Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hendrik Pieterse: United Methodist Identity In a Changing U.S. Context: Some Musings

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Regular contributor David Field’s recent reflection on Methodist identity in a rapidly secularizing Europe is a thoughtful reminder that discerning ecclesial identity and mission is always a contextual affair. This is not a new insight, of course. Indeed, “contextualization,” “contextual theology,” and related themes have been front and center in missiological debates and wider theological conversations for the better part of sixty years now. Field’s reflection on European United Methodism is a model of just such contextual theological work.

It is safe to say, I think, that U.S. United Methodists have been less prepared, and perhaps less concerned, to mine this missiological discussion for their own context. The reasons are varied and complex, no doubt. One of these, I suspect, is that U.S. United Methodists in large measure haven’t felt the need to, given decades of Christian, and at times Methodist, dominance in U.S. religious culture. Not surprisingly, now we find ourselves ill prepared to make theological sense of a North American religious and cultural context that is changing out of proportion—and doing so at a dizzying pace and on a massive scale.

Current denominational responses to this shifting landscape, I fear, will be of little help in the long run. Preoccupation with rightsizing, downsizing, dashboards, and membership metrics, tethered as these are to an incessant rhetoric of denominational decline, are seed sown on “rocky ground” (Mt. 13:5). They may show results in places in the short term, but they will do little to sustain denominational fortitude in the long haul. For one thing, they remain beholden (albeit largely viscerally) to the now long-defunct narrative of Christian (if not Protestant) ascendancy. More important, and perhaps as a consequence, they fail to be sufficiently contextual. That is, they neglect to pay attention what is actually going on—to those demographic, cultural, religious, and other forces that are reconfiguring the current U.S. societal landscape as we speak. The fact is we are confronted with the reality of social change that in kind, intensity, scope, depth, and sheer relentlessness is unprecedented. Fundamental to this dynamic—in part both its result and catalyst—is rapid religious change, reshaping both the Christian and the larger religious make-up of the country.

A key feature of this religious change is growing religious diversity. To be sure, religious diversity—at least in its Christian variety—is as old as the founding of the Republic. What is different about today’s religious diversity is precisely its potential to radically recast this longstanding Christian-dominated social imagination. I say “potential,” because there is nothing given about this prospect. Indeed, in his extensive surveys of American religious attitudes, Robert Wuthnow notes a “significant tension in American culture between a long-standing and still deeply held view among sizable numbers of Americans that America is a Christian nation, on the one hand, and norms of civic liberty that recognize the reality and rights of non-Christian groups, on the other.”[1] Closely intertwined with this interreligious struggle in the American social psyche, I suggest, are two additional shifts: (1) A rapidly diversifying Christian landscape: For example, the Protestant share of the Christian pie continues to decline (it dipped below 50 percent for the first time ever in 2012) and immigrant Christians are slowly diversifying Christianity’s racial, ethnic, and theological makeup. (2) A loosening of religious loyalties: Here an example is the so-called “nones.” Whether this segment of the adult population represents the growing edge of religious secularization in the United States is an open question. What is clear is this mostly young “spiritual but not religious” cohort consider religious affiliation not so much objectionable as simply irrelevant.[2]

How do United Methodists construct a “clear, convincing, and effective” witness (to quote the Book of Discipline, ¶105) in this rapidly shifting context? In place of an answer, let me offer a few musings. For starters, we would be wise to resist the impulse, as we are wont to do, to view these shifts as merely demographic, sociological, and cultural processes, whose primary use is to serve as data sources for more effective strategic planning, institutional innovation, and entrepreneurial leadership. (United Methodists have shown ourselves particularly adept at such reductionism.) Instead, we should take a leaf from contextual theology and learn (again) how to read context theologically. Then our primary question becomes, “Where, how, and to what ends is God at work in these processes of cultural and religious change?” Asking this question opens the way to theological meanings within what otherwise might appear as merely sociological or historical events. And so we might wonder: What if diversity is first of all the abode of divine mission and not impetus for religious and ecclesial contest? Might change and diversity thus interpreted not stem our current self-preoccupation in favor of curiosity about a divine wind that blows where it wills for purposes yet to be discerned (John 3:8)? And might boundary not in this way become gift instead of threat, threshold instead of barrier, horizon instead of perimeter?

I realize that for some readers this line of thinking will amount to so much spinning of intellectual wheels at a time when increasingly perplexing circumstances call for decisive action. And yet, with my colleague David Field, I am persuaded that cultivating the virtues and skills—and, above all, the patience—for discerning the theological meaning of context is an indispensable discipline for ensuring a United Methodist witness that will not only endure but thrive in these changing times.

