Monday, October 29, 2018

Recommended Reading: Taylor Denyer on whether or not to do short-term mission

Although these articles are a few years old at this point, Taylor Walters Denyer, of Friendly Planet Missiology, has written a couple of short pieces to help churches think through the pros and cons of sending mission teams on what have been typically called "short-term mission trips."

In "Should We Send a Team? A Historical Perspective," Taylor investigates the historical background of such trips to develop some criteria for whether such a trip is a good idea.

In "Why I'll Stop Talking about Short-Term Mission Trips," Taylor succinctly presents the need for trips to be part of longer-term relationships.

In "When Short-Term Mission Trips Make a Difference: A Testimonial," Taylor shares her own story of being transformed through mission trips, even as she cautions Americans to be realistic about what the outcomes of such trips are likely to be.

If your church has read through Taylor's material and still thinks a trip is the right thing to do, next week I will share posts from Lisa Beth White of Sister of Hope Ministries on how to go about planning such a trip in an appropriate way.

Friday, October 26, 2018

New Mission Area: Loneliness

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.

Last week, I raised the question of what features of the world and its various contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty relief, healthcare, etc.

This week, I suggest the first new area of mission work: loneliness.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book entitled Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! The subtitle and the plot point which it references have stuck with me. In Vonnegut's imagined future, the problem of loneliness in the USA has gotten so bad that the government intervenes by assigning people new middle names that create new families and new kin groups to solve the problem of loneliness.

Even Vonnegut regarded this book as one of his lesser works, but I think the recognition that modern, Western society is incredibly isolating and that this problem might require a solution beyond just telling individuals to try harder to make friends is nevertheless insightful.

Nearly half of all Americans report feeling lonely, a figured that has steadily increased since the 1980s. One survey of the challenges facing the communities around twelve UMC churches in New Jersey found loneliness made the top three on every list. Some experts are asking whether loneliness might constitute a health epidemic. Great Britain has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

It seems that loneliness is indeed a problem for many in the modern West and an increasing problem at that. Vonnegut doesn't think religion could solve the problem of loneliness, but as Christians, we should be more optimistic about the power of our faith.

Moreover, there are good theological reasons why the problem of loneliness would make sense as a mission area for the church. Not all worldly problems need become areas of mission work, but since the Christian faith is inherently about community and connection with God and one another, loneliness is a problem that Christians should care about and should have some resources to address.

Most Christian churches probably think of themselves as good at community. Yet really, they're good at community for those who are already part of the church. Thinking of loneliness and its solutions of relationship and community as mission areas helps shift the conversation about community from being an internally-focused one to an externally-focused one.

Of course, for Christians, the ultimate form of community is Christian community, so invitation to become part of Christian community through evangelism is one way to address the problem of loneliness. That requires, of course, that our churches actually function as places of community and relationship development so that when we invite others in, we are indeed inviting them into a web of relationships that will actually reduce their loneliness.

Moreover, in our evangelism and invitation to Christian community, we should keep in mind that although Protestants often think of conversion as beginning with believing, which is followed by Christian living and the incorporation into Christian community, there is good evidence that conversion in contemporary America oftentimes follows the opposite trajectory of belong, behave, believe (or belong, believe, become). In other words, it starts with community that includes those not already Christians.

Whether or not connecting with the lonely results in them becoming part of our congregations, there is merit to focusing on loneliness as a mission area. Methodists don't just feed or educate or heal only those who are or become Methodist. We recognize these areas of mission express our convictions about who God is and who God calls us to be. They may result in conversions, or they may not, but either way, God still calls us to do them. Reducing loneliness can be seen in the same way.

Thus, as churches in the US and elsewhere in the modern West consider how they may be in mission to the areas around them, one question they could ask themselves is, "How can we create community and relationships with and among those around us, especially the most lonely?" Churches should push themselves to thinking about how their answers to these questions can go beyond just inviting people to worship and instead seek innovative ways of fostering connection for the lonely within their local areas.

