Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Benjamin L. Hartley: #MyHope4Methodism

Today's post is part of 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 Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley. Dr. Hartley is Associate Professor of Christian Mission at the College of Christian Studies at George Fox University. He also blogs at

“Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem… They looked for Jesus and said to one another as they were in the temple area, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast?” John 11:55-57

The Scripture text above for the day before Palm Sunday ends with a question: Will Jesus show up? It is a question many people in The United Methodist Church are asking – sometimes with anguish in their hearts, yearning for renewal.

At our best, I think we ask this question not with anxious handwringing but with what Cornel West calls a “blues sensibility” sort of faith. Our eyes are wide open to the problems in our church and world, but we have faith that Jesus will always show up. It is the faith and love of Jesus working out in our lives that moves us with hope and a persistent unconditional love for others. At our best we sing with the pathos of a famous African American spiritual as our model, yearning for the “City Called Heaven.” It is that ultimate hope expressed with the grit of a blues artist that I pray will animate our life together as United Methodists in the years to come.

Where do I see this happening? What gives me this kind of gritty hope for the UMC? I have two stories.

Just before Holy Week I gathered with fourteen people in Portland, Oregon in order to encourage one another in our experiments of living in intentional Christian communities. Most were folks from Portland, but I drove an hour with my housemate and Romanian missionary friend, David, to see what this might be. I knew some friends would be there who went through Missional Wisdom training and prayerful retreats with me, but the circle was wider than that with people who have been experimenting for less than a year to one man who had lived in an intentional Christian community for 33 years.

I went to this gathering because I’ll be serving as a faculty mentor next year for two residential houses of university students who want to explore in practical ways what it means to live a deeper life of Christian fellowship that they have been reading about in the “great books” honors program I also teach in. I need help to dream what those houses could be so that my prayers would not be too small. Small prayers are a problem for many of us.

On my drive home with David last night we spoke about what we experienced in that Portland living room with other disciples of Jesus. There were deep wells of wisdom there, experiences of desert wandering, and also a spirit of holy experimentation. It is the willingness to experiment and yearning to keep re-envisioning church that gives me hope for United Methodism.

My second story is a tad less contemporary. I’m a historian of the missionary movement, and one of my current projects is to examine one of the earliest and exuberantly hopeful missionary endeavors of American Methodists. No other missionary venture of early American Methodists more fired the imagination than the mission to share the Gospel of Jesus with Native Americans in Oregon.

Big dreams of mass conversions of thousands of eager Native Americans (whom Methodist missionaries barely knew anything about) were quickly met with discouragement in the years after missionary arrival in Oregon in 1834. Instead of thousands yearning to become Christians they instead encountered thousands of people being decimated by diseases that had had been transmitted to the region earlier via trading ships.

The Methodist missionaries persisted in Oregon but perhaps the best missionary of the bunch, Henry Kirk White Perkins, has barely been recognized in Methodist mission histories. His journals reveal that he was probably the leading missionary linguist in the denomination at the time; he translated a good chunk of the New Testament into Sahaptin, a language of eastern Washington. He was also a man with a heart full of love for others and a belief that the Gospel truly can transform lives.

In a letter to his friend, Daniel Lee, he relays stories of a revival that took place at the Willamette Mission – a few miles south of where I now live – during a few days surrounding a Watch Night service in January of 1839. Perkins tells stories of the conversion of a half dozen Native Americans. Most were older children in the school the Methodists were running, along with some adults and children of white settlers.

He was especially moved by the emotional conversion of two Native American women – both named Mary. Mary Sargent had been converted the day before. She was friends with Mary Hauxhurst who was married to a white settler. As Perkins tells the story, “Mary S. arose and with joy beaming in her countenance, went and threw her arms around the neck of her friend, [Mary Hauxhurst] and they wept, and prayed together…O, thought I, this, this is religion, and religion is love. God beheld the sight, and he wiped their tears away, and in a few moments they were praising God together.”

At first glance this is not a particularly unusual conversion story. What makes it noteworthy to me is that it is the first conversion story in Oregon where – at least in the way Perkins tells it – the missionary seems to be more of an observer to one Native American woman introducing another to the saving love of Jesus. Perkins, it seems, trusted that what was happening to these two women was of God even though so much of their history and culture was unknown to him. It would still be over a year before he could preach in any language other than a rudimentary trade language the local people used.

