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’d like to start with an assertion: Migrants have been and continue to be one of the largest venues for Methodist growth.
Hearing this statement, one might initially think about international migrants in the history of Methodism. Here, one could reflect on Methodist growth among English, Scottish, Irish, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Czech, Korean, and Filipino immigrants to the US, all of which represented growing Methodist immigrant populations in the US at one point.
One could also point to the historical connection between migration and Methodist growth outside the US. Here, the stories could include the migrant settlers of Liberia who were the first to practice American Methodism outside the US; the Germans and Scandinavians converted to Methodism through return migration by their fellows who had become Methodist in the US; the migration of soldiers, sailors, and businesspeople throughout the British Empire, and the spread of Methodism along these lines; or the growth of Methodism among Chinese and Indian migrants in Southeast Asia.
These examples of international migration and the growth of Methodism might be interesting but still seem peripheral, insufficient to prove the enormity of the claim. It’s when we expand our scope of migration to include domestic migration that we fully see the link between Methodism and migration.
The quintessential story of Methodist growth is the circuit riders and the growth of Methodism along the expanding American frontier. This historical epoch is the often portrayed as a golden age of Methodism upon which we should model current evangelistic efforts. It is worthwhile noting, therefore, that the frontier was populated by migrants, people that had moved to the frontier from more settled lands farther back east. In places that we now think of as Methodist strongholds like Georgia and Texas, Methodism arrived there along with migrants for the sake of serving them.
We can apply this insight elsewhere in the world, too, especially as we look at the phenomenon of urban migration. While in some settings (the US, Zimbabwe), Methodism was predominantly rural and was slow to adapt to the strong trend of migration to cities in the 20th century, in other areas (China), Methodism first enter a society through its cities, and urban migration was a boon to the church.
Moreover, this linkage between migration, both international and domestic, and the expansion of Methodism, both in the US and elsewhere around the world, continues today.
In the US, international migration is boosting the UMC through the formation of new migrant churches. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, it’s the non-white segments of the UMC in the US that are growing, especially among Asians/Pacific Islanders and Hispanics, two Methodist communities for whom immigration is an important factor. Even among white American Methodism, the growing spots are frequently suburban megachurches. One important factor in these churches’ growth has been the population growth of their surroundings. People have been migrating to the suburbs in the US (especially in the South and Southeast) for decades now.
Looking elsewhere around the world, one sees immigrants as crucial to the continuation of Methodism in Europe. African and Asian Methodists are filling pews increasingly empty of native-born white Europeans. Migratory connections have been important for the growth of the church in new mission initiatives, whether that’s in Southeast Asia or Africa. United Methodists in Liberia and Sierra Leone suffered a long and painful series of forced migrations during those countries’ civil wars. Yet new churches came out of that awful experience, and these two countries are now one of the few areas of the world where United Methodism is growing.
Of course, not all instances of Methodist growth have occurred among or because of migrants. For instance, to my knowledge, the dramatic growth of Methodism in Korea or the Democratic Republic of Congo was not fueled by migration. (It is perhaps worth noting that in both instances, Methodism did grow in large part because of its political identification was people suffering from war and foreign incursion.)
Still, even if migration is not always a root cause for Methodist growth, I think it is safe to say that it is one of the primary root causes for Methodist growth.
If we accept this insight, it leaves us with a question: If we care about the growth of Methodism, how can we leverage this linkage between migration and Methodist growth to further that growth? How do we structure our churches, our evangelistic campaigns, our mission initiatives to best reflect this insight? And how do United Methodists as citizens act on this insight in a world that both has more migrants, internal and international, than ever before, but which is seeing increasing anti-migrant sentiment? How we treat the migrants in our midst is ultimately not just a political or moral question, it’s a missional one.