Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Circuit Riders in the Eastern Congo

The General Board of Global Ministries recently published a story about the missions/evangelism strategy that the UMC is employing in the Eastern Congo Annual Conference.  This strategy is to go around to small villages and cultivate churches there, even if they are small churches, rather than focusing on large urban areas.

I couldn't help but note the similarities between Eastern Congo's strategy and the classical American Methodist model of expansion, the circuit rider.  While I'm sure pastors in Eastern Congo aren't on horseback with long coats and wide-brimmed hats, it is essentially the same model: Bring the gospel wherever there are people, no matter how small a group.  It's an admirably democratic approach to evangelism.

Yet this strategy has its drawbacks, though the Congolese seem aware of them.  The article states, "Having a large number of small local churches may prove to be financially unsustainable, as it is difficult for small congregations to attain self-reliance. There may not be enough people involved to maintain the facilities or even to pay the pastor."

My wife serves as a local pastor for three small, rural United Methodist churches, legacies of American Methodism's circuit-riding days.  These churches are filled with faithful people, but there are definitely questions about how they will maintain the facilities and pay the pastor.  Of course, that's complicated by the dynamic of decline membership in American Methodism, but a part of the problem is a commitment to having a church in every small hamlet.

I'm glad that Eastern Congo is raising these missiological questions now.  I think the solution to the problem of resources in small towns is not to abandon the strategy of rural evangelism.  God's grace extends everywhere, even small towns and villages, and God's mission needs people to take it to these places.

Instead, the commitment may come in rethinking what sorts of infrastructure is really necessary to be a church.  I am sometimes grateful for the faithful servants who bequeathed a legacy of beautiful and holy buildings to my wife's congregations.  But I also wonder if they didn't give a double-edged sword to their spiritual heirs.  Did they lock the current congregations into a particular way of being and doing church, one that might no longer be the most relevant?

Perhaps the Eastern Congo can learn from the circuit-riders' legacy in the US.  We should think twice before committing to significant infrastructure that will be expensive to maintain and limiting to the types of ministry that are possible.  I am glad that the pastors of the Eastern Congo are continuing the spirit of the circuit riders, and I pray that their efforts to build the kingdom are even more successful and more durable than those of the American circuit riders of old.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ebola, ISIS, and death in the UMC

Ebola and ISIS have been making scary headlines for months now, but in the last couple of days, they have made a particular impact on The United Methodist Church.  News came yesterday that Dr. Martin Salia, the chief medical officer and only surgeon at Kissy United Methodist Hospital in Freetown, Liberia, had died while being treated at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.  Dr. Salia is not the only person associated with the UMC to die of the disease, but his selfless role as a leader and servant in the fight against the disease made his death particularly hard for many in the UMC.  At the same time, on Sunday, the White House confirmed the killing of Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, an American medical aid worker, by ISIS in Syria.  Yesterday, UM News Service reported about Kassig's United Methodist parents in Indianapolis, IN.  Kassig had converted to Islam during his captivity over the last year.  Kassig is also not the first to die at the hands of ISIS, but perhaps the first with connections to the UMC.

Thus, the UMC is mourning this loss of two brave servants who sought to help others even in the face of danger and possible death.  Both men were seeking to preserve the lives of others through medical care, but both lost their own lives.  Their stories are both inspiring and tragic.  They also raise larger questions of how we as individuals and as a church respond when faced with important but dangerous humanitarian situations: Do we engage, or do we protect ourselves?

Both Dr. Salia and Mr. Kassig chose to engage, and I hope others in the UMC will follow them.  Our faith encourages us to serve others, even at the risk of our own lives.  As Mark 8:35 says, "Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their lives for me and for the gospel will save it."  Though safety and security are good goals, we must be careful lest they become temptations that would keep us from doing what God calls us to.  Dr. Salia was clear that his work was a calling from God.  He told UM Communications, "I see it as God’s own desired framework for me. I took this job not because I want to, but I firmly believe that it was a calling and that God wanted me to."  Calling may sometimes be a calling to self-sacrifice, as in the case of Salia and Kassig.  But while the world may fear death, we as Christians are not called to fear or deny or avoid death.  We are called to overcome death through the resurrection made possible by Jesus' own death and resurrection.

Dr. Salia and Mr. Kassig deserve our prayers and gratitude, and their families also deserve our prayers and support.  I hope the lesson we take from their lives is that service is worth it, even when it comes at the ultimate cost.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thomas Kemper on Together towards Life

Last week, this blog began an examination of Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, the new affirmation on mission and evangelism adopted by the World Council of Churches.  While our examination of this document will be primarily focused on its use as a teaching tool, especially in United Methodist contexts, I thought it appropriate to refer readers to a theological assessment of the document by Thomas Kemper, general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries.

Mr. Kemper's remarks originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, but they can also be accessed on GBGM's webpage.  In the piece, Kemper affirms and analyzes four themes from Together towards Life, "the concept of missio Dei, mission theology grounded in the Holy Spirit, “mission from the margins,” and the inclusion of health, healing, and wholeness".  Kemper's piece is well worth a read for United Methodists interested in engaging with this document as a way to stimulate fresh thinking, reflecting, and learning about mission.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Form vs. Function in the Worldwide Nature of the Church

Earlier this year, two great pieces about the worldwide nature of the United Methodist Church appeared on the Connectional Table's "About the Connection" blog.  The first, from August, is written by Judi Kenaston, Chair of the Commission on General Conference.  In it, she reflects on what has made her United Methodist before moving on to comment on the challenges of thinking about the UMC as a worldwide church.  She concludes, "We may need to let go to create a new vision for the World Wide church."  Among the things that United Methodists may need to let go of are "our U.S. centric world view" and "personal priorities."

