Thursday, September 1, 2016

Cultural captivity in the American UMC, part 2

In a post last week, I laid out some evidence that Robert Hunt’s claim that the UMC is bad at thinking about and adapting to cultural differences applies not just internationally but domestically as well. I noted that being tied to a white, middle-class culture creates a real problem for the UMC in modern American society, where the white middle class is a shrinking percentage of the population.

The irony to this problem is that the predecessors of the UMC used to be much better at engaging with culture. While race has always been a problematic issue for American Methodists, African-Americans have had a spot in American Methodism since the beginning. Moreover, the Methodist Episcopal Church and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, had flourishing ministries among German, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Italians, and other ethnic groups that were conducted in relevant languages by leaders from those cultures.

Methodists were better at any other group of American Protestants in reaching out to immigrants and allowing them to create a place for themselves in the church. Granted, there were limitations to this outreach. It was certainly a minority of Japanese, Germans, or Swedes who became Methodist. White, American Methodists often displayed culturally chauvinist and assimilationist attitudes towards their ethnic compatriots. But they also allowed for ethnic minorities to develop their own leadership, run their own conferences, and conduct their own programs using their own cultural norms.

Fast forward a hundred years to today. Immigration is once more a significant force in American society. The percentage of Americans who are foreign-born has recently returned to highs not seen since the heyday of early 20th-century immigration.

Moreover, among these immigrants are many who have had previous experience with and connection to Methodism, something that was by and large not true of immigrants in the early 20th century. Koreans, Filipinos, Nigerians, Brazilians, Samoans, and others are coming to this country as already Methodists.

Yet, while there are some great examples of local ministries by and with these groups, the UMC has largely not been able to turn these local congregations into wider movements. There are no Methodist movements among today’s immigrants comparable to those a century ago.

What’s the difference between Methodist outreach to immigrants a century ago and Methodist outreach to immigrants now? Certainly the immigrant groups coming to America have changed and much has changed about American society in the last hundred years, and these are important factors influencing the relationship between immigration and religion.

Yet it’s worth noting that Methodism has changed in the last hundred years as well. At the same time that Methodism was welcoming immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, it was also beginning a process of bureaucratization in its structures and professionalization in its ministry. This resulted in a much thicker Book of Discipline with more rules regarding things like ordination, church properties, and recognized ministries of the denomination.

While there were benefits to bureaucratization and professionalization, both processes also closely tied the church to ways of operating that were taken from the dominant white, professional culture of the mid- to late-20th century. In the process, other cultural approaches to leadership, decision-making, and organization were gradually brought into line with the dominant culture or squeezed out of the church.

Thus, it is not just that the immigrants arriving in the US are different now than they were a century ago or that American society is different, but that the church is different and has less room in its communal life for approaches to ministry that deviate from white, middle-class norms.

There are both ethical/theological and practical reasons why this situation is problematic for The United Methodist Church. Theologically and ethically, an inability to reach beyond a limited subset of the population undercuts an emphasis on the catholicity of the Wesleyan message and allows for the perpetuation of latent if not explicit racism and ethno-centrism. Practically, as already noted, it dooms the UMC to further demographic decline.

Yet it doesn’t need to be that way. Methodism has successfully welcomed cultural diversity in the past and could do so again in the future. It would require sacrifices by those in the dominant culture, but does our faith not call us to sacrifice for the sake of making disciples?

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