This story that Perkins tells illustrates a hope I have for United Methodism in that we too will learn to trust one another across cultural and linguistic barriers. Perkins made plenty of mistakes in his work, to be sure, but as I have read his journals I am struck by his openness toward Native American cultural practices that were foreign to him. As he painstakingly translated Scripture day after day he was also willing to question his assumptions about how he interpreted the Bible. He even wrote back home to ask a friend for help in thinking through some passages.

That letter home embodies another hope and gritty prayer I have for United Methodism – namely, that we would learn to be better friends and vulnerably ask for the help we need – from God and one another. For where two or three are gathered... Jesus will most assuredly show up.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Recommended Reading: Tom Lambrecht on Big Picture Status of United Methodism

Rev. Tom Lambrecht has written a three-piece series for Good News Magazine, explaining what recently released membership numbers from GCFA reveal about the "Big Picture Status of United Methodism." It this series, he examines trendlines for United Methodism around the world. Rev. Lambrecht's interpretations parallel and extend the interpretations of these numbers previously published on this blog. Here are the three pieces of his series:


United States

Europe and Asia

Friday, March 23, 2018

Kale Yu: Mission and Trump's Pivot to North Korea

Today's post is written by Dr. K. Kale Yu. Dr. Yu is Instructor in Religion at High Point University, a United Methodist-affiliated institution. A chapter of his upcoming book Understanding Korean Christianity: A Terracultural Perspective examines Christianity in North Korea.

As a Korean American, I have tempered optimism about Trump’s decision to meet North Korea's supreme leader, an unprecedented event for a sitting U.S. president in the post-Korean War era.

Prior to the Korean War, my grandfather took his children (including my father) and fled Haeju, his hometown in northern Korea to flee invading communists that were persecuting and executing Christians. My grandfather in the north had seven brothers but only he and his family fled because he became a Christian, specifically a Methodist (since that region was marked by Methodist missionaries). Little did he realize at the time that his conversion to Christianity literally saved his and family's life. Although he fled to the south penniless, he credited God for his deliverance and, as a way of giving thanks, became a Methodist pastor in the south and later superintendent of Sunday Schools.

The rise of communists in the north forced many, especially Christians, to flee to the south. Pyongyang was dubbed "Jerusalem of the East" after the Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907 that made Pyongyang the vibrant center of Korean Christianity but, just like the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. that pushed Christians outside Palestine, the communist invasion pushed northern Koreans to the south where they started some of the most well-known Korean churches, such as Young Nak Presbyterian Church, started by Han Kyung-Chik who received the 1992 Templeton Prize.

For most refugees who fled to the south, they thought their situation was temporary. The assumption that they would be able to return to their homes in the north was shattered when the conclusion of the Korean War created a permanent line of division between families in the North and South.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the last remaining communist nations, such as Vietnam and Cuba, showed signs of engagement with the West except North Korea. Trump’s pivot from threats of raining “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea to agreeing with meet Kim Jong Un whom Trump called the “little rocket man” marks a pace of rapprochement that no one anticipated.

However, there are potential pitfalls that could result from the meeting. In the worst case scenario, U.S.-North Korea relations deteriorate to the brink of war that destabilizes the region. The best case scenario would de-nuclearize North Korea and lay the groundwork for North Korea’s opening to the world. A formal peace treaty would be signed (a cease-fire armistice, not a peace treaty, concluded the Korean War in 1953), ending sixty-five years of estrangement and antagonism. Furthermore, a successful summit could reshape the international geopolitical map far beyond the Korean peninsula.

Trump’s spontaneous agreement to a summit meeting with Kim comes less than two weeks of China’s Xi Jinping amending the Chinese Constitution to remove term limits, an act that effectively permits him to remain in power indefinitely, allowing Xi to cast China’s global vision for decades to come. How would a successful rapprochement with North Korea reshape the geopolitics in East Asia with Japan, South Korea, and China? How would peace on the Korean peninsula redefine America’s relations with China? From a Christian perspective, how would warmer relations with South Korea affect China and North Korea's receptivity to Christianity?

