Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Recommended readings: Glen Messer on ecclesiology

As this blog has been focusing recently on ecclesiology, especially reviews of the UMC's draft ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise," I thought it appropriate to link to some other online theological reflections on United Methodist ecclesiology.

Dr. Glen A. Messer, II, has published two electronic resources related to this topic. One is two draft chapters of a book entitled, Concepts of Connection, which takes a connectional approach to exploring United Methodist ecclesiology. The second is an e-book entitled Perfecting Unity and published by the UMC Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. This book is intended as an "aid to discernment" and prompt to discussion of issues related to church unity in a broad sense. It puts conversations about ecclesiology in an ecumenical perspective.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Daniel Shin: Thoughts on “Wonder, Love and Praise,” Part III

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 a three-part response to the document written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.

In this series of blog posts on “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church,” I will seek to offer a comprehensive reading of the document. Nonetheless, in this post, I will mostly focus on the church’s ministry and the issue of legitimate diversity. I also follow the Statement’s structure of affirmations that God’s love is for all people, it is transformative, and creates loving communities.

The third section “Faith, Hope, and Love” addresses the conviction “The saving love of God is transformative” (WLP, p. 32ff).  It claims that the triadic character of the life in community through faith, hope, and love is Trinitarian and, therefore, there is a Trinitarian character to the way the church expresses God’s love in the world.  As stated earlier, there may be a Trinitarian dimension to the triadic manifestation in the community, but it needs to describe how this is so and, more importantly, what is at stake in the claim.

Its assertion about the Trinitarian nature of the church seems to taper off gradually, but continues the theme of triadic structure of the life and mission of the church in its discussion of the doctrine of the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king.  The importance of the Committee’s appeal to the threefold office of Christ cannot be stressed enough in understanding the conviction that God’s love is transformative.  This section is indeed of great value in warding off temptations to a reductionist, one-office accounts of salvation.

Then what is somewhat disconcerting is its attempt to apply the notion of the threefold office of Christ narrowly on ordained ministry, especially the Order of the Elders, instead of helping the General Church to grapple with munus triplex (WLP, p. 36ff).  After its recognition of the work of the whole church, it rushes immediately to theological reflection and ordained ministry.  While this section certainly offers a helpful historical and theological account of the ordained ministry, its silence on the mission of the whole church needs to be filled with a clarion call to witness the threefold office of Christ in all spheres of life and ministry.  This is especially pertinent given the Statement’s own recognition of lacunae on the subject of ministry in the General Church (WLP, p. 16).  Furthermore, a distinction between the Order of Elders and Deacons is well laid out, but this needs to be supplemented by how the ministry of Word, Service, Justice, and Compassion by the Order of Deacons may just as well be informed by Christ’s prophetic proclamations and teachings, priestly sacrifice of love, and reign of basin and towel.  

In the section titled “United Methodism and the Church Universal,” the Committee deliberates on the markers of the United Methodist identity we profess and aspire to: the universal scope of transformative grace; connectionalism the aim of which is mutual support and accountability; and commitment to theological reflection (WLP, p. 41ff).  It would be advantageous for the church to heed the Committee’s reminder about these markers.

As promised earlier, the Statement does return to the issue of legitimate diversity and underscores some important matters under the heading “Diversity and Conflict” (WLP, p. 47ff).  It recognizes that conflicts are real and they arise from complex factors.  In a radical affirmation of differences in the church, it goes on to recognize the different human uses of the church and says that we are in communion not because we share the same views and practices, but in fact due to the true gift of koinonia in the Spirit. The Statement also affirms diversity for practical reasons.  Diversity in the church need not be seen as a liability in the church’s mission but instead a strength as it faces an increasingly diverse world, which an earlier study by two political scientists have demonstrated. On a more sober note, it recognizes that at times the conflict may be irreparable and beyond our capability through discussion and negotiation.  It is a real possibility that the church may not yet be in a position to offer a responsible judgment. But the Committee advises that if we happen to find ourselves at an impasse, we are to deal with conflicts in a redemptive manner through prayer and action with the goal of communion with God and others in mind.

