Monday, April 30, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Living Our Principles

The General Board of Church and Society has produced a series of six videos featuring reflections from United Methodists around the world on the denomination's Social Principles. As GBCS notes in their press release announcing the video resource, the videos feature interviews with United Methodists from the US, Africa, and the Philippines. The episodes, each of which focuses on one section of the Social Principles, range in length from 40 minutes to about an hour. While the Social Principles are being revised, and the new Principles are available for comment, the videos are a useful resource not just for what they reveal about the current form of the document, but even more so for the ways in which they show a common United Methodist document being used and interpreted in many contexts around the world.

Friday, April 27, 2018

E. Julu Swen: Sharing on the “Anti-Christian” Comments of Two Great Churchmen

Today's post is by E. Julu Swen. Mr. Swen is a journalist and United Methodist from Liberia. An original version of the piece appeared on the author's personal blog. It is used with permission.

The world was rocked a few years ago by the comments of Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and retired Archbishop Bishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church in South Africa in support of gay and lesbian communities. In their separate comments, each clergyman supported the fact that the constituents of these communities have legitimate rights to God's Kingdom and said that he was in no way going to serve as a barrier to any of these people in their attempt to seek entrance to God's Kingdom. Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “God should allow gay people into heaven,” while Pope Francis said, 'If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?”

Surely, these comments were too hard for any soft-headed Christian to take lightly, especially coming from Pope Francis and Bishop Tutu, two great Christians, if I may put it that way.

In Liberia and in the social media (Facebook) there were several comments about the truthfulness of Bishop Tutu's Christian stance on the gay issue. “The Bishop is not a Christian,” one comment read. As I read through the various comments, I was tempted to ask whether these people were now taking the place of God, to be condemning other individuals for their failings to follow God's instruction of righteous living instead of leaving that assignment to God.

I did not see similar comments on the pronouncement of Pope Francis simply because it was not on the social media (Facebook) or not on my page. With the millions of Catholics around world and the numbers of sexual abuse cases haunting the Catholic Church, eggs would have been thrown at the Pope or even at television sets if his congregations were watching around the world. As a matter of fact, thank God Pope Francis made the comment on the plane after a well-attended meeting in Brazil. Had he made the statement in one of those gathering in Brazil, he would have lost more than half his audience.

I strongly think that these two outstanding men are not alone in their thoughts and beliefs. As a matter of fact, I want to share in their stance on the issue of the rights of gay and lesbian communities. There are several institutions and documentation that support these positions. Additionally, I am sure it is not the place of any one person to condemn another for a decision that rests purely with God.

I read that Bishop Tutu's comments were in opposition to the decision of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe who threatened to “chop off the heads of gays & lesbians in his country.” As if there were not too many criminal activities in that part of the African continent or on the continent as a whole, why would any leader want to kill his people just because of their choice of life? How many gallows are there for the armed robbers, drug pushers and users, sex offenders, and all the various kinds of trafficking and traffickers? Oh, maybe African leaders, especially in those countries where there are laws against gay and lesbian practice, are getting kickbacks from the other criminal activities, which they are not getting from the gay and lesbian people.

"I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this" Bishop Tutu said in his support of gay rights, something largely shunned and frowned upon on the African continent. Yet a lot of Africans, myself included, are not made destitute by the gay and lesbian people, but rather by the individuals who preside over our nations as presidents, lawmakers, and judges. These are the people we should shun, instead of the tiniest minority whose orientation is different from ours.

As I rumble through these classic statements (my description) of these two great Christians, especially, Bishop Tutu's, I realize that individuals with different sexual orientation have a place in God's Kingdom once they are transformed by God Himself. I am not certain that Bishop Tutu would want sinners and their sins in heaven, just as the Pope Francis would not want to interact with people who practice homosexual acts, unlike those with homosexual orientation. For example, Pope Francis stated, “There is a Catholic teaching that separates those with homosexual orientation from those who practice homosexual acts.” According to the Pope, the orientation is not sin; it is the act that is considered sinful.

I think the retired Archbishop Tutu's desire to be in heaven with gay people is rooted in the scriptures. “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:9-11).

This is where I share in Bishop Tutu's comment. If the Apostle Paul can recognize the already washed people of God with their former identity, who is the Bishop to think that gay people will not be in heaven? The logical content of the Bishop's comment gets my strongest support.

I would not have agreed with Pope Francis more if I had not read what the Scriptures said about God's position on these matters. As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:13-16).

For example, the Pope admitted that there is “a lot written about the gay lobby in the Vatican, but I still have not seen anyone in the Vatican with an identity card saying they are gay.” The same is true about all the religious institutions (especially churches) in the world. We all go to church with some kind of sin under our sleeves or with someone we know is living a sinful life. Surely, we don't stop going because of that reason. We either talk them into changing or pray for them to change; and gays and lesbians are included.

The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God's grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (BOD para. 161, The Nurturing Community).

Based on all these documentations and others that I cannot cite in this piece, I share in and support the stance of these two great men who in my lifetime have presided over and are still presiding over large Christian communities in the world. I strongly believe that there is room for more at the Cross of Jesus and this includes washed and transformed gay and lesbian people. As a matter of fact, the UMC Book of Discipline states that “the grace of God is available to all”; and in my judgment, that grace can only be found in God’s house, the Church.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

How much Methodist structure is necessary globally?

Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the third of a four-part series on money and relationships in the global church. Dr. Scott is Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of Global Ministries.

