Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top Stories of 2016

UM & Global is continuing a news tradition we joined in last year - end of the year retrospectives. In this post, I'll list the top stories of 2016, as measured by page views. Next week, I'll look back on 2016 and look forward to 2017 by giving my own summary of the top themes the blog addressed in 2016 and is likely to address in 2017. But first, the top stories of 2016, as chosen by you, the readers:

1. General Conference Roundup: Global Health
2. Recommended Readings: Bishops at General Conference
3. Robert Hunt: Culture, Not Geography Defines Global Church (Parts 1, 2, and 3)
4. Peter Bellini: Global Mental Health and the Church (Parts 1, 2, and 3)
5. David Scott: On Diversity and Tables
6. Philip Wingeier-Rayo: A Small Victory for Missions at General Conference
7. Recommended Reading: A Message to the Global UMC from UMC Africa Initiative
8. William Payne: Probing Reasons for Mainline Decline
9. David Scott: Misunderstanding Our Mission (Parts 1 and 2)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Recommended Reading and Watching: UMC Earthkeepers

Global Ministries recently trained and commissioned its first class of Earthkeepers, a new category of service for the agency that entails training and recognition by Global Ministries, but not ongoing direct supervision or financial support. A Global Ministries story further describes the program. Video of the commissioning service and training sessions is also available.

This new program is significant for several reasons:

1. It is another sign of the growing recognition of earthkeeping/creation care/eco-justice/etc. as a significant realm of mission work. Such recognition extends far beyond Global Ministries and United Methodism.

2. Earthkeepers represent an interesting new category of missionary within the realm of United Methodism. Global Ministries already recognizes a variety of categories of missionaries, mostly based on its own internal program structures. In addition, there are categories of mission service such as deaconesses and home missioners outside of Global Ministries. Earthkeepers is interesting both in its recognized but not supervised arrangement and in that it is a category that encompasses both lay and ordained service, though that is also true of other forms of mission service.

3. With regard to internal Global Ministries structures, the commissioning represents a significant achievement for the Center for Mission Innovation, Global Ministries' newest unit, which is charged with discerning and promotion new and innovative forms of mission.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Migrant Mission and Ecclesial Boundary-Crossing in Canada

As I have written in a previous post, "[M]ission inherently destabilizes whatever geographic, administrative, ecclesial structures the church creates for itself. Those structures are predicated on boundaries, and mission is an inherently boundary-crossing endeavor."

UMNS recently wrote about another great example of the destabilizing effects of mission on ecclesial boundaries. In her article "Church helps Zimbabweans keep home in Canada," Vicki Brown tells the story of several congregations of Zimbabwean United Methodists in Canada.

Theoretically there should not be United Methodist congregations in Canada. The UMC and its predecessors have had a very long-standing comity agreement with The United Church of Canada and its predecessors, including the Methodist Church, Canada. According to this understanding, the UMC does not start congregations in Canada, and the United Church of Canada does not start congregations in the United States. They mutually recognize the national border as an ecclesial border too.

Mission, especially mission tied to migration, challenges such long-standing ecclesial boundaries, though. Zimbabweans migrate to Canada. They want to continue their religious practices and identity, a reasonable desire by most standards. They are United Methodist, and while they are happy to work with the United Church of Canada and while the United Church of Canada generously helps support them, the Zimbabweans still see themselves as United Methodist, even while living in Canada.

Thus, an exception is carved out of the long-standing comity agreement. In the words of the article, "The United Methodist Church and The United Church of Canada have an agreement that the only United Methodist churches in Canada will be those serving an ethnic population such as the Zimbabwean migrants." Now there is an asterisk to the policy of not starting churches on the other side of the border.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, and in this instance, it seems like the Zimbabwean migrants, the United Church in Canada, and the UMC have all worked together well to ensure that the migrants' spiritual needs are met.

Yet it is remarkable just how common this sort of ecclesial boundary-blurring by mission and migration working in tandem is. A line buried near the bottom of the article states, "In addition to Canada, Bishop Nhiwatiwa has appointed pastors to lead Zimbabwean congregations in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, said the Rev. Alan Gurupira, assistant to the bishop." That's five countries where mission and migration have blurred the boundaries between the UMC and its sister denominations.

And that's just looking at Zimbabwean migrants. When we include migrants from the Philippines, Nigeria, the DRC, and other countries, we discover a lot of United Methodist congregations in countries where the UMC theoretically doesn't exist. This pattern stems in large part from the UMC seeing itself as a transnational denomination. Unlike the United Church of Canada, which only exists in Canada, the UMC exists in multiple countries across the world. Yet while the UMC sets formal limits on which countries it exists in, once the door has been opened to existing in multiple countries, it is hard to make such limits stick.

Perhaps this tension between mission and structure gets at a larger theological point. As humans, we desire to create perfect structures, a reflection perhaps of the harmony we believe to be part of God's nature. Yet as humans, we are also frequently on the move, and God sends the church along with God's people on the move. Our perfect structures then look less perfect. Yet we continue to revise existing structures and build new ones, which will inevitably again come up short. This pattern is not, however, an exercise in futility but an enacted meditation on the nature of a God who has created, is now re-creating, and will continue to make all things new.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Recommended Readings: The Church and World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day is December 1st every year. Below is a somewhat belated rundown of the work that a variety of United Methodist agencies and groups are conducting related to AIDS.

From UMW, a cover story from response Magazine on "Faith Meets AIDS"

From the Global Health unit of Global Ministries, an article entitled "World AIDS Day: Working Toward an AIDS-Free World"

From the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, a video message on World AIDS Day by Bishop Julius Trimble

From UMNS, an article "Philippines United Methodists raise awareness on HIV/AIDS"

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Misunderstanding Our Mission, Part 2

Last week, I suggested that United Methodists, especially American United Methodists, frequently misunderstand the denominational mission statement in problematic ways. When many United Methodists hear "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," what they really hear is "recruiting church members to continue church programming." Last week, I looked at the first part of this misunderstanding. This week, I will look at the second.

The equation of transforming the world with continuing church programming may not have quite the same disastrous spiritual consequences as misunderstanding the nature of discipleship, but nonetheless it prevents us from being effective in loving the world as God would have us do.

United Methodist churches run a wide array of programming that varies depending on the context. Across the world, United Methodists run schools, operate health clinics, host addiction recovery groups, welcome migrants, feed and clothe those without adequate sustenance, visit the imprisoned, and provide clean water. We also hold church dinners (in the US, Methodists are known for potlucks), Sunday school pageants, committee meetings, holiday celebrations, craft fairs, and the like. Not all of these activities are bad, and some of these activities are quite good.

We make a couple of mistakes, however, when we confuse church programming with the transformation of the world.

First, we easily overlook the distinction between inward-focused programming and outward-focused programming. It has been my experience that, at least in the US, church suppers and many similar programs are usually for those who are already members of the church, no matter how many flyers are posted around town. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As noted last week, discipleship is a vitally important part of the life of the church, and discipleship is an inward-focused activity of the church.

Nevertheless, when we have an event for our members that is not discipleship-related and then call it outreach, we’re deluding ourselves and misunderstanding outreach. Ham and turkey dinners for the membership generally do not transform the world. Moreover, when we’re honest about when a program is inward-focused, then it’s easier to assess the disciple-making impact of the program.

Second, in equating church programs and the transformation of the world, we confuse cultural activities and mission. Churches, and not just those in the US, often serve as a space for organizing activities that reflect and perpetuate local cultures, often not just for their members but for the wider community. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The church needs to be able to dress itself in the clothes of the culture where it lives.

What is bad is when we mistake these cultural activities for the transformation of the world. It is great to hold a holiday sale if that is part of the culture of your town and lots of people from the outside of the church come to it. That does not mean, however, that you have transformed the world by selling tchotchkes to non-church members. To be world transforming, activities need to be not only outward focused but related more to the work of the gospel than to cultural activities.

Third, we make a mistake in equating church programming with world transforming if we continue to do the same programs we have always done. There are many church programs out there that had worthwhile, world-transforming impacts when they were started. Yet the context shifts, personnel running the program shift, the focus of the program drifts, and eventually, it is not having the same impact as it used to.

The question to ask about church programming is not, “Was this program originally set up to be outward-focused, gospel-related, and world transforming?” The question to ask is, “Is the program currently having a demonstrable impact on the world?” Asking such tough questions is especially important in an era when budgets are reduced and we must do “better with less,” not “more with less.”

