Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Chicago Training School as harbinger of the future of US theological education

I had the pleasure of talking yesterday to Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, an admissions representative of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary who was visiting my college. During a lunch meeting and a class discussion, he, a current Garrett student, my colleague in the religion department, students from my college, and I were talking about the changing nature of seminary education in the US.

In particular, we were discussing how seminary education is no longer just for those who want to become pastors. Instead, there are an increasing number of seminary programs for those who want to go into nonprofit work, community organizing, or other forms of non-congregational ministry.

In part, this shift reflects the demographic trends of mainline ministers and the institutional needs of seminaries. Especially in the UMC, there are fewer ordained elders and more licensed local pastors, who have not necessarily attended seminary, than there were 25 years ago. In order to preserve institutional viability, seminaries have had to find new pools of students outside those considering ordained church ministry in mainline congregations.

Yet I was also reflecting on how this broadened sense of what it means to prepare students for ministry does demonstrate a profitable rethinking of what it means to be in Christian ministry. And in this regard, today's seminaries are not forging new ground but rather re-learning lessons from a century ago.

In particular, I was thinking about the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions. This school, actually one of the predecessors of Garrett-Evangelical, was founded by Lucy Rider Meyer and her husband to train women for Christian ministry and service. Since women were at the time not allowed to be ordained in most denominations, it was by necessity Christian ministry that took place outside the context of leading a congregation.

The Chicago Training School was a huge force in preparing Methodist and other Christian women for a whole range of important and effective ministries that helped transform the church's relationship with societies around the world. It produced the founders of the deaconess movement, many significant women missionaries with the WFMS, and leaders who were active in developing a host of church-run social and religious programs.

While the early 21st century is, of course, a different time than the early 20th, it is a useful exercise to look back at the good work done by the Chicago Training School as a model for seminaries that seek to develop new programs to train Christian leaders. Our mission-minded foremothers understood ministry broadly, and they also understood the importance of theological and other training to prepare themselves for that ministry. We can hope for no less for the theological leaders of today.

Friday, October 23, 2015

William Payne: Response to Jacob Dharmaraj

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.

I read Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj’s recent blog on diaspora missiology with great interest. His careful prodding is timely and much needed. Great population shifts are taking place as vast numbers of vulnerable people relocate for a variety of reasons. War, genocide, sexual abuse, economic disaster, religious persecution, destruction of social systems, and disease continue to foment dislocation. The exodus from northern Africa and the Middle East is staggering.

Matthew reminds us that Jesus and his family fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of an evil king. God provided a sanctuary for the holy family in a foreign land. Certainly, God wants the church to provide sanctuary to the modern immigrants.

Still, I struggle with Dr. Dharmaraj’s one dimensional approach to the diaspora mission because it pulls apart what God holds together. In light of the current global situation, he advocates putting physical needs ahead of spiritual needs, and advocacy ahead of evangelism. He also argues that the world wants the church to move beyond mission as usual. He says that the church must partner with the ecumenical community and secular prophets (environmentalists and human rights advocates) to pursue a social justice advocacy that strikes at the root of the human disruption. I assume that “ecumenical partners” includes practitioners of non-Christian faith traditions.

In the blog, it appears that social justice advocacy is the great calling of the church in this era and that evangelistic mission is less important or unwelcomed. Frequently, such thinking influences the hierarchy of mainline denominations. Often it assumes a theocentric ideology that makes common cause with all who desire to purse a particular formulation of social justice. One denominational leader put it this way: “Since all are saved, we need to get on with social justice and the great task of loving each other.”

Instead, I believe that UM missional priorities should align with biblical priorities. A bifurcated mission that neglects evangelism is not a biblically sustainable model for engaging the world with God’s mission. When Jesus advocated for the poor or challenged unjust religious orders, he did so from the perspective of a personal relationship. For example, the Rich Young Ruler wanted to be saved. Jesus told him to divest of his riches, give to the poor, and become his disciple.
John the Baptist preached a similar message as he invited soldiers, tax collectors, religious leaders and the crowds to flee from the wrath to come by joining a just community that gave voice to the righteousness of God and pointed to the coming kingdom of God. Point being, justice is not a standalone category in the gospels. It takes on form when seen in light of the in-breaking kingdom that calls all people and institutions to align with God and God’s righteousness.

