Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Top UM & Global posts from 2015

This year, UM & Global is joining in a venerable news tradition - end of the year retrospectives. In this post, I'll list the top nine stories of 2015, as measured by page views. Next week, I'll look back on 2015 and look forward to 2016 by giving my own summary of the top themes the blog addressed in 2015 and is likely to address in 2016. But first, the top stories of 2015, as chosen by you, the readers:

1. UMC Communications in East Congo and Central and Southern Europe
2. White American UMC, Non-white global UMC
3. News rundown from Africa University
4. Plan Now: Eurasia Mission Initiative 50/50 Partnership Summit
5. A more global Connectional Table?
6. Should all annual conferences submit news reports about their meetings?
7. What United Methodist content would you put in humanity's digital library?
8. Michael Nausner: Methodism's Migratory DNA as Resource for a Global Theology
9. Westerners solving problems they cause

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Liberia UMC commercial building and African UMC church finances

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

Last week, E. Julu Swen wrote a UMNS article about how The United Methodist Church in Liberia is constructing a commercial office and retail building. The rents collected from tenants of the building once it is complete and occupied will help support the budget of the Liberia UMC. This new venture is part of an attempt to become less dependent on funds from the United States UMC and comes after the failure (only $325,000 out of a $10 million goal raised after 15 years) of a fund-raising campaign to establish an Episcopal Fund whose interest would help in the shift from American to Liberian resources.

While it may not initially seem so, this story is significant for the future of the UMC as a global denomination for three reasons:

1. It reflects the desire on the part of Liberian United Methodists to become (more) independent of American funds for the operation of their church. As the UMC comes to terms with its new reality as a global denomination, some of the tough questions it will have to grapple with will be about financial relations between the relatively well-off but shrinking American branch of the church and the poorer but growing African branch of the church. I'm sure there are Americans who want the Liberians to move toward financial independence because they think that Americans cannot afford to underwrite the church in Liberian forever. These questions about money will be especially complicated because money often equals control. I'm sure Liberian United Methodists recognize this relation and want to move toward financial independence themselves because that will give them greater voice in other regards as well. This shift will challenge some Americans who currently have power, but most significantly, the shift in funding is an important step in developing a robust, indigenous UMC in Liberia. The same will be true of other annual conferences elsewhere in Africa.

2. It acknowledges the failure of massive fund-raising campaigns as a means of achieving financial independence in Liberia. There are a variety of potential explanations for the utter failure of the Liberia United Methodist Episcopal Fund. Moreover, one could ask questions about what, if anything, this particular failure means for other capital campaigns, either in Liberia or elsewhere in Africa, and what it means about Liberian (and other African) churches' ability and willingness to give annually toward budgets. This post is not the place to sift through the complicated answers to this slew of questions. Suffice it to say, that this failure is at least an indication of the challenges in conducting successful capital campaigns in annual conferences in rising economies.

3. It demonstrates a willingness to experiment with entrepreneurial solutions to revenue problems. The Liberian UMC is solving the financial problem created by a desire to move toward financial independence coupled with the failure of their capital campaign by starting a money-making endeavor. This instance is far from the first time that Methodists have sought to use business-making efforts to bolster church revenues. Thus, the significance of this decision is not in its novelty but in its departure from standard Western ways of thinking about church budgets. This approach is potentially an innovative solution to funding shortfalls, but it comes with risks too. What happens if the Liberian economy falters and there are no tenants for the commercial building? Nevertheless, this approach to finances may become more common as annual conferences in rising economies find themselves in the same bind as Liberia - desirous to be less reliant on American dollars but having difficulty raising donations of their own.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Recommended readings: United Methodists and #COP21

One of the major international news stories from the past month has been the climate change talks held in Paris, referred to by the abbreviation COP21. While the negotiators at these talks represented governments, there was active participation in the talks by a range of people and organizations, including The United Methodist Church.

For a sense of what United Methodists were doing at the talk, you can watch this series of videos from the General Board of Church and Society, showing a day-by-day recounting of UM activities at the summit. This article from UMNS also gives a sense of the religious dimension to the summit.

