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.