For that reason, the church should not ignore the evangelistic mandate or minimize the spiritual needs of those for whom it advocate even when engaging in crisis mission. We must remind ourselves that we share a gospel that incarnates Jesus in word and deed. Suffering people deserve to know about Jesus’ love for them. They need to know that Jesus offers them hope. They need to realize that Jesus offers real solutions to real problems. Through the church, Jesus advocates for his kingdom agenda.

Additionally, no matter how tempted the UMC is to prioritize social justice ministries, it should remind itself that social justice is not the primary mission of the church. The gospels model the kingdom of God. Jesus preached it as he brought it to bear on the suffering people he encountered. He is the gateway into God’s kingdom. He invites the rich and the dispossessed to enjoy God’s shalom by aligning with him. Those who align with Jesus become kingdom people who carry forth God’s kingdom agenda in this world. Jesus commissioned the church to give witness to this mission in the world in word and deed.

In truth, Jesus is Lord of all things. That includes the social order. Any attempt to fix the social order by by-passing Jesus and his kingdom is bound to fail. More importantly, such efforts compromise the gospel and hurt the holistic mission of the church in the world.

Additionally, in terms of our biblical faith, the term "secular prophet" is an oxymoron. Activists who minimize the name of Jesus and disavow his lordship may partner with the church in social justice witness to the extent that it aligns with God’s purposes. However, such people are not prophets. Biblical prophets give witness to the reign and righteousness of God as they invite people to align themselves with God's rule.

When the Jerusalem Church was scattered due to persecution, the members went in all directions evangelizing and church planting (Acts 8:4). To a lesser extent, the Jewish diaspora witnessed to the world when it scattered. These are biblical examples that the UMC should remember when considering diaspora mission.

Immigrants to Europe and America often see themselves as missionaries. Many have a strong desire to reach their people and the larger community for Christ. I wish that all could see how the African Diaspora in Columbus, Ohio is planting churches everywhere. They are reaching thousands of African immigrants for Christ. They are also reaching secular Americans who are drawn to their spiritual vitality and their clear witness of faith. They are partners in mission; not mere recipients of western hospitality. They have much to teach the western church about faith sharing.

When pastoring in a southern state from 1998-2001, I partnered with a Hispanic immigrant to form an outreach ministry that evangelized and discipled hundreds of Latino immigrants who did not speak English. Not only did we outgrow our facilities and plant external ministries in the surrounding urban areas and rural migrant camps, we also fed the hungry, worked with a healthcare clinic, provided transportation, and taught them English. All of it was done in partnership with the immigrants. Evangelism and advocacy do not need to be separated.

Like it or not, Christian immigrants plant churches and talk about Jesus even when the official churches are fixated on political advocacy and material needs. The UMC should remember that many immigrants were not allowed to witness openly in the places from which they have fled or immigrated. The hordes of Christians escaping from Syria and Iraq can vouch for this. A holistic mission strategy should seek to form partnerships that enable the immigrants to evangelize their people. Such a strategy would allow the immigrants to set their priorities, and would honor and utilize their gifting. In the end, it would balance word and deed mission.

Last night, my family read Acts 3 during our devotional time. In that chapter, a lame man is carried to the Temple every day to beg for alms. Pilgrim Jews to the Temple may have felt an urge to fulfill the commandments by giving to the poor. Quite possibly, the beggar received a lot of cash on a typical day. His family would have managed his alms.

One day, John and Peter went to the Temple to pray. As they approached the Temple, the beggar fixed on them. He expected to receive money. However, Peter looked past his economic need and saw the deeper need. In the end, he offered him the name of Jesus and God healed his lame legs.

Post-colonial interpretations of this passage may seek to couch the encounter in terms of unjust economic systems that dehumanize those on the margins. However, those readings are read onto the passage. They do not flow from it. In fact, at that moment, Peter knew that the man needed Jesus more than he needed social advocacy or money. The beggar’s live was forever changed by his encounter with Jesus. Shouldn’t the church in mission seek to do the same as Jesus and the apostles?

