Friday, June 29, 2018

William Payne: Contextualization: The Movement between Text and Context

Today's blog post is written by Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.

Contextualization is a theological imperative and a mission strategy. Succinctly, in the same way that God incarnated the divine self in Jesus by taking on the culture of a specific people, God calls the church to incarnate the faith into the cultural categories of the peoples that it seeks to reach as it “makes disciples of all nations.” Biblical faith is always a culture-specific faith. For this reason, world evangelization, contextualization, and indigenous Christianity go together.

Contextualization moves beyond cultural accommodation or translation of the Gospel. Through contextualization, God becomes Polish, Argentine, Chinese, and Mexican. In this sense, the incarnation is an ongoing process as the missional church continues to make Jesus Christ a living option to those who are separated from him by an assortment of social barriers related to culture, language, religion, and behavior.

Subcategories of people within a larger cultural group may continue the process of micro-contextualization. In the latter case, Jesus reveals himself to the poor, the disenfranchised, the abused, the neglected, the immigrant, and the unloved in specific ways. In the American context, Black theology is an example of contextualization. Theology is contextualized when a particular people who have internalized the gospel do theology from the perspective of their lived context.

Since there is an essential interplay between the community of faith, the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and a given context, one should expect global diversity. In fact, global Christianity should reflect distinctive theological orientations and ecclesial practices. The reality of contextualization pushes against the idea of dominant global traditions with homogenous practices.

The diversity that contextualization fosters should be celebrated as a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is leading a people into a deepening encounter with God and the scriptures. Dominant traditions that use power to westernize, civilize, secularize, or Latinize indigenous faith communities are working against contextualization and the Holy Spirit. Since all theology is contextual theology, the imposition of a dominant theology onto a receiving people leads to theological imperialism and works against the goal of contextualization.

For this reason, denominational extensions must be carefully managed so that the receiving population is able to contextualize and adapt the faith to their lived context as they engage the scriptures under the direct leadership of the Holy Spirit. Missionaries are evangelists, guides, encouragers, representatives, and friends; not policemen.

Having stated the obvious, advocates for contextual theology do not argue that church tradition is unimportant or that theological orthodoxy does not exist. In fact, discrete peoples do theology within a given set of orthodox boundaries. Furthermore, all Christians affirm that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one Church. When Jesus inaugurated the new humanity after his resurrection, he created a universal church in which the designation of “Christian” became a disciple’s primary identity marker. Because of that, the Body is not divided by race, gender, socio-economic status, political orientation, denominational affiliation, or geographic barriers. All Christians of every social location are called to strive for mutuality and unity in Christ. There is one, holy, apostolic, catholic church of which all true Christians participate. For this reason, Christians from a given context have a shared accountability with Christians from other contexts (mutual accountability).

Furthermore, contextualization is not an excuse for heterodoxy or for affirming practices that apostolic tradition and the witness of Scripture have rejected. For example, the New Testament Church argued against the Judaizers who tried to force Gentile believers to follow certain Jewish practices. Additionally, it rejected many aspects of the receiving cultures. The New Testament vice lists point to the church’s engagement with Hellenistic culture and its rejection of cultural practices that were not compatible with the Gospel. Just because the culture affirms something does not mean that God will affirm the resulting practice or related belief. The gospel is for culture and against culture at the same time.

In the same way that people have a fallen nature that needs to be transformed by grace, the cultures of the world are infected by the DNA of the fall. This is seen when the culture works against the purposes of God and becomes a means by which its people are kept in bondage, locked away from the truth of God and the liberation that God brings to those who receive Jesus.

Many evils are sanctioned by particular cultures around the world. The fact that a culture sanctions a behavior does not mean that the church should accommodate it. The scriptures do not affirm cultural relativism. For this reason, the church cannot support cultural practices that go contrary to the teaching of scripture.

Since contextualization is a process and not an event, after the people have enjoyed a sustained encounter with the Gospel, the fruit of social transformation should become visible. In the same way that the work of sanctification gradually moves forward in the individual, over time the community of faith will leaven the larger society as it lives into its calling to be salt and light. Social transformation should be an end result of contextualization.

Finally, missiologists do not use the term “contextualization” in the same way as other disciplines. For example, advocates for contextualized learning argue that true learning only takes place when teachers present information in a way that students can construct meaning based on their own experiences. Like a reader-response theological hermeneutic, a literary text or an old constitution does not have an independent or self-evident meaning. Rather, people give meaning to what they read based on their own experiences and social location. As such, the intent of the author is subordinated to the experience of the reader and the interpretation that arises from that.

