Thursday, August 28, 2014

Proclamation: Laceye Warner on Grace Upon Grace - A World Transformed by Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Laceye Warner, Executive Vice Dean and Associate Professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Warner is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Paragraph 57 begins by describing Christians’ calling to proclaim the gospel: “We proclaim the gospel. We tell the story of God’s gracious initiative to redeem the world.” This language is inspiring and authentic to Christian Scripture as well as reflected in baptismal liturgies. By our baptisms each Christian is commissioned to proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.[i] However, the term proclamation can at times cause confusion if understood as merely verbal proclamation. While this paragraph in Grace Upon Grace goes on to clarify proclamation as an embodiment of the good news of Jesus Christ,[ii] such confusion often persists.

We proclaim the gospel.” When the biblical texts were initially translated into English (with the Tyndale and Wycliffe versions of the Bible) the Greek root for evangelism was translated simply as “preaching.” This was an attempt to employ language that could be widely understood.[iii] While preaching is an important means of our sharing the good news of the message of salvation, this more narrow translation, while well intended, has contributed to truncated understandings. This truncation may also have contributed to the exclusion of various voices from Christian ministries simply because these voices were not allowed to preach. For example, women and people outside dominant cultures have experienced exclusion by denominations or credentialing bodies to the office of preaching and ordination at times in relatively recent Christian history. In The Methodist Church women were not included in all provisions related to the formal ministries described by the Discipline until 1956. Despite this historic decision, male pronouns related to those provisions remained in the Discipline until 1968.

Individuals and communities are differently gifted and called in distinctive ways to proclaim the gospel. This results in a variety of ways through which the gospel may be embodied as Christians in communities of faith allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us often in surprising and sometimes uncomfortable ways.

“We tell the story of God’s gracious initiative to redeem the world.” Proclamation of the message of salvation begins with God’s gracious initiative to redeem the world. At times proclamation can be reduced to human opinion or desires to control the gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, our proclamation of the message of salvation is rooted in God’s activity that invites our response and participation.

Mission has its root in the Latin phrase missio dei or the mission of God. According to the commission text in the gospel of John, the mission of God is to send Jesus Christ to the world, and with the Holy Spirit to send the Church to the world. A relatively recent (mid twentieth-century), but important shift has occurred within the Church’s self-understanding from the Church sending missions to the world, to God’s initiative of sending the Church in mission to the world.[iv]

A defining theme of the gospel of John is God’s sending and with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit our being sent. After the example of God sending Jesus, the Church’s identity relates to being sent. Jesus sends the disciples and the Holy Spirit. But for what are the disciples sent in John? Although Jesus’ commission in the gospel of John could seem to be ambiguous, “as the Father sends me, so I send you,” (John 20:21b) the message is actually the messenger.[v] The Church is sent to the world to proclaim Jesus Christ in words and actions, by attempting to live in a manner resembling the self-giving love that characterized Jesus Christ’s ministry in life, death and resurrection.

The commission in John (20:19-23) shares parallels with its prologue: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, similar to Jesus came and stood among them. This divine presence was and is the source and motivation for Christian ministry, including proclamation. The message of John’s Jesus to the disciples in the midst of the tense and anxious atmosphere is peace be with you. More than a greeting, the message is an affirmation of Jesus’ promise of the Resurrection. Upon seeing the risen Christ the disciples are filled with joy, a joy that is contagious and meant to be shared.

If we take seriously God’s gracious initiative, our proclamation of God’s story will expand beyond our imaginations—and words—into embodiments of Christian witness both individual and communal that reveal God’s reign in our midst. From preaching and teaching, to political advocacy for social justice or the quiet care for physical and emotional brokenness, our proclamation of God’s story not only shares God’s love with others, but continues to form us by deepening our relationship with and knowledge of God.