The range of possibilities for this type of mission is wide - from climbing gyms at church to cafes for the elderly to kayaking. Churches with legacy buildings that are larger than current congregational needs can turn these buildings into mission assets by using them as a convening space for community. Indeed, there are many ways the church can help people be lonesome no more.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wesley Didn't Say It

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.

Today, I'm joining in the Methodist blogosphere past-time of debunking John Wesley quotes. Within the last couple of years, I have seen increased used of a quote attributed to John Wesley that reads, “I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions.” The problem with this quote? Wesley didn't say it.

The quote appears to come from a book entitled, How To Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer, where it is attributed to Wesley. I'm not sure where the editor or compiler of this book came up with this quote, but it is false to say it came from Wesley.

First off, it should be noted that the language of this quote is very modern. This can be documented with Google Books' Ngram tool. According to the Ngram, use of the word "unleashed" doesn't start to grow until the 1900s. The phrase "authentic community" does not start to appear in the English language until the mid-1960s. And the word "empowerment" is even more recent, not catching on until the 1980s. Certainly the language doesn't fit an 18th century Britishman.

Does this quote reflect sentiments in keeping with John Wesley? Yes and no.

Certainly, Wesley did pray for a revival of holiness in his day. In an authentic quote, Wesley mused, "Q. What may we reasonably believe to be God's design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? A. To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land." For Wesley, the whole point of Methodism was a revival of holiness.

As for whether Wesley expected that revival to "move forth in mission," it depends on how one understands mission. Wesley did expect that scriptural holiness would show forth in works of mercy that include caring for the poor, sick, and imprisoned in Methodists' local settings. But as Monday's post on Thomas Coke mentioned, other than his ill-fated trip to Georgia, Wesley wasn't very interested in foreign mission. He was focused on the revival of holiness in the British Isles.

Would Wesley have expected his holiness revival to "create authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions"? That's a bit harder to say, because not only is the language contemporary, some of the concepts behind it is as well. Wesley did believe that Christian fellowship, or community, was an necessary means to grow in holiness. His theology did give a significant role to the work of the Spirit in the process of sanctification. Wesley did believe that the process of sanctification, or growth in holiness, restored people to the image of God in which they had been created and allowed them to live in the way that God had created them to do before sin crippled their ability to do so.

At its best, then, this quote is mostly congruent with John Wesley's theology and interests in language that is not at all congruent with his style. Rather than use this quote, Methodists would be better off using Wesley's quote about "spead[ing] scriptural holiness" to talk about Wesley's theology and vision for early Methodism and using Thomas Coke when they want to talk about international mission and the global church.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Recommended Reading: Thomas Coke on Mission

When United Methodists talk about mission, we often use John Wesley's quote about "the world is my parish" as a way of linking mission to Methodist DNA. (The actual quote is "I look upon all the world as my parish.") UM & Global itself has used that sentiment on its social media pages.

The only problem with this use of that quote is that John Wesley wasn't talking about international mission or the global church when he wrote it. He was talking about his right to preach in other people's parishes, with or without their consent. Frankly, other than his ill-fated Georgia expedition, Wesley wasn't that interested in spreading Christianity outside the British Isles. He was more interested in reforming Christianity within them.

The founding Methodist who did care a lot about international mission and the church outside the British Isles is Thomas Coke. Coke was one of the first two bishops of Methodism in America and was involved with spreading Methodism to the Caribbean, Canada, Ireland, France, and Sierra Leone. He died en route to start Methodism in Sri Lanka, with companions headed to South Africa as well. You can learn more about Coke in this short biography and this short video about him.

Coke also wrote the first Methodist mission literature: a pamphlet entitled, "An Address to the pious and benevolent, proposing an annual subscription for the support of missionaries in the Highlands and adjacent islands of Scotland, the isles of Jersey, Guernsey, and Newfoundland, the West Indies, and the provinces of Nova Scotia and Quebec." He wrote it in 1786, over twenty years before William Carey's famous pamphlet, "An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens," which is often credited as kicking Anglo-American mission work into high gear.

Coke's pamphlet is still worth a read. It also contains this lovely affirmation of the global church, which this blog has adopted as its new Methodist mission/worldwide church affirmation: "Oceans are nothing to God, and they should be nothing to his [sic] people, in respect to the affection they bear one another." As United Methodists around the world, may we be affectionate to each other as Thomas Coke envisioned.