[1] Robert Wuthnow, “Religious Diversity in a ‘Christian Nation,’” in Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism, ed. Thomas Banchoff (Oxford, 2007), 152-68.
[2] See, for example, the Pew study “Nones” on the Rise: One-In-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation (2012); online at www.pewforum.org.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

130th anniversary of Methodism in Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, & Angola

We here at UM & Global would be remiss if we let the month end without mentioning that April marked the 130th anniversary of Methodism in Korea. As you can read about here and here, the first missionaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) arrived in Korea on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1885. That event was the germ that led to the growth of Methodism in Korea and Korean Methodism in the United States, reshaping the religious landscape of both countries as well as the MEC and its successor body, the UMC. The Korean Methodist Church has become autonomous from American Methodism, but the strength of Korean-American Methodists in the UMC have kept those relationships vital.

This year is also the 130th anniversary of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia. On February 7, 1885, missionaries from the MEC arrived in Singapore for the first time, leading to the growth of Methodism there, as you can read more about here. Methodism was less successful in Singapore and Malaysia than it was in Korea, though there were for a while connections between Methodism in Malaysia and Methodism in the Philippines, which continues to be an important part of the UMC. In addition, there have been fewer Methodist immigrants from Singapore and Malaysia to the US who have ended up in UMC churches. The Methodist Church in Singapore and the Methodist Church in Malaysia are now both autonomous, and connections with the US have declined.

1885 is also the 130th anniversary of the start of Methodism in Angola. Missionary Bishop William Taylor began his work for the MEC in Luanda, Angola, on March 18, 1885. That work led to the growth of Methodism in Angola, and there are currently two Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church in Angola, each of which is also an episcopal area. These Angolan conferences are part of the growing African contingent of United Methodists that is reshaping the face of the UMC as a denomination.

When remembering these historical events, it's worth thinking about the different trajectories that Methodism took in each of these three cases: continued affiliation, autonomy with substantial continuing connections, and autonomy with diminished connections. None of these routes is inherently better or worse, but as we think about what it means to be a global denomination, it is important that we remember the range of ways in which our global connections as a denomination have evolved historically.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

This is what the marriage debate looks like in Liberia

You've heard the story before: A United Methodist conference is debating whether or not to change its policies regarding marriage.  There is a debate about sexual morality.  There are protestors that disrupt the conference with singing and handmade signs.  There are debates about who can qualify for ordained leadership positions.  The Book of Discipline and the global nature of the church are invoked to support positions.

The above description would fit any of the many General Conference or American Annual Conference debates about homosexuality, same sex marriage, and ordination of LGBTQ persons.  Yet the story I had in mind is actually a recent one from Liberia's 2015 Annual Conference, where the question of whether divorced clergy could be eligible to become bishops was hotly debated, as you can read about here and here.

Some background: The Liberia Annual Conference has for a long time barred divorced clergy from running for election as bishop.  This provision is unique to Liberia; it is not part of the Book of Discipline.  Thus, a number of laity representatives to the Annual Conference petitioned to have the rule changed, arguing that Liberia should use the same standards for bishops as the rest of the UMC.  The clergy dissented, arguing that it was necessary for bishops to adhere to a higher standard of sexual morality.  While those in favor of changing the rule protested at Annual Conference, ultimately the final vote upheld the rule.

There are several interesting things about this story.  First are its parallels to American arguments, but parallels that scramble the American alignments between existing policy, the Book of Discipline, and views about sexual morality.  The second interesting facet is that those in favor of the change were initially almost entirely laity, whereas those opposed to the change were initially entirely clergy.  It's rare to see that sort of total clergy/laity split in American Methodism.  Finally, it's a good reminder that the contours of debates about marriage and sexuality vary by context, as this blog has previously pointed out for Kenya.  That doesn't make American debates unimportant, but it should help Americans put their debates in perspective.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Earth Day and Methodists around the world

Earth Day is tomorrow, April 22nd.  UMC.org just published this great piece about United Methodists and Earth Day.  While the body of the article focuses in particular on Rev. Rebekah Simon-Peter, an ordained elder in Wyoming.  What I appreciate most about the article, though, are the sidebar inserts with United Methodists from around the world relating why they see care for creation as an important part of their faith.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nigeria holds final consultation on global Social Principles

I want to update readers on a story UM & Global has been following and correct some of our previous coverage: the process of development more globally-relevant Social Principles.  An important step in that process has been the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) hosting a series of seven consultations on the current Social Principles around the world.  After two consultations in Washington, DC, at the beginning of this year, I had erroneously reported that this marked the end of the seven consultations.  That was incorrect, and I apologize for the mistake.  While the consultation in Nigeria has originally been scheduled in November, before the consultations in Washington, it was rescheduled due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  It was held at the end of March, and you can read UMNS coverage of it here.

