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.