Friday, October 19, 2018

New Mission Areas for the 21st Century

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.

Mission has always been contextual. In part, that means that how mission is done fits (or should fit) the context in which it is done. But it can also be taken to mean that what mission is done must fit (or respond to) the context in which it is done.

A few forms of mission are enduring. Evangelism is a component of mission in all times and places. Mission has always (or almost always) shown concern for the poor. Yet, even within these enduring forms of mission, the activities paired with evangelism and how Christians have shown concern for the poor have varied.

As the Western mission industrial complex was coming into its fullest flowering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the forms of mission it undertook were shaped significantly by two types of contexts which were the focus of a lot of American and European mission efforts: urban centers in the West and non-modern societies outside of the US. How Western Christians understood and continue to understand the components of mission was significantly shaped by their experiences in each of these two types of contexts.

In non-modern societies outside the West, Christian mission came to include not only evangelism but also medical work, education, women's rights, publishing, famine relief, and economic development. In some of these areas, Christian missionaries were drawing upon longer histories of church expertise and activity (education has been a function of the Western church since the medieval time period, for instance), but in all of these areas, missionaries were also responding to their perceptions of the needs of the mission fields in which they worked.

In urban centers in the West, Christian mission came to include not only evangelism but also medical work, literacy, poverty relief--including food and clothing distribution, temperance, and women's rights. This list overlaps with the list of mission work done outside the West, and there was at the time discussion of the similarities between work among the urban poor in the West and that in non-Western countries.

In the middle of the 20th century, the range of mission work was expanded through interactions with new historical contexts to include refugee relief and resettlement (especially in response to the refugee crises of the world wars), disaster relief (growing out of post-war rebuilding efforts), and social justice advocacy (coming out of post-colonialism and minority rights movements).

For the most part, all of these previous forms of mission continue today (with the possible exception of temperance and publishing as major foci). In part, that is because the perceived issues justifying each of these forms of mission work continue to exist. There is still sickness and poverty in the world. But in part, these areas of mission work continue because the institutional infrastructure created by previous generations was set up in such a way to ensure continued focus on these particular forms of mission.

But what if we were attempting to develop a set of forms of Christian mission that were responding to contexts in the 21st century and not merely continuing the traditions of mission that we have inherited? What issues might we see as critical for the church to address? This is not an attempt to adopt a "needs-based" missiology but instead an attempt to, as J.C. Hoekendijk argued for, put the world and the kingdom of God into conversation. What areas of mission focus would be suggested by the world in 2018 and the kingdom that were not part of previous models of mission? What particular contexts would these types of mission be most relevant to? In short, what might be "new mission areas" for the 21st century?

Over the next several weeks, I will suggest some possible new mission areas that I see - loneliness, climate refugees, mental health, and others. But I would also like to hear from you readers: What do you see as possible new areas for mission focus in the 21st century? Comment below to suggest topics or email me a post with your take on this question.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tribalism in the American UMC

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.

Consider this description of American United Methodists:

"Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives together comprise just 14 percent of the American church membership—yet it often feels as if our denominational conversation has become a shouting match between these two groups at the furthest ends of the spectrum. Together with Traditional Conservatives (who share values and tribalism like the Devoted Conservatives, just less intensely), they compose the 33 percent of people in the groups we label the Wings.

"Combined, the members of these three tribes comprise just one-third of the membership, but they often dominate our denominational conversation. Tribalism runs deep in their thinking. Their distrust and fear of the opposing side drives many of the people in these groups, and they have especially negative opinions of each other. When people today speak about how United Methodists seem to hate each other, they're usually talking about the opinions and behaviors of the Wings.

"The Wings are also the most unified internally. On many of the most contentious issues—race, immigration, LGBTQI+ rights—the people in these three tribes express high levels of unanimity. Often more than 90 percent of people in one of these groups holds the same view about a controversial issue, and typically, it will be the reverse of whatever the opposing wing believes. In contrast, the remaining two-thirds of American United Methodists at the center show more diversity in their theological views, express less certainty about them, and are more open to compromise and change—even on issues that we all tend to consider highly polarizing."