The theology of scripture that emerges from the above approach views the scriptures as a cultural artifact that needs to be conformed to the modern context and the experience of the western reader. For example, demythologizing the text and the Jesus Seminar both reflect western attempts to contextualize the text to the western mind and its experience of reality. In the ensuing dance between gospel and culture, the culture is the leading partner. The theological outcome reflects the normative aspirations of secular society and creates a domesticated Gospel. That is, one fully decontextualizes the scriptures so one can reconstruct the scriptures in one’s own image. This process devalues the normative authority of scripture, overemphasizes a particular culture, and makes the church the master of divine revelation.

Traditionally, Methodists have affirmed the primacy of scripture and have argued that the church is tightly tethered to the scriptures. The scriptures are not a point of reference or a guide. Instead, they are a divine revelation that reveal God and show humankind God’s will. Even though the scriptures must be contextualized when they move from one culture to another, the meaning and intent of the scriptures cannot be changed. Otherwise, we move from contextualizing the text to reimagining the text. In the end, UM preachers are given authority to preach and teach the Holy Scriptures in light of our tradition. They are not given authority to change the meaning of the text in the name of contextualization or to accommodate culture in ways that the scriptures do not permit.

In conclusion, in the same way that God became a Jew in order to reveal the divine self and communicate God’s will to a people who were embedded within a cultural context, the church is called to “incarnate” the gospel into every culture so that the members of every society (people group) can have a culture-specific encounter with God and God’s revelation so that they can receive Christ and enter into God’s reign.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Peacemaking as a venue for asset-based mission parternships

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 recent posts, I have argued that the church should explore more asset-based approaches to mission to help address the problem of money in mission, that peacemaking is a hallmark of African-led United Methodist mission, and that peacemaking and solidarity with the suffering is a key to United Methodist membership growth in the Congo.

In this piece, I want to build on all three of these insights to suggest that American United Methodists should shift their mission thinking from the question of "How can we give charity to suffering Africans?" to "How can we support African-led initiatives to minister in solidarity with those who suffer?"

In the charity-giving understanding of mission, the problem is suffering, and the solution is American money. Yet, as multiple books have shown, this understanding of the problem and solution is both theologically problematic and ineffective for a variety of reasons.

Yet there is effective ministry being done by United Methodists to spread the gospel and to alleviate suffering in Africa. It's largely being done by Africans themselves, drawing on the assets of local communities, not by Americans showing up and giving handouts. In this model, the problem is separation from others and God and the solution is relationship and solidarity.

Americans showing up and giving handouts is a transaction, and one that is too often understood through the lens of patronage and not religion. It is the antithesis of suffering with those who suffer. African church leaders being in solidarity with their people amidst suffering is a relationship and one that testifies in an authentic way to the gospel.

The importance of African leadership in such missional efforts, however, does not mean that there are no roles for Americans in this type of mission. African leadership can use support. Without assistance from and connection to the outside world, there are grave dangers of pastors dying from disease or malnutrition or of entering into despair at having been forgotten about by the broader church. Connection and the right type of assistance can be very important.

To offer that connection and the right type of assistance, Americans must be willing to take a supportive role. That means not having to be the stars or the centers of the narrative. Such an attitude is challenging to American cultural presuppositions, but it follows the humble self-sacrifice to which Christ calls us. Moreover, it is essential to effective ministry work. Africa will be saved neither religiously nor economically through Western charity. It must be saved by Africans, who can call on the support of Westerners at times they choose in ways that they determine to be helpful.

In addition to being willing to take a supportive instead of a leading role, Americans must also be willing to form solid and equitable relationships with African partners and allow for mutual learning between Africans and Americans. Americans should not presume they have all the answers to African problems. Africans are already tackling their own problems. Yet there is value in having one's own problems reflected back to oneself through the eyes of an outsider. Africans can learn to better engage their own problems, not by learning from American expertise, but by being prompted by American question-asking, observation checking, and mutual discussion. Such mutual learning also allows Americans to learn how best to support African leaders.