A few observations are in order here.  First of all, it assumes a working knowledge of what it means by legitimate or illegitimate diversity, and it does not make explicit the current issue(s) it seeks to address.  Unless the reader had a previous knowledge of the document “The Church,” he or she would have a difficult time following the discussion. Indeed, ecumenical conversations are absolutely essential to the church universal but one wonders if it is appropriate to transplant an expression that immediately triggers the notion of “illegitimate diversity,” an expression it actually employs. Though the word diversity suggests openness, the volatile words “legitimate” and “illegitimate” immediately summon a whole host of feelings and reactions.  They are charged with binary oppositional logic and add fuel to the fire.  We should not sidestep the significance of the issue, but words do matter as they can heal or hurt, so we need the genius and sensibility of all in the church, not only those with juridical minds who write policies and legislate what counts as legitimate versus illegitimate, but scientists, artists, mediators, theologians, pastors, and others who can deepen our understanding. And lastly, I will not psychologize to determine whether the ambiguity on the issue of legitimate diversity was intentional or not, but what still awaits us is the criteria for legitimate diversity that the Committee had promised.  At the least, having something in place like George Lindbeck’s taxonomy of doctrines would be of help in moving forward.

In closing, the Faith and Order Committee has done a superb job in helping the church think through some of bewildering realities the church faces.  It has pointed to invaluable resources in thinking about the church’s identity and its mission in the world drawing from the historic Christian faith, ecumenical heritage, and distinctive Wesleyan heritage.  If there is one remaining task, it is showing the relevance of the title “Wonder, Love and Praise” for its Statement. It is apropos that the Statement ends with Apostle Paul’s words about the treasure in earthen vessels, and the church would do well to not lose its sense of wonder and praise while proving faithful in its quotidian responsibility of love in the world in communion with God and neighbors.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Recommended Reading: Climate Refugees

This blog has shared numerous stories about how United Methodists are interacting with the issue of refugees and the issue of climate change. As this story from United Methodist missionary and journalist Paul Jeffrey makes clear, these two issues are not entirely separate. Jeffrey's short but interesting article shares several stories from around the world of people displaced by climate change.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Daniel Shin: Thoughts on “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 first of a three-part response to the document written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.

In this series of blog posts on “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church,” I will seek to offer a comprehensive reading of the document. Nonetheless, in this post, I will mostly focus on the invisible church and the question of people of other faiths and the issue of legitimate diversity. I also follow the Statement’s structure of affirmations that God’s love is for all people, it is transformative, and creates loving communities.

The second conviction “The saving love of God is meant for all people” is addressed under the title “Community of Salvation and Community as Sign” (WLP, pp. 22ff).  The Committee notes that while there are no normative models for understanding the church, the notion of ekklesia may hold promise in maintaining a wide range of meanings of the church.  Ekklesia is a Greek word commonly used to mean an assembly or gathering, and Christians in the past have used it to refer to a particular community of Christians, the sum of such local communities, or the whole people of God in all times and places. Beyond etymological considerations, the Committee makes a theological judgment that ekklesia in all its connotation is a fitting expression of the church because communion is embodied in the form of community. The Statement goes on to add that ekklesia is not the only mark of the church as there are additional marks of the church, namely, the pure Word of God preached and the Sacraments duly administered, displaying faithfulness in worship, edification and redemption of the world (WLP, p. 25ff).

The Committee then makes a strategic move using the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church as a segue into a discussion about the larger communion (WLP, p. 26ff).  Traditionally the notion of the invisible church has recognized the possibility that there are persons who are saved or on their way to salvation though they may not be part of the visible church. The Committee agrees and says that persons who are not explicit members of the visible church may be participants in the one ekklesia of God and share in the communion.  It clarifies that this position does not impose the category Christian and affirms the possibility that God’s koinonia may occur in different forms and places.  In an attempt to expand the notion of the church, it asserts that the church understood as God’s one ekklesia, the community of salvation, is not coextensive with the churches we are familiar with.