Sounds pretty accurate, right? Only here's the catch - this isn't a description of American United Methodists. It's a description of the American electorate from the Hidden Tribes of America project, which I changed slightly to shift references from the nation to the church. The fact that it can be read so easily as a description of the church makes the point that divisions in The United Methodist Church in the United States mirror the divisions within wider society.

Increasingly, scholars and commentators have been referring to US society as becoming more "tribalized" - that is, divided into exclusive and competing groups constructed around communal identities. Amy Chua is perhaps the scholar most associated with this analysis, but it has been adopted by many others. The Hidden Tribes project takes such an approach. The ways in which their description of tribalism in American politics maps so neatly onto the church shows us that the American church has become tribal as well.

For many Americans, thinking of their society as a tribal society is new. During the Enlightenment and colonialism, the West (including the United States) took great pride in its belief that it had advanced beyond a tribal basis for organizing society. Thus, Americans in general may struggle to figure out what a resurgence of tribalism means for American society. Similarly, American Christians may struggle to figure out what a resurgence of tribalism means for the American church.

Yet Americans do have Christian brothers and sisters who have long experience in trying to think through the implications for and intersections of tribalism and the church: African Christians. While the impact of tribalism on and in the church is still a contentious issue that Africans have by no means solved, they do have a long history of trying to bring Christian theological and ethical resources to bear on tribal conflicts in church and society and have acquired a good deal of wisdom in the process.

The debates over homosexuality leading up to the called General Conference in February of next year are perhaps the biggest expression of tribal conflicts in the US UMC today. What if, in the face of these tribal conflicts, American United Methodists were to ask their African sisters and brothers not "Which tribe will you align with?" but "What can you teach us about how to handle tribal conflicts in the church?" It might not end conflicts in the US church, but it might help us to move forward in new ways that transcend rather than merely replicate the conflicts in the broader US society.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Bishop John Yambasu videos

United Methodist Communications has put out a series of six short (1-2 min.) video interviews with Bishop John Yambasu of the Sierra Leone Episcopal Area.

In the videos, Bishop Yambasu discusses divisions in the church over human sexuality. He affirms support for traditional understandings of marriage as between a man and a woman, though he also notes African discomfort with talking about sex in general. He indicates that Africans could support the One Church Plan, since a contextual approach makes sense, but only if they were able to separate support for the One Church Plan and support for homosexuality. He affirms the unity of the church, but also speaks about how Africans are preparing for the implications, including the financial implications, of divisions in the American church that are already apparent. Finally, he calls on the general church to stop "legislating sex" and instead to focus on the church's attention and money on mission to the world, including the hungry, sick, illiterate, and uneducated.

The videos are as follows:

United Methodist bishop: "It is God's church"

United Methodist bishop: "Marriage should be between man and woman"

Bishop discusses One Church Plan implications for Africa

Sierra Leone bishop looks at all three plans for GC2019

United Methodist bishop: What a church split means for Africa

United Methodist bishop: "Rethink our calling as a church"

Friday, October 12, 2018

Mission vs. Pilgrimage

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 day ago, a friend of mine, Rev. Jeremy Smith, shared on his Facebook page the following interaction with someone:

"Recently I had a conversation with a man who used to be a missions director for an independent church. He left his position over disagreement over the mission of the church. He said to me: 'My church no longer does mission trips, they send people on pilgrimages. We used to do mission trips for communal transformation. Now we do pilgrimages for individual transformation. We will end up with more self-aware people who have had their mountaintop experiences, but at the expense of fewer valleys filled in with service and mission.'"

Rev. Smith then posed these questions about that interaction: "Is this true? Are people choosing to go on pilgrimages instead of missions? And what does that mean for our mission identity if more churches do?"

I'd like to share an expanded version of my response to this interaction and the questions that Rev. Smith poses about it.