Such a model of mission is a significant shift from how a lot of mission currently happens in the UMC. Yet there are good examples of such work going on. Monday's post highlighted one - Friendly Planet Missiology. The ZOE Project has also gotten a lot of attention as an example of the right type of Methodist mission in Africa. The United Methodist Radio Network is an example of a ministry that began with African initiative and has been enhanced by connectional resources. The Congo Women Arise campaign has combined leadership by African women and other church officials with support by American donors and media resources. Global Ministries' practice of mission roundtables seeks to facilitate mutual learning, relationship, and appropriate support. This list is by no means exhaustive, either. The models are out there. I challenge Americans to find them and support them.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Recommended Readings: Friendly Planet Missiology

This blog has featured several posts recently about African assets and initiatives in mission and about the state of the Democratic Republic of Congo. For those interested in exploring either topic more, a good resource is Friendly Planet Missiology (FPM). FPM is an NGO that seeks to promote non-colonial forms of mission and works to bring together Congolese and Americans in missional relationships that seek to support local communities in the Congo in leveraging their own assets and solving their own problems. Thus, FPM is an excellent source of missiological reflections about non-colonial models of mission and an excellent source of information about The United Methodist Church in the Congo. Particularly helpful resources include FPM's blog and a book by FPM co-founder Rev. Bob Walters.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Arun Jones: Mission in a World that is Falling Apart

Today's post is written by Dr. Arun Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology.

I woke up the other morning earlier than I would have wanted, and immediately realized that it was a bad dream that had jolted me out of my sleep.  The dream had to do with the political situation in our country, which is causing me and millions of my fellow citizens a great deal of anguish and pain.  But the dream was distressing not simply because of the condition of our country, but because I felt helpless to do anything about it.  Indeed, in my nightmare no one seemed to be able to do anything about it – not even the combined efforts of all the living past presidents of the United States.

My feeling of helplessness in the face of a powerful combination of immorality and amorality is not new; it has plagued me for some time now.  And I have often wondered, what does it mean to be engaged in mission in a world that one feels is falling apart?  And it is falling apart not just politically, but in so many other ways – socially, religiously, environmentally . . . the list goes on and on.  As a historian, so many of the missionaries I read about went into service because they were optimistic about the future – God’s mission was plain for them to see.  But what does that missio Dei look like now, in a world falling apart?  Where is it?  How can I join it?

Providentially (or serendipitously, depending upon your theology), I am slowly reading through the book of Revelation these days.  The slow reading is due to the fact that I am reading it in English and in two translations of Hindi, a language which I grew up speaking but which, because I don’t use it every day, I easily forget.  Reading the Bible in Hindi keeps reminding me of my mother tongue, and it also offers insights into different ways of reading scripture.  And the book of Revelation (mostly) addresses Christians whose world is falling apart.  So, following are my three takeaways from the book of Revelation about engaging in mission in a world that is falling apart.

First, faithfully keep doing good.  This “good” applies to both religious and social practice.  Don’t give into despair or apathy in a world gone morally awry.  I am so conditioned to looking for the heroic person (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the ‘60s; the living past presidents in my nightmare) to follow – in fact, so much of the theological rhetoric around me urges me to become the heroic person who others follow – that I count small gestures of faithful goodness as not worthy of the true missio Dei.  The book of Revelation reminds me that we are not all able or even called to be a Bonhoeffer, or a Miep Gies who, with others, hid the Frank family in her attic during the Nazi occupation of Holland.  But we are all called to continue doing good faithfully in our world falling apart, until the day of reckoning comes and our faithfulness is rewarded.

Second, stay in fellowship with others who are faithfully trying to do good.  There is a reason that Revelation was written as a letter to seven churches, and not seven letters to seven churches.  The author, John, wanted the churches to know how the others were doing, and what they were doing (and not doing).  One of the dangers of the current political scene (not only in the country but also in our churches) is that those who are calling for moral action are judging not simply whether others are good or not, but whether they are good enough to pass our high standards of goodness.  Super-morality seems to be the call of the day, to counteract the super immorality and amorality of our world.  Revelation reminds us to stay in fellowship with all who are trying to engage in goodness, even those who we judge are not doing enough to measure up to God’s high standards.  God is gracious and forgiving; are we to be greater than God?  The blood of the Lamb, in Revelation, washes away the sins of all the saints.

Finally, do not lose hope that things will change, and we shall witness the victory of God.  It’s pretty amazing that so much of the vision of John in the book of Revelation is devoted to the extremely difficult process of arriving at chapters 21 and 22, when a new heaven, a new earth, and a new city fashioned by God are revealed.  John’s vision is realistic – the hard part is getting to the new creation.  But, the vision says, the reward for faithfully cleaving to God’s mission through the current travails is participation in the new creation that is to come.  And our work, and the work of so many around us – as insignificant as that work may currently seem – is part of God’s great plan to restore goodness, truth and beauty to creation – even fallen humanity!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Is suffering the cause of UMC growth in the Congo?

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.

Here are two sets of facts:

1. The country of the Democratic Republic of Congo is the site of great turmoil, conflict, and suffering. Moreover, this suffering is not new and was actually greater over the past two decades during the First and Second Congo Wars.

