Thursday, March 30, 2017

Jacob Dharmaraj: Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part II

This blog post is one 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. This piece is the second of two written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

Christianity and other living faiths
Some physicists say that the universe is simultaneously expanding and contracting, and the same can be said of The United Methodist Church today. In less than half a century, Christians from other parts of the world will replace the departing Christians in the global north. While we rejoice over the exponential church growth in the global south, those of us in the leadership of the church in global north need to take measures to stop the membership hemorrhaging. No matter how large the sum of money and innovative programs we infuse into the structure of the denomination, unless workable solutions are put in place to end the bleeding, the church will continue to lose ground. The purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ is not to survive, any more than the purpose of our own lives is to survive. Survival is a necessity, not a purpose. Prudent precautions and sensible preparations will be for naught unless the United Methodist constituents understand the core conviction of Christian faith and their missional responsibilities.

A clear and concise mission theology motivates and assists the Christian community in reconciling all forms of alienation, while being faithful to its apostolic traditions. The denomination’s mission mandate calls for its constituents to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.” What is unclear to those of us coming from the global south is that the proposed document on ecclesiology (the nature of the church) appears to conflate grace and redemption, and offers a single blurry lens rather than sharpened distinct views. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that ALL religions are salvific.

The role of laity and their everyday encounter with the members of the broader society is visibly absent in the document. During that process, the vital aspect of mission and ministry with the adherents of other living faiths has been completely left out. As we are well aware, the church intersects with the beliefs and practices of the adherents of other living faiths, and works for peace, justice, reconciliation, and the integrity of God’s creation.

In addition, massive defections of our baptized and confirmed prevent us from being too sanguine about how many of our children will identify as Christians in coming years. Already hundreds and thousands of our children have left the church in the global north. In such a context, how do we define the nature and role of the church and its mission? How can we keep the light on for them? That light cannot be left on, unless the uniqueness and universality of Jesus is clearly defined in the context of our pluralized, post-Christian, post-modern context.

Regrettably, there is no reference in the document as to how to witness to Christ in our multi-faith world. If the church proclaims Jesus Christ as the Lord to the world around us, it should include both those within and without the fold.

Our denomination wants to gain one million more people in this quadrennium. If so, which pond should the church fish from? And, how? We need to think about where the disciples come from, especially from outside the fold, not how sheep are stolen from inside the fold. If the church has to actively get involved in outreach mission, as the document affirms, the church’s missional mandate needs to be spelled out in a coherent way in the current changed landscape.

Missional shifts
Major shifts have taken place in the church’s mission from the past to the present including shifts
- from ecclesiocentric to theocentric,
- from theocentric to Non-Governmental Organizations-centric,
- from NGO-centric to anthropocentric,
- from anthropocentric to geocentric mission.

Today, mission has migrated from denominational mission to community-oriented, and individual-initiated mission. Making a difference is the goal. Hence the definition of the church’s mission among our constituents has become broader, larger, and comprehensive. We need to make an intentional shift in our understanding of church and mission from Wesley’s time, which was primarily mono-chromatic and mono-cultural, to the worldwide, polyphonic, pluralistic present context, in which Christianity has hybridized and is well-situated as a non-Western religious community.

A definition of the church which we call ecclesiology is not a mere doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. It is a spiritual stroll through “sinners’” mazy minds about faith, tradition, and reason, with an invitation to follow Jesus. Hence, sin has to be defined both in individual and structural contexts. For the wages of sin include the loss of community, trust, equality, and social justice.

A giant reset is looming for the church’s mission during our time because we live in a space between the way things were and the way things might be. Solutions are fleeting as new challenges keep popping up. We don’t want to get locked into just a single mode of operation. We need to clarify why the church exists and does what it does worldwide, which missional values are fundamental, what specific message it conveys in today’s pluralistic world, and how its message and ministries of mercy differ from other humanitarian and social agencies.