Church’s discussion about the visible and invisible churches is a good reminder that the church has long been cognizant of at least two things: one, not all who are part of the visible church belong to Christ; and two, the possibility of God’s relations with people outside the visible church. The language of the visible and the invisible church can be helpful and sufficiently complicates one’s ecclesiology.  Its built in eschatological reserve points us to the need for humility and openness, ongoing repentance and growth, and God’s love for all people.  One might add here not only to be mindful of the traditional notion of “the invisible church” but also those who are visible but invisible in our midst, those who are seen but unseen.

While the language of the visible and the invisible church is generative, it immediately brings to mind the move Karl Rahner made in coining the concept of “anonymous Christian,” in this case the invisible church.  Rahner’s intention was well-taken as he sought to expand the scope of “Christian” to include those who are outside the realm of explicit Christian faith and practice through no fault of their own but live in the grace of God and somehow attain salvation. However, this was taken as another way of extending Christian imperialism upon other religions and cultures.

Similarly, whereas the language of the invisible church may be well intentioned, it again seeks to assimilate others as a double of itself.  Notwithstanding the Statement’s qualifications, there is a striking similarity between anonymous Christian and invisible church. While for Christians the notion of koinonia, ekklesia, or community of salvation may accurately and inclusively describe our relationship with God and others, it may not be so for people of other faiths and cultures. No matter how altruistic one’s intention may be in adopting a larger expansive concept “the one ekklesia of God,” one cannot overlook that the church has a history of effects and can be another unfortunate attempt to colonize the other and the different.

If the church must choose the expression “one ekkelsia of God” to refer to God’s relation with others in the world, then it must be mindful that it may be only one analogue to understand another analogue in its evolving intramural conversation, privileging one tradition over the other.  Perhaps the first movement toward interreligious dialogue is not a handshake or a hug that enfolds the other in our straightjacket of the invisible church, but a nod of profound respect and acknowledgment that can hopefully lead to better understanding through their self-description.  In doing so, the church may come to a place where its previous understanding of communion may have to be modified, stretched to its limits, discarded, or transformed into a new creation.

Moving on to the role of the visible churches, the Statement suggests that they participate in the larger ekklesia and are to be the explicit sign and servant of God’s self-giving to the world (WLP, p. 30ff).  In a rather realistic and humble assessment, the Statement reveals that the church fulfills its tasks “more or less well.”  The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic not on account of its performance that falls short, but because of God.  This is an important insight and a beautiful promise to maintain in thinking about the visible church, especially on the issue of legitimate diversity.  However, as alluded to earlier, it is not clear how our fallibility and God’s work are coordinated so that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, the difference that makes to the kind of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity the church manifests.  Maybe the church’s identity is not so much a possession but an ongoing process of coordinating our prayerful labor with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Then, what appears to be a commentary on “The Church,” the Statement raises the issue about “legitimate diversity” in the church (WLP, p. 31ff). It first acknowledges that because the Triune God is the very source of communion, the unity in the church is dynamic and relational, not monolithic uniformity.  The gifts of the Spirit differ and human beings and cultures differ.  Thus, it radically affirms the importance of diversity; however, it emphasizes that diversity must be legitimate, as opposed to illegitimate diversity.  It rightly points out that this process of discernment is lacking common criteria of discernment and mutually recognized structures.  The section ends with promise to return to this topic at a later point.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Recommended readings on Methodism in Cuba

United Methodist News Service has recently posted a series of well-done articles about Methodism in Cuba. The Methodist in Cuba is historically related to, but autonomous from, The United Methodist Church. The articles give a sense of the opportunities and challenges faced by this growing branch of the world Methodist movement. The eight total articles provide a depth of information about Methodism outside the US not often available to those without first-hand experience.

