Thursday, January 26, 2017

Knut Refsdal: Response to "Wonder, Love and Praise"

This blog post is the second in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. Today's post is by Rev. Knut Refsdal. Rev. Refsdal is the General Secretary of the Christian Council of Norway (Norges Kristne Rad) and a pastor in the Norway Annual Conference of the UMC.

Thanks for inviting me to comment on “Wonder, Love, and Praise” and thus have the opportunity to get familiar with the document. I believe this document is much needed in The United Methodist Church today.

The document has numerous strengths that I will just briefly mention:
  • That the document is written in close dialogue with ecumenical documents, especially “The Church: Towards a Common Vision”, is a strength. This fact places The United Methodist Church very clearly under the ecumenical umbrella and gives us important insights from wider dialogues.
  • I also appreciate the reflections that the document gives on our relationship to people of other religions. This is an important topic given the situation in the world today, and from a European perspective, I would like to stress the importance of also including people of no religions in these reflections.
  • The document also aims to present The United Methodist Church as a global church and let this global reality inform the ecclesiological reflections given in the document. I share this aim, but believe this fact could have been even clearer. In this regard, “Together Towards Life” has important lessons to learn when stressing “missions from the margins”.
  • By linking the understanding of the Church to the conviction that grace is “transformative”, I believe we make connections to widespread values in modern society. This is a core conviction of the Church that needs to be communicated better.

I have four main comments to the document:

First, the document rightly stresses the importance of the Annual Conference as the basic unit within The United Methodist Church. At the same time, discussions regarding the relationship between the Annual Conference and the local church within the connectional system are at the forefront in many settings. This needs to be dealt more with in the document. When we say that the local church is the primary base for ministry and mission and the foundation of everything that happens in the church – what does this mean? There are complex and maybe even contradictory formulations in The Book of Discipline when these issues are raised. How do we balance local autonomy and connectional uniformity? In what way do we allow local churches to adapt to the local situation?

This discussion can be linked to the term “mutual accountability” as general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Olav Fykse Tveit, in his doctoral thesis claimed to be the most prominent gift from Methodism to the ecumenical movement. How do we allow one another freedom and at the same time be accountable to one another within the connectional system? These are questions that need to be addressed.

Second, to some Methodists, the lack of eschatological perspectives in the document is challenging. This is also the situation with “The Church: Towards a Common Vision”. The church as a symbol of the future, the kingdom of God, eternal life, with all that is included in that term, is not as present in the document as it should have been. The church as a community of hope could be explored further. The document is written for the present Church and not for the eternal Church, which makes eschatological aspects vague and almost absent.

Methodists have different views on how important this perspective is, but because it is of great importance to some, it should have been included within such a large work on ecclesiology. Some of us emphasize the church as a community of God’s children that awaits an eternity with him. Others emphasize the church as a community in struggle for a better and more just world, and that when the church and God together achieve their aims, the new creation will include a just world for all. In other words, eschatological aspects involve the church as both called out of and into the world. There are other perspectives as well that connect ecclesiology and eschatology, and in the further dialogue these connections should be expressed for further exploration.

Third, under the headline “Marks of Methodism” I miss a clearer underlining of The United Methodist Church as a "missional church". “Mission” is touched upon at various places in the document, but to mark this even clearer would be important both in an historical and an actual perspective.

Fourth, the document states that The United Methodist Church is marked by both diversity and dialogue. I appreciate the reflections on how to deal with the conflicts within the church. Like so many others I am worried for the future of the church.

One of the things I have always liked best about The United Methodist Church has been its ability to embrace so many of us. The United Methodist Church has been a church that has always managed to keep various streams within the church together. Therefore, for a long time conservatives, progressives, pietists and charismatics lived together well, even though the church had standpoints in moral and theological questions that not everyone always agreed with. That this was the situation had many reasons, but one reason is that the church was formed at the height of the ecumenical movement.

In recent years this has changed. The various streams no longer live together so well. This was clearly expressed at the General Conference 2016 when dealing with the Church's attitude towards LGBT people. This created a lot of frustration, and showed, in my opinion, a church that has serious challenges ahead. The first three days passed with endless discussions about procedures. Delegates from both sides used everything imaginable and unimaginable of parliamentary tricks to gain support.
These are symptoms of serious problems the church must address.