Fourth and finally, when we equate church programming with the transformation of the world, we assume that the transformation of the world must happen in particular, structured ways. Methodism is a testament to the positive effects of a good organizational scheme, so I am not knocking organization in general. Moreover, within the modern world, many good, outward-focused, gospel-related, world-transforming endeavors are indeed formally organized, whether those are tutoring programs, evangelistic campaigns, or health clinics.

Still, if we assume that God only transforms the world through our organized activities, we restrict (or overlook) the work of the Holy Spirit. Much of the transformation of the world happens not through carefully organized and run programming, but through relationships. Such a misunderstanding is a particular danger for Americans, who are often so focused on getting things done that they neglect relationships, which can be the real conduits through which the Holy Spirit works to transform the world.

Thus, let us continue to do church programming. Yet let us be honest and reflective in the programming we do, recognizing the ways in which it does and does not contribute to the transformation of the world and always remembering that God is at work both through and beyond our programs.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Recommended Viewing: Donna and Jonathan Baker on cultural views of children

In this video, Global Ministries missionaries Donna Baker and Jonathan Baker talk about their process of learning about cultural views of children in DR Congo that differ from the Bakers' own prior cultural understandings of children. The video is a great testimony and example of how being in mission can help build cross-cultural understanding when missionaries are open to learning from those with whom they are in mission. The Bakers are to be commended for being open to such learning and for sharing their story.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Misunderstanding Our Mission, Part 1

The denominational mission statement for The United Methodist Church is "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." This mission statement, like most good mission statements, provides focus for a diverse organization while still allowing for a variety of interpretations.

Yet there's one common interpretation of this mission statement that is, I think, quite problematic despite being perhaps the default understanding of the mission statement (at least among Americans). I think when many United Methodists hear "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," what they really hear is "recruiting church members to continue church programming." This understanding is problematic for two reasons.

First, there is the equation of being a disciple of Jesus Christ with holding church membership. The first is an active process of following Jesus and drawing nearer to him in love. The second is a static state generated by saying a couple of words one Sunday.

There are certainly many who are not members of The United Methodist Church (and perhaps not formal members of any church) who are still true disciples of Jesus Christ. Conversely, there are also certainly many who are members of United Methodist churches but who are not seeking with their whole heart to follow Jesus, who have the form of holiness, but not the power thereof.

This understanding of making disciples means, first of all, that we pay insufficient attention to discipleship and spiritual formation within our churches. As long as people come occasionally and perhaps donate some to the church’s budget, we are content and ask no questions about how it is with their souls. We lose the central Wesleyan conviction in sanctification if we do not see disciple-making as an on-going process that applies to all in the church.

If we are focused merely on whether people are coming to our churches rather than how they are growing because of their church membership, then we become focused on institutional maintenance, not spiritual vitality, an all-too-common malady especially in the United States. American United Methodists are very concerned about membership numbers as a way, not of drawing more people closer to God, but of preserving our prestige, our budgets, and our buildings.

Even worse, some churches brag about continued growth in members despite dramatic drop-offs in worship attendance. I don’t want to equate worship attendance with discipleship, either, because being a true disciple involves much more than showing up somewhere for an hour Sunday morning, but we can assume that most who are not showing up on Sunday are not engaged in United Methodist discipleship at other points in the week, either.

Not only does this understanding of making disciples distort how we think of church members, but it distorts how we think of evangelism, too. Evangelism from such a perspective is not about an encounter with the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ but about the deployment of new and more sophisticated marketing and business tools for recruiting organization members or, worse yet, customers.

Mission, too, is misunderstood from this perspective. Mission becomes not something we do because we are disciples of Jesus, seeking to pour ourselves out in love to the world as he did, but something we do just to attract new members. Our mission becomes clouded with ulterior motives and we are will to accept coercive strategies for distributing aid and assistance that aim to gain us members but fail to reflect our basic Wesleyan beliefs in free grace.

It might be sad but somewhat excusable if this sort of misunderstanding were common among the people in the pews. Yet, this misunderstanding reaches to the highest levels of the denomination and is reflected in some of our most important initiatives. As I have written elsewhere, the focus on Vital Congregations and dashboard indicators in the American United Methodist Church is largely a focus on membership numbers and not on discipleship measures.

There are some of the dashboard indicators that do correlate with discipleship, especially those focused on small group membership and mission trip participation, but even the best of the dashboard metrics count members rather than asking anything about the spiritual quality of those members’ relationships with Jesus. Admittedly, it is much easier to count members than to assess spiritual impact, but that’s not necessarily a sufficient excuse for focusing on numbers only. Moreover, to the main point of this article, when we count numbers rather than assess spiritual impact, we send a sign that the former is important and the latter is not.

An approach to our mission that conflates disciple-making with member-recruitment is not only deeply spiritually misguided, it’s also not terribly effective in the long haul. If The United Methodist Church is only a membership organization, then inevitably it must compete with other groups who can also offer community service, friendship, social prominence, political action, or any of the other non-religious benefits to church membership. The history of capitalism teaches us, too, that almost all organizations are eventually outcompeted. If we are a membership organization only, then we can expect our decline to continue.

If, however, The United Methodist Church is a place where people can be supported in the hard but life-changing work of following Jesus, a place for people to experience the affirming, transforming power of the Holy Spirit, a place where people can draw closer to the God that loves them, that is something people can’t get elsewhere and will always have staying power.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Recommended Viewing: Seedbed Videos on Mission and World Christianity

Seedbed puts out a variety of resources from a Wesleyan, though not solely United Methodist, perspective. Among those resources are short (5-15 minute) videos. The following four videos relate to mission and World Christianity. Unless otherwise noted, the descriptions following them are taken from Seedbed.

Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent Emeritus of the Wesleyan Church, on Fresh Challenges Facing the Global Church (8 minutes)
"What are some of the top challenges facing the 21st century church? In this video interview with Mark Benjamin, Dr. Jo Anne Lyon discusses how some of the greatest challenges are not necessarily unique to the people of God, but rather in how the church responds to the pressing struggles facing humanity as a whole.
"In doing so, she reminds us that leadership in the church has shifted to the global south, and that faith communities are uniquely poised to offer the solution to our world’s shrinking sense of fulfillment and community."

Victor Olaosebikan, chaplain for the Archbishop of the ecclesiastical province of Kaduna and Lord Bishop of Kebbi Diocese, Edmund Akanya, on Discipleship, Evangelism, and Mission in Religiously Plural Contexts (12 minutes)
"Anglican pastor and evangelist in Nigeria, Victor shares his experiences with discipleship, evangelism, and missionary work is a religiously plural context."
DWS: This video focuses in particular on 'neo-Paganism' among Christians and relations between Christians and Muslims.

Matt Price, professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, on 3 Major Shifts in Global Missions (5 minutes)
"The face of missions has changed drastically with the advent of the 21st century. In this Seven Minute Seminary video, Dr. Matthew Price shares three ways in which the way we do missions might be affected by the changing times.
1. The soil of the gospel is being prepared by the movement of the Holy Spirit.
2. The patterns of migration are affecting cultural engagement within mission.
3. The growth of advanced, digital societies makes Christianity a minority voice."

Stanley John, Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies Director of the Alliance Graduate School of Missions and Intercultural Studies, on World Christianity In an Age of Global Migration (14 minutes)
"Most Christians in North American imagine that missions work is the church in the West bringing the gospel to the undeveloped world. In this Seven Minute Seminary video, Dr. Stanley John dispels this myth by highlighting important statistics about global Christianity, and shares stories about how the global church is reaching a globalized world."
DWS: This video focuses in particular migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf region.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Getting specific about global UMC growth and decline

The latest figures about UMC membership in the US have been released and, to no one's surprise, they show a continued decline in overall membership. While these results may be unsurprising, they can prompt us to ask deeper questions about United Methodist growth and decline.

Often we tell a narrative about demographics in The United Methodist Church that can be summed up as "The church in the United States is declining. The church in Africa and Asia is growing." While that is generally true, it is helpful to get a more specific sense of how that plays out in various spots.

To do that, I decided to examine the delegate counts for the past five General Conferences ('00 to '16), culled from info on umc.org about those General Conferences (either the guide or the seating chart). I chose this data set for two reasons:

1) It is more readily available online than actual membership numbers, and
2) It gives a sense not only of numeric growth/decline but also growing or declining influence in the denomination.

There are a fixed number of GC delegates, and that number decreased significantly in 2016, which makes these numbers an imperfect proxy for actual membership growth and decline. Yet, the total number of United Methodists worldwide has remained about 12 million, despite areas of growth and decline, so this shortcoming is not as significant as might be imagined.

