Friday, October 19, 2018

New Mission Areas for the 21st Century

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Mission has always been contextual. In part, that means that how mission is done fits (or should fit) the context in which it is done. But it can also be taken to mean that what mission is done must fit (or respond to) the context in which it is done.

A few forms of mission are enduring. Evangelism is a component of mission in all times and places. Mission has always (or almost always) shown concern for the poor. Yet, even within these enduring forms of mission, the activities paired with evangelism and how Christians have shown concern for the poor have varied.

As the Western mission industrial complex was coming into its fullest flowering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the forms of mission it undertook were shaped significantly by two types of contexts which were the focus of a lot of American and European mission efforts: urban centers in the West and non-modern societies outside of the US. How Western Christians understood and continue to understand the components of mission was significantly shaped by their experiences in each of these two types of contexts.

In non-modern societies outside the West, Christian mission came to include not only evangelism but also medical work, education, women's rights, publishing, famine relief, and economic development. In some of these areas, Christian missionaries were drawing upon longer histories of church expertise and activity (education has been a function of the Western church since the medieval time period, for instance), but in all of these areas, missionaries were also responding to their perceptions of the needs of the mission fields in which they worked.

In urban centers in the West, Christian mission came to include not only evangelism but also medical work, literacy, poverty relief--including food and clothing distribution, temperance, and women's rights. This list overlaps with the list of mission work done outside the West, and there was at the time discussion of the similarities between work among the urban poor in the West and that in non-Western countries.

In the middle of the 20th century, the range of mission work was expanded through interactions with new historical contexts to include refugee relief and resettlement (especially in response to the refugee crises of the world wars), disaster relief (growing out of post-war rebuilding efforts), and social justice advocacy (coming out of post-colonialism and minority rights movements).

For the most part, all of these previous forms of mission continue today (with the possible exception of temperance and publishing as major foci). In part, that is because the perceived issues justifying each of these forms of mission work continue to exist. There is still sickness and poverty in the world. But in part, these areas of mission work continue because the institutional infrastructure created by previous generations was set up in such a way to ensure continued focus on these particular forms of mission.

But what if we were attempting to develop a set of forms of Christian mission that were responding to contexts in the 21st century and not merely continuing the traditions of mission that we have inherited? What issues might we see as critical for the church to address? This is not an attempt to adopt a "needs-based" missiology but instead an attempt to, as J.C. Hoekendijk argued for, put the world and the kingdom of God into conversation. What areas of mission focus would be suggested by the world in 2018 and the kingdom that were not part of previous models of mission? What particular contexts would these types of mission be most relevant to? In short, what might be "new mission areas" for the 21st century?

Over the next several weeks, I will suggest some possible new mission areas that I see - loneliness, climate refugees, mental health, and others. But I would also like to hear from you readers: What do you see as possible new areas for mission focus in the 21st century? Comment below to suggest topics or email me a post with your take on this question.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tribalism in the American UMC

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Consider this description of American United Methodists:

"Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives together comprise just 14 percent of the American church membership—yet it often feels as if our denominational conversation has become a shouting match between these two groups at the furthest ends of the spectrum. Together with Traditional Conservatives (who share values and tribalism like the Devoted Conservatives, just less intensely), they compose the 33 percent of people in the groups we label the Wings.

"Combined, the members of these three tribes comprise just one-third of the membership, but they often dominate our denominational conversation. Tribalism runs deep in their thinking. Their distrust and fear of the opposing side drives many of the people in these groups, and they have especially negative opinions of each other. When people today speak about how United Methodists seem to hate each other, they're usually talking about the opinions and behaviors of the Wings.

"The Wings are also the most unified internally. On many of the most contentious issues—race, immigration, LGBTQI+ rights—the people in these three tribes express high levels of unanimity. Often more than 90 percent of people in one of these groups holds the same view about a controversial issue, and typically, it will be the reverse of whatever the opposing wing believes. In contrast, the remaining two-thirds of American United Methodists at the center show more diversity in their theological views, express less certainty about them, and are more open to compromise and change—even on issues that we all tend to consider highly polarizing."

Sounds pretty accurate, right? Only here's the catch - this isn't a description of American United Methodists. It's a description of the American electorate from the Hidden Tribes of America project, which I changed slightly to shift references from the nation to the church. The fact that it can be read so easily as a description of the church makes the point that divisions in The United Methodist Church in the United States mirror the divisions within wider society.

Increasingly, scholars and commentators have been referring to US society as becoming more "tribalized" - that is, divided into exclusive and competing groups constructed around communal identities. Amy Chua is perhaps the scholar most associated with this analysis, but it has been adopted by many others. The Hidden Tribes project takes such an approach. The ways in which their description of tribalism in American politics maps so neatly onto the church shows us that the American church has become tribal as well.

For many Americans, thinking of their society as a tribal society is new. During the Enlightenment and colonialism, the West (including the United States) took great pride in its belief that it had advanced beyond a tribal basis for organizing society. Thus, Americans in general may struggle to figure out what a resurgence of tribalism means for American society. Similarly, American Christians may struggle to figure out what a resurgence of tribalism means for the American church.

Yet Americans do have Christian brothers and sisters who have long experience in trying to think through the implications for and intersections of tribalism and the church: African Christians. While the impact of tribalism on and in the church is still a contentious issue that Africans have by no means solved, they do have a long history of trying to bring Christian theological and ethical resources to bear on tribal conflicts in church and society and have acquired a good deal of wisdom in the process.

The debates over homosexuality leading up to the called General Conference in February of next year are perhaps the biggest expression of tribal conflicts in the US UMC today. What if, in the face of these tribal conflicts, American United Methodists were to ask their African sisters and brothers not "Which tribe will you align with?" but "What can you teach us about how to handle tribal conflicts in the church?" It might not end conflicts in the US church, but it might help us to move forward in new ways that transcend rather than merely replicate the conflicts in the broader US society.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Bishop John Yambasu videos

United Methodist Communications has put out a series of six short (1-2 min.) video interviews with Bishop John Yambasu of the Sierra Leone Episcopal Area.

In the videos, Bishop Yambasu discusses divisions in the church over human sexuality. He affirms support for traditional understandings of marriage as between a man and a woman, though he also notes African discomfort with talking about sex in general. He indicates that Africans could support the One Church Plan, since a contextual approach makes sense, but only if they were able to separate support for the One Church Plan and support for homosexuality. He affirms the unity of the church, but also speaks about how Africans are preparing for the implications, including the financial implications, of divisions in the American church that are already apparent. Finally, he calls on the general church to stop "legislating sex" and instead to focus on the church's attention and money on mission to the world, including the hungry, sick, illiterate, and uneducated.

The videos are as follows:

United Methodist bishop: "It is God's church"

United Methodist bishop: "Marriage should be between man and woman"

Bishop discusses One Church Plan implications for Africa

Sierra Leone bishop looks at all three plans for GC2019

United Methodist bishop: What a church split means for Africa

United Methodist bishop: "Rethink our calling as a church"

Friday, October 12, 2018

Mission vs. Pilgrimage

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

A day ago, a friend of mine, Rev. Jeremy Smith, shared on his Facebook page the following interaction with someone:

"Recently I had a conversation with a man who used to be a missions director for an independent church. He left his position over disagreement over the mission of the church. He said to me: 'My church no longer does mission trips, they send people on pilgrimages. We used to do mission trips for communal transformation. Now we do pilgrimages for individual transformation. We will end up with more self-aware people who have had their mountaintop experiences, but at the expense of fewer valleys filled in with service and mission.'"

Rev. Smith then posed these questions about that interaction: "Is this true? Are people choosing to go on pilgrimages instead of missions? And what does that mean for our mission identity if more churches do?"

I'd like to share an expanded version of my response to this interaction and the questions that Rev. Smith poses about it.