The question I ask myself is therefore this: Is this just a postponement of a split that must come or will the church manage to rediscover its DNA as a kind of umbrella that allows many to live well together, despite differences in many areas? I hope the latter is true, but in order to be able to do that, we need to clearly express what kind of church we want to be.

In this regard we need more than the vision of the church. We need formulations and expressions that manage to bind together the different streams. I hope the theological convictions that are fundamental in the document have the ability to play such a role.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Recommended Reading: United Methodist Church-Planting in the Middle East

The Institute on Religion & Development's (IRD's) John Lomperis recently published an article on IRD's blog about Filipino United Methodist migrants planting churches in the Middle East, where they live as laborers. While Lomperis begins the article with polemical remarks about American ecclesio-political fights, most of the article is a description of the context and work of these Filipino United Methodists, including observations from a trip Lomperis took to visit some of them.

I found Lomperis' article interesting as another example of the ways in which mission, especially when combined with migration, bypasses and even at times subverts formal church structures. (This blog has shared other such examples, including this recent article.) Lomperis notes that the mission work that these Filipino United Methodists are engaged in is not supported by any formal structure of the denomination and is not part of the standard geographic units of the denomination.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Benjamin L. Hartley: Response to "Wonder, Love and Praise"

This blog post is the first in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. Today's post is by Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission at the College of Christian Studies at George Fox University. He also blogs at

The United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order was established at the 2008 General Conference. Shortly thereafter the Committee was asked to craft a study document on United Methodist ecclesiology. The document Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church (henceforth, WLP) was the result. My blog post here is intended to promote reflection on this document in preparation for a revised version being brought before General Conference in 2020.

From the start WLP strikes a strongly ecumenical tone in its theological reflection on the mission and nature of the church. It does so in a much more explicit way than the parallel studies on the Lord’s Supper and Baptism that the UMC has undertaken in recent years. This embrace of ecumenism finds its strongest expression in WLP in its use of the World Council of Churches document, The Church: Towards a Common Vision, (henceforth, Towards a Common Vision) as a key point of reference throughout.

I think, however, that the Committee on Faith and Order’s decision to work so closely with Towards a Common Vision was a mistake. This is not easy for me to say. I participate in two national ecumenical consultations, and am currently working with others on a response paper to another WCC document for the National Council of Churches. I am committed to this work. And yet, I see two problems with WLP’s use of Towards a Common Vision.

First, by working so closely with Towards a Common Vision I believe that the Committee has unwittingly hurt the chances that this document, in its current form, will be received by the United Methodist Church in as deep and pervasive way as By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery. To be clear, I think that any study of ecclesiology would probably have a hard time being as well received as those documents on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Those studies focus on discrete Christian practices; a study on the mission and nature of the church is more abstract.

By using a WCC document as a primary reference point throughout the text it also causes its ecclesiological insights to be less accessible for United Methodist readers. That is not to say that WLP is not Wesleyan in many of the good things it has to say. I think, for example, that the three convictions of a UM ecclesiology outlined in the first section of the document, “Our Approach to an Understanding of the Church,” are excellent. I also think that “communion ecclesiology” as it has taken shape over the past few decades in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist theological circles – and now in WLP – can be fruitful for United Methodist theological reflection.

My second reason for disagreeing with the Committee’s decision to work closely with Towards a Common Vision is because, in doing so, they actually engaged in too limited of an ecumenical conversation. The WCC document Towards a Common Vision too frequently frames theological issues to be in line with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. A quick scan of the footnotes in Towards a Common Vision reveals this pretty clearly as does its attention to the issues of “apostolic succession” and a “ministry of primacy.” These ecclesial communities are important, to be sure, but their vision of what Christian unity might be is different from my own and that of many other Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and United Methodists. We are not in an “ecumenical winter” as the WLP and other commentators on “official ecumenism” have stated.[1] Conversations across Christian traditions around the world are as robust now as they ever have been; the shape and goals of ecumenism, however, are surely changing.

I believe that at this point in our history as United Methodists it is better to pay more close attention to other Wesleyan denominations rather than those church traditions whose perspectives were most strongly represented in Towards a Common Vision. This belief, at least in part, stems from a sense that for too many years we have too often downplayed (if not completely avoided) ecumenical conversations with our closest ecclesial relatives. This should not come as much of a surprise. As in personal relationships, we sometimes avoid having deep conversations with folks to whom we are most closely related.