I looked at both the absolute number of delegates and the number of delegates as a percentage of the whole. Sifting through the data, I noticed five general patterns within the number of General Conference delegates:

1. Declining numbers and percentages of delegates
This pattern essentially applies to all US jurisdictions, though at different rates. Interestingly, it's actually the North Central Jurisdiction that's lost the greatest percentage of delegates, losing over a third of its voting strength between 2000 and 2016. The Southeast Jurisdiction lost the least, losing a fifth of its voting strength, and was relatively unaffected by the voting compression of a reduced number of delegates to GC2016.

2. (Relatively) Steady numbers of delegates.
This pattern holds for most of Europe and the delegates from the concordat churches. Most surprising, however, is that some African annual conferences also fit into this pattern, notably Liberia, Eastern Angola, and a few conferences in the Congo. This is an important reminder that not all branches of the UMC in Africa are growing.

The reduction in total delegates in GC2016 boosted the voting strength of such Annual/Central Conferences, but perhaps not as much as one would imagine. For instance, the 10 concordat votes went from being 1.0% of the total to 1.2%. Northern Europe and Eurasia lost two votes, but increased their vote share from 2.2% to 2.4%.

3. Growth through division
Several geographic areas have gained in both total General Conference delegates and in their percentage of General Conference delegates by creating new annual conferences that then receive the mandatory two representatives to General Conference. The creation of new annual conferences indicates some growth in membership, but annual conferences remaining at the minimum number of delegates indicates that such growth is not large in total numeric terms.

The Philippines have been the largest example of this pattern, having gained 16 GC delegates and nearly doubled their vote strength through annual conference subdivision. Russia is another good example. Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa fit this pattern as well, though the Mozambique South Annual Conference may be starting to see faster growth.

4. Growth and decline
A couple of African annual conferences increased their total General Conference delegates only to see that number subsequently decline. This pattern either indicates that the initial numbers on which the growth was based were unreliable or that there was an actual growth and decline in membership.

Nigeria and Sierra Leone in West Africa are the best examples here. Nigeria had 6 delegates in 2000 before increasing to 44 delegates in 2008 and then falling back to 22 delegates (in three annual conferences) in 2016. Sierra Leone's rise and fall wasn't as dramatic but is nonetheless similar.

5. Significant growth
This pattern includes significant increases in the number of total GC delegates (beyond mandatory minimums) and percentage of delegate strength, with or without annual conference subdivision. This is the picture usually painted of the UMC in Africa. Yet, by now, we've seen that this picture does not hold true for all areas of Africa.

North Katanga, Northwest Katanga, South Congo, and Southwest Katanga in the DRC fit this pattern, as do Tanzania/Tanganyika and Zambia, both also in the Congo Central Conference. East Africa/Burundi is the other good example.

Hence, to revise the pat narrative with which I started this article, here's what we can say about global growth and decline in the UMC: The US is, indeed, declining. Europe and spots of Africa are holding relatively steady. The Philippines, Russia, and southeast Africa have seen steady (though not dramatic) growth accompanied by annual conference division. West Africa has seen some instances of growth and decline. Central Africa is growing significantly.

While numbers are only a part of the story of the church, it is important as we think about the future of our global denomination to have this level of specificity in our understanding of where and how the UMC is and isn't growing and not to rely upon broad generalizations.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Wesleyan theology and power in mission relationships

As this week's recommended reading indicates, how we think about power matters for how we think about (and practice) mission. I would like to further contend that how we think about the process of redemption has implications for how we think about power. Moreover, a proper Wesleyan understanding of the process of redemption should facilitate a proper understanding of power in mission relationships.

I want to get into this connection between Wesleyan theology and power in mission by contrasting Wesleyan and Reformed theological anthropologies (theological views of human nature) and soteriologies (theologies of salvation). Such theological arguments among Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, and Wesleyans constitute a significant arena of classical, European theology, but one which is not frequently connection to missiology.

I do not mean to imply by this post that missionaries from the Reformed tradition are predestined to misunderstand power in mission relationships. Obviously, there are many fine missionaries and mission theologians from Reformed perspectives that understand the complexities of power in mission far better than most Methodists.

I only mean to suggest that Methodists should be aided in thinking properly about the role of power in mission by reflecting well on their Wesleyan theological heritage. For Methodists to misunderstand power is not only a failure of proper missiology; it's a failure of proper Wesleyan theological anthropology and soteriology.

In the standard Reformed position, human beings experience "total depravity" - that is, all of the good in human nature has become effaced and human beings are nothing but sinful and evil. True Christians are saved from this condition by "unconditional election" - God's choice without any form of participation by those being saved. Indeed, humans are completely unable to be part of the process of salvation in any way since whatever was good in them has been completely destroyed by sin.

In contrast, John Wesley understand that sin had corrupted human nature but that humans still retained something of the "imago Dei," the image of God, in them. Humans' spiritual and moral capacities are turned away from God, but humans still had such capacities. Salvation comes, then, when God restores these capacities by imparting grace. God's prevenient grace revives these capacities to the point where humans are enabled to respond to God's grace. While it's important not to make humans responsible for their own salvation, humans nonetheless have more than a merely passive role to play in their salvation according to the Wesleyan model.

With this understanding in mind, we can turn to missiology. Just as God sends God's self (Jesus) into the fallen world to redeem it, so God sends the church forward in that same world to participate in God's act of redemption. Thus, Christians can be excused for modeling their understandings of how the church should be in mission on how they understand God to save humanity. It is easy, if not entirely correct, for Christians to see themselves as playing a role analogous to God and the world as playing a role analogous to the Christian.

A poor understanding of mission power relations sees Westerns/white people/the rich/the middle class/etc. as the active agents in mission and non-Westerns/non-white people/the poor/etc. are merely passive recipients of the mission activity of privileged Christians. The privileged do; the spiritually and materially underprivileged receive.

Yet if the mission relationship mirrors in any way the relationship between God and Christians, then this is a wrong understanding of mission according to Wesleyan theology. Humans are not just passive objects in their salvation. They have capabilities, and God's goal is to restore and revive those capabilities. Thus, Wesleyan missionaries should at a minimum seek to discover and develop the capabilities of those they serve in mission.

Ideally, Wesleyan missionaries should go beyond this minimum to seek partnership and mutuality with those with whom they are in mission, recognizing that they are not God but rather partners with others in obedience to God. Such an understanding would fully reflect the imago Dei in all and God's prevenient grace at work everywhere.

Nevertheless, a more fundamental case can be made that any form of missiology that does not recognize the agency of recipients of mission cannot claim to be truly Wesleyan.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Recommended Reading: Irish Methodist World Development on Power

Tim Dunwoody, World Mission and Development Officer of the Methodist Church in Ireland's Methodist World Development and Relief agency, wrote this blog post about how power affects the work of mission and development. Mr. Dunwoody's very accessible piece explains the concept of the "white savior narrative," examines the different ways power can be deployed in development work, and recommends the model of partnership as a configuration of power that moves away from the white savior narrative. Dunwoody's piece as a nicely written overview of important issues in missiology today and is appropriate for a general lay audience.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

On diversity and tables

The United Methodist Church tends to think about diversity in a particular way. The church, for a variety of legitimate historical and organizational reasons, tends to evaluate its progress (or lack thereof) on issues of diversity in terms of membership numbers and percentages on various official bodies.

The church asks, for instance, “How many women are at General Conference?” “How many laity are on the Commission on a Way Forward?” “How many Africans are directors for the General Board of Church and Society?” “How many young adults are on this annual conference committee?” These questions are intended to be indicative rather than comprehensive in terms of the underrepresented groups and the relevant bodies in the church.

This way of understanding diversity and inclusion can be summed up in the question, “Who has a seat at the table?” United Methodists spend a lot of time figuring out which groups account for what percentage of the seats around various tables.

This approach to issues of diversity and inclusion is not a bad one and has important merits. Nonetheless, it is not the only way to think about questions of diversity and inclusion, and it would behoove United Methodists from time to time to ask ourselves other questions related to whether we are adequately reflecting the diversity of God’s people in our common life.

If we like the metaphor of a table for thinking about voice, representation, power, and inclusion in our denomination, we could even ask these other questions in terms of tables. Here, for instance, are some other questions we could ask ourselves about diversity and tables.

“Where at the table are people sitting?” The image of a roundtable is popular in church lingo because of its implication of equality for all those sitting around it. Yet, if we’re being honest, not all of our tables in the UMC are round (literally or metaphorically). And even at round tables, not everyone has the same view of the speaker, access to the food and drinks, proximity to the door, etc. Especially at non-round tables, where one sits determines with whom one most closely associates, who can hear each other, and one’s prominence in a meeting. It’s not just who’s at the table, it’s where they are sitting.