I want to address this scenario from the Wesleyan premise that the point of Christianity (including both works of piety, which might include pilgrimage, and works of mercy, which might include short-term mission trips) is to help people grow in holiness, and by this term is meant love for God and for other humans.

Furthermore, I think it is an important Wesleyan assumption that growing in love of other humans cannot be accomplished without interacting with actual other people. It is impossible to grow in love of others in an entirely abstract way. Real love must be embodied. I have been convinced by Dr. David Field that this is the best understanding of John Wesley's oft-cited comment about "social holiness" and "social religion."

Given these Wesleyan premises, there are lots of reasons we could critique short term mission trips as commonly practiced as embodying a deficient understanding of love or failing to actually help those going on them to grow in love of the Other.

Books such as When Helping Hurts have pointed out how short-term mission trips often actually end up harming instead of helping those with less financial resources, especially when conducted in ways that objectify, stereotype, demean, or force into dependency those on the "receiving" end of mission. Obviously, this is a problematic understanding of love.

Furthermore, recent research has shown that there are often no long-term religious or theological effects to the experience of going on a short-term mission trip for the Americans and especially American youth that participate. This would suggest a failure of short-term missions as a way to grow in love and therefore holiness.

But I think there are also many reasons to question whether replacing short-term mission trips with pilgrimages does any more to help people grow in love of others and in particular others who are different from them.

Especially when those pilgrimages are focused on "individual transformation," it is likely that they are merely reinforcing a Western individualism that has problematic interactions with the gospel and replicating current capitalist focus on experiences as a trendy form of personal consumption.

While I don't know exactly what type of pilgrimages the person talking to Rev. Smith was referencing, it is likely that these pilgrimages occur in cultural contexts other than the church's home context. Yet the notion of pilgrimage for the sake of "individual transformation" does not seem to me to lend itself to extensive interaction with locals for the sake of increasing one's understanding of them and growing in love for and compassion towards them. I could be wrong, but I also know the stereotypes of how Americans behave while tourists, and it's easy for pilgrimage to become a form of religious tourism that objectifies, stereotypes, and demeans those in host countries.

Certainly, it's possible that people can form close relationships with other pilgrims and that these relationships can be mutually transformative (the movie The Way is a nice depiction of this), but that's still usually best accomplished by opening oneself up to strangers, not traveling with a group of your friends and acquaintances. Thus, I'm not convinced that sending church groups on pilgrimages is actually a good way to help church members grow in love for others.

Growth in love of God is perhaps an even more important part of growing in holiness, and some might counter that such pilgrimages are about exactly that. Yet it is worth noting that most of the works of piety Wesley commended as means to grow in the love of God still had a communal bent to them - taking communion as part of corporate worship and group study of the Bible, for instance. Thus, as Wesleyans, we should be leery of the notion that focusing on one's self should be a primary means to grow closer to God. Pilgrimage may produce a "mountain-top experience," but does that experience translate into a closer walk with God when back down on the plain?

I think better than either short term mission or pilgrimage is to ask how we as Christian communities may go about forging relationships with others who are different from us so that we may all mutually better understand the good news of God's universal love for us and others and come to more fully embody that love in our own lives.

It is possible to do short-term mission trips or pilgrimages in a way that foregrounds such relationship-building and mutuality. But there are also other good models of what this sort of international travel and connection can look like. A model like the work of Sister Parish that focuses on solidarity, mutual understanding, and mutual learning is one such example. But whatever model a church chooses, it is important to think theologically about the purpose of the trip.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Game Theory and General Conference 2019

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

When the special called General Conference of The United Methodist Church convenes in St. Louis next February, they will be considering a variety of plans for how to resolve the denomination's long-standing debate around homosexuality. As many as five or more different plans may be up for consideration by this body - the One Church, Connectional Conference, and Traditional plans from the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, and the Plan of Dissolution and the Simple Plan submitted by other groups. Not all of these plans may pass constitutional muster, and there may have been other plans submitted of which I am not aware, but it is clear that there will be multiple plans set before the General Conference.

Yet because of how parliamentary procedure works, delegates will not be choosing from among all the plans at once. Only one plan at a time will be considered, and it seems reasonable that once one plan has been passed, no other plans will be considered, since the plans are mutually exclusive.

There are two additional complicating factors: First, some delegates may be willing to support more than one plan (as evidenced by non-exclusive voting at the Global Young People's Forum). Yet their willingness to support more than one plan might not be equal. That is, they may have a first preference and a second (or subsequent) preference that they would be willing to consider, but only if their first preference is not available.

Second, with each subsequent plan voted on, the threshold for support decreases. There was be great pressure on delegates to approve something, and the odds that delegates' first choice plan becomes unavailable and therefore they would be willing to support a second or third choice plan increase with each subsequent defeated plan. Thus, delegates would likely become more willing to vote for a plan if it is considered later in the process (assuming, of course, that no previous plan is approved and there is a later in the process).

This leads to a game theory question: If supporters of a particular plan were able to choose the order in which the plans were voted on, what would be the most advantageous order for their plan?

At first it might seem that the obvious question would be that supporters would want their plan voted on first, since then there would be no chance of another plan passing first. But the answer is actually more complicated than that and depends upon the perceived level of support for the supporters' plan and other plans.

If supporters are confident that their plan would pass as the first plan voted on, then it would make sense for them to seek to bring that plan to a vote first.

Likewise, if supporters of a plan think there is a decent though not certain likelihood that their plan will pass but also a decent (or greater) likelihood another plan would pass (remember, it is possible for people to support more than one plan and thus possible for more than one plan to have sufficient support to pass), then it would make sense to want their plan to be first, even if they were not certain they had sufficient support. It is probably better to gamble on winning in the first round rather than gambling on not losing the first round and then gamble on winning, even if the odds of winning increase somewhat if they do not lose on the first round (i.e., have another plan approved).

On the other hand, if supporters of a plan were not confident that they had the initial votes to pass their plan, but were confident that other plans also lacked sufficient votes to pass, then it would actually be advantageous to them to bring other plans up for a vote first, expecting those plans to be defeated. Those defeats would lower the threshold for support for their own plan and increase the number of people supporting their plan as a second or third choice, thereby raising the odds of their plan being passed in a subsequent round of voting.

Of course, the challenge for this game is that players operate with incomplete knowledge. Supporters of a particular plan will have estimates of the level of support for their plan and for others, but these estimates may be incorrect, making their strategy ineffective. That is basic feature for most game theory problems, though - players must operate with incomplete knowledge.

Furthermore, while this game theory analysis has assumed that players may select the order of voting, in real life, that order will be just as contested as the plans themselves. Nevertheless, I hope this piece will help readers understand the procedural conflicts about the order of business before the General Conference that are likely to precede voting on any of the actual plans.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Christian Alsted videos

United Methodist Communications has put out a series of four short (1-2 min.) video interviews with Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic-Baltic Episcopal Area.

In the videos, Bishop Alsted discusses divisions in the church over human sexuality. He argues for continued relationship despite differences. It is worth noting that Bishop Alsted's episcopal area contains significant differences on this topic, especially between Denmark and Estonia. The videos also include a mention of the Nordic-Baltic unified cabinet model, which crosses annual conferences, languages, and nations, and an affirmation of mission by Bishop Alsted and the Connectional Table, which he chairs.

The four videos are as follows:

United Methodist bishop: "It's important for us to stay in dialogue"

United Methodist bishop urges congregants to face challenges together

United Methodist bishop: "I trust the General Conference"

United Methodist bishop: "God's mission is yet alive"

Friday, October 5, 2018

Benjamin L. Hartley: Opening Up the Church so Wide…

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission at George Fox University. The post originally appeared on the author's personal blog, Mission and Methodism, in slightly modified form.

