Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ole Birch: What happened to the worldwide church? A response to 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 the second of two written by Rev. Ole Birch, pastor in Copenhagen, Denmark Annual Conference, and member of The Connectional Table.

In the introduction to “Wonder, Love and Praise”, the motivations behind the document are presented and among them, the following is mentioned: 

The dramatic recent growth of The United Methodist Church in parts of Africa and Asia, and the increasing visibility and involvement of United Methodists from other countries in its leadership, are gradually bringing United Methodists in the United States to a greater (if belated) awareness that theirs is, if not a “global” or “worldwide” church, at least not simply an American denomination”.

The text then proceeds to talk about the “adequacy of a polity that has been essentially U. S.–centric, taking for granted a basic, normative national identity for the denomination”.

My intention with these two blogposts is to offer two European (or Central Conference) perspectives on the church that can perhaps deepen this question of center and periphery, and bring something new to our understanding of Methodist Theology on the church.

What if there was no center?
My second point in looking at the text from a Central Conference perspective goes to the identity we try to claim as a global or worldwide church.

In our present church structure, it is fair to speak of a strong center and a periphery. At the center we find the General Conference and the administrative order (the agencies, the commissions and the Connectional Table. The program agencies and the administrative organizations have historically been set up to provide support functions for the connectional system in the US. Their purpose and functions have been determined by the perceived missional needs of the five jurisdictions, and their mandates reflect theological and sociological developments in the American church and society. In 1996, General Conference gave the agencies a new identity as Global Agencies, with a global mandate. At the center, the agencies have their mandate, a budget, some staff and the power to determine how to implement the wisdom of the GC.

At the periphery, we find the church in Africa, Asia and Europe. The seven Central Conferences are very different because they serve in very different circumstances. Some are small, in wealthy countries; some are big, in poor countries. Some are highly dependent on financial support, while others are not. What unites them is that their pastors, laypeople and leadership possess contextual competence in their unique missional situation.

In some parts of the world, the church, under the leadership of these people, has demonstrated astonishing growth over the last 20 years. Today more than 40 % of the UMC membership is in the church outside the US.

If the church in these parts of the world needs support, it can ask the center for it.

The administrative order we have today is heavily dominated by the UMC in the United States. Communication is always determined by the need of the periphery and the power at the center.

All agencies are based in the US. All but one have a US born (and educated) general secretary. All have US bishops as presidents. The boards of the agencies do have CC representation. The Connectional Table of 2016-20 has approx. 85% US members.

The very real problem is an administrative order for at global church that cannot possibly be contextually relevant in Africa, Asia and Europe.

My questions regarding our understanding of our church are these; in a worldwide church, what should be the relationship between center and periphery? Do we need a center? Is our present American center determined by history, theology, need for control or American power?

Let’s presume that the church in the US becomes its own region, and we therefore have a unified structure throughout the world. Then each region (or CC) could establish the administrative order it needs to do the mission of the church (No global agencies) These regional bodies relate to each other and find partners around common projects.

What would that mean?

In terms of contextual mission? It could mean that the contextual competence present in the church in the different parts of the world would gain influence on the administrative order and the programs that were created.

For connectionalism? It could mean that the focus of our connectionalism would move towards mission, instead of policy.

In terms of equity? Less dominance by the already privileged.

For subsidiarity? It could mean that decisions would be made close to, and even by, the people affected by the decisions.


  1. This is well researched and well written. Sadly, it must be read in light of the current contextual reality of the global UMC. The Western portions of the church want to free themselves from the other sections so that they can pursue their own social agenda without global interference. Unless the West agrees to allow the entire global connection to make a decision about the human sexuality debate, all suggestions about regional churches will remain suspect. In the spirit of the above article, the Western connection should take a humble position and allow the global church to guide us as we try to change our standards. I fear that the desire for power remains strong in western United Methodism.

    1. Interesting that you needed to bring up that perspective. And so singleminded that everything else is ignored. Please explain why that issiue is so important. It is not in our UMC constitution? What about everything else that is important? Can our connectional system work for a worldwide Church? Or are the days of the UMC, as we know it, over? Can a theology of a worldwide church be constructed in a way that ends the US dominance? Are my questions part of a greater change in the role of the USA in the Trump era, (post american leadership).

  2. Thoughtful, informative post. Picking up for UM Insight.