Over the past couple weeks, I have been raising the question of how United Methodists can face the problem of vast economic inequality in the church in a way that preserves relationship between rich and poor without turning those relationships into ones of dependence solidifying inequalities of power. Last week’s post examined the asset-based development approach, which is a way of relativizing the economic resources shared by the rich by recognizing the value of other, non-economic resources. Today’s approach, reducing the church structures required globally, is a means to reduce the need for economic resources to be shared from the rich to the poor.

The United Methodist Church and its predecessors, along with Western Protestant missionaries generally, have promoted through their civilizing missions a rather expensive model of being church based on Western modernity. People joke about the UMC being nothing but committees. Yet this joke gets at a truth: The United Methodist Church is organized in a particular way that presumes various aspects of a modern voluntary organization – committees, officers, by-laws, etc. And this is to say nothing about the buildings, programming, and paid staff that also go along with how we understand church.

The rub is that all of these – buildings, programming, paid staff, non-local committee meetings – require financial resources. As detailed last week, other assets are necessary for the work of the church, and these other assets must be recognized as such and valued accordingly. Still, financial assets are needed, and the more buildings, programming, paid staff, and non-local committee meetings you have, the more money you need to fund them. Such buildings, programming, staff, and meetings are not necessarily bad, but we make a mistake if we assume they must characterize the church everywhere and at all times.

If the church in all locations is required to have a certain level of these expenses that exceeds local abilities in poor countries to pay for them, then the church in those countries must rely on the church in rich countries to underwrite this approach to church. In this case, the church in poor countries must not only beg for money to help carry out ministries in society such as health and education ministries, it must rely on the church in rich countries for the basic operations of the church. When the church in a poor country cannot pay for its on-going basic operations, it becomes dependent on the church in rich countries in ways that psychologically, morally, and spiritually distort both poor and rich.

If a church (either a congregation or a regional body) lacks the funds to pay for all of its basic operations, there are two solutions to that problem: increase revenues or decrease costs. I’ll look at possible ways to increase revenues in next week’s post, but for this week, I want to talk about the other half of the equation: decreasing costs.

I would like to make a distinction between decreasing costs and cutting costs. The latter is a management technique arising out of modern capitalism that seeks to do the same things while spending less by realizing greater efficiencies in process. By the former I mean a wholesale rethinking of what costs are necessary in all parts of the church around the globe and jettisoning those that are not necessary in particular local contexts.

While United Methodists are tied to a modern, organizational understanding of the church, it is important to point out that the church hasn’t meant the same thing in all places and times. While the church has certainly required some level of resources to operate and the church in some places and times has had great wealth relative to its surrounding society, that is not to say that all churches have always required the same level of resources that are required to pay for several full-time staff, a modern building with utilities, an array of professionalized ministries, and frequent national and international travel.

One way to decrease the costs of being church is to decide that some of these components are not universally necessary or not necessary in the same quantities as we currently have them in the UMC. This could mean reducing professionalized ministries, full-time ministers, required committee meetings, etc. I say this not to make a case for getting rid of any particular one of these options, but to give a sense of the range of what could be possible.

Moreover, I am not calling for rich Western United Methodists to unilaterally tell poor United Methodists, either in other countries or in their own home countries, that they will no longer pay for things that the poor United Methodists hold dear. What I am suggesting is that all United Methodists support and encourage local adaptation and contextualization of the church that takes into consideration the economic conditions of the church along with its social, political, and religious conditions.

To some extent, such adaptation already happens. Church does means something different in a village church in Mozambique than it does in a suburban megachurch in Texas, and that is well and good.

Yet to continue this process of adapting the church to its local economic and other conditions would also require some changes to the Book of Discipline, which often stipulates a model of church based on a presumed American level of financial wherewithal. Such changes are part of what’s going on with the effort to create a Global Book of Discipline. Thus, that effort is to be commended and encouraged.

In this process of adaptation, rich United Methodists must not presume to determine for poor United Methodists what structures they should have locally. They should listen to poor United Methodists to find out what parts of church structure they find necessary, relevant, and sustainable in their contexts. In so doing, rich United Methodists must adopt a posture of listening and learning. Certainly, they can engage poor United Methodists in conversations about financial sustainability, but these much be conversations and not proclamations on the part of the rich.

Adopting less expensive local adaptations of church and its ministries would mean that money is less a factor in relationships between different branches of The United Methodist Church, since fewer poorer branches would be dependent upon richer branches for their very existence. Moreover, to the extent that money does flow from richer United Methodists to poorer United Methodists, it can be part of asset-based partnerships to transform the world and not just keep the lights on. Thus, adaptation of church structures can yield not only greater equality, but greater mission as well.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Recommended Readings: United Methodism in Germany

In case you missed it, United Methodist News Service has been putting out a series of stories about The United Methodist Church in Germany. While entries in this series go back a couple of years, many of the stories have been published in the last couple of months. Not only are these stories a chance to learn more about United Methodism in another part of the world, most also deal directly with the church as it is in mission.

Among the stories are several about United Methodists seeking revitalized congregations and new ministries in the community.

Also included are several about the history of deaconesses in the German UMC.

Quite a number of the stories address immigration within society and within the church.

The General Board of Church and Society also met recently in Berlin, Germany. Board members were given another glimpse into the German church and German society. GBCS, UM News Service #1, UM News Service #2the Germany Episcopal Area #1, and the Germany Episcopal Area #2 all wrote articles on this meeting.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The Church Exists for Mission

This is the third of a three-part blog by Rev. Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, that will discuss the work of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of The United Methodist Church.