What is urgently needed today, I submit, is a hybrid ecclesiology; a distinct United Methodist voice; a voice that emerges from informed theological intelligence and historic connectional commitment; a theology that distinguishes the church from the larger world and other faiths and all that denies the values of Christ. To construct a truly worldwide ecclesiology, the current reality of Western Christianity sitting at the table with non-Western Christianity has to be seriously taken into account. We must accept the responsibility of planting seeds of diversity and equity; of empathy and unity, while we share our fragility, as this work is an attempt to understand a behemoth theological and missiological concept by describing it from multiple angles. With our ever-enlarging global access to the visions and voices and influences of others, let us untangle the knot of what makes up the church and whom we serve and witness to as disciples and as fellow human beings.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Recommended Reading: 500 Years of Protestantism

2017 is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, generally seen as starting when Martin Luther's 95 Theses were issued  in 1517. This anniversary is being marked in myriad ways around the world. One relevant resource related to global Christianity is a recent infographic released by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The two-page infographic provides a variety of statistics related to the historical rise and global distribution of Protestant Christianity.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Jacob Dharmaraj: Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part I

This blog post is one 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. This piece is the first of two written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

Half a century ago Flannery O’Connor outlined the struggle to “make belief believable” as a struggle for the attention of the indifferent reader. Hence, she insisted that the religious aspect in her work of fiction is “a dimension added,” not one taken away. Then she went on to explain how she did it: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

In an almost similar vein, The United Methodist Church is updating its worn out doctrinal cursives and outmoded linguistic scripts to compile a new and relevant theological understanding of the church and its missional imperatives. The recently proposed document, Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church, is to serve as a theological mirror as well as a window that swings open to the worldwide body of Christ in our time. More importantly, it is intended to enable the United Methodist constituents to see outside themselves and know what it is to be a worldwide connectional church. After conferring with several Asian-American United Methodist laity and clergy, I submit the following comments for further consideration and action.

Settled church versus a pilgrim church
The well-researched and elegantly written current document, unfortunately, is heavily dependent upon WCC documents with an over emphasis on Eucharist, grace, and community, with only ancillary references to baptism, evangelism, mission and the role of the laity. The “paschal mystery” behind the Eucharist (crucifixion, death and resurrection, and Parousia), mission and ministry with people of other faiths, and Christianity on the move through global diaspora has no room in the document, although they are a vital part of Church’s belief and corner stone for Christian mission.

While the document meanders through pages of past Euro-centric Methodist history, it falls short on the interpretation of that history for our changed landscape. If we derive our church and mission theology based on our missional history from just one part of the world, we will be standing on a shaky ground. Contemporary ecclesiology is fiercely divided over how to address the world’s challenges and what those challenges really are in the larger historic context.

Many today are thinking post-religion. Through the pull of cultural and religious pluralism and the allure of openly secular and liberal values, traditional modes of Christian witness and mission engagements have nose-dived in recent decades. Many have left the church in disillusionment. The church needs to offer a new map for them to return. Christian history has repeatedly proven that they will come roaring back, if and when the church’s signs, symbols and message become meaningful to them.

The proposed document is deeply based on the theological understanding of church, mission and ministry of “settled Christianity” of the Christendom era of the global north. It does not have a broader understanding of the church in the global south, including its diasporic and pilgrim nature. A known method can only achieve known results. The method being adopted here is purely “Western.” We need to apply new hermeneutics. New categories. Not just refining but re-defining our ecclesiology, theology and missiology in the worldwide context. A theology-free approach will not transform. Theology moves the church to engage in mission, and mission rightly engaged enables the church to develop theology.

The worldwide church is a church on the move due to its minority status, extreme poverty, and intense persecution. Persecution is a real threat, and not a mere slogan. The church in the global south witnesses, grows, and multiplies in countless methods and among numerous groups, even in the midst of limited material resources. This proposed document elevates the diversity of spiritual gifts, which Apostle Paul talks about in I Corinthians 12, but has failed to comprehend the diversity within the Body of Christ which the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7:9-10, beautifully portrays as the ultimate triumph of the Church: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Church in the world
We certainly wish that this document, which emphasizes proclamation as the responsibility of the community, had explained more about the content of the proclamation and its targeted recipients. Sometimes, the readers find it hard to distinguish between the references made to the community which makes up the church, the Body of Christ, and the larger community that makes up the society. Community is defined in this document in broad neutral terms as the grace of God enveloping all. Yet, no distinction has been made between the Body of Christ and the larger Kingdom of God, in which the Body of Christ is firmly situated. A biblical and theological definition of the role of the Body of Christ in the larger society would certainly enrich the document. In addition, many theological words that are employed in the document have multiple layers of meanings and vary in context. Consequently, the role of the church in the larger society is simply assumed and buried under presumed vocabulary, as the document appears to have in mind only the United Methodist constituents in the global north.