2. The country of the Democratic Republic of Congo is the site of great church growth for the UMC. The number of United Methodists in the country has grown dramatically over the last two decades, and the DRC now has the second largest number of UMC members of any country globally.

Many might look at these two sets of facts and say, "Isn't it amazing how the UMC has grown in the Congo despite all the violence and conflict?"

Yet I would like to suggest that it is possible that UMC growth in the Congo has occurred not in spite of violence and conflict but because of violence, conflict, and how the church responded.

As this blog has shown recently, the UMC in Africa has an excellent history of peacemaking. Nowhere has this been more true than in the Congo. Bishop Ntambo served as a peacemaking intermediary between warring factions during the series of Congolese civil/international wars. He and other leaders of the UMC in the North Katanga Annual Conference and neighboring regions served sacrificially in supporting local non-combatants, suffering with the people, and helping communities survive during the war and rebuild after the war. You can read more about that process in Pamela Couture's We Are Not All Victims.

There were extraordinary costs to this sacrificial choice to support the people. Many pastors died. Serving as a peacemaking intermediary was a dangerous undertaking for Bishop Ntambo. But it also was a strong and authentic witness for the gospel in a deeply hurting situation.

People noticed that witness, and it earned the UMC a positive reputation that helped fuel membership growth in the North Katanga Annual Conference, which is now the largest in the connection. While I in no way wish to condone, dismiss, or excuse the horrific suffering of the Congolese people, it was the UMC's decision to stand with the people that led to growth not in spite of that suffering, but because of the UMC's response to that suffering.

This should not surprise mission historians. In Korea and China, the Christian church grew the most after it had showed solidarity with the people by suffering with them, in the first case under Japanese occupation and in the second case under various Maoist plans.

Yet while this conclusion might not surprise missiologists, it does go against the lessons American United Methodists draw about "African" church growth.

First, as I have said before, we need to be more specific about "African" church growth. That largely means Congolese church growth. The other area of recent UMC growth in Africa is Liberia and Sierra Leone, also places in which the church has stood with the suffering, both during those countries' civil wars and the recent Ebola outbreak.

Second, the reasons Americans give for "African" church growth are usually tied to energetic worship styles or a particular approach to theology. Yet worship is largely a matter of contextualization. Theology is important, and there are worthwhile debates to have about what the church should teach, but successful phrasings of theology are also always adapted to their contexts.

Thus, while US United Methodists absolutely should learn from their Congolese sisters and brothers, we must be wary about learning the wrong things. First, that learning needs to be based on a full understanding of the Congo and the UMC's position in it, not just some simple takeaways from attending a Congolese worship service. Second, it is too simplistic and ignores the importance of inculturation to just say that if Americans incorporate the same worship style and theological phrasings as the Congolese, then the US UMC will grow, too.

Indeed, if the premise of the first part of this piece is right, then the most important thing that the US UMC can learn from the DRC UMC is the importance of standing with and suffering with the poor and suffering

This lesson will not likely be an easy one for American United Methodists, however. American culture exalts the successful, avoids suffering at all costs, and places little value on the poor. These cultural habits have infected the church, both in its liberal and conservative wings. Yet the opportunity for learning and for kenotic suffering remains there for the UMC in the US.

In a more hopeful application of the conclusions of this piece, while the continued suffering in the Congo is deplorable and something that the international community must take steps to end, it is also likely that the UMC will continue to grow in the Congo because of how it responds to that suffering. I would expect that the next area of significant growth will be in the Eastern Congo Episcopal Area, site of some of the worst suffering in the Congo currently, but also site of some of the best UMC ministry going on in the Congo right now.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Recommended readings: African UMC peacemaking

Last week, I shared a list of UMNS articles about Africans engaged in charity to other Africans. The articles were intended to show the extent of African resources for service and charity. Yet charity is not the only area in which the African UMC brings significant assets to its mission. Indeed, United Methodist engagement on peace is somewhat of a denominational hallmark across the continent. There have been a dozen UMNS articles about United Methodist efforts for peace in various African countries in just the last 15 months:

Zimbabwe UMC and other churches march for peace

Sierra Leone United Methodist Men preach political unity

UMC, ecumenical partners preach Christian unity to Congolese women

Teaching Muslims and Christians for peace in Cote d'Ivoire

UMC promotes peace and unity in the DRC

Church offers peace training to young people in DRC

United Methodists preach peaceful Sierra Leone elections

UMC churches in Congo pray for peace and condemn attack on protestors

UMC prays for peace in Zimbabwe

Liberian United Methodists asked to pray for peaceful elections

Kenyan UMC promotes peaceful voting

UMC promotes peace between Pygmies and Bantus in DRC

Note that in all these cases, peacemaking means directly addressing pressing political issues, including those related to ethnicity and religion. That doesn't mean that the church necessarily takes sides in political debates. It does, however, mean that the church is not "apolitical" in the sense of avoiding or ignoring politics. Peacemaking involves the church speaking God's word for peace in the midst of political conflicts.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The American Society of Missiology & Mission Friendship

I (David Scott) will be attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Missiology (ASM) starting today. The ASM is the major academic/practical society for those studying mission in North America.