I have been thinking and writing about refugees quite a bit recently. There’s ample reason for it; today, seventy million people in our world have been forced from their homes as refugees or internally displaced persons.[1]

November 11, 2018 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. The end of that war brought peace to some, but the refugee crisis it spawned and the ensuing famine in Russia that affected millions made life a nightmare for years after the trench warfare ceased. I wrote an article about this that came out in the International Bulletin of Mission Research this month.[2] Specifically, I wrote about the European Student Relief – the first aid organization to be truly international and ecumenical. It was organized by Christian students around the world to come to the aid of refugee students.

Our refugee crisis today was again brought to my attention a couple of months ago at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies with a sermon given by Rev. Peter Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa. I met him several days earlier - spotting his name tag as I trickled into a lecture hall with 150 other attendees for the conference’s first plenary lecture. I was surprised to see him. He is not the young man that he was when he bravely fought against the apartheid regime for decades beginning in the 1960s.

As part of his resistance to that regime he would sometimes hold a sign that read, "All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six and other parts of the city, and who were forced by law to leave their homes because of the colour of their skins. Father forgive us."

This so-called “Plaque of Shame” was erected on the outside wall of the local Methodist church in District 6 as well. I’m told it is still there. In his sermon that Sunday, Rev. Storey also described another time in the history of that church – long after he had departed as its pastor – when the building provided a place of refuge for people fleeing the ruthless regime of Robert Mugabe in the neighboring state of Zimbabwe.

On the last day of the Oxford Institute, Peter preached on the story of four friends who dug a hole in the roof of a home where Jesus was teaching and asked (demanded?) that Jesus heal their paralyzed friend. The church, he said, has to be broken in order to actually be the church. By serving refugees from Zimbabwe, the church he loved – including the building itself – was literally broken down from the stress of housing dozens of people who lived, cooked, and slept in the sanctuary.

I am reminded of how rarely I have seen this kind of ministry happen in the churches that I have attended and served in for the past several decades. To be clear, I have been a part of churches – urban ones especially – that did prioritize ministry to their neighbors over keeping the church building in shape. I am grateful for their witness, but I have not seen this enough.

When Rev. Storey finished preaching I felt compelled to thank him for his sermon. It had moved me to tears. But I knew that kind words and a handshake wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to hug this man – to feel the aging sinews in his back muscles that had fought against oppression. Peter Storey reminded me that morning that the Christian life is not primarily about finely nuanced talks or academic papers (valuable as they can be) but about ministering to people where they are at in their fullness as people truly created in God’s image and who reflect that image even in the brokenness of their bodies. “Too often,” he noted, “we are more concerned about being right than doing good!”

Rev. Storey paraphrased Mother Teresa in his closing words that Sunday morning in Oxford. I can’t think of a better was to close this blog than to follow his example:

“May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” Reflecting on this quotation with respect to the story of the paralytic and his four friends, Peter went on, “Only if the church gets broken open does the world get mended… Open up the Church so wide that the whole world falls in."

[1] See the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. This number would be higher if an even broader definition of refugee and internally displaced person were utilized.
[2] See my article in the October 2018 International Bulletin of Mission Research, entitled “Saving Students: European Student Relief in the Aftermath of World War I.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us in the Next Decade

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries. As noted a couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of being recognized by Boston University School of Theology as a Distinguished Alumni in the Emerging Leader category. Along with that recognition, I participated in a panel discussion on "The Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us in the Next Decade." The following is a formal version of my remarks for that panel. The full panel can be viewed here.

As a good academic, I am trained to question the question, so I would like to begin by questioning and clarifying who the "us" is in the "Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us." I will take the us to refer to American Christians. While I recognize that not everyone listening will be both American and Christian, I presume the majority will be one or the other. It's also a group to which I feel I can speak, since I myself am an American Christian.

I recognize that I am more specifically an educated, straight, white, male, Protestant (and United Methodist) American Christian, and that other American Christians who differ in some or all of these additional characteristics will have their own perspectives on the topic. Therefore, I offer here only my own perspective on what these three challenges are, which I will frame as questions.

First, can American Christians love each other and other Americans, especially in a deeply divided country?

The United States is indeed a deeply divided country at the moment, along the lines of race, gender, immigrant status, rural/urban, and a host of other factors. All of these divisions correlate with our deep political divisions.

Indeed, political scientists and others have begun to speak of political identity as a primary form of identity, one which determines other forms of identity, including religion. Thus, at least a sizable number of Americans do not form their political opinions based on their religious convictions but rather choose their religious convictions to fit with their sense of political identity.

What then can the church do or say in this divided country, where religion is frequently determined by politics? Is Christianity doomed to become merely a secondary phenomenon, or is there power yet in the gospel message of the One who preached love for and by the Samaritan - the religious, political, and ethnic Other?

Note that in suggesting that American Christians need to love each other and other Americans, I am not suggesting a "Can't we all just get along?" approach. There are important issues of justice in the divisions within American society, and those should not be ignored.

Yet the thought of BU alumnus and prophet of justice Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., should push us to think about the goal of our work toward justice. King saw the end of his work as reconciliation within the national community, not just defeat of his enemies. Not everyone who worked with him agreed on this point, and I realize that this is easy for me to say as a person of privilege. Yet whatever our views and identity, we will continue to live in a country with those different from us. If we seek merely to defeat and not to reconcile (with justice), we only set ourselves up for ongoing conflict.

Second, can American Christians love Christians from other countries, even in a deeply unequal world?

The world is deeply unequal. It is unequal in terms of power and money, both among individuals and among countries. But those inequalities of power and money result in further inequalities of attention and understanding. We pay no attention to and do not understand those without power and money. Without attention or understanding, it becomes too easy to ignore, co-opt, dismiss, and/or demean those on the margins.

This is a general problem of the world, but it is also a problem for Christianity in particular, which is a global religion and proclaims a global fellowship of believers. It is furthermore a special problem for denominations like The United Methodist Church that are international denominations. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, and the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest, yet these are the two countries with the greatest numbers of United Methodists.

How then can we love our fellow Christians across inequalities? And in order to do so, how can we understand them better? Certainly the answers must include listening, learning other languages and cultures, seeking to inform ourselves, and trying to avoid stereotyping and oversimplifying others. Yet these are more easily said than done.

Moreover, we must be clear that our goal as American Christians in loving Christians from other countries must not be just so that we can better "help" them, but so that we can learn with and from them about the gospel we share.

Third and finally, what will American Christians do in a world of climate change?

Note that this is not a question of whether or how we can avoid climate change. Climate change is now. Record temperatures and record storms show that climate change is already affecting us. The joke in my hometown of Decorah, Iowa, is that five hundred year floods now happen every 10 years.

In this world of climate change, American Christians must ask ourselves how we can work with others to limit future change. Although American Christians have an important role to play, this issue is much larger than we can tackle on our own, so our work must be in partnership with others.

Among those partners should be Christians from other countries. It is interesting to note that climate change is not controversial for Christians from other countries. A Christian from Zimbabwe or the Philippines, no matter how theologically conservative, will not question whether climate change is happening or whether humans play a role in it. This is one of the ways in which American Christians can learn from our sisters and brothers elsewhere.

In addition to mitigating further change, we must ask ourselves how we can respond with compassion and justice to those affected by changing climates now. That may be those suffering from storms, flooding, droughts, or other effects. Often, these people are among the poorest. Ashley Anderson, a student of mine at BUSTH, taught me of the plight of small island nations in the Pacific who will become uninhabitable because of rising waters. How do treat with justice and compassion those whose ways of life become impossible because of climate change?

Another thought from Martin Luther King has been on my mind as I have reflected on all three of these challenges. It comes from his fourth and final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The world these days, at least to me, often feels chaotic. But in that book, King affirmed that in the midst of struggle, even when chaos seems to surround us, we must have hope. Hope is central Christian virtue.

The challenges facing American Christians in the next decade are significant. Yet we should face them with hope and with faith in Jesus Christ, who entered into the challenges of the world for our sake. He will be with us as we seek to walk the path before us as his disciples.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Recommended Reading: Lisa Beth White on What is Mission?

