Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top Stories of 2016

UM & Global is continuing a news tradition we joined in last year - end of the year retrospectives. In this post, I'll list the top stories of 2016, as measured by page views. Next week, I'll look back on 2016 and look forward to 2017 by giving my own summary of the top themes the blog addressed in 2016 and is likely to address in 2017. But first, the top stories of 2016, as chosen by you, the readers:

1. General Conference Roundup: Global Health
2. Recommended Readings: Bishops at General Conference
3. Robert Hunt: Culture, Not Geography Defines Global Church (Parts 1, 2, and 3)
4. Peter Bellini: Global Mental Health and the Church (Parts 1, 2, and 3)
5. David Scott: On Diversity and Tables
6. Philip Wingeier-Rayo: A Small Victory for Missions at General Conference
7. Recommended Reading: A Message to the Global UMC from UMC Africa Initiative
8. William Payne: Probing Reasons for Mainline Decline
9. David Scott: Misunderstanding Our Mission (Parts 1 and 2)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Recommended Reading and Watching: UMC Earthkeepers

Global Ministries recently trained and commissioned its first class of Earthkeepers, a new category of service for the agency that entails training and recognition by Global Ministries, but not ongoing direct supervision or financial support. A Global Ministries story further describes the program. Video of the commissioning service and training sessions is also available.

This new program is significant for several reasons:

1. It is another sign of the growing recognition of earthkeeping/creation care/eco-justice/etc. as a significant realm of mission work. Such recognition extends far beyond Global Ministries and United Methodism.

2. Earthkeepers represent an interesting new category of missionary within the realm of United Methodism. Global Ministries already recognizes a variety of categories of missionaries, mostly based on its own internal program structures. In addition, there are categories of mission service such as deaconesses and home missioners outside of Global Ministries. Earthkeepers is interesting both in its recognized but not supervised arrangement and in that it is a category that encompasses both lay and ordained service, though that is also true of other forms of mission service.

3. With regard to internal Global Ministries structures, the commissioning represents a significant achievement for the Center for Mission Innovation, Global Ministries' newest unit, which is charged with discerning and promotion new and innovative forms of mission.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Migrant Mission and Ecclesial Boundary-Crossing in Canada

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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Recommended Readings: The Church and World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day is December 1st every year. Below is a somewhat belated rundown of the work that a variety of United Methodist agencies and groups are conducting related to AIDS.

From UMW, a cover story from response Magazine on "Faith Meets AIDS"

From the Global Health unit of Global Ministries, an article entitled "World AIDS Day: Working Toward an AIDS-Free World"

From the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, a video message on World AIDS Day by Bishop Julius Trimble

From UMNS, an article "Philippines United Methodists raise awareness on HIV/AIDS"

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Misunderstanding Our Mission, Part 2

Last week, I suggested that United Methodists, especially American United Methodists, frequently misunderstand the denominational mission statement in problematic ways. When many United Methodists hear "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," what they really hear is "recruiting church members to continue church programming." Last week, I looked at the first part of this misunderstanding. This week, I will look at the second.

The equation of transforming the world with continuing church programming may not have quite the same disastrous spiritual consequences as misunderstanding the nature of discipleship, but nonetheless it prevents us from being effective in loving the world as God would have us do.

United Methodist churches run a wide array of programming that varies depending on the context. Across the world, United Methodists run schools, operate health clinics, host addiction recovery groups, welcome migrants, feed and clothe those without adequate sustenance, visit the imprisoned, and provide clean water. We also hold church dinners (in the US, Methodists are known for potlucks), Sunday school pageants, committee meetings, holiday celebrations, craft fairs, and the like. Not all of these activities are bad, and some of these activities are quite good.

We make a couple of mistakes, however, when we confuse church programming with the transformation of the world.

First, we easily overlook the distinction between inward-focused programming and outward-focused programming. It has been my experience that, at least in the US, church suppers and many similar programs are usually for those who are already members of the church, no matter how many flyers are posted around town. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As noted last week, discipleship is a vitally important part of the life of the church, and discipleship is an inward-focused activity of the church.

Nevertheless, when we have an event for our members that is not discipleship-related and then call it outreach, we’re deluding ourselves and misunderstanding outreach. Ham and turkey dinners for the membership generally do not transform the world. Moreover, when we’re honest about when a program is inward-focused, then it’s easier to assess the disciple-making impact of the program.

Second, in equating church programs and the transformation of the world, we confuse cultural activities and mission. Churches, and not just those in the US, often serve as a space for organizing activities that reflect and perpetuate local cultures, often not just for their members but for the wider community. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The church needs to be able to dress itself in the clothes of the culture where it lives.

What is bad is when we mistake these cultural activities for the transformation of the world. It is great to hold a holiday sale if that is part of the culture of your town and lots of people from the outside of the church come to it. That does not mean, however, that you have transformed the world by selling tchotchkes to non-church members. To be world transforming, activities need to be not only outward focused but related more to the work of the gospel than to cultural activities.

Third, we make a mistake in equating church programming with world transforming if we continue to do the same programs we have always done. There are many church programs out there that had worthwhile, world-transforming impacts when they were started. Yet the context shifts, personnel running the program shift, the focus of the program drifts, and eventually, it is not having the same impact as it used to.

The question to ask about church programming is not, “Was this program originally set up to be outward-focused, gospel-related, and world transforming?” The question to ask is, “Is the program currently having a demonstrable impact on the world?” Asking such tough questions is especially important in an era when budgets are reduced and we must do “better with less,” not “more with less.”