Swiss theologian Emil Brunner wrote his now famous statement in 1931 that has redefined the church’s mission: “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning.”[1] As the United Methodist Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the uniting General Conference in 1968 it is a good time to reflect on the mission of the church and purpose of its organizational structure. Sometimes denominations and church structures can experience unintended “drift,” and take on a life of their own. German theologian Paul Tillich cautioned about the important balance between form and dynamics (Spirit) that healthy churches should maintain. Tillich went so far as to caution against an institution becoming too set or rigid in its form and become the object of idolatry.

This reflection will follow-up on my two previous blogs (blog 1 and blog 2) on the global nature of the UMC on the anniversary of Cuban Methodist autonomy. I will revisit the work of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS) that examined the organization of the Methodist and then the United Methodist Church in the 1960s and early 1970s. I think that you will agree that many of the issues studied by COSMOS are still relevant today—if not more so.

John Wesley gave the Methodist movement great vision and direction when he wrote in the "Large" Minutes: "What may we reasonably believe to be God's design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land."[2] When American Methodism was launched and ready to become its own denomination Wesley wrote with mixed-feelings:

As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.[3]

This freedom of innovation and the importance of context, as well as connection, has been at the heart of Methodism from the beginning.

In the midst of conversations of unity between The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren, the 1964 General Conference of The Methodist Church continued Wesley’s vision for the global church when it approved this statement: “In the growth and maturing of Methodist churches overseas two basic principles are apparent, in one way or another, in all forms of organization: 1) the principle of freedom, and 2) the principle of fellowship.” Today the conversations of the Commission on the Way Forward still embody these two foci.

To carry out this vision, the 1964 General Conference mandated COSMOS to “study the structure and supervision of The Methodist Church in its work outside the United States and its territories and its relationships to other Church bodies…”[4] Taking up this mantle, the commission held study committees in every central and annual conference outside the United States, as well as consultations with British Methodists and the World Methodist Council. In addition, COSMOS had a major consultation in Green Lake, Wisconsin in 1966. In attendance were 250 leaders from 48 countries including bishops, board executives, clergy and laity representatives from the central and annual conferences around the world. One representative from Singapore, Yap Kim Hao, spoke on behalf of autonomy at the consultation:

Autonomy is not so much a question of self-government or independence as that of the principle of freedom. We are primarily interested and vitally concerned with the Church making her own witness in the social and political environment which is clearly delimited in our world today. We are attentive to the freedom of our people to make an unfettered response to God and His word which is spoken to us in our living situation.[5]

Yap Kim Hao went on to argue at the consultation that Methodist churches in Africa and Asia could not afford to be seen as a western institution imposed upon local people and advocated becoming affiliated autonomous Methodist churches with equal partnerships while still maintaining fraternal relationships with the Methodist Church in the United States.[6] Two years after the consultation, Yap Kim Hao was elected the first Asian bishop of the newly formed Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore in 1968.

Based on its findings from the consultation, COSMOS reported to the 1968 General Conference. They recommended that structural change of world Methodism is “desirable and necessary” and gave the following reasons:

  1. There has been growth both in membership and in the strength of leadership in Methodist groups outside the United States. These groups want greater freedom to make decisions.

  2. The spread of nationalism, finding expression in new nations and a greater desire for independence and self-determination, has created a new climate in which the church must carry out its mission.

  3. Methodist churches outside the United States are now both receiving and sending missionaries. Present structures, created and controlled by a General Conference, 90 percent of whose delegates are from the United States and 90 percent of whose time is devoted to concerns of the American church, cannot give proper consideration to the different conditions of 45 countries involved.

  4. The emergence of the World Council of Churches and regional conferences such as the East Asian Christian Conference raise questions as to how Methodist groups should be related in these areas and be fully participating members of these bodies and at the same time under the jurisdiction of the General Conference. Similar problems exist in Africa, Latin America and India.

  5. A deepening conviction that to drift or make minor shifts in present structures is to decide against a world church; by default annual conferences of Malaysia, Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Peru and Uruguay become autonomous.[7]

The Uniting Conference that was held in Dallas 50 years ago this month accepted the report of the commission and granted autonomy to those annual conferences outside the United States that had requested it, but did not act on any of the recommendations for greater structural change. After unification, COSMOS continued to work for one more quadrennium until the 1972 General Conference, at which time it was disbanded. The United Methodist structure has remained largely the same ever since.[8]

I would posit that many of the issues addressed by COSMOS are still factors today and the church would do well to use this occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of The United Methodist Church to revisit our original purpose so that the structure will always follow the mission of the church.

I have argued in other places that we can maintain an international Methodist connection while simultaneously giving freedom to regional bodies to develop a structure more suitable to their context and culture and in obedience to local laws. I believe that we can create a more fluid structure while also maintaining the two principles established by the 1964 General Conference of fellowship and freedom, or in the words of Tillich “form” and “dynamics.”

