia.” The demographic trends mentioned in par. 27 have grown even more pronounced since the document was written. Latin America is also showing huge numeric growth in the number of Christians. Demographers predict that by 2025, Africa will be home to the largest number of Christians of any continent, and Latin America the second largest. [4] African Christians are crossing cultural and international boundaries to share the gospel. African, Asian, and Latin Americans—as well as Europeans and North Americans-- hold missionary appointments through the General Board of Global Ministries.

Mission to and from all regions reflects the realities of Global Mission in the 21st century. As in the early days of American Methodism, Global Mission remains a multi-cultural, interracial, and inter-gender movement of multiple boundary crossings. As paragraph 27 notes, “We are a part of a new dynamic relationship.” Short-term mission volunteers, fulltime missionaries, conference partners, relief workers, and church-to-church friends together represent the diverse and dynamic nature of United Methodist mission today. Through Global Mission, our cloud of faithful witnesses testifies that despite the obstacles, God desires that the Body of Christ be one.


[1] For more information on John Stewart, including links to the early biographies written about him, see his entry on the History of Missiology website, http://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/r-s/stewart-john-1786-1823/. Accessed January 26, 2014.
[3] These several paragraphs on early American missions are adapted from my talk, the First General Secretary’s Lecture on Mission, delivered to the staff of the General Board of Global Ministries in 1998, and then published as   “’History’s Lessons for Tomorrow’s Mission’: Reflections on American Methodism in Mission,” Focus (Winter/Spring 1999).
[4] Todd Johnson and Peter Crossing, “Christianity 2014: Independent Christianity and Slum Dwellers,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research  38:1 (January 2014): 28-29. http://www.internationalbulletin.org/system/files/2014-01-028-johnson.pdf. Accessed January 26, 2014.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Babel, not the wilderness or exile

The American branch of The United Methodist Church has been facing some rough times recently.  In the US, the denomination continues its four-decade long loss of membership, part of an overall decline in religiosity in the country.  While that membership decline has yet to affect local church budgets, it has begun to have financial impacts at the national level.  The debate about gay ordination, gay marriage, and the resulting trials has reached a fever pitch.  Questions have been raised about the ordination process and ordination requirements.  People worry about millennials' disaffection with the church.  Some of this hand-wringing is a natural occurrence in large organizations.  Some of it is a sign of the prevalence of commentators in an internet age (including, admittedly, this blog).  Yet it is more - it is a sign of some deep anxieties in the church.

As Christians, it is natural for us to use biblical imagery to make sense of the situations in which we find ourselves.  Commentators have used several biblical images to express this state of anxiety in the UMC: wilderness, exile, "Babylonian captivity."  These images all share the assumption that the UMC in somewhere else than the promised land where God intends us to be.  The assumption is that the UMC used to be in the perfect situation (usually associated with the 1950s or early 1960s), but we have since been expelled by God from that situation for some infraction of ours (and the identified infractions vary widely).

I'd like to suggest another biblical image for the current state of the UMC in the US: the image of Babel.  At Babel, the people of the earth joined together to build a tower and "make a name for [themselves]" (Gen 11:4).  But the LORD "confuse[d] their language there, so that they [would] not understand one another's speech" (Gen 11: 7).  As a result, "they left off building the city" (Gen 11:8).  I think that the UMC in the US was trying to build not just a city, but a church, a country, even a world up through the first two thirds of the 20th century.  It was a church with influence, able to dictate standards of personal holiness and social justice throughout the culture and beyond.  Yet, within the last forty years, our language has become confused so that we can no longer understand each other, and we have been unable to keep building as a result.

I think using this biblical image suggests two important things about our situation as United Methodist in the US and around the world.  First, it reminds us that we cannot go back.  The 1950s are not some promised land from which we are in exile and to which we will return if we only obey or have faith or follow the right road map.  The 1950s are a time of building a tower that it is no longer possible to complete, nor did God intend for us to complete that vision.  A pastor friend of mine describes United Methodists as "perfecting the church of the 1950s," but if we continue to try to do that, we will only dwell in the shadows of crumbling ruins and not go out into the world where God sent us when God put an end to that building project.

Second, while the temptation may be to think that paying attention to the global church will only confound the Babel of confusion that already exists in the UMC in the US, I would like to suggest that it may actual hold important answers to coming to grips with this new situation.  The Bible does not end with the people of the world being restored to their pre-Babel unity of language.  It ends with believers uniting across differences of language and tradition in praise of God (Rev 7:9).  The best in missiology over the past several decades has begun to help United Methodists around the world learn to listen and cooperate across linguistic and cultural barriers.  We need to take those missiological lessons from the global church and apply them to the church in the United States.

If we do so, we won't return to the promised land of the 1950s where the UMC had vast membership records and large amounts of social influence.  Yet, if we are at Babel rather than the wilderness, then the promised land is still ahead of us.  We can't return to the way church was sixty years ago, but we can seek out new ways of uniting to be the church that may not be fully realized until sixty years (or longer) from now.