“What type of table is this, and who chose the table?” Tables can be made from a variety of materials and can come in a variety of shapes. Different tables (for instance, conference tables vs. dining tables) are appropriate for different uses. Often, representatives of different groups are included at UMC tables but had little say in determining what type of table it is. Thus, what happens at that table is in part pre-determined by the people who chose the table. Many of the (literal and metaphorical) tables in the UMC were built in the 20th century, mostly by white, American men. The people sitting around them now are not all white, American, men, and none are living in the 20th century, but all are still in some ways constrained by the types of tables built by white, American men of generations ago. These tables may not always be comfortable for people of different ages, gender, races, nationalities, and abilities than the table builders.

“What are we doing at the table?” Tables can be used for a variety of purposes – eating, holding meetings, playing games, etc. As with the style of table, which partly determines its uses, those who sit at a particular table may not have been the ones who determined what the table would be used for. Again, many of the uses of our tables (literal and figurative) in the UMC were determined two or more generations ago mostly by white, American, men. Even when those sitting around the table reflect new generations and a wider diversity of genders, ethnicities, and nationalities, they may still be forced to eat the same sorts of meals, hold the same sorts of meetings, and play the same sorts of games as the originators of the table ate, held, and played. Worse still, not all may understand the game being played at the table or realize that it’s not the same version of the game they’re used to playing at other tables.

“Are the tables at which our representative groups are sitting the most important tables?” Not all official bodies that theoretically have decision-making power actually exercise that power. It is common, in the church and in the world, for the “real decisions” to be made elsewhere, at another time and by another group, than the official group who gives its stamp of approval to the decision. If the tables at which our carefully chosen representatives are sitting are not the tables where decisions are happening, then they are just so much window dressing, to mix architectural metaphors. Worse still, not all may be of the same understanding or knowledge of which decisions get made at which tables.

“Should we be sitting at tables?” In the end, we can even question this metaphor of seats at the table. What do we miss out on understanding about how culture and diversity work in the kingdom of God if we always talk about tables? What would we instead gain by talking about ingredients in the gumbo, or dancers in the dance, or musicians in the band, or other metaphors?

Seats at the table are important. But United Methodists can’t be content to just sit around on issues of representation and inclusion in the church.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Recommended reading: The relatively wealthy American UMC

The Pew Research Center recently published an info graphic ranking major US religious groups, including The United Methodist Church, by household income. While the UMC isn't the highest on the chart, its American members do make more than the average American family. The UMC has a lower percentage of households making less than $30,000/year and a higher percentage of families making more than $50,000/year than the US average, giving some credence to the old joke, "Q: What does UMC stand for? A: Upper middle class."

Two brief observations about these data are appropriate:

1. These results again raise questions about the UMC's ability to reach out to new population groups within the US beyond its base of mostly white, mostly middle to upper-middle class American members. As this blog has indicated before, the UMC in the US struggles at times to recognize and go beyond its cultural location, and its class base is part of that cultural location.

2. These results raise questions about relationships between relatively wealthy American United Methodists and relatively poorer United Methodists in Asia and Africa. United Methodists everywhere around the world need to be cognizant of the potential distortions and conflicts financial inequalities can introduce into the familial relations of faith.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Recommended reading: Bishops plan for called General Conference in 2019

The Council of Bishops made plans to call a special General Conference in February or March of 2019, as described in this UMNS article released yesterday. The actual call will not be issued until a location, dates, and exact wording of the call have been determined.

While the specifics of the special General Conference have not yet been developed, it will take up matters related to the Commission on a Way Forward. This blog has covered the development of that commission in previous posts. The timing of the General Conference would allow the Commission, whose membership was recently announced, until approximately June 2018 to complete their work.

It is also worth noting that delegates to the called General Conference will be either the same delegates as GC2016, their regularly appointed alternates, or, if an annual conference so chooses, a newly elected slate of delegates. One development to watch is whether annual conferences do choose to elect new delegates.

Along with the announcement came a video inviting United Methodists to pray and fast for their church. A corresponding website (umcprays.org) is designed to assist church members in that process. The bishops emphasized the importance of prayer in moving forward as a denomination.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Pat Watkins: Connecting with the Earth

Today's piece is written by Pat Watkins. Rev. Watkins is a missionary with Global Ministries serving at Caretakers of God's Creation.

As a missionary in Nigeria in the 90’s, I learned a very important life lesson. Because of the isolated nature of our village (even the Nigerians who lived there said we lived at the “end of the earth”), I had to learn to live my life in relationship with how the earth lives its life in ways I had never before experienced.

For example, there was a mango tree in our backyard. We could have mangoes only when they were in season; when they were not, we couldn’t go to the market and buy one from South America. Also, there was a rainy season and a dry season in our part of Nigeria. We had to plan our trips to the city during the dry season because in the heart of the rainy season we could not get out of our village by road. The rivers filled up with water, and as there were no bridges, when the water got too deep to drive through, we couldn’t go anywhere. I was forced to consider the life of earth when planning my own.

In the US I never had to do that; I could essentially ask the earth to conform its life to mine. I could turn on heat or air conditioning and always get myself out of the rain or snow. I never had to change my life due to the life of the planet until I arrived in Nigeria. For people who have grown up on farms, this comes naturally, but for me, it was quite a revelation.

And for me that newfound relationship with the earth really did something to me. Instead of merely figuring out ways of tolerating such a relationship, I embraced it. There was something good about it, and as time went on I began to wonder if perhaps there might even be something sacred about it.

I came home from Nigeria with a huge question in my mind and heart: “Is there a connection between a relationship with the earth and my life as a disciple of Jesus Christ?” I had attended seminary, but I wanted to learn some earth science in an effort to have a conversation within myself between science and theology; only then could I answer my question. So I went back to school in Environmental Science to learn that part of the conversation.

After a couple of years, I could answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” Absolutely there is a connection between my faith as a Christian and not only a relationship with God’s creation but also a responsibility to care for it and heal it.

My follow up questions were, “If this relationship with the earth is a valid one from the perspective of Christian faith, then doesn’t it make sense that the church should see itself in mission to and with the earth, just as we are with God’s people? And if so, then how do I live this out for myself as an ordained clergy person, and how can I suggest the church live it out?”

After a few years of working for policy organizations in Virginia, I had the bright idea that the church should make me a missionary again, only this time instead of sending me to another country or group of people, the church should send me to God’s creation.

I was commissioned a Church and Community Worker assigned as the Executive Director of Caretakers of God’s Creation, a ministry of the Virginia Conference. Our goal was to raise United Methodists’ awareness about the connection between faith and the responsibility to care for creation and then to equip individuals and congregations in how they could live out their faith, given this connection.

Over the next several years, I met people from other parts of the country for whom this connection between faith and creation care was also a passion; some had started creation care ministries in their local congregations, districts and/or conferences. It became evident to many of us that there was a need within the UMC for a national US creation care organization. Thus, my mission position evolved to become a Global Ministries Missionary with a global focus.

My approach in promoting this mission of the church always starts with theology. It is crucial that we have a good foundational knowledge of the biblical theology of creation care, such that any and all actions we engage in naturally evolve out of our faith. I routinely discuss climate change, for example, with congregations, Sunday School classes, etc., but always from within the context of good, solid biblical theology.

I never need to tell people what to do (i.e. recycle, get rid of Styrofoam, drive a Prius, etc.) because they already know all of that and are smart enough to figure out in their own lives, based on their contexts and situations, what are the most effective actions they should be taking. My job is to provide them with an additional motivation for why, as a Christian, they should care about doing those things. It isn’t because “green” has become the “in” thing; it’s because we’re Christians!

In addition, I try to associate creation care issues with the traditional, historic mission of the church. For example, how can the health mission of the church make the connection between human health and the health of the planet such that healing the earth can be seen as healing God’s people? For me, it is impossible to care for the earth without caring for God’s people and impossible to care for God’s people without caring for the earth.

Another example is the disaster response mission of the church. We do a great job of responding to disasters around the world, but can we begin to see mitigation of climate change as a way to reduce the frequency and severity of the disasters we react to? We can replace houses and churches that are destroyed by a hurricane, for example, but we can’t restore the lives that are lost. But if we mitigate climate change and reduce the severity of hurricanes, perhaps we can prevent the loss of life.

Mission is complex and complicated, but we as United Methodists have the intelligence, the ability to think complexly, the experience and the skills necessary to embrace a very difficult world and transform it for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. But we have to be able to make all kinds of connections with all that we do, including connections with the earth itself.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Barry Bryant: The Rorschach Wesley Test

Today's piece is written by Barry E. Bryant. Rev. Dr. Bryant is Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

“Look at the inkblot and tell me what you see.” That phrase has long been associated with the Rorschach inkblot test and the response says more about the one doing the looking than the nature of what is being seen. Reading Wesley can often be something akin to a Rorschach test. What one sees in Wesley says as much about the one doing the “looking” as it does about what is being “seen.”