In a post on her blog, Sister of Hope, contributor to UM & Global Lisa Beth White grapples with the question "What is Mission?" Speaking from her background in short-term mission work, she acknowledges that many United Methodists engaged in short-term mission work lack such a definition. Yet she argues for the importance of developing such a definition and draws on insights from other missiologists to suggest two such definitions. The post can be shared with congregants as a useful entry into this conversation.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Missionary Interviews

There is a long tradition of missionaries itinerating and visiting local churches to speak about their work and the contexts in which they do it. But what to do if you want your church (or classroom) to hear from missionaries but can't arrange an itineration visit? Thankfully, technology has an alternative. Several YouTube videos of interviews with United Methodist missionaries can help.

The most thorough such interview video is one conducted by Joe Iovino of UMCommunications with Rev. Jean Claude Masuka Maleka and his wife Francine Ilunga Mbanga Mufu.The two are missionaries from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Cote d' Ivoire. This video gives viewers an opportunity to learn about social conditions regarding marriage and gender in Cote d'Ivoire and to hear from the voices of Africans engaged in mission. The video is about 35 minutes long.

Global Ministries had compiled numerous short video interviews with its missionaries. Playlists exist for both young adult missionaries and longer-term global missionaries. Most of these videos are about 2 minutes long and contain a brief synopsis of the missionary's call story and current work. There are currently 27 young adult videos and 17 global missionary videos, with more being added on a regular basis.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Four Interpretations of the African UMC Bishops' Statement

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Africa College of Bishops met recently in Sierra Leone for a regular time of discussion and learning as the episcopal leaders of the UMC in Africa. Following that meeting, they released a statement summarizing some key points of their meeting, including discussions related to the topic of sexuality, the upcoming called General Conference, and the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. You can read the full statement, a summary by the Council of Bishops, and a UMNS article about the statement and meeting.

The statement reaffirmed the bishops' support of a traditional understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman and emphasized their commitment to the unity of the denomination. While that much is clear, there are at least four possible interpretations of what this statement means for how African delegates will likely vote at February's special General Conference.

The first interpretation is that the African bishops were showing support for the Traditionalist Plan. Indeed, the initial version of the UMNS story indicated that the African bishops had done just this, though UMNS retracted that version of the story and indicated that the African bishops did not support any of the three plans coming out of the Commission's work.

While it is clear that of the three plans, a traditional understanding of marriage aligns most closely with the Traditionalist Plan, that does not necessarily mean that the bishops' support of traditional marriage equates to support of the Traditionalist Plan. The current Book of Discipline upholds a traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, so implementing the Traditionalist Plan would not be necessary for the church to officially have a traditional understanding of marriage.

Thus, a second interpretation of the African bishops' statement is that is actually is a call to maintain the status quo rather than adopting any of the three plans. The African bishops did speak positively of the Commission, but that does not mean they agree that African delegates should vote for one or another plan. They did not endorse any of the three, and that may be a sign that they do not see any of the three as attractive options.

This interpretation may be more plausible depending on how one reads the bishops' statements for unity and against "legislation that calls for the dissolution of The United Methodist Church." The Traditionalist Plan includes extensive provisions for prompting the exit of portions of the (American) UMC unwilling to abide by Book of Discipline provisions on gay marriage and gay ordination. Such exits would come at some cost to the unity of the denomination, though it would not entail full-scale "dissolution" of the UMC.

Focusing on this term "dissolution" leads to a third interpretation of the African bishops' statement, as a specific warning against legislation proposed by the WCA that would outright dissolve The United Methodist Church without making provisions for what comes next. Under this interpretation, the bishops are warning their constituents against that particular legislation and signaling that either the Traditionalist Plan or the status quo (both of which preserve teachings on traditional marriage) would be acceptable.

A fourth and final interpretation rejects the assumption that this statement actually offers any new or reliable information about how African delegates will vote next February. Much of the statement is a reiteration of past sentiments (referred to in the statement). Moreover, there are several reasons that this statement might not translate directly to voting behaviors.

First, a "unanimous" statement by the bishops may more indicate a commitment by the bishops to presenting a united front rather than an accurate indication of the opinions of each bishop individually. I have spoken before about how understandings of voting differ outside the US and unanimous votes can mask spirited discussions that occurred just prior to the vote. Thus, it is quite possible that the African bishops, despite this unanimous statement, do not unanimously agree which, if any, of the three plans would be best for the church in Africa.

Second, the statement by the bishops may be seen as a statement that is about sending the right public messages (to African rather than American publics) that are necessary to ensure their constituents' continued support. Such a public statement may then open up private discussions with delegates that may take more specific directions regarding which of the plans a particular bishop supports. The public statement contain enough in it to provide bishops with theological cover while providing enough room for interpretation for bishops to recommend different plans.

Third, bishops aren't voting delegates themselves, and despite African bishops' vaunted authority, they do not determine how their delegates vote. Even if this statement is an indication that the bishops are support a plan (or no plan), African delegates could still vote in other ways. A recent article about the Africa Initiative meeting in Nairobi indicated that there are tensions between the bishops and the Africa Initiative (which did support the Traditionalist Plan). Delegates may have to choose between listening to the Africa Initiative, listening to their bishop, or selecting another option.

It's hard to read much encouragement in the statement by the African bishops for the One Church Plan, let alone the Simple Plan proposed by American progressives. Still, the statement is open to a variety of interpretations and should not be taken as foregone evidence that passage of the Traditionalist Plan is inevitable. That is still a real possibility, but nothing passing is at least as likely, and other scenarios may yet come to pass, too. We won't know definitively how African delegates will vote until next February.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Recommended Reading: Sam McBratney

For those interested in learning more about Methodist voices from outside the United States, I recommend checking out the blog of Rev. Sam McBratney. Rev. McBratney is a presbyter (elder, in UMC parlance) in the Methodist Church in Britain and Research Officer at the Susanna Wesley Foundation. Methodism and mission are both focal topics for his blog. Of particular interest to readers may be his recent post on the connection between the two and the way that connection contrasts with Anglicanism.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Recommended Listening: Failed Missionary Podcast

Failed Missionary is a new (more-or-less) monthly podcast hosted by Corey Pigg along with occasional collaborators Emily Worrall (of Barbie Savior), Jamie Wright (The Very Worst Missionary), and Hannah Paasch (of The Flawless Project). The approximately 50-minute segments feature Pigg and guests discussing topics related to mission, both short-term and long-term, especially as practiced within American evangelicalism. Topics thus far have included calling, missionary kids, and the specific work of some of the guest hosts.

The podcast is worth a listen both for its exploration of significant topics in mission in a popular audio format, but even more so as an example of the growing critique of the evangelical missionary endeavor by former practitioners. This developing conversation stands at the intersection of conversations about and challenges to mission and the world of ex-evangelical (or committed but critical evangelical) blogging.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Recommended Viewing: David Scott at BUSTH alumni panel

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I am going to engage in a bit of self-promotion in this post.

I have the deep honor of being recognized today by my alma mater, the Boston University School of Theology (MTS '07, BU GRE '13) as one of their Distinguished Alumni/ae in the category of "Emerging Leader." You can read more about that award, along with the other honorees, here.

As part of the Distinguished Alumni activities today, I will participate in a panel discussion with the other three award recipients about "The Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us in the Next Decade." My thoughts on that topic are (at least in part) shaped by my work on this blog, and you can hear them! The panel will be live-streamed here, and you can watch it today (Wednesday, September 19, 2018) from 5:00-6:30pm, Eastern Daylight Time.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Eurasian Bishop Eduard Khegay

For those looking to learn more about United Methodism outside the United States, a recent video interview with Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia Episcopal Area, which includes Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Bishop Khegay shares not only about his own spiritual journey but also about The United Methodist Church in Russia. He also includes a plea for more relationships and understanding between the United States and Russia.