[i] The United Methodist Hymnal, see pp 35, 40.
[ii] “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (II Corinthians 4:5-6)
[iii] See David Barrett, Evangelize! An Historical Survey of the Concept (Birmingham: New Hope, 1987), 22. Barrett offers an example of a study too narrowly focused on verbal proclamation. Based on his research Barrett argues that the six closest English synonyms to the term “evangelize” are: preach, bring, tell, proclaim, announce, and declare, thus perpetuating the emphasis upon verbal proclamation.
[iv] Ibid., 377-78.
[v] Walter Klaiber, Call and Response: Biblical Foundations of a Theology of Evangelism, trans. Howard Perry-Trauthig and James A. Dwyer (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 63.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Youth and differing views of authority in the global UMC

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.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grace, hope and mission - Lisa Beth White on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Lisa Beth White, doctoral student at Boston University School of Theology. Rev. White is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Don Messer issues a strong challenge to the United Methodist Church in his blog post on “A World Transformed by Grace”.  He asks whether Grace Upon Grace is “simply a lovely treatise on theology or does United Methodism actually seek to practice what it preaches when it declares ‘inclusiveness of all people’ is to be characteristic of the missional church?’” 

As this response to Dr. Messer’s post is written, headlines in the United States are full of the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old, shot several times by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.  Hope of a world transformed by grace seems dim indeed in light of Michael Brown’s death and other news of international conflict and innocent lives taken because of ideological and religious differences.  How are we, United Methodists, able to proclaim hope in the Gospel and live out the audacious form of mission – obeying Christ and loving our neighbors – in such chaotic times?

One way forward is found in the title of the original document – grace upon grace.  Paragraph 61 states that “grace received is motive of mission”.  The United Methodist Church is called by this document to participate in God’s ongoing mission in the world – God’s continual offering of grace to all persons through the mercy and love of Jesus Christ.  “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16, NRSV).  Because we have received the grace of Jesus Christ, we are called to live as his disciples, offering grace to all.  It requires both humility and confidence to participate in the mission of obeying Christ and loving our neighbors.

Grace received as our motive of mission is evidenced in the United Methodist liturgy for communion.  With both humility and confidence we recognize that we are recipients of God’s grace and pray for our participation in God’s mission to the world.  First we confess our sins, and we receive God’s pardon.  Then we remember God’s gracious activity in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  Finally, we pray that through the elements God would make us “for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”  We invoke the Holy Spirit, that as a church we would be “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”  This prayer makes clear our sinfulness and states our humble need for God.  It is only through God’s grace that we are able to have the confidence to participate in mission.  As our nation still struggles to overcome the sin of separating ourselves from those who are other – those whose skin is a different color, those whose native language is different than ours, those whose sexuality or gender are different than ours, those who vote differently than we do, those who have different access to education or economic opportunities – the sacrament of communion calls us to remember that grace transforms our divisions into unity in Christ.  Although we retain our diversity, as the body of Christ our walls of division are overcome.

Our witness as a denomination is challenged by the divisions and disagreements present in our polity.  Dr. Messer asserts that our current disagreement over LGBT inclusion “imperils our missional outreach to the world.”  In fact, I have witnessed denominational discussions that have begun with a focus on mission – proclaimed as what the United Methodist Church does well – that quickly erode into arguments about whether and/or how the denomination should split.  Our motive for mission should empower us to be able to resist principalities and powers, to love one another across limits of country, color, clan, creed, class or culture (paragraph 62).  And yet we so quickly forget our motive for mission – grace received in humility that gives us the confidence of the children of God – and vie instead to be right or to retain power and privilege.

Far from being simply a lovely treatise on theology of mission, Grace Upon Grace challenges the United Methodist Church to live out its identity in Christ, being one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world, regardless of race, nationality, language, sexual orientation, gender, creed or class.  We are to be “the daughters and sons of God, holding up in prayer the well-being of all” (Paragraph 62).  Through participation in the sacrament of communion, United Methodists can find renewal in the grace of Jesus Christ.  Through the sacrament we can confess our pride and sinfulness, and be made whole with the church to be the body of Christ for the world. 