Lastly, this proposed document talks a lot about the First and Third Person of the Trinity but seldom about the Second Person, on whose paschal mystery Christianity hinges, and how it differs from other living faiths. The importance of the Eucharist is preeminent throughout the document, but an equal emphasis of the doctrine of baptism, even as a requirement for the United Methodist church’s membership, would have been extremely helpful. A mere reference to both of them as “Sacraments” would throw many of our constituents off balance during this post-denomination era.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Recommended Reading: Lloyd Narota on reconciliation in the UMC

Much has been written online about the Commission on a Way Forward and its work. Yet because of the Methodist blogosphere's tendency to amplify mostly white, American, male voices, much of what has been written has reflected a certain social location, despite displaying widely varying theological standpoints. That is why I am happy to recommend Rev. Lloyd Narota's recent UMNS commentary, "Can our 'way forward' be reconciliation?" Rev. Narota is an ordained elder from Zimbabwe serving in Canada. His views certainly do not reflect all African United Methodists, but they do add something important to the discussion.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Papers not presented at the GBHEM/AUMTS Colloquy

Last weekend, I attended the theological colloquy entitled “The Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness," sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools (AUMTS). The goal of the colloquy is to bring the best thinking of United Methodist academics from around the world on questions related to debates over homosexuality and discussions of the future of The United Methodist Church as a united institution.

While I was impressed with the faithfulness and the academic insights of the participants, I was nonetheless disappointed that there were not more participants from outside the US (there was one from Mozambique and one from Denmark) and that there were not more papers focusing on elements of United Methodist history from outside the US.

I understand that GBHEM made significant efforts to reach out to schools outside the US, most of whom were not able to participate for a variety of scheduling and economic reasons. Nonetheless, I thought the omission of such elements from the discussion left a significant lacuna in the work of the colloquy.

To get a sense of the sorts of topics that the colloquy could have considered that would have dealt with material from outside the US and have been of relevance to the colloquy, I have come up with ten such possible paper titles below:

"Polygamy and The United Methodist Church in Africa"

"The Impact of Holiness: Controversies and Schisms in Methodist Mission History"

"Disciplinary Flexibility: Lessons from the Central Conferences"

"How Shall We Remain United?: The Legacy of COSMOS for Methodist Models of Structural Unity"

"Schisms Over Who Is Ordained: The Desire for Indigenous Leadership in Methodist Missions"

"The Splits of 1930: Mexico, Brazil, and Korea as Different Models for Continued Unity After Structural Separation"

"Better Together: Theology, Polity, and Practicality in the Eglise Metodiste d' Cote d' Ivoire/UMC Merger"

"John R. Mott's Methodist Vision of Unity"

"Japanese Imperial Rites and Methodism in Korea: Conscience, Expediency, and Polity"

"Uniting and Dividing: Creating the Independent Methodist Church in Mexico by Merging MEC and MECS Missions"

I don't know specifically which scholars could have presented such papers, and it is certainly beyond my scope of expertise to have written each of them. Nor is this list necessarily the best or only list of such topics. Nevertheless, it is important that the UMC consider its whole history as it moves toward whatever its future may be.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

American UMC decline is a white people problem

What if I told you that United Methodist membership in the US was growing?

You'd tell me that I was crazy. The narrative of decline is and has been for years one of the strongest narratives in The United Methodist Church in the US. Many words have been spent on trying to make theological and organizational sense of this trend and/or coming up with ways to reverse it.

Yet the UMC has been growing in members in the US over the past two decades, just not among white people. As the table below shows, since 1996, the number of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders has doubled, the number of Hispanics has grown by two-thirds, the number of African-Americans has grown by a third, and the number of Native Americans by a quarter.