We can do all this while continuing Wesley’s vision for Methodism “to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.” He gave early American Methodists this same freedom in 1784, and it remains a good organizing principle for global Methodism. Just as Emil Bruner stated “The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by mission.”[9]

[1] Emil Brunner, The Word and the World, London: World Student Movement, 1931, p.108.
[2] John Wesley, Works, Jackson Edition, vol.8; Baker, 1978, p. 299.
[3] This letter was sent with Thomas Coke and distributed to American Methodists in 1784 along with the Sunday Service and an edited version of the Articles of Religion. Letters of John Wesley.
[4] Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, Report No. 1, Book of Discipline, 1968, p. 1778.
[5] Yap Kim Hao, A Bishop Remembers, Singapore: Gospel Works, 2006, 66.
[6] Ibid, 67.
[7] Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, Report No.1, Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 1968, 1784.
[8] The General Conference has created a Commission on the Worldwide Nature of the Church and they have made recommendations to several General Conferences, but no major structural changes have been implemented. See my 3-part blog on “The Cost of Being a Global Church” November 10, 17, and 24, 2015, www.umglobal.org.
[9] Emil Brunner, The Word and the World, London: World Student Movement, 1931, p.108.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What are your assets?

Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the second of a four-part series on money and relationships in the global church. Dr. Scott is Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of Global Ministries.

Last week, I raised the question of how United Methodists can face the problem of vast economic inequality in the church in a way that preserves relationship between rich and poor without turning those relationships into ones of dependence solidifying inequalities of power. I noted the importance of the rich sharing with the poor, for not to do so would destroy relationship by implying that the rich did not care for the poor. If the rich must share, then, how can they share without creating dependency?

One approach to sharing without creating dependency is asset-based partnerships. Asset-based partnerships can involve partners with varying levels of financial resources working together to address issues in the church and the world, but in a way that is intended to create more equal partnership between all participants, regardless of their level of financial resources.

The key to asset-based approaches is realizing that money is only one form of asset. While Americans are socialized to understand assets in economic terms, an asset can be defined as anything of value, or anything that is helpful for accomplishing work. In Christian theological language, an asset is any gift or grace given us by God.

Certainly, money is an asset, and most undertakings require a certain amount of money. But the important insight of asset-based approaches is that money is far from the only asset. Other assets include knowledge, skills, abilities, relationships, networks, authority, physical resources, and even prayer and spirituality. All of these assets can be necessary to accomplish a project, and thus all of them have value. Therefore, all of them should be recognized as valuable. If we think of assets as treasure, then they should not be understood only as economic riches, but as anything which we actively treasure, which we hold in high value.

The other important tenet of asset-based approaches to partnership is that not only is there a wide variety of assets, but all people and groups have some assets. Not all individuals may have the same level of financial assets, but the poor have other assets along with whatever meager amount of financial assets they do have. They also have knowledge, skills, abilities, relationships, networks, and spirituality. Asset-based partnerships recognize the assets that are contributed by all who participate.

Asset-based partnerships thus shift the mentality of partnership from “We, the rich, have the money; therefore, we will make the decisions,” to “We are all contributing necessary assets to this project; therefore, we all have a say in how the project will go, since it would not work without all of us.” Asset-based partnerships thus require give and take, listening, and mutual understanding.

Such an approach requires some spiritual effort and humility on the part of the rich. One of the ways in which wealth negatively affects the rich is that it distorts their views of themselves, creating the conditions for pride from assuming that their wealth means that they also have more of other assets than other people – knowledge, skills, networks, and even spirituality. The rich must be willing to not only give up their riches but give up their sense of superiority.

For the rich to open themselves up to recognize and receive the assets of the poor requires some kenosis – some self-emptying. Yet, as Christians, we have the greatest example of self-emptying in Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God, did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Rich Western United Methodists must ask ourselves how we can empty ourselves and become obedient, both to God and to the poor. To do so will require vulnerability, which may run counter to American culture, but it is a direct response to the gospel call.

Despite the spiritual and psychological challenges to the rich in adopting this model, it has been an important one promoted by Global Ministries, the World Council of Churches, and secular development organizations. One expression of such an approach is mission roundtables, which seek to bring together partners around an issue on a relatively equal footing that recognizes the assets of all.

Asset-based approaches do not remove all inequalities. Asset-based partnerships still usually involve rich Christians and poor Christians working together in poor Christians’ countries, not rich Christians’ countries. Rich Christians have by and large not yet recognized that poor Christians may have something to contribute to the ministry of rich Christians in their own home contexts, perhaps an inevitable reflection of a world in which not only wealth, but health, peace, education, and well-being are inequitably distributed.

Persistent inequalities in wealth and well-being that create rich and poor are not God’s desire for the world. Yet, while inequalities do persist, asset-based partnerships address the important and biblical injunction for the rich to share of their wealth with the poor. They are an important part of the solution, especially when combined with other partial solutions, such as my post next week will explore.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Recommended Reading: Matt Rawle, Juan Huertas & Katie McKay-Simpson on #MyHope4Methodism

Ministry Matters, in conjunction with Abingdon Press's Faultlines collection, recently published a post entitled "Finding Hope in the UMC." The article is written by Louisiana Annual Conference pastors Matt Rawle, Juan Huertas, and Katie McKay-Simpson. The piece is an excerpt from their recently-published book The Marks of Hope: Where the Spirit is Moving in a Wounded Church.

The authors center their hope for the UMC in the local church. The article also specifically mentions mission as an aspect of hope.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: My Islamic Neighbor

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Mission Friendships with Our Islamic Neighbors
The Mission Dialogue Forum of Global Ministries in Atlanta invited an eminent Islamic educator, Dr. Khalid Siddiq, to speak on March 25, 2018.