The first thing to consider is the nature of what may be seen in Wesley. Of course this is not unique to Wesley or his readers and looking at Wesley is not an entirely subjective experience. There is more meaning and structure in Wesley than what’s in an ink blot. There are reasons why some see what they see in Wesley and there is a variety of things to be seen. Wesley was an intellectual pack rat and an accumulator of ideas over a long period of time. He lived in every decade of the 18th century and during those decades while the essence of what he thought remained constant the nuance of his thinking changed and varied over time. At all times he sought coherence.

While he considered himself a “man of one book” obviously he didn’t read only the Bible. He read a plethora of books on a variety of topics, ranging from Greek and Latin poets, to Shakespeare and Milton, to natural science and philosophy, to secular and sacred history, to Biblical studies and a wide spectrum of theology. He was also an indiscriminate reader. He read those with whom he agreed and disagreed, writers who comforted and enraged him, writers whom he imitated and appreciated.

As much as he read, he also listened to the experiences of others. Wesley’s journals, diaries, and letters reveal someone who valued the testimonies of how grace had transformed Methodist lives. These narratives in all of their complexities had a significant influence on the shaping of Wesley’s theology, leaving some to conclude it is a practical theology by nature.

All this resulted in an eclectic and ecumenical theology that reflected a variety of traditions: Puritan, Pietist, Anglican, Apostolic, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist, and an emerging Methodist tradition. In all this he tried to hold together faith and works, an Arminian understanding of predestination, robust doctrines of original sin and prevenient grace, a doctrine of personal sin and Christian perfection, and his Anglicanism with his evangelicalism.

It should be no surprise then that so many different traditions find something in Wesley that resonates with their own theology. Indeed, different people look at Wesley and see different things in the Wesleyan Rorschach, and this is how we end up with so many different “Wesleyans”: Methodist Wesleyans, holiness Wesleyans, process theology Wesleyans, evangelical Wesleyans, fundamentalist Wesleyans, and Pentecostal Wesleyans, just to name a few.

At this point an important distinction needs to be made regarding the term “Wesley” and “Wesleyan,” and “Methodist” and “Methodism.” Not all Methodists are Wesleyan, and not all Wesleyans are Methodist. Each of these groups of Wesleyans are on a quest for coherence and an organizing principle, or a single concept that helps all the material gain more coherent meaning, assuming that coherence is gained through the use of an organizing principle.

In the very least an organizing principle functions as a type of “thesis statement,” or as a way of arguing a particular theological point. On the other hand, and more significantly, an organizing principle can function as an interpretive lens through which all the material is seen and understood.

Is there a single concept around which one might definitively organize Wesley’s theology? Probably not, particularly given the very nature of the complexities, first of the material at hand, and more significantly because of the complexities of the interpretive process itself. Indeed, the arguments for an organizing principle in Wesley are plentiful and varied, often resulting in conflicting conclusions. This is not a bad thing. Having a variety of organizing principles actually demonstrates the nuanced complexity of Wesley’s theology and accounts for the theological variety in his theological progeny.

Each one reads Wesley in a peculiar setting with a different set of assumptions and even a differing set of presuppositions that are in turn shaped by Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition (now there’s another topic). These presuppositions often predetermine the outcome. The problem with the way some use organizing principles is that it is a way of justifying the exclusion of some of the more difficult, disagreeable, and possibly some irreconcilable parts of Wesley’s theology. From there it is easier to exclude other “Wesleyans.” The Wesleyan tradition is a big tent with lots of room. So, what do you see in Wesley?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Recommended reading: Composition of Commission on a Way Forward

The Council on Bishops has released the names of the 32 members (11 laity, 11 elders, 8 bishops, and 2 deacons) of the Commission on a Way Forward, which is authorized by General Conference 2016 to craft plans for the future of The United Methodist Church in the face of significant and long-standing disagreements over homosexuality in the church.

United Methodist Professors of Mission who advocated for the inclusion of a missiologist on the commission will be interested in several of the members: Dr. David N. Field, academic coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe, is a contributor to this blog. Rev. Dr. Mande Muyombo is the Executive Director of Global Mission Connections for Global Ministries. Rev. Alfiado Zunguza is the Executive Secretary for Africa for Global Ministries. Mr. Jacques Akasa Umembudi is an aviation missionary for Global Ministries.

We pray that the missiological insights of these commission members may be of service to the commission and that the Holy Spirit may guide and bless all of the commission members in the task before them.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Recent Public Access Articles by United Methodist Professors of Mission

Today we introduce a new feature. This blog is a project of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, and it is important to engage with each other's scholarship. Thus, below are links to and abstracts for two recent missiological articles written by United Methodist Professors of Mission. Both are available for public access, though Dana Robert's article will only be so for a limited time.

William Price Payne, "Folk Religion and the Pentecostalism Surge in Latin America," The Asbury Journal 71 no. 1 (2016), 145-174.

Abstract: "Latino Pentecostalism and the Roman Catholic Charismatic Movement have experienced massive numerical growth since becoming viable options for the masses in the late 1960s. Contextualization theory suggests that they have experienced exponential growth because they have become indigenous faith systems that mesh with Hispanic cultures and give folk practitioners functionally equivalent alternatives to the syncretistic practices associated with popular religion. Specifically, as a native religion that engages all aspects of the Latino worldview, Latino Pentecostalism operates at the level of a popular religion without being inherently syncretistic. In this regard, it can be described as 'folk Christianity.'"

Dana L. Robert, "One Christ--Many Witnesses: Visions of Mission and Unity, Edinburgh and Beyond," Transformation 33 no. 4 (2016), 270-281.

Abstract: "This paper surveys the relationship between mission and Christian unity from the Edinburgh 1910 conference to the present. It then identifies several factors that cohere in recent missiological reflection, and concludes with a scriptural model for our contemporary pilgrimage together."

Other United Methodist Professors of Mission with recently published scholarly articles are invited to send information about such articles to the blogmaster, David Scott. Such information will be collated on this blog approximately once a quarter.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Glory Dharmaraj: The Impact of Christianities in Motion

Today's piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women.

In an earlier article on “The Global and Local: A Mutuality of Exchange,” I referred to Odysseus and Penelope, protagonist and his spouse, in the twin epic, Iliad and Odyssey, in order to convey the complex nature of global and local mission. Penelope and Odysseus are no longer singular monolithic subjects representing changeless principles of rootedness and roaming. 

This article is about re-naming Penelope’s identity relative to migration, which is helpful for today’s diasporic mission, while making room for the Christianities in motion in the midst of us. In the Odyssey, Penelope is left at home to raise her infant son. Harassed by men and her family property stolen, she resorts to an upper room in the house, away from the public space in her house, and commits herself to the laborious task and cunning device of weaving and unweaving a shroud in order to ward off the advances of her suitors. Her son, grown up in the interval of twenty years, sets out to look for his father, and the epic story ends happily with reunions.

While acknowledging that Odysseus is not someone we would describe as a migrant, it is worth looking at Penelope’s human predicament as a spouse left at home to fend for herself and naming this condition. Far from the imperium-making routes of yester years, the major migratory routes of today are paddled with oars and made with shovels by those fleeing disasters, wars, oppressions, and persecutions. Migrants take multiple routes through multiple settings, but there are inseparable connections between the migrants and those loved ones left behind.

The erstwhile dichotomy of categorizing these two entities, Odysseus and Penelope, as mere “roaming” and “homing” does not do justice to naming their respective struggles, especially the ones left behind. Migratory interpretation of diasporic mission needs to factor in women like Penelope and their interconnectedness. Penelope is not identical or exactly the same as today’s people left at home by their migrant relatives abroad. But there are parallels between her condition and that of those left at home in modern day migration.

Penelope in Motion
For Paulo Freire, a great transformative educationist, re-naming is a form of radical action. For those engaged in diasporic mission, re-naming the weight of the human existence of one massive category of people left behind in the physical migration of their loved ones is a helpful way to formulate further actions.

Often missing in the migration mission narrative is a key insight that women, men, and children left at home in their home countries are also people in migration, since they, too, bear the painful and lonesome burden of migration, though differently. In a holistic diasporic missional understanding, beyond the “push and pull” forces in migration, there are fragile human links and relationships being lived out. A mere instrumental view of migrants as remitters of funds and boosters of their respective home economies, or potential tools for the host countries revitalizing our declining churches does not represent their gifting fully.