United Methodist mission is clearly grounded in the grace of Jesus Christ and is not our own mission.  Left to ourselves, we remain sinful human beings.  Transformed through the grace of Christ, we are made able to participate in the ongoing mission of God to usher in a new kingdom, a world transformed by grace.  The world so desperately cries out for justice and reconciliation.  Our news headlines daily proclaim war, inequality, pollution, climate change, disease, and a thousand other ills.  Only through the grace of Christ are we able to boldly proclaim hope in this context.

Dr. Messer concludes with a prayer that United Methodists will “continue to experience the grace of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ and seek in every way to witness by word and deed to that marvelous gift.”  One answer to this prayer is found in the sacrament of communion.  May the United Methodist Church find the humility and confidence found in the prayer of Great Thanksgiving and the courage to be made truly one in Christ and audaciously proclaim and live out God’s inclusive grace.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to not be depressed by global UMC news

Last week, I wrote about how there is an appetite among United Methodists for news from around the world, often news supplied by United Methodist sources.  The example I used was the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa.  United Methodists are interested in that story, but it is a tragic and often terrifying story.  Indeed, much of the global news we receive (either from secular or United Methodist sources) can seem downright depressing these days: Ebola in West Africa, unrest in the Ukraine, ISIS in Iraq, fighting in Gaza, child refugees from Central American violence arriving in the US, malaria and other diseases around the world... the list goes on.

With all of this seemingly depressing international news, it is worth asking, why pay attention to international news?  Especially when we often have to make a bit of an effort to find this news, why work at something that's only going to bring us down?

I think there are several answers to this question.  First, international United Methodist news is no more depressing and often less depressing that American United Methodist news.  I personally find it much more dispiriting to watch the American branch of the UMC tear itself apart over questions of LGBT rights and UMC polity.  Yes, the UMC is facing fearful forces in many countries, but most of these problems are ones that the UMC is working to solve.  Thus, I'm often actually inspired to see the work that God is doing through the UMC in response to these global issues.  Reading the news and looking for where God is at work in the midst of the tragedies is one way to read what might otherwise be depressing news without getting depressed.

The second reason why reading bad news doesn't need to make us feel bad is connected to the first.  Because the UMC is doing something in response to most of these crises around the world, you can be a part of that work.  Jeremy Steele has written a great post about what United Methodists can do in response to Ebola and ISIS.  Jeremy identifies three things: fast and pray, raise awareness, and donate money.  Jeremy's suggestions are great ones and apply to adults as well as the youth with whom he works.  There may be other ways as well to support the UMC's ministries in the world.  Bad news doesn't need to depress us if we can do something in response.

A third and final answer to the challenge that international news is depressing is that reading otherwise depressing news, whether international or domestic, can call us to deeper faith in God.  We claim to believe in a God of resurrection and a God who is with those who suffer.  Looking honestly at problems around the world challenges us to fully own our faith.  It challenges us to see suffering around the world (and at home) and still trust that God is with those who suffer and that, even when suffering leads to death, God is a God of resurrection.  It is easy for many in the United States to shield ourselves from suffering, but when we avoid suffering, we avoid seeing God do what most characterizes God.  In order to fully understand God, we must we willing to look on suffering, and reading what may otherwise be depressing news can allow us to do that.  Reading the news with the proper theological lens, then, can help us better understand God, and there can be no better reason than that.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Donald Messer on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Donald E. Messer. Dr. Messer is president emeritus and professor emeritus of The Iliff School of Theology.  Currently he is Executive Director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, co-chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee, and a consultant to the United Methodist Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. Dr. Messer is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

“A World Transformed by Grace” (Paragraphs 56-65) sounds utopian and idealistic, far from realistic, but this dream has long been the vision that motivated Christians to move out of their comfort zones, seeing to create change in cultures and society.  Idealism and realism are not polarities but a continuum; dreams can become one’s destiny.

I have always marveled at Christians who, despite their lack of wealth or other resources, have repeatedly set out to bring hope, health, and help to persons around the world.  Though the apostles numbered but twelve, they aimed to transform the world.  Despite all odds and obstacles, missionaries established hospitals, schools, universities, and churches around the world.  They battled slavery, infant genocide, witchcraft, hunger, and disease. Dreams were transformed into destiny.