Series Home Page

Cuban Methodists are Packing the Pews on the history and growth of Methodism in Cuba

Providing a Home for the Elderly on a church-run home for retired pastors and spouses

Going Digital at Havana Seminary on technology use at the Methodist seminary

Cuban Worship: Music, Prayer and Passion on worship styles in the Methodist Church in Cuba

"Lord, I'm Here", a biographical piece on a Cuban missionary

Building a Church Growth Strategy in Cuba on cell group evangelism

Solidarity and Service in Cuba on social services provided by the Methodist Church in Cuba

For Methodists in Cuba, "These Are the Good Times", profiling a young clergy couple and detailing the increase in US-Methodist ties

Slideshow: Singing the Spirit in Cuba including pictures from the series set to Cuban music

Flikr stream of pictures from the Methodist Church in Cuba

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Daniel Shin: Thoughts on “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 a three-part response to the document written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.

Upon establishment of the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order in 2008, the much-anticipated document “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church” has emerged from its proceedings at the behest of the General Conference, Council of Bishops, and Connectional Table. The Statement is a theologically rich, ecumenically informed, and deeply Wesleyan articulation on the church. The Committee truly has done a remarkable service and its Statement deserves a close hearing to enhance both the church’s self-understanding and its mission. In this series of blog posts, I will seek to offer a comprehensive reading of the document but mostly focus on the following: the church as both divine and human realities, the invisible church and the question of people of other faiths, the church’s ministry, and the issue of legitimate diversity.

The Faith and Order Committee seeks to articulate a theological reflection on the church that is in continuity with the historic Christian faith, our common Christian heritage grounded in the apostolic witness, and our distinctive Wesleyan heritage (WLP, p. 1). It is a document on ecclesiology that aims to offer a comprehensive understanding in light of current realities of the church and to situate the mission of the United Methodist Church in that vision. As it is still a work in progress, the Committee expresses openness to conversation and suggests interpreting its formulation in conversation with other ecclesial documents, especially “By Water and the Spirit” and “This Holy Mystery,” documents on baptism and holy communion, respectively (WLP, p. 2).

Having stated its goal, the Committee begins by identifying the current realities of the church, such as migration, globalization, plural religious realities, church and state relations in certain regions of the world, dramatic demographic changes in membership, and the issue of “legitimate diversity” (WLP, p. 2ff). This inventory is of significant value in situating the church in the current milieu. However, it is rather unfortunate that all these pressing issues are not given sufficient attention, though plural religious realities and legitimate diversity do receive significant coverage. As far as I can tell, the Statement does not explain why it has chosen to address some but not others and makes one wonder whether it is truly comprehensive or ecumenical as it claims to be, or more reflective of a particular geopolitical context of the church, perhaps North America (WPL, p. 1). Without doubt the two current issues mentioned do deserve reflection, but other issues, such as migration and church and state relations involving civil rights of justice and equity, or even struggles for basic human rights of freedom and survival, are just as pressing as any other in some parts of the world. It would be helpful to hear the rationales for the choices it has made or how other issues will also be addressed.

The Statement then proceeds to make explicit its approach to ecclesiology in the section “Our Approach to an Understanding of the Church” by pointing out the distinctive convictions that brought about the merger of the General Church in 1968 (WLP, p. 10ff). Among many of its convictions, the General Church affirmed that God’s love is for all people, it is transformative, and creates loving communities. Next, it discusses the historical origins of the United Methodist Church in the coming together of the Methodist revival movement led by John Wesley and the Pietist movement from continental Europe, and the history of slavery and the ongoing problem of racism.

In section two “A New Vision for the United Methodist Church,” the Statement proceeds to elaborate on the aforementioned convictions (WLP, p. 17ff). The first conviction “the saving love of god creates community” is addressed under the heading “The Church as a Gift of the Triune God,” which makes it very clear that the church is a gift of the Triune God. The church is a communion “whose source is the very life of the Holy Trinity,” a gift to receive and a gift to share with the world.  It is then a divine reality fashioned after the very life of the triune God.