I want to address this scenario from the Wesleyan premise that the point of Christianity (including both works of piety, which might include pilgrimage, and works of mercy, which might include short-term mission trips) is to help people grow in holiness, and by this term is meant love for God and for other humans.

Furthermore, I think it is an important Wesleyan assumption that growing in love of other humans cannot be accomplished without interacting with actual other people. It is impossible to grow in love of others in an entirely abstract way. Real love must be embodied. I have been convinced by Dr. David Field that this is the best understanding of John Wesley's oft-cited comment about "social holiness" and "social religion."

Given these Wesleyan premises, there are lots of reasons we could critique short term mission trips as commonly practiced as embodying a deficient understanding of love or failing to actually help those going on them to grow in love of the Other.

Books such as When Helping Hurts have pointed out how short-term mission trips often actually end up harming instead of helping those with less financial resources, especially when conducted in ways that objectify, stereotype, demean, or force into dependency those on the "receiving" end of mission. Obviously, this is a problematic understanding of love.

Furthermore, recent research has shown that there are often no long-term religious or theological effects to the experience of going on a short-term mission trip for the Americans and especially American youth that participate. This would suggest a failure of short-term missions as a way to grow in love and therefore holiness.

But I think there are also many reasons to question whether replacing short-term mission trips with pilgrimages does any more to help people grow in love of others and in particular others who are different from them.

Especially when those pilgrimages are focused on "individual transformation," it is likely that they are merely reinforcing a Western individualism that has problematic interactions with the gospel and replicating current capitalist focus on experiences as a trendy form of personal consumption.

While I don't know exactly what type of pilgrimages the person talking to Rev. Smith was referencing, it is likely that these pilgrimages occur in cultural contexts other than the church's home context. Yet the notion of pilgrimage for the sake of "individual transformation" does not seem to me to lend itself to extensive interaction with locals for the sake of increasing one's understanding of them and growing in love for and compassion towards them. I could be wrong, but I also know the stereotypes of how Americans behave while tourists, and it's easy for pilgrimage to become a form of religious tourism that objectifies, stereotypes, and demeans those in host countries.

Certainly, it's possible that people can form close relationships with other pilgrims and that these relationships can be mutually transformative (the movie The Way is a nice depiction of this), but that's still usually best accomplished by opening oneself up to strangers, not traveling with a group of your friends and acquaintances. Thus, I'm not convinced that sending church groups on pilgrimages is actually a good way to help church members grow in love for others.

Growth in love of God is perhaps an even more important part of growing in holiness, and some might counter that such pilgrimages are about exactly that. Yet it is worth noting that most of the works of piety Wesley commended as means to grow in the love of God still had a communal bent to them - taking communion as part of corporate worship and group study of the Bible, for instance. Thus, as Wesleyans, we should be leery of the notion that focusing on one's self should be a primary means to grow closer to God. Pilgrimage may produce a "mountain-top experience," but does that experience translate into a closer walk with God when back down on the plain?

I think better than either short term mission or pilgrimage is to ask how we as Christian communities may go about forging relationships with others who are different from us so that we may all mutually better understand the good news of God's universal love for us and others and come to more fully embody that love in our own lives.

It is possible to do short-term mission trips or pilgrimages in a way that foregrounds such relationship-building and mutuality. But there are also other good models of what this sort of international travel and connection can look like. A model like the work of Sister Parish that focuses on solidarity, mutual understanding, and mutual learning is one such example. But whatever model a church chooses, it is important to think theologically about the purpose of the trip.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Game Theory and General Conference 2019

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.

When the special called General Conference of The United Methodist Church convenes in St. Louis next February, they will be considering a variety of plans for how to resolve the denomination's long-standing debate around homosexuality. As many as five or more different plans may be up for consideration by this body - the One Church, Connectional Conference, and Traditional plans from the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, and the Plan of Dissolution and the Simple Plan submitted by other groups. Not all of these plans may pass constitutional muster, and there may have been other plans submitted of which I am not aware, but it is clear that there will be multiple plans set before the General Conference.

Yet because of how parliamentary procedure works, delegates will not be choosing from among all the plans at once. Only one plan at a time will be considered, and it seems reasonable that once one plan has been passed, no other plans will be considered, since the plans are mutually exclusive.

