Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas traditions come from around the world

UMC.org recently ran a story about the increasing popularity of the Las Posadas tradition from Mexico in the United States.  While this may be a new tradition for many in the United States, I believe it fits with and deserves a place in the American heritage of Christmas as a blending of traditions from all around the world.

Many traditional American images of Christmas come from England (carols, figgy pudding, roast goose, etc.) or at least presume a northern climate (snow, fir trees).  But Christmas has long been a global celebration, both in that it is celebrated around the globe and that elements of Christmas tradition are transmitted around the globe.

Wherever it's celebrated, the Christmas story is about something that happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago.  In the last 2,000 years, various countries have added to common Christmas traditions around the world.  Germany gave us the practice of Christmas trees.  Turkey gave us St. Nicholas, and then the USA turned him into Santa Claus.  Bohemia brought us Good King Wenceslaus, and Russia gave us the Nutcracker ballet.  Stollen, fruitcake, and various Christmas cookies have spread out from their central and eastern European homes.  Lights and gifts are traditions that are indigenous to everywhere, and the tradition of making nativity scenes or other artwork that depicts the Christmas story is a global tradition as well.

Certainly, in Christmas as in other areas of culture, there's always the tension between preserving indigenous traditions and welcoming new traditions.  Will cookies displace puto bumbong in the Philippines, or is there room for both?  For Americans, while preserving traditions is important, we would do well to remember that our traditions are always already borrowed and blended.  And in that tradition of blending, there's always room for more.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hendrik Pieterse: Make Disciples, Transform the World: Reflections on United Methodist Mission (Pt. 2)

Today's post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  Dr. Pieterse contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.

Given the danger of focusing too much on human initiative in mission, as I outlined in my last post, what should we do, then? For a denomination wracked by anxiety over perceived decline, is the temptation to take matters into our own hands simply too great, unwittingly perpetuating the distortions of which Bosch and others have warned? Therefore, should we abandon the Matthean commission in favor of, say, Johannine or Lucan themes of mission and discipleship? Some have argued as much.

I, for one, am not yet persuaded. What we need, I think, is not a new mission statement but a coherent ecclesiology to give our disciple-making task the theological depth and missional flexibility fit for a global context. And to that end Grace Upon Grace and GBGM’s Theology of Mission, reflective of the ecumenical consensus summarized in Together Towards Life (TTL), offer important resources. I will mention just one or two.

We should pause to insist, however, that we dare not do our ecclesial reflection without substantive exegetical attention to Matt. 28:19-20—and to do so in the context of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. This exegetical work serves not only to resist the all-too-common habit of using “making disciples for the transformation of the world” as a free-floating mantra in denominational discourse, deliberation, and communication. It serves also—and more importantly—to anchor our mission statement in Matthew’s total account of Jesus’ identity and mission. Surprising, perhaps even transformative, insights might result.

Take, for example, the fact that Matthew intends chapter 28:19-20 as a summary of his Gospel. “[T]eaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (v. 19) thus lifts up the entirety of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, recounted in the preceding chapters, as the pattern of discipleship. The result lends discipleship a prophetic, even costly, edge. Comments Bosch: “To become a disciple is to be incorporated into God’s new community through baptism and to side with the poor and the oppressed. . . . This is what Jesus has commanded his disciples . . .”

As a further example, consider that verse 20, promising Christ’s abiding presence with the disciples is not intended as a spiritual “back up” for however the church happens to define its mission. Rather, it reminds the disciples of mission as divinely generated and directed gift and promise. The church’s mission depends upon and endures as long as Christ’s promised presence.[1] To use mission parlance: the church’s mission is always and forever a function of and a grateful response to the missio Dei. Does the absence of this concluding promise in the Discipline’s citation of the Great Commission confirm the above suspicion that United Methodists tend to sublimate the priority of grace in mission?

Which brings us, briefly, to Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission as resources in constructing a coherent missional ecclesiology. In both documents, and beautifully and succinctly in the latter, United Methodists encounter at least three crucial affirmations:

(1) Mission is always and irreversibly the work of the triune God. Mission is a function of the doctrine of God. Mission is missio Dei.

(2) This means the church’s mission is always and irreversibly derivative, as instrument and servant of the divine mission. Foregrounding the church’s disciple-making charge at the expense of the divine initiative contradicts the logic of the missio Dei and compromises the church’s call.

(3) Mission is a journey of discovery, surprise, repentance, and transformation, as the church encounters in the neighbor a divine initiative that always and irreversibly precedes even our loftiest visions and best-laid plans. Thus mission regains its sense of expectancy and unpredictability. And, as the GBGM document notes, the virtues appropriate to an ever-surprising divine initiative is “openness” and “gratitude,” as we “await the leading of the Spirit in ways not yet seen as God continues to work God’s purposes out in our own day in a new way.”