In conclusion, the biblical Jesus manifested a relational gospel that met people at the point of their needs and gave them a radically new orientation. That is why he set the captives free by healing the sick, purifying the lepers, welcoming the outcasts, casting out the demons, feeding the hungry crowds that desired to know him, raising the dead, and preaching kingdom justice. Jesus’ mission is Christocentric. It reveals God’s love as it calls people into an alignment with God and God’s work. Ultimately, the light that shines in the darkness will displace the evil when the church advocates for Christ’s lordship and for his righteousness. A mission that avoids evangelism is only half a mission.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Compassion in seeing our own and others' problems

I've enjoyed reading several stories recently about the good work that the UMC is doing in Western and Southern Africa in the realms of education and healthcare, but these stories have me thinking about the dangers for American Christians of such stories. They can reinforce a distinction Americans make between themselves as people who have money and therefore access to education, healthcare, and other resources and services and "those poor other people" elsewhere that don't have such things. At best, this view leads into a reflection on one's own privilege that leads to sacrificial service. At worst, though, this distinction becomes entwined with racial stereotypes and a host of colonial assumptions that perpetuate such distinctions and inequalities.

To move past such a dangerous distinction, I think American United Methodists need to carefully balance three realizations:

1. Everyone in the world has problems.
Africa has problems with access to healthcare and education, but the United States has problems too. Certainly there is poverty in parts of the US, which can also involve lack of access to healthcare and education, but even in affluent areas of the US, there are problems such as mental illness, substance addiction, dysfunctional families, and alienation from God. None of us yet live in the fully realized kingdom of God.

2. Comparative suffering is usually an unhelpful exercise.
There is a danger both in seeing others' problems as worse than our own and in seeing our own problems as just as bad as others'. If we see others' problems as worse, this may motivate us to compassion, which is good, but it may also tinge that compassion with pity and condescension, which is bad. If we see our own problems as just as bad as others, it may make us less empathetic or concerned with others' problems. Compassion for ourselves and for others should be the goal (Mark 12:31), but that doesn't depend on determining whose problems are worse.

3. We are called to help each other with (but not necessarily solve) each other's problems.
You've probably heard someone say something along the lines of the following: "Why is that church group going abroad? There are poor/hungry/needy people right here in our own country!" Not only do such statements fail to recognize that those who go are in some ways needy, they set geographic or national limits to our compassion. Our compassion should have no limits. Yet if/when we go abroad to help others, we must not think that we are there to solve others' problems. Others will continue to have problems, despite our help. Moreover, if we see ourselves as the solvers, we will see the others only as their problems. We need to be honest about our problems so that we will be open to help from others, affording them the opportunity to give as well as to receive.

Thus, we should seek to mutually show love to each other in the midst of our problems. We will not entirely solve each others' problems, but showing love to each other and, just as importantly, receiving love from each other elevates us from the problems of this world and gives us a foretaste of the kingdom of God. That kingdom is not yet fully here, but when we love, we bring it closer.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Jacob Dharmaraj: Global Diaspora and Christian Mission Today

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

Having a conversation about the current global diaspora in order to find a speedy solution is like trying to nail JELL-O on a tree, as everything about human diaspora is fluid and flowing. That was how I felt recently when I was in Washington D.C., for the denomination’s Immigration Task Force meeting.

There is much complexity in the cause, process, and consequence of the phenomena of global diaspora, and no single discipline can enable us to explain the cause or offer solutions.  Diaspora mission is interdisciplinary, vast and varied. It involves national geography, cultural anthropology, political demography, mass communication, globalization, urbanization, ethnic and race relations, and active participation of multi-religious groups and communal agents at all levels. Most importantly, diaspora mission is multi-directional and it demands multilevel coordination and collaboration. 

Now that the global community has come to realize that the governments around the world must act immediately to alleviate the sufferings of the immigrants, refugees and asylum speakers, The United Methodist Church, along with its ecumenical partners and connectional components, is also determined to step in and take an active role in this vital ministry.

