Today's post is the second in a series that features United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology.
My hope for Methodism is that we will understand that we are an inter-cultural church and not merely an international church.
The structures of Methodist and then United Methodist mission were formed by the social location of the church as a denomination among denominations, as an international church in a world of nations, and as a national church engaged in mission in the context of international colonialism. These structures attuned to the political realities shaping American and global society in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Today denominationalism, internationalism, and national church mission both mask and are out of tune with the complex cultural realities characteristic of the contemporary religious and political worlds. In order to fully engage God’s Mission within these emerging cultural and political realities the United Methodist church must revise its self-understanding. It must realize that it is primarily inter-cultural rather than international and understand its mission as the cultivation of a pragmatic inter-cultural dialogue on the meaning of the claim that Jesus is the Christ in relation to God’s Reign. This means that the single most important set of skills for the future of United Methodist leadership and mission will be the skills necessary for inter-cultural dialogue and collaboration.
In order to achieve a new approach to the mission of the church that is intentionally cross-cultural and dialogical in nature I believe we must revise our understandings of the world we live in and ourselves.
1) The first of these revisions must be to re-engage the Biblical vision of mission as inter-cultural rather than international.
a) The “nations” of the Bible were not nation-states, but people groups. The incarnation of the Risen Christ takes place in specific cultural settings and not merely socio-political settings. As importantly, each culture adds to the human understanding of the Gospel through its own distinctive premonition of God’s presence in its history. What emerges as the Biblical witness to Christ is God speaking out of an intense inter-cultural dialogue. An excessive focus on socio-political realities masks this dialogue and leads to an imbalanced understanding of the gospel message.
b) Revelation should be understood as the movement of the Spirit in a multi-cultural community engaged with the apostolic witness to Christ. The Bible is the Church’s book so long as we recognize that the church was and is a Beit Midrash; a House of dialogue and discovery. This doesn’t mean that no definitive conclusions are drawn, only that we recognize that they are also culturally located and that through time and circumstance the Spirit of Christ will draw us back to re-engage the scripture.
c) Moreover, the Biblical witness is a witness of people on the move to peoples on the move. As Israel discovered, and early Christian communities enacted, migration is both the context of Christian mission and a means for the spread of the gospel. Paul’s journeys, as well as the migrations of the groups to whom he and other apostles witnessed, led inevitably to the emergence of ever changing and often newly emergent Christian cultures. Thus, the appropriate inculturation and proclamation of the Gospel, the appropriate interpretation of the apostolic witness into words and deeds, is an emergent phenomenon even in scripture. As an intercultural church rather than an international church, we will need to read the Bible as a witness to Christ arising out of an inter-cultural dialogue whose meaning emerges in the context of multiple new cultural encounters.
2) The second of these revisions in self-understanding is to recognize that our contemporary global United Methodist church must be understood as inter-cultural not merely international.
a) By conforming its structures to the emerging colonial world of the 19th century Methodism gained a pragmatic advantage in that political world. And by shaping itself in conformity to an emerging international economy it gained a pragmatic advantage in that economic world. Yet it also thereby participated in the Enlightenment influenced colonial suppression of indigenous cultural resources for the ordering of both human societies and human institutions. This laid the groundwork for much of the divisiveness experienced today both within the United States and across the globe.
b) The conflation of nation-state with national culture, something that Europe’s 19th century history made to seem natural, is extremely deceptive even in the European context. Our generation has seen the break-up of established European nations on the basis of cultural difference, including through civil war. My Austrian German teacher used to repeat the mantra: es gibt kein Europaer. Even little Austria had distinctive subcultures, multiple languages, and mutually incomprehensible dialects of German.
c) In the context of US history and the history of the colonially created nation-states of the 20th century the idea of a single national culture is even more dubious. The voluntary union of the Methodist Episcopal Church North and the Methodist Episcopal Church South with the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939 hasn’t eliminated the cultural fault lines marked by the division of 1844. Rather, these have simply taken on more contemporary forms even as they represent much older cultural divisions than those around slavery. Only a structure and concept of mission that recognizes and puts on a dialogically engaged footing different cultures within nations and trans-national cultural movements among nations will allow us to live together as a single church.