This understanding of mission, and these virtues of missional discipleship, we Methodists once knew well. Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission are ready resources in recovering these seminal affirmations, however counterintuitive to a denomination so anxious to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.

[1] David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16-20,” in Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, eds., The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church (Eerdmans, 2008), 84, 87-91.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Social Entrepreneurship in the Cote d'Ivoire UMW

Social entrepreneurship is an emerging trend within both the business and nonprofit worlds.  As a colleague of mine who teaches social entrepreneurship explains it, it's "doing good while doing well" - using business skills and tactics to solve social problems and generate revenue for charitable purposes.  There are a variety of examples of what falls under the umbrella of social entrepreneurship, everything from microlender Kiva to shoe-retailer TOMS to solar lamp manufacturer KARIBU.  The Ashoka Foundation is a great place to learn more about social entrepreneurship for those who are interested.

Now, it seems, United Methodist Women in Cote d'Ivoire are getting in on the game.  United Methodist News Service published an article recently on how members of the UMW in Cote d'Ivoire are partnering with social entrepreneur mobile phone company Pubcell CI to earn money for the UMW.  Members sign up for the mobile phone service, which then shares revenue from ads that are displayed on users' phones.

The UMW is looking to take the money it has earned and turn around and invest it in additional social entrepreneurial endeavors.  The UMW is using the money earned from Pubcell plus an additional $1,000 grant from Pubcell to support women who want to start business endeavors to provide a source of income so that they can lift themselves out of poverty.

A couple of generations ago, missions-led development in Africa looked like Western experts coming in to plan and execute large-scale infrastructure projects.  This story, though, represents the future of mission-led development in Africa: African women banding together to conduct their own small-scale social entrepreneurship projects.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hendrik Pieterse: Make Disciples, Transform the World: Reflections on United Methodist Mission (Pt. 1)

Today's post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  Dr. Pieterse contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.

In reading Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes (TTL) alongside Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission (the mission statement of the United Methodist mission agency), it is heartening to note the resonance of major themes in mission theology and practice over the past several decades: mission as initiative of the triune God; the church as missionary by nature and so servant of the missio Dei; mission as holistic (i.e., embracing “dynamism, justice, diversity, and transformation” within the divine aim of “abundant life” for all creation [TTL, 6, 7]), and more.

One difference is striking, though—the absence of the so-called Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) in the ecumenical statement. This passage seems to play no interpretive role in TTL; in fact, it appears nowhere in the document. Instead, Lucan and Johannine commission themes predominate. Now, arguments from silence are notoriously shaky; and so I will resist the temptation to divine the document’s motives for the omission. Yet, given that the Matthean commission serves as the basis for United Methodism’s mission statement (Book of Discipline, ¶¶120-21), its absence in TTL should at least prompt United Methodists to ponder the implications of the emerging ecumenical consensus about church and mission for our continued appeal to the Great Commission as an aspiring global denomination.

Most readers of this blog are well aware of the checkered, and often deeply troubling, career of the Great Commission in the history of Western mission, especially in its heyday during the late 1880s and into the first third of the twentieth century. Interpreted as a command to be obeyed (“Go!”), and riding the tide of Western social, economic, and political power in league with a taken-for-granted inferiority of the receiving cultures, Matt. 28:19-20 was often pressed in the service of Western Christian expansionism. At least in part bolstering this Western missionary chauvinism and its resultant cultural tone-deafness, as David Bosch has pointed out, was a gradual foregrounding of human autonomy and agency, reflecting the contest with divine providence and power in some quarters of Enlightenment thought. Tellingly for us Methodists, Bosch calls this foregrounding of human agency “the gradual ‘Arminianization’ of Protestantism, evidenced . . . by the rapid growth of (Arminian) Methodist and Baptist churches in the United States . . .”[1]

Now, we would surely want to debate Bosch’s claim. Yet it is worth noting that a significant cadre of United Methodist scholars have detected a similar dynamic at work in our current employment of the Matthean commission. The foregrounding of “making” language in the Discipline’s description of our mission (¶¶ 120-122), they complain, obscures the priority of grace in mission, focusing on “what ‘we’ do, rather than the primacy of God’s grace and power.” In so doing, and perhaps inevitably, disciple-making becomes a “system,” with disciples as “output” or “product.”[2]

Should it surprise, then, given the deep anxiety in the U.S. church, fuelled by decades-long rhetoric of decline, that the already tenuous depiction of the grace-faith dynamic noted above should deteriorate into a full-blown obsession with “fixing”—with rightsizing church structures, with membership metrics and “dashboards”?