The theme for this year's conference is "Interfaith Friendship as Incarnational Mission Practice." As this theme indicates, friendship is becoming an increasingly important focus for mission research and practice. Mission friendship includes interfaith friendship, as this conference highlights, but also international, intercultural, and interracial friendship. Therefore, I wanted to share a bit about this theme and this conference for those unaware of the conference or unable to attend.

Conference organizers give the following explanation of the importance of friendship as a theme:

"In an article in the IBMR honoring the life work of Jonathan Bonk, Dana Robert began her essay with these words: "Friendship is a foundational practice in Christian mission" (IBMR (October 2015), 180). In this era of rising tribalism, tension and fear toward those who are different, Christians are called to live out the Gospel in the way of Jesus: through loving God and loving neighbor. When vitriolic political rhetoric inflames hostility and distrust, especially toward those of other faith commitments, interfaith friendships become crucial avenues of incarnational mission practice. There are many ways to do this, as even a brief history of mission illustrates. The oft-cited friendship of Frances of Assisi with Sultan Malek al-Kamil of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade is, perhaps, one of the most illustrious (see Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context, 143).

"There are many today who witness to the power of friendship as a bridge to interfaith understanding and cooperation. Muslim founder of Interfaith Youth Corps, Eboo Patel, draws college students together to improve "interfaith literacy" and provide the means to shatter stereotypes and fears of those who "orient around religion differently" through friendship (see Patel, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer). Amazon, while seeking to sell us on Amazon Prime at Christmas, offered a poignant tale of interfaith friendship between a priest and an imam over a cup of tea. Their care for one another prompted them to unwittingly buy each other the gift of knee-pads for enabling greater comfort during prayer (see the video at and Muslim Saimma Dyer's insightful commentary on the ad at

"As Christians, friendship within the Godhead - the three-in-One - is both our model and means for offering the hospitality and creating the space where "the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy" (Nouwen, Reaching Out, 51). Making room for the God who, in the outstretched arms of Christ, loves and forgives us, enables us to also love and forgive, welcome and embrace, and befriend those God has already "friended" (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 126). In what he calls a pneumatological theology of hospitality, Amos Yong posits that the power of the Holy Spirit is not only what allows us to love the neighbor, but allows God to love us through the neighbor. Interfaith friendships make possible this mutual transformation crucial to the work of God in the world (Yong, Hospitality and the Other, 158). Friendship with God enables friendship with others.

"Voices from within the ASM, have long offered insight into the power of friendship to open doors to those of other faiths, not only for the sake of world peace, but for the sake of faithful witness to the love of God in Christ. Kosuke Koyama called it "neighborology:" loving and living in solidarity with one's neighbor, exegeting both the Word and the neighbor's culture, and found it became the "best vessel to convey Christ" (Water Buffalo Theology, 67). Steve Bevans and Roger Schroeder called it the dance of "prophetic dialogue:" a style of living in relationship with our neighbors that holds in tension proclamation and dialogue, boldness and humility, and builds empathy and trust through friendship modeled on the image of "entering someone else's garden" (Prophetic Dialogue, 152, 33). Terry Muck and Frances Adeney called it "giftive mission" in which we enter into relationships with those of other religions (or no religion) as bearers and receivers of gifts, observing ways in which God is already at work and the gospel is truly a gift in that context (Christianity Encountering World Religions, 373). All of these, and many others, point to the importance of interfaith friendship, not only to bring peace to our world, but because loving and being loved by neighbors of other faiths, being both guests and hosts, enables us to express and receive God's love (Yong, 153)."

To get a further idea of how this concept of friendship is playing out in the study of mission, check out the listing of session and paper titles on the conference schedule.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What's going on in the Congo?

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

As someone who is dedicated to counteracting stereotypes Americans have about foreign countries, this piece is difficult to write. There are long-standing tropes of news coverage about Africa that portray the continent as just a series of wars, natural disasters, and poverty. It’s not. There are a lot of good things happening on the continent of Africa, including innovation, economic growth, and successful peace and reconciliation processes. Africans are engaging in their own mission and charity endeavors, as Monday's post indicated.