While as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I was fortunate to know Professor Samuel H. Moffett who was born in Pyongyang to missionary parents in 1916. He considered Pyongyang his hometown and he told me how saddened he became as a young man when his ship carrying him to his college in the U.S. left the Korean port and he could no longer see Pyongyang in the distance. At the age of 81, he and other former missionaries returned to Pyongyang in 1997. Moffett told me he was determined to find his old home in Pyongyang as it was forever etched in his memory but the passage of time under modern Pyongyang made it impossible. Like Moffett, my grandfather longed to return to his hometown in the north but never did.

Would warmer relations with North Korea once again open its doors to friends and families? Would it enable missionaries to return there to re-kindle the light of Christ that burned brightly over a hundred years ago?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Should the UMC have missional rather than geographic annual conferences?

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.

For the last two weeks, I have been looking at the question of how we can structurally support innovation in The United Methodist Church. I have argued that this is a particularly important question for those interested in mission since mission is a primary form of innovation for the church. Last week, I examined the evangelical approach, which is to have a low bar for the creation of new, separate structures to support innovation in churches and mission work.

This week, I’ll look at Catholicism as an alternative model of innovation. For those committed to overarching organizational unity, Catholicism is a good model. Not only does Catholicism have an overarching organizational unity, the Roman Catholic Church is one of the oldest human organizations on the planet. It’s over 1500 years older than the oldest nonprofits and fraternal organizations, a millennium older than the oldest universities, and 500 years older than the oldest companies.

If evangelicals innovate by starting new, separate organizations, Catholics have another approach to innovation – the creation of new units within the larger organization. One of the main ways this has happened is through the creation of new orders. New orders were historically able to pioneer new forms of devotion (prayer, preaching, pilgrimage, etc.) that drew people closer to the church. They were also often responsible for the evangelization of new geographic areas. Thus, the creation of a new order was a way to sanction some innovation in Catholic religiosity or geographic coverage.

Individual orders have had the tendency to become susceptible to the same sort of organizational stagnation I wrote about in my initial post, but since the Catholic church is always open to new orders and sub-orders, it is not dependent on the vitality of any one of these orders. There was a persistent pattern in medieval Catholicism of the creation of new monastic orders that would implement reforms, achieve success, become stagnant, and then decline and need reform themselves. Then the cycle would start over again.

Protestants don’t have orders, so the question is what structures do we have that could serve the same function? The basic structure of Methodism is the annual conference. Annual conferences do several of the same things that Catholic orders do – they recruit, ordain, and missionally deploy clergy. They also carry out a variety of programs such as health and welfare ministries that Catholic orders frequently do.

Yet annual conferences currently have several problems that inhibit them from consistently and effectively supporting innovation. There is a tendency for annual conferences to reflect the same sort of organizational bureaucratic malaise and rigidity from which the denomination as a whole suffers. Also, the geographic organization of annual conferences leads to less innovation when they are not in a pioneer situation with clear margins along which to expand. In most places, the geographic organization of established annual conferences tends to lead to a pastoral and maintenance focus on existing congregations.

The Mission Initiatives sponsored by Global Ministries are good examples of organizational structures that support growing, innovative mission in areas without a historic United Methodist presence. But the question remains of how United Methodists in areas with a long-established presence can continue to be innovative. There are some annual conferences that have effectively supported innovative ministries within their own, long-established geographic limits. The Florida Annual Conference’s Fresh Expressions initiative is one such example. Yet such instances seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

Another possible solution to organizationally supporting innovation in the UMC would be to allow United Methodists to create new units within the larger church that would focus on some particular form of innovative ministry. If annual conferences are the basic units of United Methodism, this could mean the creation of missionally-defined rather than geographically-bounded annual conferences.

This approach has happened before in Methodism. Examples include the various ethnic or language-group annual conferences or the Red Bird Mission Conference. These annual conferences geographically overlap(ped) other (Anglo) annual conferences but were focused on missional outreach to a particular group facilitated by a flexible organizational system controlled by those doing the outreach. While that was usually defined in terms of a particular ethnic and/or immigrant group, there’s no particular reason why that same approach could not be used for other missional foci.

It’s important to say that the people doing the innovation must be the ones in charge of selecting this option and then customizing it for their needs. It can’t be an imposition by others. The Central Jurisdiction is a tragic example of a separate, non-geographically defined structure that was imposed on others because of the prejudices of the dominant group, not chosen by a particular group to give themselves organizational freedom to adapt and innovate. I am not calling for anything resembling the Central Jurisdiction.