The agreement that came out of COP21 has been widely hailed, including by United Methodists and other religious leaders. This UMNS article and this press release from the World Council of Churches give a sense of that range of positive responses.

Among the reasons the COP21 summit is of particular interest to this blog is that not only is the Earth's climate by definition a global matter, much of the United Methodist interest and advocacy around climate change has come from beyond the United States. The UMC in the Philippines has been especially active around climate change, as evidenced by this recent story. European United Methodists participated in a pilgrimage to COP21 and were then among the participants there, as were United Methodists from Africa and the Philippines. The UMC in Liberia has set up a Climate Change Task Force following the conclusion of the summit. As I have suggested before, the Central Conferences may prove to be the most important impetus for the UMC to remain engaged with issues surrounding climate change.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Recommended interaction: #CTTalks

If you've not already seen them, the UMC's Connectional Table has been releasing a series of videos about important topics in the UMC as part of the run-up to General Conference 2016. You can do two things regarding these videos as a United Methodist interested in global questions about the church:

1. Tweet now your questions related to January and February's topics: Worldwide Nature - Our Theology and Worldwide Nature - Our Organization/Structure. Include the hashtag #CTTalks so that the Connectional Table can find your tweets. You can also tag the Connectional Table by including @CTUMC in your post.

2. Watch the videos as they come out. Videos from October (General Conference Culture), October (Christian Conferencing), and December (Vital Congregations) are already available.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Plan now: global Methodist get-togethers in 2016

For United Methodists, 2016 is significant as the year of the upcoming General Conference, to be held in Portland, OR, from May 10-20. 850 official delegates from around the world plus many other on-lookers will gather for two weeks of fellowship, worship, prayer, holy conferencing, and voting.

But the UMC General Conference is not the only significant global get-together of Methodists and Wesleyans in 2016. The 21st World Methodist Conference, organized by the World Methodist Council, will take place in Houston, TX, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3rd. Since the WMC is not a governing body, this conference will focus on fellowship, worship, and faith development.

And if that's not enough, there are several associated conferences happening just before or at the same time as the World Methodist Conference. For youth and young adult leaders aged 18-35, the International Methodist Young Leaders Seminar will happen in Houston just before the WMC on Aug. 29-30. For (clergy)women, there's both the 13th World Assembly of Methodist and Uniting Church Women and the Global UM Clergywomen Gathering, both of which run concurrently with the WMC in Houston.

All told, 2016 is a good year to be Methodist. Those with the means and ability are highly encouraged to participate in one of these opportunity for transnational Methodist fellowship.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Jacob Dharmaraj: Advocacy as a Christian Witness in Diasporic Mission

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It extends remarks Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj made in a previous post from October.

In one of Norman Rockwell’s drawings, an overwhelmed mother holds her little boy face down in her lap. At her feet lies a hammer, along with evidence of a destructive spree: a broken mirror, a shattered vase, and an eviscerated clock under her chair. Not being sure of how to discipline her child, the mother grips a hairbrush in one hand, and a book on child psychology in the other: To spank or not to spank? She doesn’t know the answer.

Many in the church in global north are confused and lost over the missional issues of immigrant concerns and global diaspora, particularly about millions who are forced to flee from their native lands because of political instability, religious, racial, ethnic persecutions. What is our missional response to them? At times the multiplicity of responses given by experts threatens to devolve into cacophony.

Embodying the Gospel
Most of us are well aware that the church cannot carry on a monologue detached from the marginalized world with mere relief offerings but must stand in solidarity with them to address this huge human crisis. Pope John Paul aptly said, “Solidarity means taking responsibility for those in trouble.” Being in solidarity with the weak and vulnerable is more than extending compassionate and charitable services. Human charity is a hard emotion to sustain; over the long run, it cloys.

True solidarity breaks down the illusion of disconnectedness and works for kinship, which is a cherished conviction. In the final analysis, being in solidarity with the broken and bruised, and gaining their trust and confidence will offer better opportunities to share the love of Jesus Christ.

We need to be aware that there is a major difference between global diasporic mission and mission with the immigrants who have moved into our neighborhoods. Diasporic mission is primarily a global phenomenon set in motion by voluntary or involuntary conditions. Research professor Enoch Wan avows it as glo-cal in nature. It is border-less, pluralistic, transnational, multi-directional rather than homogenous. It is comprised primarily of people who were involuntarily or coerced to move.