Buried in this frenzy is our deep-seated Methodist commitment to an accountable faith—a discipleship that is actively guided and shaped in all its dimensions, from individual devotion to denominational structures, by the rhythms of the means of grace. As Randy Maddox and others have reminded us, at our best, “making disciples” is always the function of that delicate synergy of divine initiative and human response.[3]


[1] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts In Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991), 343. See also David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16-20,” in Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, eds., The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church (Eerdmans, 2008), 84, 87-91.
[2] Thomas Frank, Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the UMC (Abingdon, 2006), 163. See also Sarah Heaner Lancaster, “Our Mission Reconsidered: Do We Really ‘Make’ Disciples?”, Quarterly Review 23/2 (Summer 2003): 117-30.
[3] See Randy Maddox, “Wesley’s Prescription for “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ”: Insights for the TwentyFirst-Century Church,” Quarterly Review 23/1 (Spring 2003): 7-14.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sex, Money, and Episcopal Disobedience in the UMC

As part of the on-going debate within American United Methodism about homosexuality, questions have been raised about consequences in cases of episcopal disobedience when UMC bishops support or perform same-sex marriages.  Yet at the same time, another controversy about episcopal disobedience is brewing that may be just as divisive, though in different ways.  I refer to the case of African bishops potentially mismanaging or misusing church funds.  There have been three such cases within the last few years: West Angola Bishop Gaspar Joao Domingues' case was resolved, showing no wrong-doing on his part.  East Angola Bishop Jose Quipungo continues to work with GCFA to resolve his case.  Then there is the case of East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula, who has thus far refused to cooperate with an investigation into how he used $3/4 million dollars in denominational funds plus over $100,000 more from the Western Pennsylvania Conference.

In the American fight about same-sex marriage, proponents advocating sanctions for bishops can point directly to an item in the list of chargeable offenses (P. 2702) in the discipline: "conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies."  Two more of the items in the list [(e) and (f)] could also be germane.  Remarkably, however, misusing nearly a million dollars is not an item directly on the list of chargeable offenses.  While conservative American UMs used African votes in 2004 to write in specific mentions of the misdeeds related to sex that they were most concerned about, they did not return the favor and write in specific mentions of the financial misdeeds that might be most relevant to the African church. If Wandabula were ever convicted of embezzlement (which has not currently been alleged and is less likely in Uganda than the US, even if he had embezzled), he could be charged with that offense under church law.  Otherwise, if his case is not resolved and charges were brought, they would have to be under the general categories of (d) "failure to perform the work of the ministry" or (e) "disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church."

If Wandabula's case were to continue to be unresolved and eventually result in charges, such a judicial case would raise a whole host of tricky issues for the UMC.  In addition to the merits of the case, there would be questions about cross-cultural understandings and expectations, racial bias, and Americans' sense of superiority, all of which would have the potential to create wide rifts between the American and African branches of the church and rifts within these branches as well.  If the evidence against Wandabula were to be overwhelming, other African bishops would likely not support him, but if the case were not cut-and-dried, then there would be a process of taking sides between Wandabula and the predominantly US-controlled boards and agencies.  Indeed, if such a case happened and the evidence was not overwhelming against Wandabula, it could be just as divisive within the UMC as a whole as the current debate about same-sex marriage has been within the US.

Therefore, let us pray that Bishop Wandabula has a change of heart and works with GCFA to resolve the outstanding issues regarding his financial management.  Let American United Methodists be mindful, too, that same-sex ordination and marriage are not the only thorny issues out there with consequences for United Methodist polity and practice.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Arun Jones: Some Thoughts on Together towards Life

Today's post is written by Dr. Arun Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology.  Dr. Jones contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.

There is much to admire about this statement on mission and evangelism put out by the World Council of Churches.  Some of these admirable points are its emphasis on the importance of life in all its fullness; its ecological concerns; its holding together the necessity of evangelism and of working for justice, peace and freedom; its concern for the poor and the marginalized; its condemnation of idolatrous treatment in some quarters of current global capitalism (as an ideology and not, I assume, as an economic arrangement); its call to conduct mission and evangelism in humility and with respect for others.  Responding to the persisting importance of Pentecostalism and charismatic forms of Christianity around the world, it lays heavy stress on explicating (from a WCC point of view) the work of the Holy Spirit in mission and evangelism.  

I am going to respond to the treatment in Together Towards Life (TTL) of the topic of missions from and to the margins, which has become an interest of mine.  In this regard, I find TTL a rather frustrating work, because it wants to make the case for the importance of mission from the margins, while itself seemingly unaware of its location in the center of western Christian world.  Allow me to illustrate.