At the same time, the Committee thoughtfully recognizes, here and elsewhere, the stark reality that the church is a very human community that serves a variety of human needs, such as order, companionship, and ethical guidance (WLP, p. 21, p. 30, p. 56). More pointedly, it recognizes that at times the church can be utilized for particular political and economic ends infused with human values and ambitions, sometimes leading to ideological uses of the church for imperialistic, national, racial, ethnic, or gendered interests and dominations.

Two questions arise here. One, concerning its claim that the church is a gift of the Triune God who is the very source of its life, it merely asserts the communal nature of the church without explanation of what that consists of or how it participates in the very community of the Triune God, however feeble that human effort may be. This is a pivotal issue because it claims that the church is a communion the nature of which is derived from God who is understood as the Holy Trinity (WLP, p. 20). A full-blown treatise on Trinitarian ecclesiology is not necessary here, but a brief treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity would bring greater clarity to its claim that the church is communal. This amplification cannot be bypassed because it is foundational to the discussion on the one larger communion; if the One who creates community is the Triune God, then the Statement would need to specify further about the nature of the one larger communion in God. Furthermore, the significance of the church as a Trinitarian community ought to bear on the question of “legitimate diversity.”

Two, throughout the document the Committee has made a concerted effort to maintain that the church is both a divine gift and a human response.  This is an important insight and needs to be highly commended. However, it is not clear how it is both a divine and a human reality, and how that relation is to be conceived. If granted that it is a divine creation, then how is that reality related to the polymorphic ways of human beings ordering their lives together? Or, if it is a human reality used for a variety of human ends, then how does it intersect with God’s mission in the world? In other words, how can they be coordinated in such a way that they are sufficiently aligned with one another? This alignment is a critical dimension of our communion with God and others and has deep implications for the two issues it addresses, namely, the larger communion of God and legitimate diversity.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Recommended Readings on UM Responses to US immigration ban

I have been a daily reader of United Methodist news and Twitter for several years, and the response to US President Trump's temporary ban on migrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries was one of the most prolific responses to an event I have yet seen by United Methodists. While responses ranged from individual tweets to blog posts to official statements, I thought it may be useful to compile a list of official statements by bishops and denominational agencies, which appears below. Readers who are aware of statements not included in the list are encouraged to share them in the comments section.

UMNS news story summarizing United Methodist responses as of Jan. 30

General Board of Church and Society statement standing with immigrants and refugees

Global Ministries statement on "Ministry with Migrants and Refugees"

United Methodist Women statement opposing refugee ban

General Commission on Religion and Race statement on "Welcoming Immigrants"

National Justice for Our Neighbors (NJFON), a United Methodist-sponsored program, statement on "Still Standing with our Immigrant Neighbors"

Episcopal statements:
Other US annual conferences reprinted Bishop Ough's statement or published information about United Methodist views on immigration without releasing an episcopal statement.

Several United Methodist leaders also signed joint statements with other faith leaders, including the following:

Thursday, February 2, 2017

What counts as a cultural group in the US?

Mission is about boundary crossing. While traditionally those boundaries were usually thought of in geographic and religious terms (i.e., mission was going elsewhere to convert non-Christians), recent trends in missiology have tended to emphasize cultural boundaries. This shift to a focus on culture reflects a variety of influences, from post-colonial critiques of Euro-centric mission to Donald McGavran's church growth theory.

If mission is, at least in part, about crossing cultural boundaries, then this raises an important question: What counts as a cultural boundary? Or, in other words, how do you know when someone is part of a distinct cultural group from your own? What counts as a distinct cultural group?

These questions are particularly thorny in the United States because of the influence of evolutions in society and marketing in the past half century.

In the early to mid-20th century, much of American consumer capitalism and the marketing that went with it was focused on creating mass markets, which were predicated on a shared set of consumer tastes and values. In effect, this helped emphasize a national culture which supplemented and to some extent displaced American regional cultures.