In diasporic mission, the focus is on holistic mission and contextualization that integrate evangelism and social concern. We cannot just proclaim the Gospel among refugees without also addressing their physical needs and becoming their advocate. The workers work best when they learn the languages, understand cultural nuances and are mindful of the practices of the faiths of others who are rootless refugees, while keeping one’s core faith identity. Mere proclamation with an intention to start church during human vulnerability will spawn only “exploitative-Christians.” Mission is contextual as well as comprehensive, and should never employ humanitarian aid for religious proselytization.

Diaspora missiology does not replace “traditional missiology,” which is primarily evangelistic; rather, it supplements traditional methods with those that are geared to the new demographic realities of the 21st century. It is not a case of “either/or” in a mutually exclusive way as some tend to assume. In diasporic mission, participants are invited to stretch their imagination and look beyond the narrow perspectives of the present and to set themselves in the context of world realities on the one hand, and on the other hand, the analytics of root causes, power relations, and knowledges provided by the victims.

Mission with the “sinned-against” people
Historically, mission movements in the global north have rarely engaged questions of immigration and global diaspora as missional issues. If we hack through the opaque theological thicket and saunter through mission archives, we still find ourselves in the same old corridors of starting place. At times, we are narrowly guided by favorite scripture passages and past practices in order to discover missional comfort and seek ecclesial refuge. During the Christendom period everything seemed to be fixed and stable, but now the topography of the mission site is changed.

The demise of colonization, end of Christendom and waning of denominational ecumenism on the one hand, and the emergence of globalization and instant communication on the other have transformed missional participation from the predictable to the adaptive, from the mono-directional and anticipated to multi-directional and flexible ways of engagement.

In diasporic mission, witness to the Gospel comes mainly through advocacy work on behalf of the “sinned-against” and giving witness to the structures of power that create this sub-human condition. The agency of the diasporic communities is a key. In other words, we need to take the marginalized and repressed voices from the periphery and help amplify and facilitate these voices to be heard. This would mark a significant change in the way we do mission in a traditional sense. We cannot merely dispense throat lozenges that makes people feel better when the patients themselves know what they need is a serious medical treatment.

When I say our witness should be characterized by love and advocacy, I am not downplaying the reality of sin nor the need for transformation. However, it may be that hurting, disillusioned people need to find kindness through our caring action. During biblical times, when our Hebrew ancestors migrated from impoverished agrarian region to the advanced, urbanized Egypt, they had the invaluable advantage of having Joseph, who happened to be a blood relative, in the country’s top public office. Joseph’s advocacy and timely interference made this vulnerable diasporic community’s transition relatively easier. When problems arose for that community a few centuries later, it was Moses who stepped into the role of advocate.

Biblical history also documents people from all walks of life who witnessed against the structures of power on behalf of the poor, oppressed and voiceless. We can cite only a few towering figures such as Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, Paul, and Apollos who did the ministry of advocacy on a larger scale and cross-cultural context. There are a number of so-called “minor” role players. Suffice it to say that a vital key to the health and viability of diasporic communities lay in the availability and the power of advocacy to represent their needs.

What is clear is that advocacy is a key ingredient in diaspora issues both past and present, and is increasingly being recognized in governmental structures as an important dynamic in the process of diaspora engagement. Wherever diasporas have appeared, their ability to cope and thrive has been in large part due to the willingness of those who carry influence and inspiration to serve as advocates and campaigners for vulnerable and scattered peoples. Wangari Muta Maathai, a Nobel Laureate, aptly said, “Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t  done a thing. You are just talking.”

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Recommended Readings: UMC opposes Lumad killings in the Philippines

The phrase "religion and politics" connotes certain issues, attitudes, and fault lines within American society. It is a useful reminder to Americans, then, that religion and politics can relate in much different ways in different national settings. The issues, attitudes, and cleavages within the political realm vary by context, even when related to the same religious tradition.