Dr. Siddiq, who is a Pakistani national, is a medical doctor specialized in endocrinology. He also serves as the director of outreach at the Al Farooq Masjid in Atlanta, which was established in 1980 in response to growing Islamic communities in Atlanta, especially the migrant community. On a usual Friday, nearly 500 Muslims came for Salah. The Masjid founded the Dar-un-Noor School in 1990 that now has about 200 students in grades pre-K through 8, learning traditional academic subjects in addition to Islamic Studies and Arabic.

One of my very first encounters with the Muslim community in the United States was to visit Al Farooq Masjid in Atlanta in July 2017 with Candler School of Theology summer intern to Global Ministries, Luis Velasquez. We both had a wonderful exposure, good welcome and met several people including Dr. Khalid Siddiq at the mosque.

Dr. Siddiq, being a faithful follower of Islam and an academic, offered Global Ministries staff a wonderful introduction to the basics of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. This session was most helpful as the work of the Global Ministries is spreading globally. Interfaith is also important in understanding an emerging U.S. context. I think churches should intentionally be doing more interfaith activities as our multi-cultural society grows.

Demographics Matter
Let us gather some recent empirical data on the religious landscape. Islam is predicted to rise in the United States. There were about 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States in 2017, and thus Muslims made up about 1.1% of the total U.S. population. By 2050, the U.S. Muslim population is projected to reach 8.1 million, or 2.1% of the nation’s total population—twice the share of today.

Looking at the global scale, it is estimated that by 2050 the number of Muslims worldwide will grow to 2.76 billion, or 29.7% of the world’s population. The share of the world’s Muslims who live in sub-Saharan Africa will increase from 15.5% in 2010 to 24.3%.  Asia, which is home to more of the world’s Muslims (61.7%) than all the other regions combined, will continue to host most of the world’s Muslims (see http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/31/worlds-muslim-population-more-widespread-than-you-might-think/). So, Muslims with their global presence will have neighbors from other faiths in almost in every part of the world.

This changing religious landscape must be taken seriously, must be addressed creatively, and calls us to engage meaningfully if we are to have world peace. In this endeavor, the initiatives taken by Muslims for dialogue are of paramount significance while churches are continuing their interfaith ministries.

Our Islamic Neighbor
As Christians, should we not celebrate our neighbor? What is the significance of interfaith friendships in Mission of God today?

It is of prime importance that the Christians should deal with Islamophobia, prejudices, and misunderstandings that we have about Muslims. This is growing in general, even at the global level, and can be as dangerous as racism. While moderate citizens are very critical of Jihadist segments of the Muslim population, we must know that all Muslims are not extremists or fundamentalists. Quickening negative judgments is not the way.

Understanding the faith of the other is the way of wisdom. On a very basic level, we Christians need to improve our knowledge and awareness of the faiths of our neighbors. It is our missiological responsibility to understand and dialogue with our Muslim neighbors in these challenging times. Jesus’ golden commandment is “love your neighbor,” and loving our neighbor involves understanding her or his faith, culture and lifestyle. While academic study helps, we must go beyond academic knowledge and relate to our neighbor in a living manner in our day-to-day life. Interfaith relationships are not just a technical skill to acquire but also a gift from God to every Christian arising from God’s love.

Sri Lankan Dialogue Experiences
In Sri Lanka where I had my longest ministry thus far, four living major religions are present: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Communities of these faiths live and do things together in a multi-religious society. So, dialogue becomes a daily experience. We called this “dialogue of life.”

The Theological College of Lanka, Pilimatalawa (Kandy), where I taught and was the principal for five years (2010-2015), has a strong ecumenical tradition of interfaith education and work. We have Islamic leaders come and teach the seminary students, who will be in the ministry and mission in the future. Students along with the faculty regularly visit the mosques as part of their educational and cross-cultural exposures. This is a transformational experience for missions. This work helps the future theologians, ministers, and lay leaders to respond to conflict and tensions with more understanding, discernment, and peace-building, leading to reconciliation of all communities.

We have experienced the fruits of this interfaith work for harvesting peace. D.T. Niles, Lynn De Silva, W.J.T. Small, Basil Jackson, Soma Perera, D.K. Wilson, R.S. Sugirtharajah, and Wesley Ariarajah are some prominent Methodists from Sri Lanka who contributed to a greater interfaith understanding in mission and Christian witness in a multi-faith world. Their work reaches beyond Methodism.

The Other as a Partner in a Mission
Can we consider our Islamic neighbors as a partner in mission?

The World Council of Churches’ recent mission statement, Together Towards Life (TTL 2013) (para 93), challenges us in the right direction:

"In the plurality and complexity of today’s world, we encounter people of many different faiths, ideologies, and convictions. We believe that the Spirit of Life brings joy and fullness of life. God’s Spirit, therefore, can be found in all cultures that affirm life. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, and we do not fully understand the workings of the Spirit in other faith traditions. We acknowledge that there is inherent value and wisdom in diverse life-giving spiritualities. Therefore, authentic mission makes the “other” a partner in, not an “object” of mission."

I was also delighted to note the American Society of Missiology has chosen “Interfaith Friendship as an Incarnational Mission Practice’ as its yearly theme in 2018.

My Islamic neighbor is my FRIEND. Best wishes for greater interfaith friendships in God’s mission, and Salam, سلام, Shanthi, Peace!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Money is the biggest problem in the global church today

Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the first of a four-part series on money and relationships in the global church. Dr. Scott is Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of Global Ministries.

The United Methodist Church has a big problem.

No, it’s not the debate over sexuality.

No, it’s not the long-term membership decline in the US or flat membership most places in the world.