At the same time, there are a number of serious problems facing one African country in particular: the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC or the Congo for short. The DRC also happens to be the country with the second-highest number of United Methodists, behind the United States. If United Methodists from elsewhere are to understand our sisters and brothers in the Congo, then it’s important to move beyond vague and stereotyped notions of “problems in Africa” to a more specific understanding of the challenges the DRC faces and how those challenges impact the church.

This post summarizes several of the largest challenges facing the country, and a subsequent post will examine the perhaps surprising ways these challenges are affecting the UMC.

Kivu conflict
One of the longest running armed conflicts in the Congo has been going on in Kivu, an eastern area bordering Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi with a substantial number of United Methodists. This conflict has its roots in the Rwandan Genocide and was the central theater for the First and Second Congo Wars, major conflicts involving numerous African countries. Conflict has continued since the end of the Second Congo War with a varied, shifting, and complicated set of government, militia, and foreign forces. Current conflict between the government and rebel groups have been deemed a “war” by the country’s defense minister. UN Peacekeepers sent to reduce fighting have themselves been the targets of recent attacks.

Hema-Lendu conflict/Ituri conflict
There is a long-standing ethnic conflict between the herding Hema ethnic group and the farming Lendu ethnic group. Like the Kivu conflict, it was exacerbated by international forces during the Second Congo War, leading to a period of intense fighting known as the Ituri conflict, after the region in northwest Congo in which the Hema and Lendu live (an area with relatively few United Methodists). While that intense conflict abated in 2003, low-level conflict continued, and there has been a recent increase in fighting that has left dozens dead and 100,000 displaced.

Bantu-Pygmy conflict
Conflict between the Pygmies, a minority ethnic group in the Congo, and the Bantus, the dominant overarching ethnic group in the Congo that includes numerous specific ethnicities, has been happening at least since colonial times. A recent flare-up of conflict began in 2014 and led to numerous deaths. This violence happened in the southeastern Katanga region of the Congo, a heavily Methodist area. The two sides signed a peace treaty in 2017, but given the long-standing nature of that conflict, the possibility for further conflict still exists.

DRC President Joseph Kabila’s term of office ended in 2016, but he has not stepped down and has delayed calling new elections despite international pressure to hold elections. Elections are now scheduled for December 2018. There are signs that Kabila will run again despite being constitutionally barred from a third term. Opposition to Kabila and uncertainty surrounded elections has been a major factor increasing the country’s conflicts, especially the Kasai conflict described below.

Kasai conflict
Opposition to Kabila has led to a new anti-government movement in the Kasai area of central Congo, an area with relatively few United Methodists. Conflict between the anti-government Kamuina Nsapu movement and government forces has left thousands dead and over a million displaced. While this conflict has emerged within the last two years, it is closely tied to the long-term saga of presidential succession in the Congo.

Resource extraction
The fuel driving these political and military crises – presidential misbehavior, armed opposition, incursion by foreign countries – is the Congo’s vast mineral wealth. The Congo has extensive resources of copper, gold, diamonds, rare elements essential for components of modern electronics, and other minerals. Yet these resources have never served to enrich the people of the Congo. Instead, they have been siphoned off, first by European colonial rulers and then by Western multinational corporations and a “kleptocracy” of corrupt Congolese politicians. Control of mining resources continues to be a major motive for and funding source of armed groups in the country today.

One of the more recent problems in the Congo is an outbreak of Ebola. There have been several dozen cases including numerous deaths, in the northwest area of the country (an area where there are relatively few United Methodists). Ebola has been discovered in the large city of Bikoro. At this point, this outbreak is nowhere near as severe as the outbreak in West Africa in 2015-16. The Congolese government and international agencies are taking steps to prevent the outbreak from spreading and becoming more severe, including vaccinating health workers.

Natural disasters
The Congo is not unique in having natural disasters. All countries have significant natural disasters, including highly developed countries such as the United States. Among the natural disasters affecting the Congo in the last year are landslides and flooding. If the Congo is unique in its natural disasters, its in having a more limited internal capacity to respond to those natural disasters because of a low level of economic development and a high level of political disfunction.

These challenges combined have made the DRC one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world right now. The German United Methodist disaster relief agency, Diakonie, has called it “the largest humanitarian crisis that the world has not noticed.”