Another version of this approach to creating new organizations within a wider umbrella is found in the third, multi-branch model under consideration by the Commission on a Way Forward. The multi-branch model seems to authorize this sort of new structures within a larger system. But these structures are defined only by the one issue of sexuality and are more for the sake of keeping peace than fostering innovation. United Methodists need to be able to innovate in other ways beyond the one issue of sexuality. Moreover, such an approach could happen within a unified church as well as a multi-branch church. The examples cited above were all part of unified churches.

This approach to sponsoring innovation should, though, lead us to think more deeply about what unifies us. Catholics have certain theological, spiritual, and organizational common touchpoints that keep them together despite a proliferation of sub-organizations. United Methodists will have to find our own.

Among the most important must be our understanding of unity. Authorizing new structures within the larger group works when we see unity not as about institutional uniformity but rather as about bonds of spiritual connection. I have argued elsewhere (here, here, here, and here) that a relational understanding of unity is the best approach to unity. Here’s another reason why: Thinking of unity relationally open us up to innovative ministries and mission.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Recommended Readings: Arusha Call to Discipleship

The World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) recently concluded its Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania. These conferences, which occur about once a decade, are often seen as an important means of ascertaining the state of missiological thinking around the world. This year's conference produced The Arusha Call to Discipleship as a statement of its understanding of the current state of mission, evangelism, and discipleship. It is worth reading.

For more on the Conference, you can read the following resources:

A Global Ministries story about Methodist participation in the conference
Two reflections (one and two) from Global Ministries' Amy Valdez-Barker about the conference
News stories from the WCC about the conference

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Are there too few mainline denominations?

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.

My last blog raised the question of how we can structurally support innovation in The United Methodist Church. I argued that this is a particularly important question for those interested in mission since mission is a primary form of innovation for the church.

This week I will look at a common strategy for evangelical Christians in the United States to support innovation: innovation through organizational multiplication.

There are many more evangelical denominations in the US than there are mainline denominations, and more are being created all the time. There are something along the lines of 10,000 denominations in the US. A couple dozen of these are mainline Protestant, a dozen or so are Catholic, and a few dozen are some form of Orthodox. The rest are evangelical Protestant denominations. Many of these denominations are tiny, but there are a lot of them.

There are also many evangelical para-denominational, interdenominational, or non-denominational organizations. These include cooperative ministries, non-profits, educational institutions, media outfits, and a whole slew of other forms of organizational life.

Because evangelicalism has a decentralized and personalized sense of authority, evangelicals frequently feel free to go ahead and start their own thing, whether that’s a church, a denomination, or a religious non-profit, without needing to seek authorization from others. The bar to create new organizations is low, which leads to more new organizations.

Thus, innovators can easily start their own (separate) structures, which will then suit their own needs and support whatever form of innovation they are engaged in. Of course, not all new denominations or other evangelical organizations are innovations. Some are created to resist innovation and keep things the same. The point is, though, that if an evangelical Christian in the US wants to do something innovative, they often feel divinely authorized to create their own new organizational structures to support that innovation without needing the say-so of existing organizational structures.

This leads to a free-market approach to religious organizational innovation. Some innovations find support and succeed, and some don’t, but the innovators are empowered to develop and accountable for developing their own thing.

Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argue that such a free-market approach to religion that provides more religious choices is good for religious adherence. Thus, more evangelical denominations may mean more evangelicals. Of course, questions may persist about the depth of discipleship and the accuracy of theological and moral understandings developed through a consumerist approach to religion. Paul says untruth sells (2 Timothy 4:3). But if the goal is members and you accept Stark and Finke, then this approach is a good strategy.

In terms of mission, more organizations may also mean more missionaries and more money for mission if there’s more opportunities to get involved and a lower bar to entry. Again, there may be questions about whether this is the “right kind” of mission. Pictures of orphans bring in donations, even if those orphanages have negative consequences in their communities. Yet following Stark and Finke’s argument again, there’s a reason to think more options for mission = more support of mission.

The number of mainline denominations, on the other hand, decreased over the twentieth century through a series of mergers and a disinclination to start new mainline denominations. This lack of religious options and competitors on the mainline side may be one reason for mainline membership decline starting in the mid-twentieth century, if you buy Stark and Finke’s argument. By contrast, evangelical membership only began to decline in the last decade or so.