d) A reasonable first step in this direction was the 20th century creation of autonomous national Methodist churches gathered in the World Methodist Council, even if the existence of national church polities often masked cultural differences within their respective nations. However, there are social locations in which this degree of autonomy, or autonomy in the context of a nation-state, isn’t desirable or desired. In these situations, the UMC needs to both create new polities and allow a variation in polities so as to allow not only local churches, but districts and annual conferences to design governance structures that are both culturally relevant (including
relevancy in a mixed culture context) and allow all the cultural resources for working together to be fully expressed.
e) As importantly, the UMC needs to recognize that the ways in which the mission of the church is understood and executed should be determined by the cultural contexts of those engaged in mission as partners. The urgent needs of those both witnessing to the gospel and receiving that witness will vary between social contexts. And the perception of those needs and how they relate to the gospel will vary between cultural contexts. A congregation in the Philippines shouldn’t be bound to structures of mission organization that originate in the US. Nor should an annual conference in Africa be bound to strategies formulated for the Philippines.
f) In short, the guiding principle of our polity needs to become the facilitation of inter-cultural dialogue rather than the supposed efficiencies created by replicating nested hierarchies. This kind of re-imagining of structures is already taking place within the inter-cultural business community. The value of such experimentation should not be lost on us.
3) The third revision is to recognize that post-enlightenment North Atlantic culture, along with its many outposts across the globe, is a distinctly new human phenomenon.
a) Theorists of Christian mission may find similarities between the urban societies of the 21st centuries and those in Greece and Rome of Jesus' time. But what is emerging today is actually unprecedented, as Charles Taylor has shown in his socio-cultural history A Secular Age. The distinction, indeed gulf between the modern and non-modern experiences of being human as well, as
those in some form of transition, demands a new conceptualization of our mission in terms of complex inter-cultural engagements across this gulf.
b) Our primary mission cannot be reduced to addressing reified understandings of non-modern religions or cultures, nor to making the gospel relevant to the detritus of modernity, nor even to making it relevant in whatever has been identified as the latest market for religion, whether it is boomers, gen x, or millenials. Rather our mission must account for the new cultures continuously emerging among us, whoever the “us” is, and across the globe. These are cultures whose contours are only now being discovered, whom we must engage out of our own multiple cultural contexts in dialogue over what it means in specific times, places, and social locations to proclaim and enact that Jesus is the Christ.
c) Our mission is to discover among the people of these new cultures what distinctive apprehensions of God’s presence in the world are coming to light. And this requires that we understand both ourselves and others as bearers of culture and thus vessels of incarnation rather than rivals or enemies in the articulation of the truth about God.
Which means, and I come to my most important point, that the single most important set of skills for the future of United Methodist leadership and mission will be the skills necessary for inter-cultural dialogue and collaboration. These skills include awareness of our own culture and of cultural difference and its various dimension, the motivation to engage those differences, knowledge of the multiple dimensions of cultural difference, and the ability to form strategies and adopt new behaviors in order to effectively work in complex cultural environments.
These skills are not unknown, and indeed have been explored, defined, and placed in pedagogical frameworks for the last 50 years. What remains is for those of us who are leaders and who train leaders to make the acquisition of these skills our first priority.
In sum, these three revisions in our self-understanding suggest that we must move beyond the models of what it means to be Christian in society that have dominated Methodism since its beginning. We must rediscover the both distinctly Biblical and fully contemporary understanding of the Church as a body of cultural communities within societies that are culturally diverse and constantly changing. Put another way, we must recognize that our cult does not become, but is always embedded within a culture. And since God intends that cultural diversity be an enduring part of the human order, our church will always need to be inter-cultural if it is to be global.