The second post, from September, is by Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of GBGM.  He analyzes the language we use to talk about the UMC and makes a distinction among global, worldwide, and international and a distinction among ministry, vision, and structure.  He concludes that the UMC's vision and ministries are worldwide in scope, if not quite truly global in the sense of extending to every corner of the world, but our structures are international, in that they extend to many countries, but not nearly the whole world. Secretary Kemper's distinctions in terms are helpful.  Though this blog discusses questions related to structure, we also try to feature conversations about vision and ministry around the world and hopefully thereby earn our title of "UM & Global."

It is further illuminating to combine Mr. Kemper's and Mrs. Kenaston's reflections.  Questions of structure are often what cause the most conflict in the UMC.  Yet Kenaston's suggestions for letting go deal not with structures, but with questions of vision and ministry.  She calls for a change in how we view the world and how we set priorities for our work in the world.  Largely her calls are a challenge for American United Methodists to undergo a process of self-abnegation and self-limiting to make space for what the Spirit is originating elsewhere.  That process of self-abnegation must apply to liberals, evangelicals, and all other factions in the American UMC, who are all guilty of seeing and using our fellow United Methodists as pawns or players in American debates (as this blog has previously highlighted).

Moreover, unless we can open ourselves up to being led by the Spirit on questions of global or worldwide vision and ministry, it is unlikely that we'll be able to adequately solve questions of international structure.  As the architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, "Form follows function."  That dictum is as true in building organizations as it is in building houses.  If we try to solve our problems of structure without first addressing questions of vision and ministry on a worldwide scale, we are likely to get the process backwards and let our form dictate our function.  If we let our organizational structures or budgets or institutional policies determine our mission, then we're not letting the Spirit lead us in the missio Dei.  We'll be left building factions, defending privilege and power, and playing political games.

Form follows function.  What functions is the Spirit calling us to perform as a global UMC?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reflecting on Together towards Life

I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in a consultation organized by the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) two weeks ago in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  The consultation was focused on discussing ways to develop curricula to help teach the WCC's new affirmation on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  The affirmation was adopted by the WCC Central Committee in Crete in 2012 and presented to the entire WCC at their assembly last year in Busan, Korea.

Not only was the experience of being in South Africa with mission scholars and practitioners from around the world an exciting experience for me, I found Together towards Life itself to be an exciting and challenging document.  The document shows real theological and spiritual depth in its focus on the missio Dei, the self-giving love of the Trinity, and the role of the Holy Spirit in mission.  It reflects contemporary mission thinking in affirming the value of a diversity of cultures, noting the impact of migration, and highlighting the important place the poor and those on the margins have as agents of, and not just recipients of, mission.  The document challenges its readers in its call to think of mission and being from the whole creation to the whole creation, in its strong criticism of the system of global capitalism, and in the questions it raises about God's activities in other religions.

There is much to praise, critique, and dissect in this document, a process that has already begun in other forums.  This blog, as a project of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, will be looking at Together towards Life over the next couple of months as well.  We will not be giving it a thorough read as we did with Grace Upon Grace.  Our examination of that document reflected our identities as United Methodists.  Our treatment of Together towards Life will instead reflect our identities as professors of mission.  We will be continuing the discussion begun in Pietermaritzburg and elsewhere of how this document can be used to train clergy, missionaries, and laity.  Although the document is an ecumenical document with wide appeal, we will focus primarily on its applications within United Methodist contexts.  I hope you will join us as we see what the Spirit may be seeking to teach us through this document.  Look for the Together towards Life tag to follow posts in this new series.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The global appeal of holy conferencing

The Council of Bishops is currently meeting in Oklahoma City, OK.  As part of that meeting, they heard a presentation yesterday by Candler School of Theology Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies Kevin M. Watson on Christian Conferencing.  United Methodist News Service live-tweeted the presentation.  Reactions from the bishops that UMNS captured included positive responses by Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area and David Yemba of the Congo Central Conference.  According to the UMNS Twitter feed, "Bp. Alsted asks how can we live into Christian Conferencing at #UMCGC in 2016," and "Bp. Yemba: Christian Conferencing is our heritage that we need to reclaim. Don't wait until #UMCGC in 2016."

As an American, I am exciting to see the main interest in the concept of Christian Conferencing at the Council of Bishops coming from outside the United States.  In the United States, it can seem at times like "Christian conferencing" or "holy conferencing" is a euphemism for "arguing about homosexuality."  In contrast, neither the Nordic countries nor the Congo are arguing about homosexuality in their United Methodist churches, albeit for very different reasons.  Yet the concept of Christian conferencing still has resonance for these two bishops.  Both bishops recognize this spiritual practice as an important part of our Methodist heritage and common life.

This is a positive reminder to Americans.  "Christian conferencing" or "holy conferencing" is not only about arguing over LGBT ordination and gay marriage.  It is a means of living with and relating to each other as sisters and brothers in faith on a variety of issues.  Gay marriage and LGBT ordination may be the issues of the day in the United States, but there will be and are other issues on other days and in other places that also call for loving, mutual conversation about God's will.  Americans must resist the temptation to make everything about and only about debates on homosexuality.  Our Christian calling, including our calling to treat each other with love as we work towards perfection, is a calling on all areas of our lives.  Debates about gay marriage and LGBT ordination may be important to both sides for good theological reasons, but we do a disservice to the concept of Christian conferencing and to our faith as a whole if we reduce it to one issue.  God is at work in the world in many ways, and we would do well to engage in holy conferencing together to discern the full variety of those ways.