Mainline denominations also generally reduced the number of organizations conducting mission over the 20th century as they merged organizations responsible for men’s and women’s work and domestic and foreign work. Organizational consolidation may have decreased interest in mission among mainline Protestants.

Thus, one answer to the question of organizational support for church innovation in The United Methodist Church would be to have more United Methodists go off and form their own organizations, separate from the current structure. This argument is sometimes advanced in favor of UMC schism.

I’m not making that argument here. But I think the appeal of this approach to Americans does put the onus on those committed to some form of continued organizational connection to provide an account of how innovation can still happen within that larger organizational system. I’ll offer one such possibility next week.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Central Conference Bishops

For those looking to learn more about United Methodism outside the United States, several recent interviews with bishops from the central conferences are a good way to do that. Here's a list:

Joe Iovino interviews German bishop Harald Rückert for the Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast.

Joe Iovino interviews Filipino bishop Rodolfo A. Juan for the Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast.

Bishop Christian Alsted gives a short overview of The United Methodist Church in Norway.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mission, Structure, and Innovation

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.

In a previous post, I compared the historical arc of (primarily white) American Methodism over the past century with the story of the tower of Babel. American Methodists sought to build impressive towers, both literally in terms of church buildings and metaphorically in terms of organizational systems. Our languages, however, have become confused from one another so that we have been unable to keep building our organizational towers.

Yet even if we were able to continue to build our organizational towers, there would still be dangers. Organizations tend toward standardization and bureaucratization, which leads to rigidity. But rigidity leads to fragility, both in physical buildings and in organizational systems. Physical buildings that do not have give can be toppled by strong winds or earthquakes. Organizations that do not have give exclude innovation and thus can be toppled by the daily (strong winds) or cataclysmic (earthquakes) changes of our world.

Innovation is necessary for the long-term success of organizations. Without innovation, organizations become maladapted to a changing world. But organizational systematization is both a human need and a powerful temptation that can lead groups to exclude innovation.

In Christianity, mission is often the innovation of the church. This is especially true of evangelism, which starts new church congregations and brings in new Christians. This type of innovation provides Christianity a basic necessary organizational resource for its continuation – adherents. Yet other forms of mission can also be a form of innovation. Mission of compassion and social justice mission both witness to God’s reign by meeting the pressing, current pains of the world and thus keeping the church connected to a changing world.

If we care about mission, then we should ask: How can we foster innovation as United Methodists?

There are many skills, beliefs, knowledge sets, and behaviors required for successful evangelism/mission/innovation. One answer to the question of how we foster innovation could thus look at how to impart these skills, beliefs, knowledge sets, and behaviors to United Methodists.

But I think it is important to recognize that innovation is already happening all the time in the church, whether that’s through Fresh Expressions, mission in new countries started by African annual conferences, dinner churches, creation care ministries, migrant ministries in Germany, etc. I think people are naturally creative and innovative, and some level of innovation happens no matter what.

Thus, another approach to the question of how to foster innovation in United Methodism is to ask how we can recognize and structurally support the innovations that are already happening. How can we empower and legitimize those who are already innovating?

Of course, there’s a larger question of whether The United Methodist Church actually wants innovation. The book Immunity to Change suggests that people don’t change dysfunctional systems because those systems are actually working for them, they are providing the people involved with something important, even if there are negative consequences associated with it. We may not actually want innovation and change in the UMC if we see it as jeopardizing deeply held beliefs, values, habits. Even if a lack of innovation slowly kills us, we may be willing to accept that death if it means we don’t have to live without our cherished traditions and existing structures.

We’re going to assume, though, that the UMC, or at least those interested in mission in the UMC, are open to change, are willing to risk some of what they currently get from the church for the sake of something new. Thus, my next two blog posts will look at the question of how organizational forms can succeed in fostering innovation.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Recommended Reading: Mission: what are we missing?

Missio Dei has become a critical term in contemporary missiology. It was developed in large part to critique an approach to mission that was dominated by the Western church, propagating Western imperialism and institutional concerns. This helpful reflection from French missiology Gerard Kelly examines ways in which we can still fail to fully understand missio Dei by making it still primarily about human action. Kelly offers five affirmations about missio Dei that he believes can provide for a more faithful, joyful approach to mission.