Black membership:
1996 - 319,165; 2000 - 382,243; 2004 - 423,456; 2008 - 432,354; 2016 - 438,343
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +37%

Hispanic membership:
1996 - 42,797; 2000 - 40,652; 2004 - 55,143; 2008 - 61,573; 2016 - 76,332
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +78%

Asian-American membership:
1996 - 45,271; 2000 - 56,143; 2004 - 73,557; 2008 - 81,382; 2016 - 93,211
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +106%

Pacific Islander membership:
1996 - 7,220; 2000 - 8,245; 2004 - 12,489; 2008 - 11,378; 2016 - 14,520
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +101%

Native American membership:
1996 - 17,457; 2000 - 18,766; 2004 - 21,760; 2008 - 22,665; 2016 - 21,440
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: +23%

White membership:
1996 - 8,611,902; 2000 - 7,902,305; 2004 - 7,667,201; 2008 - 7,386,067; 2016 - 6,460,538
Percent change between 1996 and 2016: -21%

The UMC has experienced significant overall membership declines over the past two decades, but these have come entirely from the net loss of white members. Thus, it is fair to say that the UMC in the US does not have a problem with numeric decline. It has a problem with white numeric decline.

Of course, since the UMC is one of the whitest denominations in America, this loss of white membership has meant that overall American United Methodist numbers have gone down. While the UMC has added non-white members, it has not been at a sufficient rate to make up for the loss of white members. This is perhaps not surprising, given the UMC's difficulties as a predominantly white institution in reaching out to people of color (as described here, here, and here).

While this finding does not perhaps change where the denomination is at in terms of membership, money, or trend lines, it should significantly alter how we think about and respond to membership loss in the UMC in the US. Many on both sides of the theological spectrum often cast numeric decline as a sign that the UMC has lost its way and no longer resonates with its context. This finding, however, shows that the UMC does have a message that resonates with at least some segments of its context. This finding should encourage United Methodists to ask questions such as the following:

How can we support, encourage, and expand the United Methodist growth that is already happening among people of color? What changes to the United Methodist system can empower leaders of color to even more effectively spread the gospel? This process will require white United Methodists to listen to and be led by their sisters and brothers of color.

What lessons can minority United Methodists teach their white brothers and sisters about United Methodism and how to be effective evangelists? How can people of color serve as examples for white United Methodists? This process will require white United Methodists to be willing to learn from their sisters and brothers of color.

How do white anxieties about the decline of white, American United Methodism serve to cloud and confuse denominational thinking about its future in the US? Robert P. Jones' recent book, The End of White Christian America, is certain to be relevant here as a resource for thinking about how white, Christian Americans in general have responded to their loss of cultural privilege. This process will require white United Methodists to acknowledge their whiteness and repent of the ways in which their thinking has been shaped by race and not the gospel.

If white American United Methodists are willing to do the difficult and humble work described above, perhaps they, too, could experience some of the growth their brothers and sisters of colors have been experiencing for decades.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Recommended readings: Wespath and Climate Change

This recent UMNS article outlines ways in which Wespath, The United Methodist Church's pension and benefits organization, in making efforts to encourage and invest in initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is seen by scientists as an important contributor to the process of climate change.

These recent developments are likely to be of interest, not only because of their connection to creation care as a facet of mission, but because of their connection to larger denominational debates about the denomination's environmental responsibilities and its investment policies. As this, this, and this story relate, whether or not Wespath should divest from all fossil fuel companies was an item of debate at 2016 General Conference. This more recent debate follows earlier policy changes from 2015 to screen out some forms of fossil fuels from the fund's investment portfolios.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Robert Hunt on "Wonder, Love and Praise"

This blog post is one 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. This piece is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology.

There are two ways of approaching identity, not least the identity of the Christian Church. One is ontological. What is its essence? How is it rooted in the essential characteristics of the God who called it into being? This is the approach taken by the document of the Faith and Order Committee of the United Methodist Church entitled Wonder, Love and Praise.

I’d like to suggest an alternative approach, which is genealogical: seeking out the identity of the church by inquiry into the process by which it was brought into being.

Such an approach might appear to begin with the calling of Jesus' disciples to their task of continuing his ministry and going into the world to declare the gospel of his death and resurrection. Yet in truth we must begin further back. Jesus, in describing his mission, continually references the prophets of Israel and even Moses. Paul sees the origins of Christian faith in Abraham. And the Jerusalem council looks to God’s covenant with Noah as the way in which to understand a Gentile Church. And of course, there is Hebrews 12. In short, a genealogy of the Christian church should begin with God’s creation of the world through the calling of Israel into being.