Years ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in the darkest days of apartheid, was asked if he were an optimistic about the future of South Africa.  He responded, “Oh, yes.  As a Christian I’m a prisoner of hope.”  Hope differs from optimism in that it soberly recognizes realities like sinful persons and social structures, yet never despairs about the possibility for grace to break through seemingly impossible impediments.

If persons become cynics about the possibilities for human or social change, they limit the potentiality for conversion or transformation.  The United Methodist missional statement “Grace Upon Grace” (Par. 56-65) affirms that Christians should envision through “eyes of faith . . . a world transformed by grace.”    In my own lifetime, I have seen both church and society change for the better; even when but a few years previously it seemed impossible for such transformation. 

Globally United Methodists agree that “God’s good creation has been bent, distorted, and broken:  gods of egoism, nationalism, racism, classism, militarism, and sexism work their havoc.”  What United Methodists fail to see is that heterosexual privilege and prejudice has also stigmatized and discriminated against our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered neighbors.  In fact, the depth of our disagreement today threatens schism in United Methodism and imperils our missional outreach to the world.  The unity of the church is threatened.

Reading the document “Grace Upon Grace” in light of United Methodist’s division on LGBT issues prompts one to ask what it means to affirm the proclamation of the Gospel.  Are we really affirming the inclusive love of God in Jesus Christ or do our biblical and theological interpretations inevitably exclude some persons?  Is the evangelism we affirm really for everyone or is it intentionally making heterosexuality normative for all of humanity?  Many a person in the LGBT community has found Christianity lacking in grace, unjust, unwilling to offer equality, and unwelcoming.  As long as United Methodist polity and leaders insist on saying “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” language about grace will have a hollow, if not a hypocritical, ring to many both in the church and world.  Is this document simply a lovely treatise on theology or does United Methodism actually seek to practice what it preaches when it declares “Inclusiveness of all people is to be characteristic of the missional church.” (Paragraph 51)

This document suggests that “one audacious form of mission today is for Christians to obey Christ and diligently love one another.”  Is it too much hope that a future revision would add “sexual orientation” at the end of the sentence that declares “Resisting principalities and powers, we love one another across limits of country, color, clan, creed, class, or culture”?  Or are we more inclined to follow Leviticus or Paul than to obey Jesus’ clear command to love our neighbor? 

Besides the global struggle for human rights, the document needs an updating to reflect the challenges of the 21st century—issues like terrorism, torture, drones, privacy, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, cyber-threats, etc.  The challenge of grace transforming the world has become more improbable rather than easier.

What is timely is that the essay challenges us to recognize God’s prevenient grace in all people.  Respecting the religious faith of others remains a challenge to many United Methodists.  Yet increasingly in dialogue and action together we discover meaningful spiritual dimensions.  Even today as Ebola threatens Africa, we are reminded of the urgent necessity of Christians and Muslims working together, and in Sierra Leone we have witnessed such cooperation between a United Methodist bishop and Islamic leaders.   In places where HIV and AIDS are being addressed most effectively in Asia and Africa, one witnesses persons of differing faiths recognizing the sacred worth of every human being, promoting prevention and care together.  But in other places and on other issues too often we witness discord and division.  War still plagues humanity; peace will never come to nations divided by religious strife. 

Let us pray United Methodists continue to experience the grace of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ and seek in every way to witness by word and deed to that marvelous gift.  If we do so, we shall be harbingers of hope helping to usher in at least a foretaste of what we envision when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ebola in the UMC Twitterverse

One of the things that I do on a regular basis for the sake of this blog and the related Twitter feed and online newspaper is read through tweets put out by UMC sources.  I do so to find and retweet international United Methodist news, but it's always a fascinating window into what United Methodists in the US and beyond are talking about.

I have been struck in the past couple of weeks by how much coverage the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has gotten in UMC press coverages.  Much credit goes to E. Julu Swen, a United Methodist journalist from Liberia, for providing stories, pictures, and videos relaying how United Methodists are impacted by and responding to the Ebola outbreak.  You can see his material on his blog or his Twitter account.  Of course, it's not only Mr. Swen who has been reporting on the Ebola crisis, but also umc.orgUMCOR, and the United Methodist Reporter.