Bishop Khegay's interview adds to several other recent interviews with bishops from the central conferences, which can be found here.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Benjamin L. Hartley: On Really Getting Things Wrong…

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission at George Fox University. The post originally appeared on the author's personal blog, Mission and Methodism, in slightly modified form.

This summer I was once again in the archives researching world Christian leaders in the early part of the twentieth century. In the course of this archival research I occasionally come across letters where the writers are so very blind to the big events that are beginning to happen around them or will shortly happen. They are sometimes astonishing to read. Sometimes they are astonishingly boring in light of what – in historical hindsight – we know was about to happen in their world (like World War 1!).

But for the most part my reaction to these astonishing letters is not one of self-righteous incredulity where I wonder, “How could s/he think or say that?” Quite the contrary. When I come across these letters they frequently give me pause as I wonder to myself, “What am I missing in my own context?” Am I equally blind to critical matters happening in my world where I am doing very little in response?

It seems important to be especially prayerful along these lines following the summer of 2018 which seemed particularly disturbing in the world news events swirling about us. The growth of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, the rise of right-wing nationalist leaders, the separation of immigrant families, the praising of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un by President Trump… The list goes on. What will happen next? What is happening now in other parts of the world that I am not noticing because these events I just mentioned are either closer to home or are more active in the press I am paying attention to?

It is with all of this in mind that I share an excerpt from a two-page, typewritten letter written by an early twentieth century evangelist named Sherwood Eddy. He was very popular as an evangelist in student circles, and by the late 1920s was getting increasingly intrigued by what was happening in the still-new Soviet Union. He sent an almost syrupy sweet letter to Josef Stalin in 1932. What was happening in 1932 that he was clueless about? Well, here’s a bit of a taste…

In 1932 the first “five-year plan” was wrapping up. Collectivization of Soviet agriculture was moving forward at a break-neck pace and a devastating famine was setting in causing the deaths of millions of people in the Ukraine and elsewhere. Some scholars see this as deliberate and thus worthy of the “genocide” label committed by Stalin.

Now read the letter that Sherwood Eddy wrote to Stalin that I came across in my research at the Yale Divinity School archives. One of the most striking examples of really getting things wrong.

This is my ninth visit to this country in twenty years – twice in Czarist Russia, seven times to the Soviet Union, which has made such astonishing progress especially during the Five Year Plan. I am counted a friend of this country and have been working for a decade with my friends… for the recognition of the Soviet Union by the reactionary Government of the United States, so much so that in America it is foolishly said I must be supported by “Moscow gold.” I am not a Communist nor a capitalist, but a Socialist; but I want to see this daring undertaking of a classless society under a new social order succeed, and it is succeeding.

I know you are occupied with much more important questions in collectivization, heavy and light industry, etc. I do not ask an interview nor an answer to this letter, which may not even reach you, but I have confidence in you as the one man that can bring victory and success in the face of all these difficulties.

Speaking as a friend of the Soviet Union, not by way of criticism but in kindly suggestion, I may say that your tourist business for foreigners is very badly run. I know the difficulties and I do not expect perfection, busy as you are with more important internal problems, but things are worse this year in many respects than in previous years. Thousands of dollars have been wasted abroad in advertising which was unpsychological and not adapted to foreigners, promising things which could not be fulfilled, and have not been fulfilled. A few thousand dollars spent in making these hotels suitable for foreigners would have brought better results than tens of thousands in unwise advertising which has not been fulfilled…[1]

Yes, that’s right. In the midst of a genocidal famine caused, in large part, by Josef Stalin we have this letter giving Comrade Stalin advice on his country’s hospitality industry! Astonishing? Yes.

May we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is happening in our world that is at least somewhat better than Sherwood Eddy was able to see in his own day. That is my humble prayer – for all of us.

[1] Letter from Sherwood Eddy to Josef Stalin, July 29, 1932. Sherwood Eddy papers, Yale Divinity School archives, New Haven, CT

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On the Methodist Church in Britain, CIEMAL, and learning from our global partners

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I recently saw a surprising flyer put out by the Methodist Church in Britain. The flyer was for an advertisement for a new program to assist with evangelism that the Methodist Church in Britain was offering. This itself was not surprising.

What was surprising to me was the program itself: the Methodist Church in Britain was offering for local churches in Britain to receive missionaries from CIEMAL, the Consejo de Iglesias Evangélicas Metodistas de América Latina y el Caribe (Council of Methodist Church in Latin America and the Caribbean), who would assist these British churches with their evangelism programs over the course of three years.

The Methodist Church in Britain pointed out that Methodism is growing in many places in Latin America and the Caribbean and left unspoken the contrast that Methodism is shrinking in most places in Britain. If Methodism is growing in Latin America and the Caribbean, might not Latin Americans and Caribbeans have something to teach the British?

That seems logical enough, but what was surprising was the embrace by the Methodist Church in Britain of a very different sort of relationship with some of its descendant churches than the one it traditionally had. Don't get me wrong - I think the shift is very laudable, but it is still surprising.

Traditionally, the Methodist Church in Britain was the one exporting missionaries elsewhere. Those missionaries went out and told other people how to do their evangelism. British Methodists did not receive missionaries or need anyone else to tell them how to do their own evangelism. They were the ones with the money, the power, and the answers.

That attitude has been changing for some time in Britain. The post-colonial and post-Christendom British church realizes it can no longer expect to project itself as the center of money, power, and knowledge, among Methodists abroad or within its own society, in the same way it used to.

Yet this recent flier represents a further step, and a necessary one. There is a progression - from "we will go out as missionaries with the answers," to "we will go out as missionaries in partnership with others, where both sides have answers," to "we may still go out as missionaries, but we also need to receive missionaries and answers from others."

Some of my surprise, I am sure, comes from being an American. It is difficult enough to get many American Christians to shift from the first mindset to the second on the above continuum. That denominational leadership would promote the shift to the third mindset seems unthinkable. What would be the reaction if The United Methodist Church offered to deploy Congolese evangelists in the United States? How would US churches respond to the suggestion that they needed to place themselves under the tutelage and leadership of Africans?

Yet that is the direction that Western Christians should go. We must recognize that it is not only us who go as missionaries, nor only us who have the answers, nor only others who have problems with which they need help. All Christians are called to mission. All Christians have knowledge to share. And all Christians, including Western Christians, have problems with which they need help. We, too, must be willing to listen to others who have aspects of the gospel to share with us so that we can hear them with fresh ears. We, too, must be willing to receive from others just as much as we seek to share with them. The church in the United States may not be at that point yet, but I pray it gets there.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Recommended Reading: Norma Dollaga on Duterte, theology, and poverty

United States Attorney General and United Methodist Jeff Sessions was roundly criticized in June for his use of Romans 13 to justify the Trump Administrations' policy of child separation for families arriving at the US southern border.

Yet Sessions is far from the only politician globally using theology to justify questionable practices. In the Philippines, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has pondered publicly about the connection between God, poverty, and suffering. The strongman ruler has been accused of fomenting violence against the poor and indigenous groups in his country.

Just as United Methodists in the US responded to Sessions' claims, United Methodist deaconess and theologian Norma Dollaga takes on Duterte's theological claims in a piece on her blog entitled "Poverty Is Not A Creation of God." It is a recommended read.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Recommended readings: Africa Initiative meeting

The Africa Initiative, a unofficial caucus group of African United Methodists with ties to conservative American United Methodist caucus groups, met a few weeks ago in Nairobi, Kenya. Among other discussions and trainings, the group discussed proposed legislation for the upcoming called General Conference in February 2019. The group endorsed the Traditional Plan. You can read a UMNS article by African journalist E. Julu Swen about the meeting here.

The meeting has received some pushback from African United Methodists living in the United States. For examples, see articles by Albert Otshudi Longe and Kalaba Chali.