For the past four years I have been sent by the Council of Bishops to an annual meeting of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection Steering Committee. It is comprised – in addition to the UMC – of fifteen, mostly U.S.-based, Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations, almost all of which are not formally a part of the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches. I wonder how those fifteen Wesleyan denominations (Church of the Nazarene, Salvation Army, Free Methodists, etc.) would respond to WLP. Surely they would desire that WLP be more explicit in thinking through the ways a Wesleyan vision of holiness is germane to our missional and ecclesiological self-understanding. To be clear, attention to this theme of holiness is present in WLP, but it could be a lot stronger.

The authors of WLP rightly praised the insight of a teacher of mine, Professor Andrew F. Walls, who noted that the major challenge of the 21st century will be an ecumenical challenge – an ecumenism that is not so focused on denominational diversity but on the tremendous cultural diversity inherent in a Christian movement that has shifted dramatically to the global South over the past several decades. What do United Methodists from outside the United States have to contribute to our understanding of the mission and nature of the church?The Committee on Faith and Order doubtless worked hard to include these perspectives, but it is difficult to see in the document as it currently stands. One way this might be expanded is by further exploring United Methodist images of the church noted in line 454 and following. Some of those images might just surprise us!

Finally, and at the risk of drawing undue attention to my own work, I would encourage the Committee on Faith and Order to consider the work of Roman Catholic biblical scholar John N. Collins. Over the past couple decades, I have tried – without much success – to promote his pioneering research on the biblical term diakonia as a resource for United Methodist ecclesiological reflection. His research was surprisingly overlooked in Towards a Common Vision as well. In brief, Collins argues for a view of ministry where accountability and relational connection are highlighted far more than the “servant leadership” rhetoric of an earlier era.[2]

I agree with WLP that the United Methodist Church needs a new vision for what it means to be church – to love as Jesus loved, to live as Jesus lived, and to walk as Jesus walked. I feel this need deep in my bones. We have a story of “love divine all loves excelling,” and we need our imaginations about the church to be as bold as that story of love. I believe the Committee on Faith and Order agrees with me on this. It is not by accident that they entitled their study “Wonder, Love and Praise.” Let’s keep working on WLP to make it better.

[1] For a contrary view on the alleged “ecumenical winter” see, for example, the work of Dale T. Irvin including, most recently, his chapter in World Christianity: Perspectives and Insights: Essays in Honor of Peter C. Phan edited by Jonathan Y. Tan and Anh Q. Tran. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016.
[2] See, for example, John N. Collins, "Ordained and Other Ministries: Making a Difference," Ecclesiology 3, no. 1 (2006); Paula Gooder, "Diakonia in the New Testament: A Dialogue with John N. Collins," Ecclesiology 3, no. 1 (2006).

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Recommended reading: Ghanaian Methodists in Germany

As this blog has noted before, migration is reshaping the face of United Methodism around the world, blurring polity arrangements, and leading to new partnerships. Another example of this trend in recent Methodist news is a story from The United Methodist Church in Germany. The story recounts the last ten years' of ministry in Germany by Rev. Jane Odoom, a Ghanaian Methodist pastor who has been serving a Ghanaian congregation in Germany. The Methodist Church in Ghana is an independent Methodist denomination coming out of British Methodist Church, but the UMC in Germany has worked with the Ghanaians to provide support for their congregations there. The article, written in German, describes the challenges and successes of Rev. Odoom's ministry among Ghanaian migrants in Germany.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

UM & Global Update: Online Resources

Astute readers of UM & Global will recognize something new about the site today: I have added additional pages. These pages contain lists of links to resources relevant to the topic of the blog.

There are four new pages as follows:

UM News: Contains links to various official and unofficial news sources focused on The United Methodist Church from the US, Europe, and Africa. News sources are in a variety of languages.

UM Scholarship: Contains links to freely available, publicly accessible scholarly material related to The United Methodist Church.

UM Mission News: Contains links to a variety of publications related to mission from Global Ministries, UMW, and theological schools with United Methodist connections.