It’s not overly bureaucratic boards or creeping congregationalism or theological confusion or any of the other problems commonly named in the denomination.

It’s a huge problem that stabs at the heart of how we relate to each other as a global church, yet it’s also a problem that we don’t talk about. It makes us so uncomfortable, that we avoid even recognizing this problem as one.

This problem is money.

Specifically, the problem is the vast economic inequalities between the different branches of the church and the relational and spiritual distortions caused by these inequalities.

To be fair, The United Methodist Church is not alone in this problem. We live in a world of vast disparities in wealth, the result of a capitalist system designed to accumulate ever greater amounts of wealth for those who already have it. Many indicators show that wealth distribution globally is becoming ever more unequal. The tiny number of ultra-wealthy hoard every larger percentages of the world’s total wealth, while millions live on pennies a day.

Yet even taking the ultra-wealthy out of the picture, the financial disparities between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or between Norway and Liberia, are still stark. The US’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is 72 times that of the Congo. Norway’s is 78 times that of Liberia.

The UMC operates in several of the world’s wealthiest countries, but also in several of the poorest countries in the world. The world’s inequalities are our inequalities. We cannot pretend that the problem of wealth is a problem only for the Bill Gates of the world; it is a problem for the Western church generally. While our missionaries may come from everywhere and go everywhere, our money does not.

Again, this problem affects more than just United Methodists. This problem applies to World Christianity as a whole. The World Council of Churches has been wrestling with how Christians can be in partnership with one another across vast economic inequalities for decades. Yet the World Council of Churches has at least been facing and trying to come to grips with this problem. Despite statements in the Book of Resolutions, The UMC as a whole has yet to fully acknowledge this problem as such.

Wealth inequality in the church is a problem for several reasons. To begin with, there are the many, many biblical teachings on wealthy, poverty, and economic justice that speak of God’s concern for the poor. Money is an overriding concern for Jesus and the rest of the Bible, but rarely for the Western church. A full review of the Bible’s teachings on money is beyond the scope of this post but suffice it to say that our current capitalist world does not reflect the biblical ideals of a just economic community. Moreover, John Wesley reflected this biblical concern for the poor in his own ministry.

Second, as Jonathan Bonk and others have pointed out, wealth disparities in mission can distort the very message of the Gospel and how it is heard and understood, both by those with wealth and by those without wealth who encounter wealthy ambassadors of the Gospel. Many United Methodists would disparage the prosperity gospel, but how often do wealthy Western United Methodists unwittingly propagate just such a gospel by implying that the result of becoming Christian is to become like wealthy Americans?

Vast wealth inequalities also make it impossible to have healthy relationships among branches of a global church with dramatically different financial resources. Wealth inequality places the church in a dilemma:

On the one hand, were rich United Methodists not to share any of their resources with poor United Methodists, it would destroy relationship because it would imply that the rich did not care about the poor.

Yet, if rich United Methodists do share their resources with poor United Methodists, it is difficult to do so in a way that does not create patron-client relationships between rich and poor. In such relationships, the poor become subservient to and dependent upon the rich, who then have disproportionate power over the poor. Such power imbalances are difficult to reconcile with a Gospel and a polity that theoretically affirm the worth of all, regardless of how much money they have.

As I said at the beginning, the problem of money is a big problem. There are not a lot of easy solutions. The problem of money may even be more difficult to resolve than the debate over sexuality in the church.

Nonetheless, over the next three weeks, I will look at three possible partial solutions. The first is asset-based approaches to relationship building; the second is reducing the amount of church structure required in all locations; the third is a self-supporting approach to church and mission. The first approach seeks to create more equitable approaches to sharing. The second and third seek to reduce dependency by poorer branches of the church on the richer branches. None of them is the entire solution, but all may be pieces of how we as the church can build a just, loving, and equitable global fellowship.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Plan Now: Methodist Mission Bicentennial Conference

The Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest denomination-wide mission organization in American Methodism, was founded on April 5, 1819. That means the 200th anniversary of its founding will happen in just under a year.

As part of the celebration of this milestone in Methodism, Global Ministries, in collaboration with Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, will be hosting a Methodist mission bicentennial conference called “Answering the Call: Hearing God’s Voice in Methodist Mission Past, Present, and Future.”

The conference will celebrate Methodism’s mission heritage and look to the future of Methodist mission. Rev. Dr. Arun Jones, Bishop Mande Muyombo, and Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath will be featured speakers. Joy Eva Bohol will present a youth address.

The conference will be held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, at the Emory University Conference Center Hotel, April 8-10, 2019.

Those interested in attending can indicate their interest here. The application found through this link is a non-binding pre-registration. An official registration system will be available later.

For academics, students, and mission practitioners, a call for papers is available here. The deadline for submissions is June 30, 2018, and selected papers will be announced after that.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Missional Retrospective on Martin Luther King Jr.

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The General Board of Global Ministries, now located in Atlanta, Georgia, has decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) as part of its biennial board meeting in April 2018. Global Ministries’ raison d'être in Atlanta is to make living connections and missional friendships with institutions, organizations and movements for mutual collaboration and ministry. Being relocated to Atlanta, the birth place of Rev. Dr. King, Global Ministries’ choice of remembrance testifies to The United Methodist Church about Global Ministries’ commitment for mission and witness in response to the biblical call to reconciliation, justice, and transformation of the world. Global Ministries also has a great interest in cross-cultural appraisal of Rev. Dr. King’s mission. This step is an encouragement to missiology to interpret Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s multi-faceted life and work for today’s mission and ministry.