Beginning with the Old Testament, and there is no space for a fuller discussion here, has been and will continue to be extraordinarily fruitful for the self-understanding of the Church as it faces the challenge of unity and diversity. This is because among other things we will find in that story two themes: first the demand the Israel be pure, and second the demand that Israel accept and include those beyond its borders who bring with them precisely the danger of impurity. It isn’t a matter of ambiguity. Israel must accomplish two things that in human terms appear contradictory: to remain utterly faithful to God and free of anything that violates God’s law, and to be utterly faithful to God and be continually engaged with the nations who are both the realm of impurity, and the realm of God’s saving action even for Israel. And it is a story in which the demands for purity and inclusion play out quite literally through genealogies, leading up to the mixed genealogy of David and ultimately Jesus.

It is moreover a story that continues through the ministry of Jesus as he and his followers continually address their own insider/outsider status in relation to what was in his time an international Jewish community emerging out of ancient Israel. What it means to be in continuity with Israel yet different from Israel was a question of identity both communities wrestled with as they came to understand themselves in relation to one another.

Yet as important as the story of Israel becoming Judaism is to Christian identity, the self-understanding of the Church as the means by which the ministry of Jesus continues in the world is more encompassing.

To understand the church as the Body of Christ continuing the ministry of Jesus the Christ we must begin with that ministry. This includes not only his preaching and teaching, but his self-declarations (The Son of Man passages for example) his miracles, and his death, resurrection, and ascension. These lay the groundwork for understanding the ministry that Jesus commands the apostles to fulfill, and thus represent both its purpose and the conditions under which the church will evolve as it realizes that purpose. Again, a full exploration of the relevant passages exceeds the bounds of this short essay, but can be reasonably summarized by saying that the mission of Jesus was to both proclaim and enact the nearness of the Reign of God wherever and whenever he was present. Indeed, he can be recognized as the Lord of God’s Reign, the Christ because in his words and deeds he manifests that specific form of Lordship associated with God’s Reign and no other.

Passages in which Jesus then sends his disciple to continue his work (Luke 10) help clarify how the mission of the church is both the same and different from that of the Christ. The disciples are not lords, they are servants, or perhaps better in English stewards, since as servants they have authority from their Lord. (Luke 7:1-9, Luke 9:1, 10:19) We recognize the collective identity of the disciples through the ways in which they imperfectly enact their stewardship of God’s ruling authority. The story is the basis for understanding their imperfect identity with Jesus Christ.

Those passages in which Jesus commands the re-enactment of his death and resurrection, and thus creates the ritual that constitutes the inner life of the fellowship of apostles (Mark 14:12-21) clarify that picture further. While it belongs to Jesus alone to offer his life on the cross, it belongs to the church to remember and re-enact the passion. This reminds us, along with the Pauline accounts of what he received and passed on, that presence of the living Christ within the Body of Christ arises out of faithful obedience to his command, which precedes theological reflection on the relationship of presence to ritual. (I Corinthians 11:23-26)

The post-resurrection commissioning through which Jesus explicitly sends his apostles out into the world gives us a deeper understanding of how the proclamation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection will become central to enacting the Reign of God. (Matthew 28:16 - 20, Acts 1:8) Their obedience, and failures of obedience, as they live a life in mission then give a distinctive shape to the identity of the apostolic church that emerges both from the apostolic stewardship of the growing body of disciples and their witness to the death and resurrection until his return. (John 21:15-25, Acts 2:15 - 36, I Corinthians 11:26, Romans 8:15-027)

Eventually, if we trace the genealogy of the Church through the various churches as they appear in the New Testament, and the emerging theological expressions of their self-understanding (I John 3 for example, but in some sense the entire New Testament corpus taken as a whole), we begin to get a full sense of what it means to be church. It is rooted in the command of Christ, the enacted fidelity of the apostolic founders of the apostolic church, and the experience in the life of a church of the presence of the resurrected Christ as it engages in faithfully continuing that mission.

Each of these the two approaches I have mentioned, ontological and genealogical, has its merits. Each has its place in the ongoing self-discovery by the Church of its identity. But I would argue that in our time, with the more general cultural ways of understanding identity focusing on narrative, a genealogical approach will be more fruitful than an ontological approach. It will be more accessible as well to those who possess only, or primarily the scripture read inductively as a resource.

Put more simply, if we are learning what it means to faithfully follow the command of Jesus Christ together it may become easier for us to go to church together.