Amid the meeting and its criticism, there are four points worth highlighting:

1. Not all Africans think the same. There are debates in Africa, just as there are in the US, even if they are not the same debates.

2. While American traditionalists and progressives are promoting various African voices, we should be careful to not just read these African voices as presenting the same set of views as their American allies. Africans have their own takes on issues and their own takes on which issues are most worthy of the church's focus.

3. Both Chali and Longe are living in the United States. One can interpret their critiques of the Africa Initiative in a variety of ways, but one interpretation is to see a distinction between the views individual Africans hold and the views Africans feel free to express publicly in Africa. Many African cultures emphasize deference to communal norms to a much greater degree and individual expression to a much lesser degree than does US culture.

4. Swen's article alludes to conflicts between the Africa Initiative and the African bishops. Three of the thirteen African bishops were at the Nairobi meeting, but the relationship between the Africa Initiative and the bishops as a whole, along with the different strategies each adopt in advance of General Conference 2019, may actually be the determining factor for how African delegates approach that General Conference and thus the result of the conference.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Recommended Readings from Darrell Whiteman on Contextualization

Last week, we published piece on contextualization by Dr. Darrell Whiteman, leader of Global Development, entitled "Contextualization, Relevance, and Biblical Fidelity in the Church and Mission." As a companion to that piece, Dr. Whiteman also shared a list of recommended readings on the topic of contextualization. Those recommended readings are as follows:

Flemming, Dean (2005) Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Flemming, Dean (2009) “Contextualization in a Wesleyan Spirit: A Case Study of Acts 15” In Whiteman, Darrell L. and Gerald H. Anderson (eds.) World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit, American Society of Missiology Series, No. 44. Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, pp. 16-27. 

Kraft, Charles H. (2016) Issues in Contextualization. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Moreau, A. Scott (2012) Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic.

Moreau, A. Scott (November 2018) Contextualizing the Faith: A Holistic Approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Whiteman, Darrell L. (1997) “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21:2-7.

Whiteman, Darrell L. (2010) “The Gospel in Human Contexts: Changing Perceptions of Contextualization” In MissionShift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium.  David J. Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer (eds.). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, pp. 114-128.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Darrell Whiteman: Contextualization, Relevance, and Biblical Fidelity in the Church and Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Darrell Whiteman, the leader of Global Development, an organization that seeks to "enable missionaries, pastors, and lay people to better distinguish the universal message of the gospel from their local interpretation and practice of living out the gospel within their communities."

As a young Free Methodist missionary in Central Africa (1969-1971) nearly 50 years ago, I wondered why the churches over there attempted to look so much like the churches back home. It seemed like they were almost “carbon copies” in worship, theology, polity, and ministry.

What’s wrong with this picture?
I couldn’t articulate why that made me so uncomfortable, but it didn’t seem right. Why should churches in Africa look so much like churches in the United States? Something was wrong, but I didn’t know why or what it was. The strategic goal seemed to be denominational extension more than advancing the Kingdom of God by joining Jesus in his mission.

I now realize years later that what was missing was contextualization—a term that didn’t even appear in missiological discourse until the early 1970s. Since then there has been a plethora of academic and missiological publishing on this important concept, even though in practice there is still a lack of contextualization in much mission activity today.

Ironically, long before his time, the provocative Methodist missionary to India and the world, E. Stanley Jones, understood the need for contextualization which he expressed eloquently in his classic book, The Christ of the Indian Road (1925).

Let me begin by discussing what contextualization is and why it is important and close with some suggestions about why it is relevant to the United Methodist Church and its global mission efforts today.

What is contextualization?
Contextualization is both a method and a perspective and relates to the challenge of connecting the gospel to culture. As a method it attempts to communicate and live out the gospel and to establish the church in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context. In this way Christianity meets people’s deepest needs and penetrates their worldview, thus enabling them to follow Christ and remain within their own culture. Jesus may be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8) but cultures are constantly changing and more rapidly than ever in the present era.

Advocating cultural change or conversion to Christ?
Much of the postcolonial critique of mission in the age of colonialism has come because too many missionaries too often confused following Jesus with adopting the cultural ways of the missionary while simultaneously condemning the culture of their converts. Perhaps without realizing it, they were advocating a kind of cultural conversion more than conversion to Christ within their own culture. They didn’t understand or appreciate the principle hammered out in the Jerusalem Council’s decision that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without having to become culturally and religiously Jews, as recorded in Acts 15.

Will contextualization lead to syncretism?
Opposition to contextualization sometimes comes from those who fear it will lead to “watering down” the gospel and its requirements to become a follower of Jesus.

In reality, however, the opposite is true. Contextualization doesn’t take the sting out of the gospel, it intensifies it. Contextualization sharpens the focus and offence of the gospel, it does not dilute it. If the gospel doesn’t critique culture, then culture wins every time and the transforming power of the gospel is lost.

One way of looking at the relationships between the gospel and culture is as follows: The gospel affirms most of culture, critiques some of culture, and transforms all of culture. I take this to mean that converts can and should remain within their culture and follow Jesus (I Cor. 7:17-24), recognizing that there will be aspects of their culture that will undergo change because of their allegiance to Christ. Following Jesus will put disciples at odds with aspects of their culture in every society, whether ancient or modern. The gospel has always been offensive, (foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, I Cor. 1:23) so let’s be sure we offend people for the right reasons and not the wrong ones. Too much mission activity is so culturally offensive that people don’t experience the offensive of the gospel.

I think many people oppose contextualization because they don’t understand it and fear it will become the slippery slope that leads to syncretism—a mixture of biblical and non-biblical beliefs and practices. Actually, the opposite is true. Contextualization is the best hedge against syncretism because it sharpens the focus of the gospel.

How can the church be relevant to culture while remaining faithful to the Bible?
Contextualization is concerned with both cultural relevance and biblical fidelity. Good contextualization is both relevant to the cultural context and faithful to the biblical text, and this is not easy to do. It’s not easy because the cultural context is constantly changing, and it is also challenging because there are sometimes divergent interpretations of the meaning of the biblical text.

Nevertheless, without the effort of doing contextualization the church becomes stagnant and irrelevant. Because of the lack of contextualization Christianity is often perceived as a foreign religion by many in the Majority World and an irrelevant waste of time by some in the West. Many in the West are increasingly turned off to organized religion, i.e. the church, but are still interested in Jesus and his teaching.

Who is responsible for doing contextualization?
Contextualization must be done from inside the culture and community, not attempted by outsiders. It should always be done in community, not by distant desktop theologians. It benefits from knowing how to exegete the biblical text, but also how to discover the deeper underlying values and worldview of the cultural context. Skills in biblical exegesis and anthropological ethnography can help. And finally, it cannot be done adequately without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Contextualization is important, because without it the church can drift into cultural irrelevance and/or wander away from biblical teaching. How do we maintain a balance between cultural relevance and biblical fidelity in an increasingly post-Christian and secularizing society in the West? It requires dialogue and respect for the other when there is a difference of opinion and often repentance when holding to our cherished position in a debate causes us to dehumanize the other or dismiss their perspective out of hand.

Is contextualization helpful in an increasingly divided church?
Could some of the divisions within the United Methodist Church today be less strident if all sides in the discussion understood and practiced contextualization in community and were led by the Holy Spirit? Would our mission efforts be more effective if we encouraged contextualization by followers of Jesus in other cultures and religions that are different from our own? Would we better understand that the Spirit of Christ in one person greets the Spirit of Christ in the other, and closes the distance between them? As we contemplate the importance and practice of contextualization today we may have to relinquish our need for certainty in exchange for our quest for understanding.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Missional Ecclesiology: Values: Habits of the Missional Heart

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

As indicated previously, I had the honor of preparing a document for the Commission on a Way Forward for use in developing their Missional Framework. This is the fifth and final post in a series explaining what I sent to the Commission and why. In these posts, I speak about my own writing and am not commenting on how the Commission used that writing or the final Missional Framework they developed.

