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.