Recent research has shed more light on women and men left at home. Fifty percent of the world’s estimated 232 million worldwide migrants are women.  Advocacy organizations such as Women and Global Migration Working Group (www.wgmwg.org) lift up the migrants as agents of change. At the same time, with a focus on women, this advocacy group names the women left behind as “women in migration.” As a religious non-governmental organization (NGO), United Methodist Women works with such organizations that amplify the voices of the migrants as well as those left behind.

Christianities in Motion
Diasporic missional undertakings by Christian communities in the U.S. such as the Hmong, Cambodians, Filipinos, the Middle Eastern etc., among their own dispersed and displaced communities may not be fully visible on the missional radar of the structural United Methodist Church. The migrant church and its members are often alienated by the dominant culture and marginalized by settled Christianity. Often they are relegated to the status of belonging to a minority “foreign Christians.” There is much reluctance and hesitancy to cross the threshold of culture that separates us.

The church that embodies the mission of Christ cannot remain indifferent but must rather expose itself to the lived global Christianity in our midst by interacting with migrants in an ongoing basis. We simply cannot repeat the entrenched narrative. The experiences of migrant, refugee communities, their collective experiences, and their invisible network of relations with those left behind in their home countries or in a third country constitute the center of diasporic missional theology.

Here Be Dragons
Some of the ancient geographical maps had references to “here are dragons” (hic sunt dracones) pointing out the threatening nature of the unexplored areas. Maybe it is time to give ourselves to one of the following in this fall season:
  • Spend a Sunday immersed in a worship environment, not typically our own, but in a congregation comprised of migrant or refugee Christians.
  • Try to talk to a family and strive to understand their journey to this place by asking questions and listening to their stories, their community's history, language skills, linguistic challenges, and their traditional customs and norms.
Knowing something about their dreams, aspirations, and goals will indeed demonstrate that we care for them, and will also remove much of our anxieties that here be dragons. Seeing rightfully and acting justly draw us into the fuller circle of emerging Christianities in motion with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Africans Will Determine the Outcome of GC2018

United Methodists are already speculating about what might happen at a proposed called General Conference in 2018. There has been much commentary online about what positions and strategies American conservatives and progressives will take.

A lot of this commentary overlooks an important point, however: No matter what American progressives and conservatives do, African United Methodists, at 30% of the total General Conference votes, will have a deciding block of votes.

Any constitutional changes would need 96% approval among other geographic regions to pass without substantial African support. Imagine getting 96% of extreme progressives and extreme conservatives to agree on something in the UMC. Now you understand why Africans will be the deciding bloc.

Moreover, it would be ethically questionable of the church to move forward with a plan that was not supported by such a substantial minority within the church. Developing a plan that will ensure African support is critical for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.

Hence, I’m going to list several things that I think many African delegates will care about in a GC2018 (and two I think they won’t), but first a few caveats: 1. Africans are a diverse group, so not all Africans will want the same things out of a plan or find the same things acceptable. 2. I’m not an expert on African United Methodism, so I could be wrong on some of these. 3. While many Africans certainly share some theological concerns with American conservatives, their goals, objectives, and motivations should not be seen as a mere echo of American conservatives. 4. Just because Africans may care about all these issues doesn’t mean they will need to get their way on all of them to support a plan. They will, however, need to get their way on some of them.

Things I think Africans will care about:

1. Affirmation of the supreme role of the Bible in the life of the church. This was the overwhelming point of the recent statement put out by the UMC Africa Initiative. The UMC Africa Initiative doesn’t speak for all African GC delegates, but it does have substantial influence with them. Whether or not one agrees with the UMC Africa Initiative’s approach to biblical exegesis, the very high value they place on the Bible is clear.

2. Continuation of the current denominational stance opposing homosexuality. While American progressives see an accepting stance toward homosexuality as consistent with the Bible, Africans by and large do not. Both because of the type of biblical exegesis common and because of prevailing cultural mores, most Africans want to hold the line on homosexuality.

3. Bishops. American United Methodists might take the existence of bishops for granted, but African United Methodists don’t. The opportunity to have bishops is, after all, one of the main reasons Cote d’Ivoire Methodists joined the denomination. At GC2016, Africans were promised five new bishops in 2020, and they will want to ensure that there is a UMC or a successor denomination willing to honor that promise.

4. Funding. Currently, African annual conferences are not self-sustaining. There are overwhelming economic disparities between the United States and most African countries (e.g., DRC’s per capita GDP is less than 1% of the US’s), and these are wedded to long-term patterns of financial dependency. While GC2016 approved a first-ever apportionment plan for the central conferences, it is unrealistic to expect African annual conferences to become self-sustaining within the next four years while continuing to follow current denominational organizational patterns. Either these patterns will need to change dramatically, or funding will need to continue to come from the US to support them.

5. Programmatic assistance from general boards and agencies. Some of this assistance comes in the form of funding, but this is a broad category which also includes expertise, educational resources and opportunities, and personnel. Such forms of assistance from partners around the connection make a significant impact on the life of the UMC in Africa. Africans will be reluctant to cut these ties.

6. International connections. Such connections can be useful for purposes of domestic political advocacy and domestic political protections. International connections, especially to a powerful country like the United States, can legitimize and advance the work of the UMC in contexts where it is a minority or facing oppression.

7. More voice and votes in UMC decisions. Africans know that their percentages of members and General Conference representatives have been on the rise within the UMC. They are likely to want to receive greater recognition of their voices and more votes on boards as they seek to assert their legitimate desire for influence in their own denomination.

Things I think Africans will not care about (at least as much as Americans):

1. American church decline. Africans are certainly sympathetic to the fate of their coreligionists, and American decline could interfere with long-term funding, but African churches are growing, and there is no coming “death tsunami” in Africa. Indeed, continued American decline and African growth leads to more African voice and votes in UMC decisions. Moreover, American decline and African growth provides rhetorical strength for casting Africa as the champion of the gospel the West has abandoned and thus provides Africans with moral as well as political capital.

2. Polarization. Many American United Methodists bemoan polarization in the church and the way it reflects polarization in the wider American society. It is important to remember that African churches and annual conferences aren’t polarized around LGBT issues the same way some American annual conferences are. Africans experience polarization at General Conference and in their engagement with the life of the broader denomination, but this debate is not a symptom of pervasive and deeply felt polarization at all church levels for Africans in the same way that it is for Americans. Moreover, even though there are significant political and other cleavages within African countries, they do not map onto United Methodist arguments in the same way American political and cultural divides do. Thus, United Methodist polarization is not a reflection of a wider societal problem for African delegates the same way it is for Americans.

I cannot pretend to be able to predict what Africans will do with this range of concerns as part of the Commission on a Way Forward or at a called General Conference 2018. Nevertheless, it will behoove all in the denomination to be listening to the unique concerns of our African brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Recommended reading: Women and technology in Africa

This UMNS news story relates new from the first-ever Africa Summit on Women and Girls in Technology. While the summit was led by secular leaders, several United Methodists connected to United Methodist Women were among the attendees. The story is of interest because it connects to several themes explored previously on this blog: the intersections of mission with gender, technology, and education. The education of women and girls for the sake of their empowerment has been a long-standing mission priority, and this summit reflects a form of that old concern, one that focuses on education in the use of digital technology.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Recommended readings: Climate care theological resources online

On this, the last day of the Season of Creation, I thought it appropriate to pass along several free, online resources related to mission as climate care.

First are a couple of resources, in English, from globethics.net. For those unfamiliar with globethics.net, in its own words, it "is a global network of persons and institutions interested in various fields of applied ethics. It offers access to a large number of resources on ethics, especially through its leading global digital ethics library and facilitates collaborative web-based research, conferences, online publishing and information sharing." It's important to emphasize from that description their amazing free electronic library of ethics and theological resources.

As the WCC reported, globethics.net recently published a new e-book entitled Eco-Theology, Climate Justice and Food Security: Theological Education and Christian Leadership Development. A digital version is available here. While this resource will be of general use to those interested in ecological mission, Kapya Kaoma's chapter "From Missio Dei to Missio Creatoris Dei" will be of particular interest. In addition, globethics.net also has an earlier publication entitled Global Ethics Applied: Environmental Ethics. A digital version is available here.