Yet, as this post began by saying, it is oversimplifying and stereotyping to say that all is doom and gloom. Much of the country is peaceful. There are good things happening in the Congo, and UMC is one of them. I’ll explain why and how next week.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Recommended readings: African charity

There is a tendency in the West to see Africa as merely a place of poverty, a place that needs Western donations. This view is stereotypical and harmful for a variety of reasons and does not do justice to the many positive things happening in Africa.

In particular, when Westerners view Africa as a place of need, they can overlook the assets that Africans themselves possess. Moreover, such a view overlooks the differences in distribution of economic assets within African societies.

To get a better sense of the assets that Africans have, how those assets are distributed, and how Africans are using their own assets to help other Africans, read the following UMNS stories about African charity to other Africans. This is not an endorsement of all of the charity models followed. These stories are offered instead as counterexamples to the "Western donor-African recipient" stories that we hear all too often.

Liberia UMC schools help Ebola survivors

Urban Congolese congregation helps rural congregation

Zimbabwe UMW donates to orphanage

Women's entrepreneurship project of East Congo UMC

Liberia UMW give scholarship to rural students

Women's entrepreneurship project of Zimbabwe UMC

Zimbabwe UMC schools give access to computers

Liberia UMW gives out personal transportation devices to disabled persons

Liberia UMC clinic cares for persons with leprosy

Liberia UMC provides medical help for seniors

Zimbabwe UMC helps prisoners learn to grow food

Zimbabwe UMC donates food to prisoners

Nigeria UMC schools conduct adult education program

This list in not comprehensive. Moreover, it doesn't even include the extensive evangelistic, peacemaking, or women's rights work that African United Methodists undertake on their own initiative and with their own assets. Nor does it include any of the work wherein African United Methodists are active, contributing partners with United Methodists from elsewhere in the world.

Clearly, United Methodists everywhere need to take seriously African United Methodists' assets and abilities for impacting their societies.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Institutional rigidity and church 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.

In previous posts, I have argued both that the choice between being a movement and being an institution is one in which both options have pros and cons and that institutions tend toward standardization, bureaucratization, and rigidity. Why, though, do institutions tend toward rigidity? Does that tendency mean rigidity is an inevitable con of being an institution? And what can the answers to these questions tell us about denominations in modern America?

First, a definition: Institutional rigidity is characterized by a well-elaborated set of formal structures, fairly tight centralized control, a commitment to existing ways of doing things, and a reluctance to change. Institutional rigidity is thus manifested in structure, practice, and attitude.

While those frustrated with rigid institutions often portray that rigidity as the result of uncaring or sinister leaders or a prevailing legalism, the roots of institutional rigidity stem much more from the incentives of institutional success and the values of modernity than they do from the personal failings of leaders (though those can also play a part).

Non-rigid institutions, by contrast, are characterized by a diversity of practices, policies, and attitudes. Decision making is not well-coordinated, and individual actors often have a large degree of leeway to make their own decisions (for good or ill). There are upsides of such a system: It encourages or at least allows for a lot of experimentation. Many of these experiments will fail, but frequent experimentation also ensures that there will be successes as well.

Rigidity originates when organizations try to capitalize on these successes. Generally speaking, once an organization has identified a pathway to success, it has an incentive to try to build on that model. Success attracts followers, funding, and other resources. Success allows an organization to continue and to grow. Therefore, there are natural incentives for organizations to focus on its successes.

Institutions generally try to build on their successes in a few ways: by implementing the model for those successes throughout the organization, by trying to produce those successes in an increasingly efficient manner, and therefore by trying to produce more of that success.

Note that the value of maximizing organizational success, especially through increased efficiency, reflects some of the values of modernity, which is focused on bureaucratic efficiency, and capitalism, which is focused on continual growth. While the attraction of success may be a universal human experience, modern institutions are conditioned by modernity to respond to that universal desire in particular ways.

Broad, efficient, and increasing implementation of a model for success has certain effects on organizations. In order to ensure broad implementation of the model, organizations centralize control and use that centralized control to standardize their policies and procedures. Such centralization and standardization keeps local units from doing their own thing, thus seeking to promote success and avoid failures (of whatever sort) by those local units.

Centralization and formal structures also result from a desire for efficiency. Formalized structures can facilitate communication and decision-making, thus increasing efficiency. Centralization allows for more streamlined decision-making as well.

In this way, standardization and centralization leads to well-evolved formal structures, but they also lead to marginalization of those who are not part of the newly created (or newly emphasized) center. Those who previously had latitude to make their own decisions (for good or ill) now have some of that decision-making power taken away from them.

Generally, this approach to organization does allow an institution significant power to do more of whatever it defines as success. This success allows the organization to thrive. In the process, the organization becomes dependent upon and committed to this particular model of success.