Diaspora and Migration
Migration is a phenomenon that has accompanied humanity since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But the recent forced migration has been accelerated by modern day globalization, wars, natural disasters, and intense persecution of vulnerable minorities on account of their religious convictions and racial or ethnic identities. Today a little over three percent the world's population live in a country other than where they were born. That is estimated at 250 million, up from 195 million in 2005. Females account for 49 percent of the total. Six out of every ten international migrants reside today in developed countries, and the majority of those originated in developing countries. This reality has deep implications not only for interactions among peoples and their religious beliefs but on Christian mission as well.

Diasporic mission is relatively a new area of mission engagement for the church, as it defies conventional modes of mission engagement which is lineal and mono-directional; sending rather than receiving, absorption rather than incorporation, assimilation rather than amalgamation. Unlike traditional mission, diaspora mission puts human physical needs ahead of spiritual needs; advocacy ahead of evangelism, and contextualization ahead of church planting.

Diaspora mission operates from a non-spatial, transnational, global, and "de-territorialized” zone. The missional approach, therefore, is mobile and flexible. In other words, the site of mission engagement in diasporic context is without social, cultural and religious boundaries, which are normative in traditional mission activities. 

Believers Being In-Betweeners
The current cultural, social, linguistic and religious divides are a formidable and complicated ball of wax. They call for people who have both skill and will to transcend culture, language, and other barriers; those who can serve as “in-betweeners,” to build bridges of understanding, mediate relationships, and negotiate partnerships in ministry,” as Paul Hiebert, a missionary and a mission theologian says.

What our changed world expects from the church today is to focus its attention from mere relief work to justice and advocacy ministries beginning from addressing the root causes of the problem. 

The changed world demands a changed methodology. Just like the government agencies alert and prepare people and nations from around the world long before tsunami, tornado, earthquake, and all forms of natural disasters occur, or even before medical epidemic and human health crises break out, Christian mission groups can set up one or more research centers and prepare an ongoing data-base to alert the appropriate mission agencies and groups about the looming or emerging problems. It can be accomplished easily in collaboration with our ecumenical partners and secular prophets like environmentalists, human-rights activists and others. I am not saying that this is a utopian project but at least, it will help those who are interested in the future of the church.

In the final analysis, diasporic mission is not about doing the same thing in a better way. Better is a mirage. It keeps us tethered to the same way of doing like others do. Better is temporary. It is a flimsy edge that can be tumbled. Diasporic mission is all about avoiding the crises to take epic proportions. Addressing the root causes of the problem is to strive for long term solutions and avoid band-aid relief.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Local pastors and the challenge of a missional ecclesiology

A recently-published series of articles on UMC.org describes how the use of local pastors in the denomination has been on the rise over the past five years. This increased reliance by the church on local pastors demonstrates some of the tensions between the UMC's nature as a missional movement and its nature as an established institution.

As the articles make clear, the use of local pastors has been very important especially in missional settings that involves reaching new or marginalized populations - in Hispanic outreach in the US, in growing areas of the Central Conferences, in new church starts among all groups in the US, and in small, rural churches that lack resources, but which the church is committed to serving. Local pastors can be developed and deployed more quickly and more cheaply than elders, which make them ideal in these settings.

Nevertheless, the expanded use of local pastors also creates or enlarges problems in terms of the UMC's institutional structure. It raises questions about our theology of ordination, especially when local pastors itinerate in the same way as elders. What exactly does ordination mean if non-ordained local pastors fill most of the same roles as ordained elders? These questions can be particularly thorny when it comes to ecumenical relations with church bodies that have stronger theologies of ordination. The distinctions between local pastors and elders also create questions surrounding equity in terms of pay and representation in church decision-making. Do the distinctions between local pastors and elders in effect privilege those with the financial wherewithal to obtain a seminary degree? Do they privilege conferences with the means to pay the higher salaries of elders?

There are no ready solutions to these problems. Indeed, it is probably best to think of these not necessarily as problems, but as tensions - tensions between the need of the church to maintain flexibility for the sake of missional outreach and the need of the church to develop fair, consistent, and theologically-grounded systems and structures. We as United Methodists need to learn to live with these tensions. Fortunately, living with tensions should be part of our Wesleyan heritage - the tension between movement and institution, between divine and human initiative, between head and heart. It may not be easy, but it may also be necessary for our future.