Second is a resource, in both Spanish and Portuguese, from the Council of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Latin America (AIPRAL), entitled Estamos a Tiempo/Ainda ha Tempo/We Are on Time. As the WCC reported, the book is intended as a pedagogical tool on creation care. While the resource is not cast in terms of mission, its pedagogical intention and the languages in which it is published make it of interest. A Spanish digital version is available here, and a Portuguese digital version is available here.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Mission and Globalization, Then and Now

I was reading an article in the current issue of New World Outlook, the magazine of UMC Global Ministries, written by Josh Van, a Global Ministries missionary in Malaysia. My recent book, Mission as Globalization: Methodists in Southeast Asia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, examines the beginning of Methodism in Malaysia, and as I read Josh Van’s article, I was struck by the number of similarities between the beginning of the mission 130 years ago and his work now.

1. Collaboration between different branches of Methodism – Methodism in Malaysia started as a part of the American Methodist Episcopal Church, but it also had members and ministers from the British Wesleyan Methodist Church and the American Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Today, Van’s work reflects a cooperation between the Methodist Church in Malaysia and The United Methodist Church.

2. Missionaries with diverse national backgrounds – Early missionaries to Malaysia came from the US, certainly, but also from India, Sri Lanka, China, Australia, Germany, and Sweden. Van is an American citizen but also lived in Vietnam for good portions of his life, giving him an international background too.

3. Mission to migrants – Early Methodism in Malaysia grew among the Chinese, Indian, and European migrants to the area. Today, Van is working with a new migrant group – the Vietnamese – but the significance of mission with migrants continues. Both among the early migrants and the Vietnamese in Malaysia now, the majority of migrants are (were) short-term migrants, who travel(ed) to make money for a limited term and then intend(ed) to return to their homes.

4. Evangelists with ethnic ties to the population – While Western missionaries served important roles in early Methodism in Malaysia, the mission would not have succeeded were it not for the hard work of Chinese and Tamil evangelists and ministers who shared an ethnic background with those with whom they were ministering. Similarly, Van’s Vietnamese ethnicity provides a vital point of contact with those with whom he works.

5. Effects of global capitalism – Many who were attracted to early Methodism in Malaysia were working hard as physical laborers in exploitative businesses tied to the newly booming international capitalism in the area and who were longing for something better. Van does work among a similar group – people who are working hard for businesses tied to international capitalist enterprises but who hope for something more.

6. Mission that addresses substance abuse – Colonial Malaysia was rife with opium (and to a lesser extent alcohol), which was used by exploited laborers as a way to escape from the harsh realities of their lives and used by moneyed interests as another way to extract profit from the marginalized. Methodist missionaries put a lot of effort into preaching against opium. Van mentions emphatically his efforts to combat drinking and alcoholism among Vietnamese migrants in Malaysia today, who use it for reasons similar to those Chinese laborers used opium.

7. English language education as empowerment – Early Methodist missionaries in Malaysia were known for their educational system, which they used as an evangelistic tool, but which also provided an important form of empowerment through training in the English language and business skills such as typing. Today, Van mentions his desire to start English as a Second Language and computer classes so that the migrants with whom he works would have the skills to advance socially and economically.

8. Sharing information through publications – Early Methodist missionaries in Malaysia were adept at sharing stories of their work through a variety of Methodist publications. It is therefore appropriate to have read about Josh Van’s work in one of the successors of such publications, Global Ministries’ New World Outlook.

These parallels between early Methodist mission work in Malaysia and Josh Van’s work nowadays are not just interesting coincidences, though. They demonstrate a larger point. Much of the historiography on turn of the century missions has used an interpretive lens based on colonialism. While we are still living with the effects of colonialism, formal colonialism began dying 50 years ago.

Globalization, however, is still very much with us today. One of the things I try to do in my book is to use concepts associated with contemporary globalization – such as transnational organizations, migration, global capitalism, and English as a lingua franca – as an interpretive lens for mission during that earlier wave of globalization at the turn of the twentieth century. Colonialism is an important part of that, but political and cultural colonialism is not the whole of globalization.

These comparisons between early Methodist mission and Josh Van’s work show the benefits of using such a lens: By so doing, we can discover the ways in which current mission is not only in some ways a new paradigm – a shift from colonialism to World Christianity, perhaps – but also in very important ways the continuation of patterns that were established in the colonial period but not entirely dependent on colonialism. Using a lens of globalization allows us to see such long-term patterns and thus read mission history in a way that provides fresh insights on Christian mission today.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Recommended readings: Faith and migration

Migration has been an important topic du jour in missiology and in broader news and policy discussions. Often such discussions refer to the "migration crisis." While the harmful effects of forced migration especially should not be ignored but rather taken seriously by Christians and policy-makers alike, two recent articles make the argument that it is important to go beyond seeing migration as just a crisis or a problem to be solved.

In their recent New World Outlook article "The Development of Faith During Migration," Michael Nausner and Tsaurayi Kudakwashe Mapfeka seek to shift views of migration from the negative to the neutral. They write, "We, the authors of this article, believe that migration is not necessarily a crisis to fight but a basic living condition that has existed since humans first populated this planet." Moreover, this "basic living condition" has special significant for Christians. A careful reading of the Bible, they assert, will yield "a migratory understanding of Christian identity."

In the same issue of New World Outlook, Thomas Kemper goes a step further by arguing that migration can be seen not just as a given fact of Christianity, but as a positive force in Christian history. Accordingly, he titles his article "Migration as Blessing." In it, he traces the important contributions migration has made to Christianity, especially in the realm of mission.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Glory Dharmaraj: From Salinization of Mission to Uberization of Mission

Today's piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women.

In the timeless twin Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, the hero of the sequel, Odysseus, undertakes two major journeys in his lifetime. The first one is an outward journey full of overseas expeditions and escapades, wars and conflicts, dominance and triumph. The second one is a sober one without much outer paraphernalia but with a deeply ingrained truth of an inner journey. Both the journeys throw light on a key functional tool of his mission: a sailing oar.

Beyond Salinization: A Journey
After twenty years of ceaseless outbound seafaring adventures, Odysseus comes home, and undertakes a second journey. This second journey away from home is a spatial reversal of his former sea-bound journey.

In this journey, the hero carries his sailing oar balanced on his shoulders, as a visual symbol of what he has achieved so far, until he arrives at a place whose people know nothing of sails, sea, or salt. As he is carrying the oar, well-balanced on his shoulders, a traveler from the inland region puts forth a stunning yet innocuous query: “What is the winnowing fan” you are carrying? A functional tool of a life time of work is being misrecognized! A sailing oar for a winnowing fan!

It is the end of an era. It is time for Odysseus to go home. That is what he does. He plants his sailing oar in that unknown soil, offers a ritual ceremony, and goes home! Erstwhile tools are inadequate to navigate a new landscape.

Changing tools of mission
In his book The Death of White Christian America, Robert Jones frames an edificial approach to American Protestant Christianity, and laments the decline and loss of denominational and ecumenical influence over the past decades on the cultural and political landscape of the nation. The three major buildings mentioned in his book are The Methodist Building on the Capitol Hill, The Interchurch Center on the upper west side of New York City, and the Crystal Cathedral in California. What Jones bemoans is the loss of institutionalized Protestant Christianity that has wielded an enormous cultural and political leverage in yester years. His findings do not spell the end of Christianity in America but a yearning to re-imagine and reform it!

There is an unspoken yearning in many of us, white or non-white, for a Christianity that can reform, reimagine and-reinvent, and take an engaging and appealing responsibility with the diverse social, cultural, and religious cultural milieu of our time. As the Protestant Christian world is getting ready to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of Reformation, it is a good opportunity for our own denomination to reinvent and reform the structure and polity, and find new ways to proceed into a renewed missional future, and take transmuted ecclesial action. It is not an easy task. But we need to start somewhere, as we stand on the threshold of another axial age when the functional tools erstwhile mission era are unusable in a newly emerging context.

“Uberization of mission”
During an informal conversation with Harriett Olson, General Secretary of the United Methodist Women, about the emerging Uber entity in rideshare and business, and the healthy imagination we should have for our mission today, she exclaimed with enthusiasm, and uttered, “Uberization of mission”! Indeed, healthy imagination helps us form deeper connections through integrated content strategies, right time, right channel of communication, and creative story-telling that inspires action. What happened to consumer services like taxis with Uber will happen to other areas of business services as well. It is not a question of how, but when.

In the past, businesses and companies relied primarily on their brand name to lock in customers by building trust around their product and offering services. Modern day customers expect convenience, experience and flexibility. They also expect a communal engagement and mutual transaction experience as self-serve as possible. In other words, customer experience is the key point around which all systems, people and processes function. Taxis treated consumers as commodities, and Uber grouped these discontented customers to fashion the largest consumer transportation corporation in which cars are now the commodity. An aggregate disruption! Uber business models are being emulated in other fields, from daily chores like grocery shopping to legal service whose workforce is not full-time employees.