Yet what is successful for one time or in one place is never successful for all times and places. Eventually, the environment of an organization will change and its efficient, extensive focus on a particular pathway to success will no longer produce success in the way it once did.

When this happens, organizations then have a challenge: can they adapt and adopt a different path to success, or will they decline? Often the rigidity that an institution has developed to ensure its success prevents it from changing strategies once its initial strategy no longer leads to success.

An institution that has not committed itself to a single model of success can avoid the problem of fundamental change to its model necessitated by a changing environment, but the great majority of modern institutions are designed to focus on a single model of success.

How does this very abstract discussion of organizational dynamics apply to denominations? Denominations are, among other things, modern organizations. Therefore, most modern denominations have an operative model of success that was designed to produce organizational continuity and growth. Those models have increasingly been refined through a process of centralization, bureaucratization, and increased efficiency. These processes resulted in increased denominational power but also increased rigidity.

The problem most denominations are facing in contemporary America is that the models of success they adopted were developed for life in the first half of the twentieth century and then refined over the course of the second half of the twentieth century.

Yet American society has undergone tremendous change since the middle of the twentieth century in a variety of ways: dominant economic model (agrarian-industrial-postindustrial), a decline in intergenerational interactions, shifts from rural to urban to suburban, changes in cultural values (including those for sex and gender), an increased sense of individualism, the decline of the middle class, political polarization, etc. The list could go on.

These changes have put significant stresses on all institutions and organizations developed for a different world, from AT&T to religious colleges to the Post Office to Kiwanis clubs to the American auto industry.

Some organizations have been able to adapt and shift their core model of success. Some have not and have ceased to exist. The challenge is substantial, though, since it involves a willingness to let go of what has led to organizational health, which can feel like a dangerous proposition, even when there is some recognition that old strategies are no longer working.

In many ways, organized religion has been on the decline since the 1960s because of changes in its environment. Those analyzing such trends frequently point to theological and cultural reasons why. There may be some truth to such answers, but we cannot fully understand this trend unless we recognize the hazards that American Christians accepted when they decided to adopt a denominational approach to being church that was predicated on the assumptions of modern institutions. Denominations gained great power at the time they made the decision to embrace this model of being church, but they also set themselves up for long-term challenges when their models of success no longer fit the world in which they were living.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Recommended Readings: Norwegian and Swiss-French UMC Mission Documents

Most American United Methodists may be familiar with Global Ministries and United Methodist Women as mission agencies of the church. Yet the UMC also has mission agencies in Norway, Germany, and Switzerland-France. While their range may be smaller than Global Ministries, these European agencies work collaboratively with Methodist and non-Methodist partners around the world on evangelism, development, and poverty relief projects.

Due in part to the focused nature of its work and following broader Norwegian conversations about development work, The Norwegian Board of Global Ministry (Metodistkirkens Misjonselskap) in particular has made partnership an important focus of their work.

That focus on partnership is evident in two documents of that Board, both worth reading:

The Board's "Vision, value, and strategy document" (in Norwegian and English). The third page of this document lays out a clear philosophy of partnership.

An example "Reciprocal Friendship Agreement" between Oslo Central UMC and Garjay Memorial UMC in Sonniewen, Liberia (in English). The Reciprocal Friendship Agreement is a great example of the connection between friendship and mission and is also quite clear about the types of mutual exchange necessary to build such a friendship. It may be used as a model for other agreements, including those between American churches and their overseas partners.

Connexio, the "Network for Mission and Service" of the UMC in Switzerland and France has likewise made partnership and relationship a central feature of the mission work that it undertakes or facilitates for others.

That focus on partnership and relationship is evident in Connexio's "Objectives and Tasks" document (in English). The document also highlights awareness of the global connection of the UMC.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Recommended Readings: UMW Assembly

United Methodist Women (UMW), the women's mission organization for The United Methodist Church in the US, held their quadrennial Assembly meeting May 18-20 in Columbus, OH. The event highlighted the foci for UMW's current mission work and celebrated their 150th anniversary, coming up in March 2019. A rundown of various news stories and videos related to the event are below:

Both this UMNS story and this UMW story provide a recap of Assembly

Both this UMNS story and this UMW story reported on the pre-conference day of service and action

The first day's events are covered in response magazine daily edition #1

The second day's events are covered in response magazine daily edition #2

The third day's events are covered in response magazine daily edition #3

UMW shared a story of the deaconesses consecrated at Assembly

UMW shared a story of the involvement of women bishops at Assembly

Video interviews with speakers from Assembly are available on UMW's Facebook page

Images from Assembly are available on UMW's Flickr account