Fourth and finally, when we equate church programming with the transformation of the world, we assume that the transformation of the world must happen in particular, structured ways. Methodism is a testament to the positive effects of a good organizational scheme, so I am not knocking organization in general. Moreover, within the modern world, many good, outward-focused, gospel-related, world-transforming endeavors are indeed formally organized, whether those are tutoring programs, evangelistic campaigns, or health clinics.

Still, if we assume that God only transforms the world through our organized activities, we restrict (or overlook) the work of the Holy Spirit. Much of the transformation of the world happens not through carefully organized and run programming, but through relationships. Such a misunderstanding is a particular danger for Americans, who are often so focused on getting things done that they neglect relationships, which can be the real conduits through which the Holy Spirit works to transform the world.

Thus, let us continue to do church programming. Yet let us be honest and reflective in the programming we do, recognizing the ways in which it does and does not contribute to the transformation of the world and always remembering that God is at work both through and beyond our programs.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Recommended Viewing: Donna and Jonathan Baker on cultural views of children

In this video, Global Ministries missionaries Donna Baker and Jonathan Baker talk about their process of learning about cultural views of children in DR Congo that differ from the Bakers' own prior cultural understandings of children. The video is a great testimony and example of how being in mission can help build cross-cultural understanding when missionaries are open to learning from those with whom they are in mission. The Bakers are to be commended for being open to such learning and for sharing their story.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Misunderstanding Our Mission, Part 1

The denominational mission statement for The United Methodist Church is "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." This mission statement, like most good mission statements, provides focus for a diverse organization while still allowing for a variety of interpretations.

Yet there's one common interpretation of this mission statement that is, I think, quite problematic despite being perhaps the default understanding of the mission statement (at least among Americans). I think when many United Methodists hear "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," what they really hear is "recruiting church members to continue church programming." This understanding is problematic for two reasons.

First, there is the equation of being a disciple of Jesus Christ with holding church membership. The first is an active process of following Jesus and drawing nearer to him in love. The second is a static state generated by saying a couple of words one Sunday.

There are certainly many who are not members of The United Methodist Church (and perhaps not formal members of any church) who are still true disciples of Jesus Christ. Conversely, there are also certainly many who are members of United Methodist churches but who are not seeking with their whole heart to follow Jesus, who have the form of holiness, but not the power thereof.

This understanding of making disciples means, first of all, that we pay insufficient attention to discipleship and spiritual formation within our churches. As long as people come occasionally and perhaps donate some to the church’s budget, we are content and ask no questions about how it is with their souls. We lose the central Wesleyan conviction in sanctification if we do not see disciple-making as an on-going process that applies to all in the church.

If we are focused merely on whether people are coming to our churches rather than how they are growing because of their church membership, then we become focused on institutional maintenance, not spiritual vitality, an all-too-common malady especially in the United States. American United Methodists are very concerned about membership numbers as a way, not of drawing more people closer to God, but of preserving our prestige, our budgets, and our buildings.

Even worse, some churches brag about continued growth in members despite dramatic drop-offs in worship attendance. I don’t want to equate worship attendance with discipleship, either, because being a true disciple involves much more than showing up somewhere for an hour Sunday morning, but we can assume that most who are not showing up on Sunday are not engaged in United Methodist discipleship at other points in the week, either.

Not only does this understanding of making disciples distort how we think of church members, but it distorts how we think of evangelism, too. Evangelism from such a perspective is not about an encounter with the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ but about the deployment of new and more sophisticated marketing and business tools for recruiting organization members or, worse yet, customers.

Mission, too, is misunderstood from this perspective. Mission becomes not something we do because we are disciples of Jesus, seeking to pour ourselves out in love to the world as he did, but something we do just to attract new members. Our mission becomes clouded with ulterior motives and we are will to accept coercive strategies for distributing aid and assistance that aim to gain us members but fail to reflect our basic Wesleyan beliefs in free grace.

It might be sad but somewhat excusable if this sort of misunderstanding were common among the people in the pews. Yet, this misunderstanding reaches to the highest levels of the denomination and is reflected in some of our most important initiatives. As I have written elsewhere, the focus on Vital Congregations and dashboard indicators in the American United Methodist Church is largely a focus on membership numbers and not on discipleship measures.

There are some of the dashboard indicators that do correlate with discipleship, especially those focused on small group membership and mission trip participation, but even the best of the dashboard metrics count members rather than asking anything about the spiritual quality of those members’ relationships with Jesus. Admittedly, it is much easier to count members than to assess spiritual impact, but that’s not necessarily a sufficient excuse for focusing on numbers only. Moreover, to the main point of this article, when we count numbers rather than assess spiritual impact, we send a sign that the former is important and the latter is not.

An approach to our mission that conflates disciple-making with member-recruitment is not only deeply spiritually misguided, it’s also not terribly effective in the long haul. If The United Methodist Church is only a membership organization, then inevitably it must compete with other groups who can also offer community service, friendship, social prominence, political action, or any of the other non-religious benefits to church membership. The history of capitalism teaches us, too, that almost all organizations are eventually outcompeted. If we are a membership organization only, then we can expect our decline to continue.

If, however, The United Methodist Church is a place where people can be supported in the hard but life-changing work of following Jesus, a place for people to experience the affirming, transforming power of the Holy Spirit, a place where people can draw closer to the God that loves them, that is something people can’t get elsewhere and will always have staying power.