There are two additional complicating factors: First, some delegates may be willing to support more than one plan (as evidenced by non-exclusive voting at the Global Young People's Forum). Yet their willingness to support more than one plan might not be equal. That is, they may have a first preference and a second (or subsequent) preference that they would be willing to consider, but only if their first preference is not available.

Second, with each subsequent plan voted on, the threshold for support decreases. There was be great pressure on delegates to approve something, and the odds that delegates' first choice plan becomes unavailable and therefore they would be willing to support a second or third choice plan increase with each subsequent defeated plan. Thus, delegates would likely become more willing to vote for a plan if it is considered later in the process (assuming, of course, that no previous plan is approved and there is a later in the process).

This leads to a game theory question: If supporters of a particular plan were able to choose the order in which the plans were voted on, what would be the most advantageous order for their plan?

At first it might seem that the obvious question would be that supporters would want their plan voted on first, since then there would be no chance of another plan passing first. But the answer is actually more complicated than that and depends upon the perceived level of support for the supporters' plan and other plans.

If supporters are confident that their plan would pass as the first plan voted on, then it would make sense for them to seek to bring that plan to a vote first.

Likewise, if supporters of a plan think there is a decent though not certain likelihood that their plan will pass but also a decent (or greater) likelihood another plan would pass (remember, it is possible for people to support more than one plan and thus possible for more than one plan to have sufficient support to pass), then it would make sense to want their plan to be first, even if they were not certain they had sufficient support. It is probably better to gamble on winning in the first round rather than gambling on not losing the first round and then gamble on winning, even if the odds of winning increase somewhat if they do not lose on the first round (i.e., have another plan approved).

On the other hand, if supporters of a plan were not confident that they had the initial votes to pass their plan, but were confident that other plans also lacked sufficient votes to pass, then it would actually be advantageous to them to bring other plans up for a vote first, expecting those plans to be defeated. Those defeats would lower the threshold for support for their own plan and increase the number of people supporting their plan as a second or third choice, thereby raising the odds of their plan being passed in a subsequent round of voting.

Of course, the challenge for this game is that players operate with incomplete knowledge. Supporters of a particular plan will have estimates of the level of support for their plan and for others, but these estimates may be incorrect, making their strategy ineffective. That is basic feature for most game theory problems, though - players must operate with incomplete knowledge.

Furthermore, while this game theory analysis has assumed that players may select the order of voting, in real life, that order will be just as contested as the plans themselves. Nevertheless, I hope this piece will help readers understand the procedural conflicts about the order of business before the General Conference that are likely to precede voting on any of the actual plans.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Recommended Viewing: Christian Alsted videos

United Methodist Communications has put out a series of four short (1-2 min.) video interviews with Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic-Baltic Episcopal Area.

In the videos, Bishop Alsted discusses divisions in the church over human sexuality. He argues for continued relationship despite differences. It is worth noting that Bishop Alsted's episcopal area contains significant differences on this topic, especially between Denmark and Estonia. The videos also include a mention of the Nordic-Baltic unified cabinet model, which crosses annual conferences, languages, and nations, and an affirmation of mission by Bishop Alsted and the Connectional Table, which he chairs.

The four videos are as follows:

United Methodist bishop: "It's important for us to stay in dialogue"

United Methodist bishop urges congregants to face challenges together

United Methodist bishop: "I trust the General Conference"

United Methodist bishop: "God's mission is yet alive"

Friday, October 5, 2018

Benjamin L. Hartley: Opening Up the Church so Wide…

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission at George Fox University. The post originally appeared on the author's personal blog, Mission and Methodism, in slightly modified form.

I have been thinking and writing about refugees quite a bit recently. There’s ample reason for it; today, seventy million people in our world have been forced from their homes as refugees or internally displaced persons.[1]

November 11, 2018 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. The end of that war brought peace to some, but the refugee crisis it spawned and the ensuing famine in Russia that affected millions made life a nightmare for years after the trench warfare ceased. I wrote an article about this that came out in the International Bulletin of Mission Research this month.[2] Specifically, I wrote about the European Student Relief – the first aid organization to be truly international and ecumenical. It was organized by Christian students around the world to come to the aid of refugee students.