I think that amount of coverage is entirely deserved.  This is a big story and directly affects United Methodists in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  United Methodists are dying from the disease.  United Methodists are praying for those affected by Ebola.  United Methodists are helping prevent the spread of the disease.  United Methodists are providing assistance in the fight against Ebola.

What has surprised me about the United Methodist coverage of the Ebola outbreak has not been the merit of the story, but the immediacy and extent of the coverage that a combination of a global denomination and social media make possible.  In the past week or two, there have been stories every day and often several times a day relating the latest developments in this horrific story.  That's almost as much coverage as immigration reform or discussions of schism, two notably headline-grabbing issues in the UMC, are able to generate.

Although the Ebola outbreak is a horrible occurrence, I think the coverage given it in United Methodist social and online media has shown that United Methodists in the United States have an interest in and appetite for news from elsewhere in the connection that can, at times, rival their interest in news from the US.  Certainly the horrific nature of this disease has made the story particularly gripping.  Yet the point remains, United Methodists want to know not just about United Methodists elsewhere around the world but larger events around the world too.

In my academic life, I've done a lot of historical research looking at old American Methodist newspapers from the 19th century.  When first I began to read them, I was surprised to discover how much secular international news that these papers contained.  They reported not just on Methodist affairs in the US or Methodist missions, but also religious, political, economic, scientific, and military news from around the globe.  With the rise of other news outlets, Methodist newspapers gradually reduced the breadth of their coverage and focused more on Methodist news and American news.

While the 19th century is past and gone, the coverage of the Ebola outbreak shows that there is still a desire for the church to be a conduit of information about what's happening around the world, not just what's happening around the denomination.  To that end, I highly recommend two other United Methodist social media sources.  The UMC in France has an excellent Twitter feed that carries many international news stories (many in French, but those can be easily translated with online services), often highlighting the role of religion.  The UMC in the Philippines also has an active Twitter feed sharing stories from the Philippines, the US, and beyond.  United Methodists from any country would benefit from reading the materials posted by these two Methodist news sources.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Recommended reading: Thomas Kemper on local plans and global connections

Diversity can mean several different things in The United Methodist Church.  Americans often think about diversity in terms of racial and ethnic diversity within the United States.  This blog is dedicated in part to exploring the diversity of national expressions of United Methodism in different countries around the world.  Both of these deal with cultural and racial/ethnic forms of diversity, but the two are distinct, and it's important not to lump all forms of non-white American United Methodism together.

But at the same time that it's important not to conflate domestic racial/ethnic diversity with international racial/ethnic diversity, it's also important not to make the opposite mistake and assume that there are no connections between racial/ethnic minorities in the UMC in the US and United Methodists in other countries.  Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), has written a great article recently on the connections between the national ministry plans for the denomination's ethnic caucuses in the US and the global mission of the denomination.  Kemper rightly points out that these national plans mediate between local ministry and international connections.  Especially in this age of international migration, it's impossible to separate local ministry from connections to other countries.  The article gives several examples of this phenomenon, but such connections are particularly important for such groups as Hispanics/Latinos, Koreans and Korean-Americans, and Filipinos and Filipino-Americans and other Southeast and East Asian groups.

As part of my work for this blog, I regularly scan United Methodist news on Twitter.  The @Hispanic_UMC Twitter feed certainly covers news about ministry to Hispanics/Latinos in the United States, but it also carries a lot of news from Methodists throughout Latin America, most of whom are from sister denominations, not the UMC itself.  That Twitter feed is an excellent example of the sort of international connections that are important for shaping the local ministries envisioned by the national plans about which Kemper writes.

Is this juxtaposition of varying geographic levels - local, national, international - confusing?  Perhaps.  Confusing or not, though, such intersections are an important feature of the often complex scenarios in which The United Methodist Church is called to carry out ministry and mission.

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.