Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Recommended reading: The church as public health network

Last Friday, UMNS reporter Vicki Brown wrote this piece entitled "Church best way to reach rural Africa." She begins the piece by noting, "The church often has a bigger presence in rural Africa than the government." The UMC is obviously doing good work by promoting the health of pregnant women and others in rural areas, as described in the article. Yet it is worth reflecting on what it means for the UMC to fill voids that might be occupied by the government elsewhere. How does that shape the UMC's sense of mission in Africa? How does that lead to different conceptions of the relationship among church, government, and social services in Africa compared to other areas of UMC presence? Please share your thoughts on these or related questions below.


  1. How does the holistic nature of the church in Africa reflect the practices of the early Wesleyan movement in England and the US?

    Wesley's ministry at Foundry included daily worship, class meetings, a clinic, housing for widows and more.

    The UMC in Africa is growing in both numbers and influence as it reflects and practices a holistic approach to the Gospel. Spiritual growth, health, education are intertwined as they seek and equip those with the gift of teaching, healing and preaching.
    It is a vital part of the fabric of the community where none question the relevance of her mission for it impacts the whole community.

  2. I really appreciate the questions posed by George and David here, and I think these are the sorts of questions that local congregations who give generously to UMCOR and other UM-related nongovernmental organizations overseas are frequently not asking. The potential dangers of church-related bodies becoming too closely aligned with government in an effort to "scale up" their relief or development efforts is all too familiar in the field of development studies. A good book on this which provides historical background as well as illuminating case studies is "Development, Civil Society and Faith-Based Organizations: Bridging the Sacred and the Secular" by Gerard Clarke and Michael Jennings (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). The chapter by Ingie Hovland in that book on the challenges of the Norwegian Mission Society navigating an evangelistic desire with development is especially insightful, I think, and have used her article in my classes on development for seven years now. My article on the history of the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief in the Methodist Review a few years ago raises similar questions about MCOR's work in the agricultural sector- albeit in a historical frame - to the ones you raise here, David. As to your comment, George, I think the size and relatively coherent nature of the English government at the time of Wesley's work at the Foundry stands in rather stark contrast to the lack of governmental coherence in too many countries in Sub-saharan Africa. Doubtless there are many other differences which could be named, but that is surely one of them as we try to make some helpful historical analogies.

  3. Historically the Christian missions have provided medical service to un-served areas, as they often provided education. This can also be very problematic. First because while it may meet needs the government cannot meet, it is also inevitably idiosyncratic. A Christian mission doesn't have the same comprehensive responsibility for a nation that its government has. There is a fine line between temporarily providing services that a government should provide but cannot, and simply allowing an already inept and corrupt government to remain inept and corrupt while Christian missions put bandages on its self-inflicted wounds. Secondly externally sourced and funded medical care can quickly disappear when a crisis at the source appears. The Great Depression in the US put an end to many Methodist Mission efforts in both health care and education. Causing some misery before ultimately forcing them to become self-reliant. At the very least the development of medical missions need to be coordinated at a government level to avoid waste and duplication with other health care providers. And should be part of a longer term plan for self-reliance. And that means, finally, that where Methodists really need to work is on governance issues. Until African nations (in particular) have some reasonable, stable form of sustainable self-governance instead of institutionalized corruption and nepotism no amount of rural health care will relieve the misery and uncertainty faced by their citizens.

  4. Thanks to Robert Hunt for his discussion of church and state relations and the provision of health care in the African context. The clinics missionaries established were folded into fledgling state run health services in many countries at the time of independence. When funding was diverted to other interests by heads of governments, churches resumed their services. The quality of these services seldom rise above the quality of bush medicine practiced by those early missionaries. Training for indigenous medical personnel is limited and the cost of medicines and equipment is prohibitive. It is an exaggeration to conclude that, in the absence of government administration, churches are meeting or can adequately address health care needs especially in the vast distances of rural Africa. At best, by concentrating resources, churches can play a role in modeling out regional demonstration curative care clinics that set new standards for governments to duplicate on a wider scale. A more significant approach shifts the emphasis from providing health services to building healthy communities that prevent chronic diseases. Comprehensive community based health programs emphasize healthy living through production of food, drilling wells for clean water, creating sanitary waste systems and drawing upon natural / cultural healing techniques. Local sustainability and less dependence upon high cost Western models of service delivery offers long term effectiveness in global contexts currently dominated by conditions of economic poverty and unresponsive governments.

    Robert J. Harman