Our refugee crisis today was again brought to my attention a couple of months ago at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies with a sermon given by Rev. Peter Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa. I met him several days earlier - spotting his name tag as I trickled into a lecture hall with 150 other attendees for the conference’s first plenary lecture. I was surprised to see him. He is not the young man that he was when he bravely fought against the apartheid regime for decades beginning in the 1960s.

As part of his resistance to that regime he would sometimes hold a sign that read, "All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six and other parts of the city, and who were forced by law to leave their homes because of the colour of their skins. Father forgive us."

This so-called “Plaque of Shame” was erected on the outside wall of the local Methodist church in District 6 as well. I’m told it is still there. In his sermon that Sunday, Rev. Storey also described another time in the history of that church – long after he had departed as its pastor – when the building provided a place of refuge for people fleeing the ruthless regime of Robert Mugabe in the neighboring state of Zimbabwe.

On the last day of the Oxford Institute, Peter preached on the story of four friends who dug a hole in the roof of a home where Jesus was teaching and asked (demanded?) that Jesus heal their paralyzed friend. The church, he said, has to be broken in order to actually be the church. By serving refugees from Zimbabwe, the church he loved – including the building itself – was literally broken down from the stress of housing dozens of people who lived, cooked, and slept in the sanctuary.

I am reminded of how rarely I have seen this kind of ministry happen in the churches that I have attended and served in for the past several decades. To be clear, I have been a part of churches – urban ones especially – that did prioritize ministry to their neighbors over keeping the church building in shape. I am grateful for their witness, but I have not seen this enough.

When Rev. Storey finished preaching I felt compelled to thank him for his sermon. It had moved me to tears. But I knew that kind words and a handshake wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to hug this man – to feel the aging sinews in his back muscles that had fought against oppression. Peter Storey reminded me that morning that the Christian life is not primarily about finely nuanced talks or academic papers (valuable as they can be) but about ministering to people where they are at in their fullness as people truly created in God’s image and who reflect that image even in the brokenness of their bodies. “Too often,” he noted, “we are more concerned about being right than doing good!”

Rev. Storey paraphrased Mother Teresa in his closing words that Sunday morning in Oxford. I can’t think of a better was to close this blog than to follow his example:

“May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” Reflecting on this quotation with respect to the story of the paralytic and his four friends, Peter went on, “Only if the church gets broken open does the world get mended… Open up the Church so wide that the whole world falls in."

[1] See the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. This number would be higher if an even broader definition of refugee and internally displaced person were utilized.
[2] See my article in the October 2018 International Bulletin of Mission Research, entitled “Saving Students: European Student Relief in the Aftermath of World War I.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us in the Next Decade

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 noted a couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of being recognized by Boston University School of Theology as a Distinguished Alumni in the Emerging Leader category. Along with that recognition, I participated in a panel discussion on "The Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us in the Next Decade." The following is a formal version of my remarks for that panel. The full panel can be viewed here.

As a good academic, I am trained to question the question, so I would like to begin by questioning and clarifying who the "us" is in the "Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us." I will take the us to refer to American Christians. While I recognize that not everyone listening will be both American and Christian, I presume the majority will be one or the other. It's also a group to which I feel I can speak, since I myself am an American Christian.

I recognize that I am more specifically an educated, straight, white, male, Protestant (and United Methodist) American Christian, and that other American Christians who differ in some or all of these additional characteristics will have their own perspectives on the topic. Therefore, I offer here only my own perspective on what these three challenges are, which I will frame as questions.

First, can American Christians love each other and other Americans, especially in a deeply divided country?

The United States is indeed a deeply divided country at the moment, along the lines of race, gender, immigrant status, rural/urban, and a host of other factors. All of these divisions correlate with our deep political divisions.

Indeed, political scientists and others have begun to speak of political identity as a primary form of identity, one which determines other forms of identity, including religion. Thus, at least a sizable number of Americans do not form their political opinions based on their religious convictions but rather choose their religious convictions to fit with their sense of political identity.