I was honored to be part of the planning committee for the opening worship that will be held on April 12, 2018, in which Bishop Gregory V. Palmer will be the preacher. The liturgy we have organized reflects several themes of missional significance, including Rev. Dr. King’s legacy; his messages of desegregation, racial justice, and reconciliation; repentance of the structural evils of racism (both historical and present to this day); solidarity with the victims of institutional and other forms of racism; the dignity of every person; and hope for a better future. Our effort was to weave these themes into the worship service, with the church’s mission today in mind.

Missional Re-envisioning of Atlanta’s legacy
Atlanta played a significant role in the history of the civil rights struggle, and while for some, it was the “the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement,” others referred to it as “the city too busy to hate.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change stands today as a living testimony to ongoing work and mission in human rights and human dignity. It is unique that some significant historical black educational movements emerged in Atlanta , including several of the city’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities—Atlanta University, Spelman, Morris Brown, Morehouse, and Clark Colleges, and the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), in which consortium the famous Gammon Theological Seminary also participates—all of which created an unparalleled space for activism in civil rights and equality.

Perhaps it is important to note that following the civil rights struggle, Atlanta wished to be a role model city where the right to pluralism and the practice of religion and religious freedom are acknowledged; Atlanta is now notable for a dynamic interfaith movement and has become a place that offers spaces for followers of various world religious traditions. Initiatives in Tibetan Buddhism at the Emory University and The Swaminarayan Mandir, one of the largest Hindu Temples in the US that is situated in the suburbs of Atlanta, are two examples.

Atlanta also has its own share of continuing pains and agonizing racial struggles such as on segregation policies in housing, lack of infrastructure in predominantly black communities and issues of environmental racism. So Atlanta is not perfect, but darkness cannot overcome Atlanta’s light. Atlanta’s legacy in human rights may inspire other cities as well to become cities of peace and harmony. It also calls on churches to take the peace movement seriously in contemporary times accompanied by new challenges.


How did Rev. Dr. King cross cultures?
Rev. Dr. King’s mission laid the foundations for a vibrant global movement in developing human responsibilities, civil and human rights, and peace. His teachings and ministry have influenced work in minority rights, social equality, ethnic reconciliation, and the construction of a theology of peace on the part of secular thinkers, activists, and Christian practitioners worldwide. His cross-cultural influence is great and inspires us even more in today’s globalized world.

King supported the independent struggles of African nations to free themselves from colonialism and was a proponent of Pan Africanism. Prof. Jeremy Levitt, a scholar of International Law in the Florida A&M University College of Law, asserted that King had strong connections in Africa, among them Kwame Nkrumah, first prime minister and president of Ghana, Nnadami Azikwe, first president of Nigeria, Tom Mboya, one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Kenya, and Oliver Tambo, leader of South Africa’s African National Congress. King’s famous phrase, “Certainly injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” referred to Africa’s struggle against colonial rule, because his position was that so long as problems exist in Africa or Asia or in any region of the United States, we must take them seriously. Revered by African leaders for his work in the Civil Rights Movements, King and his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, responded to a personal invitation from Ghana’s new Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah to attend the nations’ independence celebrations in 1957.

I read about Rev. Dr. King and his movement in my own language (Sinhalese) while I was in high school in Sri Lanka. I was missiologically fascinated by his emphasis on social equality, God’s image in every human being, social justice, the rights of all people, and non-violent social change. As a theologian and pastor, Rev. Dr. King played a significant role in my own biblical hermeneutics and missional praxis. Later, I realized that reading about Rev. Dr. King’s life and mission has had a strong influence on many Asians who stand for the rights of minorities, reconciliation and forgiveness, restorative justice in the contexts of civil and ethnic wars, and justice to the poor and marginalized.

The way in which Rev. Dr. King applied Mahatma Gandhi’s Ahimsa (Non-Violence) principle and his relationship with legendary Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, are solid inspirational proofs of his cross-cultural collaborations during times of evil, crisis, and conflict in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh and King both were part of the movement against the war in Vietnam.

Rev. Dr. King’s influence on Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar of India, popularly known as Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was a jurist, social reformer, and politician, must be acknowledged, although it is little known. He was known as the Father of the Indian Constitution and worked tirelessly to eradicate social evils such as untouchability, caste domination, and the caste system itself. Ambedkar was a Dalit himself, renounced Hinduism, and became a Buddhist. Recognizing the connection between Ambedkar and King, in 2017 the Karnataka government in India invited Martin Luther King III to mark the 126th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s birth. On that occasion, King III said that he believed Ambedkar and King were “…intellectually, philosophically, morally and spiritually cut from the same cloth.” He said as well, “They were brother revolutionaries whose minds and hearts were driven by justice and compassion.”

I have observed that the missional praxis of Dalit theologians reflects a great interest in Rev. Dr. King’s theological and political thoughts. Dalit theologians are attracted to King’s application of social egalitarianism and social liberation and engage in comparative theologizing between Black theologies and Dalit theologies. The social gospel dimension of King’s thought also has been of inspirational and significant interest to Dalit Christians.


Now is the Time!
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a costly prophetic mission. Missiological appraisal of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death raises several disturbing and challenging questions and calls us today to go beyond a simple memorial. This is where our ecclesial, missional, and pastoral comfort zones are being challenged and our missional calling refreshed.

