Thursday, July 30, 2015

White American UMC, Non-white global UMC

The Pew Research Forum recently released data on the most and least racially diverse religious groups in the US. As it turns out, the UMC is one of the whitest religious groups around. We're whiter than Presbyterians, than Mormons, than the UCC, than Episcopalians. It turns out the American UMC is even whiter than American Jews. Only Lutherans, with their traditional association with Northern European ancestry, are whiter.

This is obviously a problem for the UMC domestically, both for reasons of equality and reasons of demographic trends. Our whiteness raises questions about racial justice in our denomination. It also portends further numeric decline in an increasingly non-white American future.

The whiteness of the American UMC is also a problem, though, as the UMC seeks to map a global future. While most American UMC members (60% of the global church) might be white, most African (30% of the global church) and Filipino (5% of the global church) members are not. White Americans will need to learn to relate to non-white, non-Americans on a more equal footing.

There are a number of thorny issues involved in transitioning the UMC to be a less American-centric denomination, even were the world completely free of biases. Differences of nationality and culture would be enough to snarl these issues even more. But when issues of race are added in, the complexities become that much more difficult.

I'm not saying that all or even most American United Methodists are actively racist. I am saying that when you have a group of people (white Americans) who have little experience of interacting with racial others in their denomination or thinking through their racial privileges within the context of church, and then expect them to do so across not only racial but international boundaries, that will be a challenge.

It's a challenge that the UMC must take up, however. An overwhelmingly white future is not an option for the UMC, in the United States or as an international body.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Recommended Reading: Regnum Edinburgh Centenary series

The Edinburgh 2010 group, one of several who marked the hundredth anniversary of the World Mission Conference in Edinburgh 1910, commissioned a series of studies about the current state of mission. The twenty-five books in the series cover a wide range of missiological topics and Christian traditions. The best thing about this series, though, is that these great resources are available for free electronic download, via the Regnum Books website. The books can also be purchased in printed version, either singly or as a set.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What United Methodist content would you put in humanity's digital library?

United Methodist Communications recently announced its collaboration with a company called Outernet. Outernet has the ambitious goal of connecting every person in the world to freely-accessible content via satellite.

The collection of content that Outernet is assembling is being referred to as "humanity's public library." The agreement between Outernet and United Methodist Communications is essentially that UM Communications will contribute some content to this global digital library. UM Communications is the first faith-based organization to agree to do so.

What exactly that content will be has yet to be announced. Outernet began the selection process this last weekend at a conference in Uganda in conjunction with receiving input electronically from all over the world. Presumably UM Communications will have some say in recommending what they think would be appropriate content that they can provide.

This raises the question, though, of what United Methodist content should belong in "humanity's public library." What United Methodist documents, text, and pictures are important enough and demonstrate United Methodism's unique contribution to humanity that they should be included in this collection?

I think this is a useful question for United Methodists to reflect on as part of discerning not only what it means to be a global church, but what it means to be a church that is part of a much larger global community. The United Methodist Church's 12 million members is a tiny fraction of all of humanity. We would like to think that we have something to offer to the rest of humanity, but we should be humble and realistic in discerning what that is.

So, readers, what do you think? Share your ideas for what United Methodist content should belong in humanity's public library in the content section below.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Arun Jones: How the Catholics can be a global church

This blog post is the first 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.

It seems to me that there are two Christian traditions that are successfully pulling off the feat of being truly global in today’s world.  These are Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism.  I think they are successful for very different reasons – their mutual antagonism in many places speaks to that difference!  Let me reflect on how the Catholics can be global.

My experience of Roman Catholicism is as much a lived experience as an academic one.  While my courses in church history and in Roman Catholic missiology have provided me with my academic knowledge, living with Roman Catholics (including close family members) in India, the Philippines and the U.S.A. is really the source of these reflections on global Catholicism.  As I moved from one country to another in my young adulthood, I was struck at how different Catholicism is in each context: how the self-understanding of what it means to be Catholic changed from country to country.  Despite my disagreements with certain Catholic doctrine, I have wondered in amazement, “How is this possible?”

Roman Catholics are bound together by a common liturgy (for the most part – however, there are at least 3 different Roman Catholic rites in India alone) and a common set of doctrines and laws.  However, Catholicism allows for flexibility in the following ways.

It allows for multiple readings of common practices and texts.  By “reading” I mean something close to “interpretation.”  The impact of words, of teachings, of gestures is different in different cultural, national and linguistic contexts.  And Roman Catholicism, on the whole, is fine with that.  I think most of us Protestants (and the press) get so caught up with the few internal fights that Catholics have about proper interpretation of doctrine and practice that we forget the many, many ways in which our sisters and brothers are happily “reading” their faith differently.