What then can the church do or say in this divided country, where religion is frequently determined by politics? Is Christianity doomed to become merely a secondary phenomenon, or is there power yet in the gospel message of the One who preached love for and by the Samaritan - the religious, political, and ethnic Other?

Note that in suggesting that American Christians need to love each other and other Americans, I am not suggesting a "Can't we all just get along?" approach. There are important issues of justice in the divisions within American society, and those should not be ignored.

Yet the thought of BU alumnus and prophet of justice Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., should push us to think about the goal of our work toward justice. King saw the end of his work as reconciliation within the national community, not just defeat of his enemies. Not everyone who worked with him agreed on this point, and I realize that this is easy for me to say as a person of privilege. Yet whatever our views and identity, we will continue to live in a country with those different from us. If we seek merely to defeat and not to reconcile (with justice), we only set ourselves up for ongoing conflict.

Second, can American Christians love Christians from other countries, even in a deeply unequal world?

The world is deeply unequal. It is unequal in terms of power and money, both among individuals and among countries. But those inequalities of power and money result in further inequalities of attention and understanding. We pay no attention to and do not understand those without power and money. Without attention or understanding, it becomes too easy to ignore, co-opt, dismiss, and/or demean those on the margins.

This is a general problem of the world, but it is also a problem for Christianity in particular, which is a global religion and proclaims a global fellowship of believers. It is furthermore a special problem for denominations like The United Methodist Church that are international denominations. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, and the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest, yet these are the two countries with the greatest numbers of United Methodists.

How then can we love our fellow Christians across inequalities? And in order to do so, how can we understand them better? Certainly the answers must include listening, learning other languages and cultures, seeking to inform ourselves, and trying to avoid stereotyping and oversimplifying others. Yet these are more easily said than done.

Moreover, we must be clear that our goal as American Christians in loving Christians from other countries must not be just so that we can better "help" them, but so that we can learn with and from them about the gospel we share.

Third and finally, what will American Christians do in a world of climate change?

Note that this is not a question of whether or how we can avoid climate change. Climate change is now. Record temperatures and record storms show that climate change is already affecting us. The joke in my hometown of Decorah, Iowa, is that five hundred year floods now happen every 10 years.

In this world of climate change, American Christians must ask ourselves how we can work with others to limit future change. Although American Christians have an important role to play, this issue is much larger than we can tackle on our own, so our work must be in partnership with others.

Among those partners should be Christians from other countries. It is interesting to note that climate change is not controversial for Christians from other countries. A Christian from Zimbabwe or the Philippines, no matter how theologically conservative, will not question whether climate change is happening or whether humans play a role in it. This is one of the ways in which American Christians can learn from our sisters and brothers elsewhere.

In addition to mitigating further change, we must ask ourselves how we can respond with compassion and justice to those affected by changing climates now. That may be those suffering from storms, flooding, droughts, or other effects. Often, these people are among the poorest. Ashley Anderson, a student of mine at BUSTH, taught me of the plight of small island nations in the Pacific who will become uninhabitable because of rising waters. How do treat with justice and compassion those whose ways of life become impossible because of climate change?

Another thought from Martin Luther King has been on my mind as I have reflected on all three of these challenges. It comes from his fourth and final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The world these days, at least to me, often feels chaotic. But in that book, King affirmed that in the midst of struggle, even when chaos seems to surround us, we must have hope. Hope is central Christian virtue.

The challenges facing American Christians in the next decade are significant. Yet we should face them with hope and with faith in Jesus Christ, who entered into the challenges of the world for our sake. He will be with us as we seek to walk the path before us as his disciples.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Recommended Reading: Lisa Beth White on What is Mission?

In a post on her blog, Sister of Hope, contributor to UM & Global Lisa Beth White grapples with the question "What is Mission?" Speaking from her background in short-term mission work, she acknowledges that many United Methodists engaged in short-term mission work lack such a definition. Yet she argues for the importance of developing such a definition and draws on insights from other missiologists to suggest two such definitions. The post can be shared with congregants as a useful entry into this conversation.