Early on (¶ 6) the document says that “mission has been understood as a movement taking place from the centre to the periphery, and from the privileged to the marginalized.”  This in itself is a highly debatable claim.  In the book of Acts, for example, while geographically the gospel goes from the Jewish center (Jerusalem) to the margins (Rome), in terms of the privileged in society the movement is exactly the opposite:  the apostles in Jerusalem are socially insignificant while those who hear and positively respond to the gospel at the geographic margins (the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, the priest of Zeus at Lystra, Lydia) are socially more privileged.  Geographic and social marginality do not always coincide.  And Christian history is full of marginal people – from slaves like Patrick in Ireland in the 5th century to 20th century catechists, teachers, Bible women, and ordinary lay Christians in the non-western world – who have been the keys to Christian mission.  So when TTL continues, “Now people at the margins are claiming their key role as agents of mission and affirming mission as transformation,” this actually is not a contemporary phenomenon.  In fact Christian mission has ordinarily been conducted by marginal persons.  It seems to me that the authors of TTL are unaware of how much their perspective of mission is molded by their location in the centers of Christian thought and practice.

My suspicions are not allayed in ¶ 37: “Mission from the margins calls for an understanding of the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, and local contextual realities.”  Actually, it is precisely those of us who are located in the centers of educational, political and economic power that try to understand the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, etc.  Those carrying on missions at the margins typically do not have access to the resources of the centers to engage in such analysis.  Thus Samuel Escobar writes, “These days in Spain, mission is taking place in new and creative forms.  I know several Latin American evangelical women migrants who earn their living caring daily for old people in Madrid or Valencia and who share with them spontaneously about the Good News of God’s love in Christ” (International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38:4 (Oct. 2014): 193).  Such is the mission taking place at the margins, by hundreds of millions of poor and underprivileged Christians all over the world, some of whose theologies would profoundly trouble me, I am sure.  Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe that “the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, and local contextual realities” need to be understood.  I make my living trying to understand them.  But I do so from a place of privilege at the center: not as a Latin American maid in Spain or a Filipina maid in Bahrain.  I do not want to presume to speak for the missionaries at the margins, which parts of TTL seem to do (¶ 38, for example).  Moreover, I also strongly believe that conversation, communication, and all sorts of exchanges between Christians at various locations of power need to take place all the time in order for the health  of the  mission  of the church universal.  Ironically, we can isolate mission at the margins by romanticizing it and claiming we are for it without really engaging it.

Finally, the perspective and voice of the center erupts once again in ¶ 101:  “We are servants of the Triune God, who has given us the mission of proclaiming the good news to all humanity and creation, especially the oppressed and the suffering people who are longing for fullness of life.”  It is hard to see how this affirmation squares with the warning against mission “directed at people on the margins of societies” (¶ 41).

I hope my criticisms of one part of TTL do  not  leave the  impression  that I believe that the statement is not worth reading, thinking about or engaging in theory and practice.  Obviously, I have engaged the document myself!  It is precisely because TTL is such an important document, with so much  that is salutary in  it, that I believe it should be carefully studied by  students and practitioners of mission.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving Tuesday, the Advance, and Kickstarter

Let me begin this post by encouraging you to donate to the UMC's global work on this Giving Tuesday.  I'll even put the link here for you to do so.  In fact, do that now, before you read the rest of this article.  If you want to encourage others to donate as well, both the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) have resources to assist in that.

Now that you've donated, I want to talk to you about the Advance, which is the system through which individual donations to denominational projects of the UMC are collected.  The Advance is in many ways a fantastic system.  100% of donations go right to those projects; there's no overhead taken out.  The system has been around since 1948, having proven to be a durable model.  Over 3 million gifts totaling more than $1 billion have been given through the Advance.

The way the Advance works is that donors look up the individual project(s) they want to give to and direct money specifically to that project/those projects.  There's even a handy search interface that allows donors to search by missionary, region, type of work, population, or disaster.  Donors can also give to general needs for either GBGM or UMCOR.

This approach to giving has a lot in common with Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which have become popular sites for facilitating an approach to collecting donations and raising money known as "crowdfunding."  Yes, that's right, the UMC was crowd-funding through the Advance 60 years before it became popular.

Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the Advance all have the great advantage that they're a democratic approach to deciding what gets funded.  If people want a Veronica Mars movie or a Tesla museum and are willing to help pay for it, they happen.  If people want wells and toilets in Liberia and are willing to help pay for them, they get built.

But here's where the analogy breaks down. Kickstarter and Indiegogo help fund things that will (presumably) benefit the people donating. Donors get to choose the ways in which they want to benefit.  With the Advance, it's largely Americans choose what will benefit people elsewhere around the world.  People don't get to choose what will benefit them. It's a little bit like if Bolivians were allowed to decide whether or not there would be a Veronica Mars movie or a Tesla museum.

That doesn't mean that Americans always make bad decisions or that Americans shouldn't donate to the UMC's work elsewhere around the world, but it does put people elsewhere around the world at the mercy of American donors, which creates a power inequality.  There are many inequalities in how the UMC is structured and operated, but this inequality in donation money is an important one to notice because it shapes other inequalities.  So, on this Giving Tuesday, donate, but donate and be aware of how your donations shape the UMC.