Secondly, Roman Catholicism allows for multiple practices.  There are devotions, saints, liturgies, pilgrimages, and other practices in different contexts that the Catholics in those contexts understand to be absolutely vital to their faith, and which are completely irrelevant to Catholics outside the context.  I was struck by this the first time I read about the devotion to the black Nazarene in Manila, the Philippines, and how I had heard of nothing like it in India.  Yet that devotion is vital to the faith of millions of Filipino Catholics.

Thirdly, Catholicism allows for multiple Catholic identities.  A few years ago I was having a pleasant conversation with some Catholic priests in New Delhi, and I asked them about the discussion on priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church in India.  This particular group of priests looked at me like I was out of my mind – for them, at least, there was no discussion!  I then realized how the Indian religious context, which has a very strong tradition of holy men and holy women who are celibate ascetics, could very well make celibacy a prize and not a burden for priests and nuns.  Similarly the various branches of the Orthodox tradition in India take great pride in the fact that their bishops must be celibate.  In the Philippines, on the other hand, I found lay people who felt sorry for priests because they could not marry, and even excused priests who were known to have a “family” somewhere.  For Filipino priests and nuns, Catholic identity lies elsewhere.  And the same goes for laity – to be an American Catholic is quite a unique experience in worldwide Catholicism in some ways.  I have come to the conclusion that in the U.S.A., Roman Catholicism is paradoxically the largest denomination and yet thrives on an identity that sees itself as a minority Christian tradition.

My point here is not to minimize the problems of the Roman Catholic Church – we all have problems, and will have them until Christ returns in glory – but to point out how the Roman Catholic Church in some ways handles the issue of unity in diversity.  We Protestants are probably too logocentric, insisting on “correct” readings first of Scripture and subsequently of doctrine and subsequently of practice, to deal with diversity the way our Catholic sisters and brothers do (and the diversity I have pointed out is mostly a lay initiative).  So we United Methodists are floating ideas of having different “Disciplines” for different parts of the world, instead of giving flexibility in “reading” the same Discipline.  But as the difficulties of the worldwide nature of Protestantism are making clear, I don’t think we have come up with a good alternative to the Roman Catholic way of being catholic.  And maybe reflecting on the Roman Catholic experience can help us to start thinking differently about what worldwide United Methodism can and actually should mean.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Size, globality, and the ghost of empire

I came across an interesting tidbit in my research recently. I've been doing research on the missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), one of the precursors of the UMC. In 1900, the MEC had churches in twenty-nine countries on five continents. When investigating some other aspects of that era, I was a bit surprised to realize that this made it one of the most widely distributed human organizations on the planet at that time.

While I have not run the comparative figures for all other possible contenders (such as banks and shipping lines), and there's some fuzziness as to what exactly "most widely distributed" means, thus far I have been able to find find four other institutions with comparable or greater geographic scope: the Catholic Church, the British Empire, the French Empire, and the Eastern Telegraph Company (which may have been the most widely distributed institution of its day).

While I relished that finding for its own particular historical curiosity, it also prompted me to think anew about the current discussion about how the UMC can be a global church. It suggested two questions that I think we in the UMC need to take serious as we seek to grapple with that question:

1. What does it mean for the UMC to claim to be a global church when we are less global that our predecessor bodies were 100 years ago, while many other organizations are more so? The MEC was in the top ten, if not top five institutions for geographic coverage 100 years ago, and that's without adding in the additional countries where the MECS, MPC, EA, or UBC has a presence where there was no MEC presence. Today, even with the impressive number of countries in which UMCOR works, I doubt the UMC would make the top 100 list of human organizations with the widest geographic reach. Through the creation of autonomous Methodist churches, we have gotten smaller while so many other organizations have gotten much bigger - businesses and UN bodies, as well as INGOs and other denominations.

2. How can the UMC be a global church in a way that distinguishes itself from the Ameri-centric, colonialist approach that characterized the church during its geographic apex? One of the implications of the above paragraph is that most global = most widely distributed geographically, which may or may not be true. Still, if we do make that assumption, can we do so in ways that don't reiterate the sort of "conquering the world for Christ" ideology that too often meant "conquering the world by Americans" that characterized even the best Methodist mission thinkers of a century ago? Can we value geographic distance without feeling the need to overcome the difference entailed therein by imposing some sort of American-derived sameness?

