Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Robert Hunt: Culture, Not Geography, Defines Global Church, Part III

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology. It is the third of a three-part series. The first and second parts can be found here and here, respectively.

The problem of culture that I developed in the last blog doesn’t just apply to understandings of gender and social institutions like marriage. Institutional structures and decision making processes are also deeply influenced by culture.

The General Board of Global Ministries is now imagining itself as “an agency that comprises global mission connections. In doing so it recognizes that ours is a multi-centered world in which Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted to the Global South and East. These changes invite dialogue and mutuality among local churches, mission partners, and the world’s vulnerable people.” This means in practice establishing “global mission connections” in various sites around the world: one in South America, one in Africa, and one in Asia. Thus the GBGM will “explore mission in deeper ways through the relationships we will be able to form on the ground in key geographic regions.” (http://www.umcmission.org/learn-about-us/news-and-stories/2016/may/0506surprisingactivity)

It isn’t clear that this new structure takes seriously enough the complexity of culture. Can a  “connection" in Korea will be relevant to mission in Vietnam or Indonesia or the Philippines? The latter two countries have a wide range of languages and cultures, none of which share the worldview and situation of Korea or even one another.

Buenos Aires, the location of the Latin American connection, is a city that is far more European the Mezo-American, a place where Spanish is still spoken with an Italian accent. Argentina has virtually none of its indigenous or African slave population left.  Apart from remnants of German colonists and refugees what does it have in common with Portuguese speaking Brazil, a country with a huge Afro-Brazilian population and an extraordinary number of indigenous peoples living in Amazonia? Or with Central America and its very different political problems and peoples?

My fear is that the United Methodist church conceives of being global church in purely geographical terms rather than in terms of cultural difference.

Which returns us to decision making. An earlier blog pointed out that the customary timing of US annual and jurisdictional conferences isn’t shared world-wide. Do we realize that this difference is cultural? US Annual conferences take place when the public  school year is ending and thus pastors with families can easily move. And that in turn is tied to the agrarian economic cycles typical of the northern hemisphere - cycles that demanded that children be available to help their parents on the farm.

As I quickly learned as a missionary with the GBGM, these cycles aren’t found elsewhere in the world. Schools in Malaysia and Singapore aren’t on holiday from June to August - because they have very different cultural patterns to follow.

But it isn’t just when we meet. It is how decisions are made. The whole UMC is set up in decision making structures that are distinctly Anglo-American in culture. (What could be more Anglo-American that Robert’s Rules of Order?) These structures are significantly different from those of ethnic minorities within the US, and even more so United Methodists outside the U.S. But I have yet to see any recognition that these cultural difference make a profound difference in how decisions are made, and can be profoundly disenfranchising of individuals and whole peoples. Mere translation is a minuscule part of inclusion. No matter who attends the General Conference, its entire structure, from the daily schedule to the overall plan privileges Anglo-American culture and empowers those who have mastered it - while disempowering those who have not.

In the worlds both of global business and of multi-cultural institutions such as hospital and universities there has now been for the last 40 years intensive interest in cultural difference and how that plays out in different values as they are realized in all social settings. The work of Hofstede, Minke, and Livermore on intercultural understanding and practical intercultural team building and decision making is a commonplace in these environments. In Dallas I’m regularly asked to provide training in cultural intelligence for institutions serving diverse cultures. Global businesses, who actually sponsored a great deal of contemporary research on cultures and values, also consciously adapt to local values and decision making processes.

But as near as I can tell, not the UMC. With the exception of the Rio-Texas conference I know of no conference wide effort to insure that every UMC leader understands cross-cultural dynamics and is developing the skills to that are absolutely necessary to function effectively in a complex cultural environment. Has the council of bishops engaged in training in cultural intelligence and cross cultural relationships and values? Have the leaders of the general boards and agencies? Have any of the boards of ordained ministry in the different annual conferences? Or do they assume that Robert’s Rules will insure the openness and fairness of their deliberations?

The announcement of the reimagining of Global Ministries is interesting in this regard. It envisions global connections through regional centers. It foresees an international coaching network. It foresees expanding the number of missionaries from around the globe. It looks forward to initiatives in global health. It talks about a commitment to responsible stewardship. And not once, not once, does it mention the word “culture.” Or indeed even allude to the concept.

Coaching, Christian witness, health, stewardship: these are concepts and activities that are deeply embedded in culture and influenced by culture. But there is no mention of culture and addressing it as a specific issue. In my experience the unnamed is the unthought.

This may not end well.


  1. Robert,
    Thank you for another clarifying and thought-provoking post. I share your fear "that the United Methodist church conceives of being global church in purely geographical terms rather than in terms of cultural difference."
    Underlying this conception, I suspect, is an "imperialistic mindset" inherited from generations of white, U.S. Methodists (a group to which I belong) accustomed to wielding power and influence in church and society. Is the effort to become a "worldwide" church just another expression of "Manifest Destiny" dressed up as mission?
    See my article, http://um-insight.net/general-conference/2016-general-conference/sand-creek-repenting-of-an-imperialistic-mind-set-then-and-n/

  2. My own reading of mission history shows that Methodist Missions were more complex than just an expression of manifest destiny. Missionaries could be critics. At the same time there is little doubt that the large social forces driving US behaviors in the international realm were also driving mission. Something to chew on: Is there a difference between a kingdom (as in kingdom of God) and an empire (as in Roman empire)? It is interesting to me that the Bible knows of both empires and emperors as something larger and more global than a kingdom, yet uses kingdom language for both God and God's Reign.