This observation is one reason I highly recommend the following readings on the response by the UMC in the Philippines to the extra-judicial killings and persecution of the Lumad ethnic minority. I also recommend these readings because there are important but little-known issues of injustice surrounding this issue, and it is encouraging to see the UMC courageously speak out against such injustice.

UMNS story on  UMC protest of anti-Lumad violence
Statement on Lumad killings by the College of Bishops of the Philippines Central Conference of the UMC
Further information on the Lumad issue can be found on the Philippines Central Conference Facebook page

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Arun Jones: How Pentecostals can be a global church

This blog post is the second in a two-part series by Arun Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology. In these two pieces, Dr. Jones examines how other Christian traditions function as global churches for the sake of making comparisons with The United Methodist Church.

Several months ago I offered some suggestions about how Roman Catholicism is able to hold together as a global Christian body in today’s world, and said that the other Christian tradition (perhaps “stream” is a better word) that accomplishes this well is Pentecostalism.  As in the case of Roman Catholicism, my observations do not come from an in-depth study of Pentecostals, but from personal experiences in various parts of Asia, Africa and North America.

To be clear, I do not think Catholics and Pentecostals understand “church” in the same way (they have very different ecclesiologies). The contrast between Catholicism and Pentecostalism is instructive, and shows us that there is no one sure way to be a global church. Paradoxically however, I think that often their different ways of being “church” accomplish similar ends when it comes to being global.

First of all, what is it that unites Pentecostals? I would venture to say that whereas the Roman Catholic Church is held together by an organization and regularized liturgies, Pentecostalism is held together by personal relationships. Certainly there are important international Pentecostal denominational bodies, such as the Assemblies of God, but personal relationships are the real glue that binds together Pentecostals worldwide. Networking is what makes for the global nature of Pentecostalism. So Pentecostals who are part of a world-wide connections get along with each other, and are generally of the same theological/ecclesial disposition. If things don’t work out on a personal level, they leave the network and join/form another one. Roman Catholicism, held together by organization and liturgy, can embrace people who really don’t agree (or at times even like!) each other.

Secondly, both Catholics and Pentecostals have a counterweight to the authority of Scripture, and this counterweight can provide for much needed flexibility. For Catholics, it is Christian tradition; for Pentecostals, it is the work of the Holy Spirit who can lead us into new and uncharted territory (as the scriptures attest). So Pentecostals can improvise as they form new global connective bonds. This is not to say that Scripture is unimportant for Pentecostals: quite the opposite is true. Yet Scripture always needs to be interpreted, and Pentecostals can quite rapidly give fresh interpretations of Scripture, based on their understanding of what the Holy Spirit is calling them to do in new situations.

Thirdly, I have been surprised at the amount of English used in Pentecostal services (both in the singing and speaking) I have attended in non-English speaking parts of the world. I think that many (certainly not all) Pentecostals who are part of thriving global networks do not simply use English for convenience sake, but the language is a sign of connection to American evangelical Christianity. In other words, contemporary American evangelicalism is a mythic vision of church that helps to bind together Pentecostals around the world. This binding occurs first at the level of ideas (“that vision is what we aspire to”) and then at personal and material levels (“let us meet others who aspire to that vision, let us imitate the American evangelical lifestyle in some way”). The worldwide popularity of the prosperity gospel is, I believe, another manifestation of the connection that the mythic vision of American evangelicalism provides. It seems to me that this mythic vision functions like the idea of “Rome” for Roman Catholics – the vast majority of whom have never been to that city, but revere it all the same.

Finally, Pentecostalism takes seriously the claim that spiritual forces are not merely existing but are active all around us, and within us. This give Pentecostals a theological language and certain religious practices that are simultaneously easily understood and shared around the world, but also are open to thoroughly local interpretation. In ways that are analogous to Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism has developed language and gestures that are common and shared, but can mean very different things in different places and cultures.

For at least these four reasons, it seems to me, Pentecostals are at the forefront of creating worldwide Christianity, albeit through a multiplicity of organizations and fellowships. Pentecostalism provides a radically different alternative to Roman Catholicism to be a global church. (The Catholic charismatic movement, interestingly, draws on both traditions.) However, the different alternatives respond in their own way to some common requirements, which I have hinted at above, for a truly global Christianity.