1. Christian communities are called to evaluate our ministry and mission in racial justice and reconciliation critically. What is our response?

2. The Church is called to repent, apologize, change our lifestyles, and partake in God’s restorative justice. Does our mission engage in these efforts today?

3. How is the church’s mission called to take peace and reconciliation as a missional challenge and praxis given today’s context?

4. How should we take human responsibilities and human rights discourses into pastoral and missional praxis, both as a global church and as local churches? How can we join with the wider social and interfaith movements that work with similar interests in the common good?

Empower us, O Lord, though wounded, yet as healers, so that we can be your friends, to restore justice and humanity; to thirst for righteousness and truth; to create a new Heaven and a new Earth.

In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.—now is the time!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Resource: More world Methodist maps

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 few weeks ago, I published links indicating the presence of various World Methodist Council member denominations in countries around the world. Now, with some additional research (using the World Christian Database, the World Methodist Council website, and denominational websites), I have been able to compile maps showing total Methodist/Wesleyan membership by country and Methodism/Wesleyanism as a percentage of each country's population. Those maps are below.

First, a couple of caveats: I did not include the membership of United/Uniting denominations that are part of the World Methodist Council. I did not think it was fair to include all members as "Methodist" when these churches were formed out of the mergers of many Protestant traditions. Also, data is never perfect, and the data these maps are based on may not be perfect, especially in the case of smaller countries or countries with small Methodist/Wesleyan presence. In particular, I was not able to get country-level data for The Wesleyan Church, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, the Methodist Church of the Caribbean and Americas, and the Korean Methodist Church outside Korea directly from those denominations' websites, so I am relying on the less accurate WCD data for them.

Overall, these maps indicate that Methodism/Wesleyanism's areas of greatest strength are the United States, coastal West Africa, South Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Africa, the Caribbean, and parts of the Pacific. Methodism/Wesleyanism has a moderate presence in Latin America, south Asia, and southeast Asia. It is weak in Europe and central Asia. It is mostly non-existent in the Muslim world.

Methodist/Wesleyan Membership Totals

Note that those countries with large Methodist populations have a large total population and/or a large percentage of the population that is Methodist.

The United States has by far the largest number of Methodists/Wesleyans. 6 of the top 10 countries with the most Methodists/Wesleyans are African.

The top 10 countries with the largest Methodist populations are as follows:
1. The United States of America (13,689,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
2. Nigeria (3,304,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
3. India (3,154,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
4. Democratic Republic of Congo (2,910,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
5. South Korea (2,214,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
6. South Africa (1,676,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
7. Ghana (900,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
8. Cote d'Ivoire (688,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
9. Kenya (631,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)
10. Brazil (412,000 Methodists/Wesleyans)

Methodism/Wesleyanism as a Percentage of the Population

Most of the countries with the highest percentage of Methodists/Wesleyans in the population are small island nations in the Caribbean or Pacific with low overall populations. Liberia is the non-island nation with the highest percentage of its population that are Methodist/Wesleyan (6.9%), and it does not make the top ten. 6 of the top 10 most Methodist non-island nations are African.

Top 10 countries with the highest Methodist percentage of the population
1. Tonga (46.1% Methodist/Wesleyan)
2. Fiji (30.5% Methodist/Wesleyan)
3. Samoa (24.4% Methodist/Wesleyan)
4. St. Kitts and Nevis (22.0% Methodist/Wesleyan)
5. St. Vincent and the Grenadines (17.0% Methodist/Wesleyan)
6. Anguilla (16.0% Methodist/Wesleyan)
7. Bermuda (15.4% Methodist/Wesleyan)
8. American Samoa (14.9% Methodist/Wesleyan)
9. Turks and Caicos (14.7% Methodist/Wesleyan)
10. Antigua and Barbuda (9.7% Methodist/Wesleyan)

Top 10 non-island countries with the highest Methodist percentage of the population
1. Liberia (6.9% Methodist/Wesleyan)
2. Sierra Leone (5.0% Methodist/Wesleyan)
3. South Korea (4.3% Methodist/Wesleyan)
4. The United States of America (4.2% Methodist/Wesleyan)
5. Belize (3.5 % Methodist/Wesleyan)
6. Democratic Republic of Congo (3.5% Methodist/Wesleyan)
7. Ghana (3.0% Methodist/Wesleyan)
8. South Africa (2.9% Methodist/Wesleyan)
9. Guyana (2.8% Methodist/Wesleyan)
10. Cote d'Ivoire (2.8% Methodist/Wesleyan)

Continental totals
Finally, for those who are interested in the total membership, including United/Uniting churches, of World Methodist Council bodies broken out by continent, here's a map of that:

Monday, April 2, 2018

Recommended Reading: Norma Dollaga on having faith and being an activist

Friend of UM & Global Norma Dollaga has written a piece entitled "Having faith and being an activist is not a contradiction, but a fulfillment of self" on her personal blog, patentero. It in, she makes a case for faith-based activism. I appreciated the biblical grounding she provides for her argument and the connections she draws between activism and love. The latter seems a very Wesleyan approach.

Ms. Dollaga's piece comes out of long personal experience of faith-based activism and also serves as an important indicator of how Methodism is practiced in the Philippines, an area in which the UMC is confronted with serious issues of violence and justice in society and in which revivalism, evangelism, and social justice are not necessarily set against one another. In this regard, United Methodism in the Philippines more closely follows a holiness approach to Methodist theology common in the US in the nineteenth century, but neglected in the US since then.