Mission Scholarship: Contains links to freely available, publicly accessible scholarly material related to the study of mission across all denominational traditions.

In addition, I have continued our "About" page, and a click on the banner image at the top of any page will take you back to the home page where the regular posts are located.

While I have included all of the relevant links of which I am aware, the Internet is a large place, and there may well be other sites worth including. If you know of such material, please send me a link and a brief explanation, and I will continue to update the pages as needed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Recommended Reading: Sexuality debate overshadows real issues in Africa

A recent commentary for UMNS by Rev. Lloyd Narota entitled "Sexuality debate overshadows real issues in Africa" is one of the most highly recommended articles I have ever linked to form this blog. In it, Rev. Narota describes the contrast between American and African views of the church, stating bluntly, "Our worlds are different and we are likely to have different pressing issues and different sets of values."

Rev. Narota explains that the sexuality debates that so preoccupy Americans are not the most pressing topic in Africa. He instead articulates what many Africans see as the most important issues facing the church in Africa, including poverty, divorce, "tribalism, regionalism, and polygamy and, at times, nepotism."

Rev. Narota also calls the American UMC to task, arguing that Americans, including American conservatives presenting themselves as allies to Africans, have not treated Africans with equality, respect, and understanding, instead opting for one-sided and colonial relationships.

Rev. Narota's piece is essential reading for American United Methodists because of the forthright way in which he explains critical issues in the UMC from an African perspective. Certainly, his voice is but one from Africa, but it's rare for most Americans to encounter such as strong and direct African United Methodist voice. We must all listen.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Top Topics for 2017

Last week, I presented a rundown of the most popular stories of the year 2016 on UM & Global. This week, I look beyond specific stories to identify what larger themes emerged on the blog this year. For those interested in comparison, UMNS has compiled its own listing of the most important larger United Methodist story arcs of 2016. Where applicable, I will offer my best guesses as to how these story lines will fare in 2017.

General Conference, the Sexuality Debate, and Global Ecclesiology
This was, without a doubt, the top story of 2016. This blog dedicated a large amount of coverage to a variety of issues and news stories surrounding General Conference. Looked at from one angle, the biggest of these issues was the debate surrounding the church's stance on homosexuality and LGBT persons. Looked at from another angle, the big issue was questions about polity, from the structure of conferences to the role of bishops. In the end, it was both, inextricably tied together. The Commission on a Way Forward must now strive to unravel that knot, and their work will keep this story fresh throughout 2017.

Other Important Themes
1. Migration
This theme was also among the top themes of 2015. With the increasing number of migrants around the world, the humanitarian, political, and social questions raised, and the earnest desire of the church to join in God's action in these situations, this story line will endure for quite some time to come.

2. Global Health
Perhaps this is a case of making my own prediction from last year come true, but the blog dedicated an increased amount of attention to this topic in the past year. One interesting aspect of this story is the transition from the very popular Imagine No Malaria program to Abundant Health and other global health programs. Health remains one of the denomination's Four Areas of Focus, but it remains to be seen whether the end of Imagine No Malaria will be a jumping off point for the denomination or the start of waning attention.

3. Environmental Mission
Like migration, this theme was important last year and is likely to continue to be important for many years to come because of the significance of environmental issues in multiple contexts, religious and secular, across the globe.

4. Church Growth and Decline
The decline of the UMC in the United States and its growth in Africa and elsewhere is not a new storyline, but UM & Global dedicated more attention to this story in 2016, analyzing reasons for the church's decline in the US and trying to get a better sense of the exact nature and extent of church growth around the world.

5. Culture and Church Structures
In good missiological fashion, Robert Hunt and others reminded readers to pay attention to culture when thinking about church structures. Culture stands at the root of questions about what it means to be a global church. Nevertheless, the continued relevance of this storyline is not guaranteed. While culture will continue to be relevant to important questions in the UMC, its role may go overlooked.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Recommended Reading: Biblical Perspectives on Hunger

Rethink Church has put out a helpful resource on the Bible and hunger. The article identifies six causes of hunger globally: poverty, low agricultural investment, climate and natural disasters, war and displacement, unstable food markets, and food waste. For each of these six causes, it then offers a biblical verse and a couple of reflection questions. This short resource could be useful in adult Christian formation settings or as an exercise in crafting biblical theologies of mission.