Moreover, up through the 1940s, there was frequent interaction between youth and adults, and prior to the 1960s, most marketing was targeted at adults, with little age segmentation. Thus, youth and adults shared a common cultural framework.

Both of these features of American culture, however, have changed significantly.

The 1960s saw the widespread rise of American youth culture, a set of attitudes, values, symbols, and ideas possessed by youth and young adults but not by older adults. While the rise of youth culture had its roots in sociological changes in the structure of American society and the rise of the Baby Boomers, it was heavily reinforced by marketers who discovered that they could increase sales by playing to (and helping create) the particular tastes of American teenagers.

Baby Boomers gave rise not only to the prevalence of a distinct youth culture but to the sense of distinct generational cultures, a trend that has continued with subsequent generations. Thus, youth culture is not a constant thing in America. Instead, each generation has its own youth culture, which then evolves into an adult culture: the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millenials, etc. Different generations are no longer assumed to inhabit the same cultural worlds.

The second revolution that has affect the composition of American culture has been the rise of identity politics and long-tail marketing. While the mid-20th century saw an emphasis on creating an American mass culture, in recent decades, the emphasis has been on cultural particularity within the United States. The civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s and the rise of postmodernism both emphasized the particular cultural and life experiences of those who did not (and could not) fully participate in American mass culture.

These insights were eventually picked up by marketing firms, especially after the widespread adoption of the Internet and social media. Instead of focusing on mass markets, more marketers began to focus on the "long tail," small groups with intense and specific interests. Marketers discovered they could successfully market to these small groups by creating products that supported a culture and lifestyle associated with each group, whether that was goths, classic car enthusiasts, cosplay fans, hipsters, truckers, or Civil War reenactors.

The combined effect of these two transformations is that, to some extent, American living in different generations and with different interests no longer inhabit the same cultural worlds as each other.

The catch, though, is in the phrase "to some extent." No one would argue that there is no shared American culture which is distinct from other national cultures. Culture, like an onion, has layers. All of these distinct cultures are smaller layers within the larger layer of American culture.

What makes identifying cultural groups in the United States challenging, however, is not the layered-ness of culture but the fact that American cultures tend to have indistinct boundaries. While truckers and cosplay enthusiasts may be different cultural groups, it is possible to be part of both cultures in a way that it is not with ethnically or tribally defined cultures.

Herein lies the challenge for Americans doing mission within their own national context. If mission is crossing cultural boundaries, then how do you know if you've crossed those boundaries when they are so indistinct?

Part of what is at stake here is what counts as mission. One aspect of this question is the distinction between mission and evangelism, which are often delineated by mission being to other cultures and evangelism being within one's own culture. Yet if you're a 49-year old suburban Republican hunting enthusiast and you're trying to communicate the gospel to a fellow American who is a 22-year old urban Democratic anime fan who is your same race and lives in your same county, are you engaged in mission or evangelism? It's not clear.

Perhaps in the end, the distinction doesn't matter. Perhaps what matters is that the gospel is communicated, not whether or not we call it mission or evangelism. Yet much of the structure of our denomination and our theological education system are predicated on this distinction. Moreover, the distinction might matter significantly for how the gospel is communicated. Thus, it behooves us to ask the question of how to define cultural group within the US context.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Recommended Reading: Germany UMC/Methodist Church in Southern Africa partnership

This article from the Germany UMC's mission agency, Weltmission, describes a partnership between the UMC in Germany and the Methodist Church in Southern Africa (MCSA). The article (which is in German) is worth perusing not just as an interesting partnership in and of itself but because it strikes me as a good representation to an approach to mission typical in the UMC in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Mission in the European United Methodist tradition is often undertaken collaboratively and often involves collaborations with churches inside the Methodist tradition but outside the UMC. European United Methodists also partner with the Methodist Church in Great Britain, the Methodist Church in Ireland, and several other independent Methodist churches around the world historically related to the British Methodist tradition.