These may not be easy questions to answer, but if we are to plot a successful path into the future, we need to take seriously the perspective provided by the past.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Phil Wingeier-Rayo: Race and tradition in American Christianity

Today's post is by Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Director of the Mexican American and Hispanic-Latino/a Church Ministries Program, Director of the United Methodist Regional Course of Study School for Local Pastors, and Professor of Christian Mission and Intercultural Studies at Perkins School of Theology.

The last two weeks in June have posed significant challenges to mainline Christianity in America.  One such major challenge to predominantly white Christianity occurred when Dylan Roof attended a Bible study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and then shot and killed nine people—including the pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. If Christianity is to retain its relevance in the United States, the church will need to reflect on its past and make significant adjustments to play a role in the spiritual direction of the country.

The June 17th shooting of nine African Americans at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston poses a threat to traditional white Christianity. Background checks on the killer, who is white, have revealed that he was baptized and raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and then radicalized through online contact with a conservative white supremacy group.  The media is associating conservative white America with Christianity.

In the ensuing days, seven African American churches have been burned down in four southern states.  Authorities have categorized some of these acts of arson and the others are still being investigated.  Although the perpetrators of all these crimes have still not been caught, the general interpretation is that Christianity, white supremacy and hate are peas in a pod.  Traditional white Christianity in the United States has been tainted by its subtle—and sometimes outright—support for white supremacy.

Generally speaking, Christianity is not being portrayed in the media as an institution of love and inclusiveness.  Many times Christianity has earned this reputation and other times it is guilty by association. Christians many times would rather associate with another person of their same race and similar background, regardless of his or her religious affiliation, than associate with a Christian of another race or different orientation.

Often times there are immigrant churches in our communities that have little connection or interaction with traditional churches.  This could be due to cultural or class differences; however, race plays a big role.  American Christianity is made up of primarily monocultural churches of Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, or Koreans, among others.  Other institutions in society such as schools, companies or the military have become much more integrated than churches.  One is more likely to mix with a diverse group of people outside of church.  In many instances young people who grow up in integrated schools, sports teams and communities who decide to attend church have to leave their diverse friendships outside the church.

While the shootings in Charleston are a particularly heinous example of the connection between traditional white Christianity and racism, that connection is forged every day in smaller though still destructive ways. I recall an experience twelve years ago while attending a small white church on the South Side of Chicago.  The neighborhood was transitioning from Eastern European to predominantly Latino.  While the middle school a block away from the church was already 90% Latino, the church remained all white.

When my wife (who is from Nicaragua) was named lead pastor and encouraged the congregation to open its doors to its neighbors, the long-time church members resisted. We proceeded to offer an after school program, ESL and citizenship classes, and eventually Sunday evening services in Spanish—without the members’ support.  The members held out and fought the transition tooth and nail.  There were verbal attacks left on my wife’s church computer and physical threats.  The members came and picked up dishes and furnishings that they had donated, rather than allow Latinos to use them.

When the membership declined to 10 people the annual conference took the formal action to close the church, and re-opened the building as a Spanish-speaking mission in the community.  The programs continued in the same building and the mission grew to a worshiping congregation of 70 people before we were assigned as missionaries to Mexico the following year and a new pastor was appointed. 

This unfortunate story teaches a great deal about the relationship between traditional white Christianity and race relations. One would assume that Christians would be delighted when a church building is used for new ministries that serve the community.  Likewise, Christians should rejoice when new believers give their lives to Christ and join the church. However, the existing congregation had their identity so closely tied to race that they were not able to see past their prejudices to see a God who is bigger than race and nationality.

As the racial demographics of the United States continues to change, traditional white Christianity must seriously reflect on its inability to be welcome people of other ethnicities or it will be in serious peril.  The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the year 2044 the United States will be majority minority, i.e., it will have no racial majority.  This is more the result of birth rates of ethnic majorities than immigration.

If the church in the United States wants to be relevant to what will soon be the majority of the United States, then it needs to radically change its attachment to white supremacy and place its highest loyalty in a universal God who loves all people without exception--regardless of the color of their skin.  Predominantly white churches must repent from any association with white supremacy or accept that it will be an irrelevant institution for the majority of the U.S. population.  Christianity, in general, must disassociate itself from any form of racism or hate crimes and immediately welcome people regardless of the color of their skin.

Christians can resist attempts to identify God with their own race or to exclude persons of other ethnicities from attending their churches. Christians can wrestle Christianity away from those who propagate hate and division by restoring a biblical understanding of Jesus as the Son of God who proclaimed the in-breaking of the Reign of God where God’s love, peace and justice will prevail.  The Church can be a welcoming place that is a foretaste of the Reign of God.  The Gospel of John states: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Jesus came for the whole world to know a better way.  This vision of God demands our faith and loyalty above race, nationality or other differences.