One of the things that I think bears mentioning about the Nigerian discussion of the Social Principles is the strong sense that they can serve to shape the UMC's ministry in that context and can help the UMC project a needed voice that can address important social and political issues in the country.  I think many Americans see the Social Principles as falling into one of three categories: irrelevant, antiquated, or controversial.  We can learn from the Nigerians that the Social Principles can still be an important tool of United Methodist ministry.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

UMW immigration work continues a long tradition among Methodist women

National Justice for Our Neighbors (NJFON), a United Methodist immigration ministry organization, recently reported on a grant that they received from United Methodist Women.  The $50,000 grant will be divided among four NJFON region sites to conduct a variety of services for immigrants.  The grant is just one aspect of UMW's immigration rights and advocacy work.

Yet work by Methodist women on behalf of immigrants goes back much further than the current constellation of immigration causes, concerns, and controversies.  Indeed, it goes back further than the UMW.  The Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the forerunners of today's UMW, conducted work with immigrants in the late 1800s, over 125 years ago.  You can learn more about that work and Alma Mathews, the Methodist woman who led it, from this video and this article.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Westerners solving problems they cause

UMNS just published this story about things that Rev. Marcos Tamega Jr. learned from UMCOR's recent disaster response readiness training held in the Philippines in February. I think this is a great program of UMCOR, but I was struck by a fact cited in the article.  It said, "A United Nations report has identified the Philippines as the country that is the third most at-risk for disaster because of climate change."  This certainly gives a sense of urgency to disaster response readiness training in the Philippines.  Disasters are likely to continue striking and with increasing ferocity and frequency.

Yet I was also led to wonder if UMCOR-organized disaster response funded largely by American United Methodist donors, such as that to Typhoon Haiyan, was another example of Westerners solving problems that they had helped cause.  There are many examples throughout mission history, the history of Western development projects in Majority World countries, and general Western interactions with the Majority World of Westerners providing the Majority World with solutions to problems that were caused in the first place largely by Westerners.

It's a great set-up for Westerners.  They can, through obliviousness or disregard, continue to cause problems in other countries and therefore not have to change how they do things, but also get the nice glow of feeling like they've helped the less fortunate, even though they are responsible for that misfortune. It's not such a great set-up for non-Westerners, who have to live with the initial problems and the disruption or demeaning that often comes with receiving Western help.

While Western countries are certainly not the only ones emitting greenhouse gases and other climate-change inducing chemicals (China is one of the biggest polluters in the world), Western countries in general, and the United States in particular, pollute at a rate that is far higher than their share of the world's population.  Therefore, I don't think it is unfair to see climate change as a problem that is largely (if not entirely) caused by Westerners.  An increase in the prevalence and frequency of disasters has been predicted as a consequence of climate change.  Thus, Western disaster relief efforts in the Philippines (or Vanuatu or elsewhere) is to some extent a Western solution to a problem caused at least in part by Westerners.

I don't mean this piece as a criticism of UMCOR.  I think UMCOR is a fantastic organization that deserves our support.  Nor do I mean to suggest that Westerners should not help suffering people affected by storms or other disasters.  We should.  I do mean, however, to suggest that if our response to climate change-linked disasters is simply to provide more disaster relief, then we are merely treating symptoms, and we are at moral fault.  Westerners must be willing to humbly change our ways to prevent harm to others, not just give generously once they have been harmed.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter traditions from around the world

I hope all of our readers had a blessed Holy Week and Easter.  In the spirit of both the season and the focus of this blog, I highly recommend this article from UM Communications written by Tafadzwa Mudambanuki about the different ways in which United Methodists around the world celebrate Easter.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

News rundown from Africa University

It's been quite an eventful last couple of months at Africa University, the oldest United Methodist-affiliated institution of higher education in Africa.  In case you missed any of these stories, here' s a rundown of some of the good things that have been happening at Africa U:

In February, Africa University hosted a summit on Methodist evangelism in an African context.  This summit was an important step in developing distinctive and culturally approaches to Methodist evangelism for African branches of the UMC.  You can read stories about it from Africa University's website and from the General Board of Global Ministry's website.

Then, on March 21st, Africa University inaugurated its new vice-chancellor, the chief executive officer of the university.  Dr. Munashe Furusa was elected nearly a year ago, but this was his formal installation.  Both Africa University and the United Methodist News Service covered the inauguration, which was attended by United Methodist leaders from around the world.  As the United Methodist New Service further reported, while Dr. Furusa's inauguration is an exciting event, he will face a variety of challenges to the university's educational offerings, physical plant, and finances.

Africa University will be aided in facing these challenges by two significant gifts to the university.  Both the Foundation for Evangelism and the Indiana Conference have committed to endowing new faculty chairs at the university.  The Foundation for Evangelism is raising money to endow the John Wesley Kurewa Chair, an E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism.  The Indiana Conference is raising money to endow a chair in agricultural and natural resources.  Both gifts will provide for long-term support of the university's educational mission.

All of these stories make it an exciting time at Africa University.  While the institution faces some challenges, as do all institutions, the new leadership, new programs, and new gifts should mean that Africa University continues to be a beacon of uplift for the entire continent.