The document I prepared is structured into three sections: a set of affirmations about mission, a set of affirmations about the church, and a set of values flowing from these two sets of affirmations. Especially in the original long version of my document, I attempted to draw connections between specific values and specific affirmations about mission and the church. In this post, I want to reflect on these values.

As noted in the introduction to this series, presenting the conclusions of my document as a set of values reflects my conviction that the issues facing The United Methodist Church are primarily matters of the heart, not of polity. Thus, I did not want to suggest specific polity formulations as part of a missional ecclesiology. Moreover, I did not know what directions the Commission’s work was going to go and wanted my offering to be useful in any instance.

Additionally, because of the breadth and diversity of God’s mission and the ever-changing forms it takes, I cannot pretend to know what arrangements would adequately enable the church to live into that mission. I am a straight, white, north American male living in the early 21st century. I am limited by that social and cultural location, and others will certainly have a different understanding of how best to organize as a church for the sake of God’s mission than I.

Hence, I instead wanted to highlight spiritual dispositions I thought could fit with a variety of ecclesiological arrangements and indeed would be necessary to focus on mission in any of them. I thought this focus on spiritual dispositions would also be a very Methodist approach, since the cultivation of proper spiritual dispositions was central to how Wesley understood sanctification.

I thought it essential to begin with faithfulness as a value, both our faithfulness to God and our faithfulness to our calling into God’s mission. Ideally, we do what we do as a church in mission because we are people of faith driven by our faith. If faith is not at the center of our efforts to be the church and to be in mission, then the rest is all for naught.

The next two values – humility and contextuality – emphasize our limits. Part of our faithfulness involves understanding that we are not God. We are humans, created by God, and our knowledge of God and God’s mission is always incomplete, limited, and partial. That is not a problem we can overcome; that is part of how God designed us as humans. Recognizing and accepting these limitations frees us for more faithful service in God’s mission.

The next two values – creativity and flexibility – fit with the theme that runs throughout the document of accepting change for the sake of being part of God’s mission. The distinction between creativity and flexibility, which is not clear in the shorter document, is intended to recognize that some Christians are innovators in mission, which is good, and other Christians must give those innovators some space in which to work if those innovations are to lead to successful new ministries.

The final two values – mutuality and generosity – are intended to further characterize how we relate to each other as fellow limited humans who are alike part of God’s church and God’s mission. I hope they convey some of the love that Jesus instructs us to show to each other as fellow Christians and to the whole world.

Indeed, this love is the reason why mission and the church exist – our acting out the love we have received from God through Christ, sharing it with the world, and inviting others to partake in God’s love in Christ. Whatever comes in the future of The United Methodist Church, may we continue to focus on and live out this love.

Given the spiritual nature of these values, I thought it appropriate to conclude the document with a prayer, which I offer here as a conclusion to this series as well: “We pray that these principles may guide us in a way forward that leads to deeper discipleship of Jesus Christ, more faithful service in the transformation of the world, and a more unified practice of being the church of Jesus Christ, sent by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit in mission for all the world. Amen.”

Monday, August 27, 2018

Recommended Reading: Methodist Mission Bicentennial Story Collection

Next year will be the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the first denomination-wide mission organization in American Methodism.

Among the ways in which this anniversary is being commemorated is a compilation of profiles of Methodists from around the world engaged in mission. This compilation includes short biographies of individual Methodists and descriptions of congregations and other institutions significantly involved in Methodist mission.

Currently, there are over 200 profiles included in the database, and new profiles continue to be added. The profiles come from a mix of stories submitted by individuals and existing academic, journalistic, and denominational publications. The majority are in English, though there are currently some Spanish-language profiles as well.

This resource is likely to be of interest to teachers and students of mission and/or Methodist history as the fall semester begins. The profiles can serve as a means of exploring mission according to various themes and locations, as well as a entry-level reference on the lives of specific missionaries.

The compilation can also be a means of sharing your own research. To submit a profile you have written to the database, visit

Friday, August 24, 2018

Recommended Reading: 2018 Annual Conference Reports from the Central Conferences

I (David Scott) have written before on this blog (post 1 and post 2) about the challenges and inequalities that are involved in reporting annual conference proceedings from outside the US.

That's why I'm happy to see that the 2018 Annual Conference reports include reports from several annual conferences in the central conferences that weren't reporting just a couple of years ago.

Most European annual conferences have submitted reports for some time, but additional Congolese annual conferences are now submitting. These new reports from Africa are in addition to Liberia, which has submitted reports for some years. Reports from other West African and south and east African annual conferences are still not present.

Filipino annual conferences remain a big lacuna in the reports, as there are no reports from any of the annual conferences in the Philippines. Most Filipino annual conferences meet in the spring or early summer.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Missional Ecclesiology: Affirmations about Church: What Is the Methodist Way of Doing Church?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

As indicated previously, I had the honor of preparing a document for the Commission on a Way Forward for use in developing their Missional Framework. This is the fourth post in a series explaining what I sent to the Commission and why. In these posts, I speak about my own writing and am not commenting on how the Commission used that writing or the final Missional Framework they developed.

The document I prepared is structured into three sections: a set of affirmations about mission, a set of affirmations about the church, and a set of values flowing from these two sets of affirmations. In this post, I want to reflect on the affirmations about the church.

Since the request from the Commission to me had been presented as a request for a “missional ecclesiology” (emphasis added), I felt compelled to reflect not only on the nature of mission but on the nature of the church. As I noted in the introduction to this series, given the recent release of Wonder, Love and Praise, I did not feel it necessary to reflect on the theological nature of the church (e.g., as rooted in grace) in my document. Instead, I decided to reflect on the nature of the church from the perspective of distinctive Methodist attitudes toward and practices of being the church.

I thought this section needed to begin with the observation, also emphasized in the “Preface” of the long version of my document, that Methodism is both a missional movement and a church (or several churches). Beginning with this observation serves to put the identified practices into missional perspective. Methodists practice church in these ways not for their own sakes, but for the sake of mission. This is historically true – John Wesley used missional effectiveness as his metric for evaluating most practices of the church – and it has been true at many other points throughout our history. The evolution of our polity is often driven by the evolution of our mission.

With this context in mind, I then presented what I thought were four practices of being the church that I thought characterized Methodism broadly across time, space, and specific denomination – connectionalism, conferencing, appointive ministry, and general superintendency.

These four are probably not the only such characteristics shared by Methodists broadly, but they seemed particularly important and/or relevant to mission. Each gets at what I see as core functions of a denomination – decision-making, clergy deployment, oversight, and shared ministry.

Thus, the choice of these four is also geared toward a view of the church as a denomination rather than the church as the local congregation. This focus on the denominational level is not meant to devalue the work of local congregations. There can be no denomination without local congregations. Nevertheless, I understood the Commission’s work as entailing making decisions regarding the denomination as a whole, including its local congregations. Moreover, the key Methodist concept of connectionalism works against focusing primarily on separate local congregations.

I called these four Methodist hallmarks “practices,” both as an acknowledgement of Methodism’s generally practical orientation to ecclesiology, and as a recognition that each of the four implied not only beliefs but more importantly a set of regular actions. Methodists don’t just believe in connectionalism; we also engage in actions and create structures to help us connect.

As noted in the “Preamble” of the original, long version of my work, the actions we have used to practice these four hallmarks have changed over the centuries of Methodism. Conferencing, for instance, is still essential, but quarterly conferences are not what they used to be. Thus, the ways in which we currently live out these four practices are not the only ways to do so, and it would be possible to do so in the future in different ways without abandoning our commitment to these practices. I believe recognizing that possibility of faithfulness amid change frees us for the future.

A final affirmation about the ecumenical nature of the church is also intended to free us in our thinking. Methodists have always been ecumenists. The United Methodist Church is not the One True Church outside of which is no salvation, and no one pretends it is. Indeed, The United Methodist Church is just one denomination within the larger stream of Methodism.