Our historic mission imagination has always been fired by biblical theology and tempered by pragmatism. As we are well aware, theology is an activity of the imagination as much as of reason, in which we seek to transcend boundaries and move forward

We now get a kaleidoscopic view of happenings as they unfold, often in real time, on our computer screens and handheld devices. History is not impartial or identical with truth, but the internet doles out to us a newfound vantage on the totality of passing time. Today we should become more aware of our missional responsibility with our ever morphing culture. The Church needs to develop and forge new ways to enter into a dialogical relationship with the surrounding culture and its people as they are closely linked to questions concerning the value of an individual, core human need, the meaning of human existence, and action, and especially their relationship with one another and creation. At this level, mission engagements should give priority to promoting a renewed and vital synthesis between faith and culture.

In the larger context, mission scholars as well as mission practitioners have a responsibility and burden to offer a more expansive landscape, and create spaces for the students and constituents, laity and clergy, so that they can imagine and dream of their ecclesial future, ritually bury the “old oars,” come up with workable winnowing tools, recognizable gears and apparatuses for negotiating the discontinuous changes in our missional journey. Let us not lament the losses of our cherished past, rather let us clang the bell of warning to the evils of unjust society and dehumanizing values, and create and facilitate spaces for innovating new functional tools!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Recommended readings: North Atlantic Missiology Project papers

Those looking for scholarly articles on mission will want to act by the end of the month to take advantage of a free online resource, the North Atlantic Missiology Project/Currents in World Christianity Project paper collection. The collection will be available through Sept. 30th.

Yale Divinity School librarian Martha Smalley writes of the collection:

"The North Atlantic Missiology Project (NAMP) and its successor, the Currents in World Christianity Project (CWC) ran from 1996 to 2001, based in the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia.

"A large number of papers were generated by these projects, many of which have been on a CD available through the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. With the agreement of the Centre and of Dr. Brian Stanley, who was the coordinator of the projects, we have posted the available papers online at http://divinity-adhoc.library.yale.edu/Resources/NAMP-CWC/.

"These papers should not be quoted or republished without the consent of the authors. The papers made available online here are those which had not otherwise been published as of 15 November 2003. It is possible that some of these papers have been published since that time."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wonder, Love, and Praise: An Invitation to Conversation

The United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order has drafted a statement on ecclesiology for The United Methodist Church entitled “Wonder, Love, and Praise.” General Conference 2016 affirmed further study and refinement of the document during the next quadrennium, with the goal of adopting a revised version at General Conference 2020 to stand alongside such other official theological statements of the denomination such as “This Holy Mystery,” on the Eucharist, and “By Water and the Spirit,” on baptism.

There will be several avenues for assessing and reflection on “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” but UM & Global is inviting its readers to participate in their own conversation around this document. In particular, UM & Global encourages its readers to read the document and reflect on such questions as the relation between church and mission in the document, the attention to the church as a world-wide phenomenon in the document, the Wesleyan and Methodist distinctives noted in the document, etc.

Readers are invited to submit their theological and missiological reflections on the document to the UM & Global blogmaster, David Scott, by email to david.wm.scott (at) gmail.com. Submissions should be between 700 and 1,000 words long and should examine the document from a scholarly (though not necessarily formally-cited academic) perspective.

While it may not be possible to feature all submissions on the blog, the intention is to host a scholarly conversation about the document through the blog. It is our hope that this conversation will not only be of scholarly interest but will be able to influence the revision of the document over the next quadrennium.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Young people's voices on a global UMC

Amongst the large amount of commentary on the present and future of the UMC right now, it's important to listen to (among others) the voices of young adults and those outside the United States. Thus, I'm happy to pass on the following two articles:

The first is a commentary by Mighty Rasing, a young adult from the Philippines, on the "Challenges of Being a Global Church," written for UMC Young People's Ministries.

The second is a set of follow-up interviews with young adult delegates to General Conference 2016, mostly from the United States and Africa. They had been asked about their hopes for General Conference before the event. In the follow-up, they comment on their experiences after the fact.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Ben Hartley: The Trials of Ecumenism

Today's post is by Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley. Dr. Hartley is Associate Professor of Christian Mission at the College of Christian Studies at George Fox University. He also blogs at http://www.missionandmethodism.net/

Ecumenism is tough. For people who have been involved in ecumenical conversations over many years this is an obvious insight. Many Christians though have the impression that ecumenical dialogue or ecumenical cooperation is something that is easy – or at least should be. The impatience some people and institutions exhibit with regard to building ecumenical relationships is partly based on this mistaken impression.

For the past five years I have served as one of the United Methodist delegates to the Faith and Order conversations of the National Council of Churches of Christ. I have come to deeply value these conversations as I have also grown in my appreciation of ecumenism’s close tie to God’s mission in our world today.

That may be especially true for the people called Methodist. The depth of Christian fellowship exhibited in early class and band meetings was not incidental to the missionary zeal Methodists felt in their bones. Those early class and band meetings drew people from a wide array of Christian backgrounds – from Quaker to Catholic – and you can be sure that this diversity of background in the Methodist movement caused plenty of challenges, both then and now.  (For a good reflection on this in light of United Methodism’s current challenges see Glen Alton Messer’s recent blog.) Diversity of outlook and practices can also promote excellence in mission even if, in the process, working through our differences can also bring tremendous strain.

At our last National Council of Churches meeting in May I came to a new appreciation of that strain even as I hope it will eventually serve to strengthen our witness together going into the future. The incident I bring up here certainly can help promote reflection about the interrelationship of mission and ecumenism, and it is for that purpose that I share it here.

Toward the end of our three-day May 2016 “Christian Unity Gathering” in Baltimore, Maryland an invitation was extended over a lunch meeting for people at this meeting to pose for a photograph around a banner that read “We stand by our Muslim neighbors.” This photo invitation was born out of a desire of many (likely all) in our group to oppose the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in American society. The vast majority of Muslims around the world are, of course, not terrorists, so sure, let’s have a picture in front of a banner.  Sound simple?  It wasn’t.

An Eastern Orthodox representative at this gathering voiced strong opposition to the idea of posing by a banner that expressed solidarity with Muslim neighbors. He did not deny the reality of dangerous anti-Muslim sentiment in America, but he was also all too aware that in other parts of the world Muslim neighbors were killing Christian neighbors. So many of these Christian neighbors are Eastern Orthodox. He would not be standing by any banner that afternoon.

In this moment of ecumenical conflict over lunch all of us in the room realized in a new way that to stand by a banner that read, “We support our Muslim neighbors” raised difficult questions we needed to work through. Around my little table of eight I spoke out loud a question I was repeating in my mind: “Who is my neighbor?” It was something I practically murmured under my breath, but a chance lull in the conversation was such that it was heard by everyone. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, the question is posed by a young lawyer in order to “score points” in a debate against Jesus. My question, I hoped, was more genuine.

The questions kept emerging in my mind and those of my friends around the table as we contemplated what we would do when picture-taking time came later in the afternoon. “What does it mean to ‘stand by’ a neighbor when another neighbor of like religious faith in a different place is killing other neighbors?” “Can I so simply make a distinction between American Muslim neighbors and Muslims and Christian neighbors in Syria or Pakistan?”  “Should I instead stand by my Eastern Orthodox neighbors who were refusing to be in this photograph? If so, why would I do that?” Was the decision to have this picture be taken made in the right way? If not, why not? How will the picture be used? How will it be interpreted by others?

Again, ecumenism is tough. What would you do? As for me, I chose to join the dozen or so people who refused to be in the picture. I did so for several reasons but mostly because I believed my most immediate neighbor at that gathering whom I needed to build a stronger relationship with were my Eastern Orthodox brothers in Christ. Indeed, I had a meaningful conversation with a fellow deacon (from the Orthodox Church of America) during the picture-taking session as we chatted in the hallway outside the hotel banquet room. Most of the people gathered at this event posed with the banner for a photograph. I look forward to further conversations with them at our next meeting about why their no less prayerful decision was different from mine.

There will be plenty of opportunity for those conversations in the next two years. I am a co-facilitator for a group in the NCC that is tasked with the responsibility of responding to two related World Council of Churches documents – one short (7 pages), one long (45 pages) – about Christian identity in a multi-religious world. The short version was jointly approved by the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue as well. I look forward to talking about these documents with my students this semester too in a course intended to teach doctoral students in psychology about world religions. I invite readers of this blog into the conversation as well. Feel free to e mail me or to respond to this blog right here. Ecumenical conversations may be tough sometimes, but “so the world may believe” (John 17:21) it is vital that we give it the attention it deserves.