Denominations are useful as organizational structures, but they are not prescribed in the Bible, and we would do well to remember that our attachment to denominations or particular denominational structures, while it may reflect sincere belief and devotion, is separate from our attachment to Christ’s church and the kingdom of God. When we consider how to change our denomination, we are making changes to human structures, not divine ones. That is not to say that our decisions are not important, but that our human actions cannot alter divine truths. That knowledge, I hope, gives us a little more courage in how we proceed.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Recommended Reading: United Methodist Church-Methodist Church in Britain Concordat

A significant piece of Methodist ecumenism occurred recently. Leaders of The United Methodist Church and the Methodist Church in Britain met in London on Aug. 10-12, 2018, to reaffirm a concordat (ecumenical agreement) between the two denominations originally negotiated 50 years ago. This meeting included explorations of news ways for the two denominations to be in mission together going forward.

Methodist Church in Britain pre-meeting article on the concordat

United Methodist Church pre-meeting article on the concordat

United Methodist Church post-meeting article on the concordat

UMC Bishop Rosemarie Wenner's reflections on the meeting

Twitter posts on and pictures from the meeting (#Concordat50)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Lisa Beth White: The Hopefulness of Mission, or Why I’m Not Worried about the Future of the UMC

Today's post is by Rev. Lisa Beth White, founder of Sister of Hope Ministries, an organization that exists to equip and support short-term mission teams, churches and non-profit organizations with training, resources and evaluation tools with the aim of enabling the faithful practice of Christian mission. This piece is reposted with permission from the author's personal site.

I am a United Methodist. My denomination recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, remembering how it was formed by a union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. This church has formed me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, has taught me grace, taught me how to sing grace, preach grace, and practice grace. I have given my life’s work to Christ through the United Methodist Church.

United Methodist Church’s Difficult Season
But the United Methodist Church is having a difficult season. To be honest, it’s been having a contentious season for about 40 years. If you are a United Methodist and you’re on social media, you are likely aware of our struggles. If not, let me try to summarize.

The issue is inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. Our denomination has been in the news for holding clergy trials when pastors officiate same-gender weddings, even for their own children; for holding clergy trials and stripping clergy of their credentials when they admit their identity as an LGBTQ person; for having protests and debates at our quadrennial gatherings during which church legislation is considered. We’ve had study commissions, we’ve added language to our Book of Discipline (the text that holds our constitution, our Articles of Religion, our structure and order for ministry), we’ve argued and argued. Most recently, our last General Conference (that once every four year gathering) asked our Council of Bishops (all bishops, active and retired) to form a commission and advise the church how to move forward as a united denomination, despite our continuing and harsh disagreement over LGBTQ inclusion.

And so, the commission has held meetings, prayed and discussed our difficult season. In the end, they recommended three plans to the Council of Bishops – the Traditionalist Plan which would essentially maintain the status quo; the Connectional-Conference Plan, which would allow churches to affiliate with other churches that their perspectives align with, rather than our current geographic structure; and the One Church Plan, which allows decisions about ordaining LGBTQ persons to be made in local areas and removes all restrictive language from the Book of Discipline. The Bishops are recommending the One Church Plan to the special session of General Conference that will meet in February 2019. You can read articles here and here about this recommendation.

And So, Anxiety Reigns
Now, if you’re not United Methodist, this may all seem confusing and tedious. Methodists have a decision making process that isn’t simple. We don’t have a pope and cardinals to make decisions for us. We don’t have a simple majority rules vote. We hold our church buildings and land in trust for the church that will come after we are gone, so we understand that the brick and mortar in which we gather isn’t “ours” but God’s for the work of God’s people.

And it’s exactly at that point – God and the work of God’s people – in which I take great hope for the United Methodist Church.

In the midst of all the debates, clergy trials and commission reports, people have been getting very upset and anxious. At a recent pre-conference meeting (yes, a meeting before our annual meeting, it’s how we do things in the UMC) I heard such anxiety from the people gathered as they discussed what our future may look like. “If this happens, then…” or “if that happens, then…” The proposed resolutions we were voting on were contradictory, as people wanted to be ready for whatever comes next. If things don’t go according to their desire, they want to be able to split the denomination, to take possession of their buildings, to ensure their beliefs and not have to compromise or change.

Such anxiety. Near panic. Judgment and suspicion. The one thing we could agree on is that we disagree.

I was only able to attend the meeting because I had been visiting my parents. When I got back home, I found in my mail a letter from our Board of Pensions, which administers all clergy retirement accounts. The letter opens with “concerns” and “expressed worries…during this time of change.” The whole purpose of the letter was to reassure anxious clergy, who, as the meeting had made obvious, were still anxious.

They Will Know You Are My Disciples By Your Love
I am not anxious about the future of the church. No matter what happens in the United Methodist Church, I have faith in the work of the Holy Spirit to call people into partnership with God in mission. God is always at work in the world, reaching out in mission in, to, and for the world. The church is the Body of Christ, and God uses the church to share God’s grace and love with the world. No church split or union will change the mission of God.

In the book of Acts we read about the early church, and how the Spirit moved people to show love for their neighbors. Chapter 2:44-45 states that Christians were together, collecting funds so that if anyone had a need, it could be taken care of by the group. This care for others is reinforced in chapter 4:34-35, that there was not a single person in need among the believers because the people trusted the apostles to use their funds to care for everyone. By chapter six, the group of believers had grown so large that seven people had to be appointed to manage the funds for common care.

The disciples and the early church were not afraid to care for those who were on the margins. In Acts 8 we read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian treasury official. Despite being a eunuch and barred from entering the temple, he had traveled from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship. In his chariot as he rode home, he was reading Isaiah and Philip helped explain how this passage revealed the good news of Jesus Christ, unbothered by the fact that he was with a person who was considered impure. Immediately after this, we read in chapter 9 that Peter healed Tabitha, who ministered to widows in Joppa. Widows led a fragile existence, often on the margins, without the legal protection of spouse or family. In chapter 10, Peter shares the good news of the gospel with Cornelius, despite the fact that it was unlawful for him to visit the house of a Gentile.

These early practices of mission – care for those on the margins in the face of difficulty and/or legal restrictions continued in the early church. Takanori Inoue argues* that during a time of plagues and rampant disease in Roman cities, “Christians ministered as a transformative movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the Roman Empire.” The basis for this ministry is love of God and love of neighbor “because it is God’s pleasure that they should share [God’s] generosity with all people.”

In Mission By Grace
The inspiration of the Holy Spirit moves us to love God more deeply and enables us to live out God’s love for and with our neighbors. This participation in God’s mission was a witness to the gospel by the early church – love made visible – and it continues in the church today. I know that people will continue to participate in mission practices – to go on short-term mission trips to offer disaster relief and recovery assistance, to make UMCOR kits to distribute around the world, to make meals to share with those who are food insecure in their communities, to volunteer in free clinics, to sit and listen with humble spirits and open hearts. I know this because people are moved by the Holy Spirit to live out the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment with Great Compassion – and they will not stop loving their neighbors because our denomination is struggling.

We live out the call of Christ to go and make disciples, to love one another and to care for those on the margins because we have heard the call in our local communities. In our local churches we worship, pray and study together. In our local churches we learn about the needs of our neighbors near and far. In our local churches we invite each other to participate in mission practices. I choose to live in a posture of hope, knowing that ordinary United Methodists will continue to practice mission as a witness to the world of their faith in Christ. I choose to live in a posture of hope because the mission work of everyday United Methodists reveals the ongoing call of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in love. I choose to live in a posture of hope because I trust in God’s unfailing grace.

* The Early Church's Approach to the Poor in Society and Its Significance to the Church's Social Engagement Today by Takanori Inoue. Quotes from pages 11-13.