Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Recommended Viewing: Bishop Ciriaco Francisco Videos

United Methodist Communications has put out a series of five short (1-2 min.) video interviews with Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco of the Manila Episcopal Area. These videos are part of a series related to the Way Forward, which also includes videos by central conference bishops John Yambasu of Sierra Leone and Christian Alsted of the Nordic-Baltic Episcopal Area.

A couple of things are notable about Bishop Francisco's comments. First, like many others, he stresses the importance of focusing on mission instead of debates over sexuality. Second, several of his comments deal with the relationship between the UMC in the Philippines and the UMC in the United States or as a global body. Francisco stresses the importance of a Book of Discipline that could be adapted by Filipinos to suit their context and throughout refers to the debate over sexuality as an American issue that has relevance for the Philippines only because of their connection to the American church. His comments are further evidence that for many in the Philippines (and elsewhere), the Way Forward is less about sexuality and more about how American and non-American United Methodists will relate to one another.

The videos are as follows:

Filipino United Methodists greet GC2019 with anxiety

Philippine Bishop: One Church Plan passage won't affect us

Bishop describes his work on a global Book of Discipline

Philippine Bishop: "Let's listen to God's leading"

Philippine Bishop urges focus on mission, not divisive issues

Monday, January 28, 2019

Recommended Reading: Lloyd Nyarota on GC2019 and US/African relationships

Rev. Lloyd Nyarota recently published an editorial on United Methodist Insight entitled "The Real United Methodist Crisis: Loss of U.S. Political Power to the Growing Church in Africa." Rev. Nyarota is an elder from Zimbabwe serving two United Church of Canada congregations of Zimbabwean immigrants in Canada. In his article, he argues that plans by conservative American United Methodists to divide the denomination reflect a fear of losing power to African delegates.

Whether or not one agrees with Rev. Nyarota's analysis, his article is interesting for several reasons.

First, his argument in many ways parallel's Luther Oconer's Facebook post highlighted last week in alleging American fear of losing control of the denomination to non-Americans. Interestingly, however, the two authors use that premise to different ends, Oconer arguing from it to the Traditional(ist) Plan, and Nyarota arguing from it to the One Church Plan.

Second, in making his argument, Nyarota references and recasts the process of Latin American Methodist autonomy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This blog has shared several other pieces looking at the history of COSMOS and the autonomy process. This history is relevant history.

Third, Nyarota's article is further evidence of a point I made regarding Filipino debates about General Conference 2019: "While for American United Methodists, the debates surrounding GC2019 are debates about how progressive and traditionalist American United Methodists should relate to one another, for many United Methodists outside the US, the debates are instead about how American and non-American United Methodists should relate to one another."

Finally, Nyarota's article gestures beyond General Conference 2019 at other upcoming topics that will be read through this same lens: He references plans for regional conferences. Reductions in apportionments requested from US churches and discussions of a US Central Conference are also likely to be read by many in Africa, the Philippines, and Europe through the lens of what they mean for how Americans want to shape their relationship with the rest of the church.

Questions about the relationships - financial, political, spiritual, and otherwise - between American United Methodists and United Methodists from outside the US will only grow more pressing.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Recommended readings: Filipino debates on the Traditional(ist) and One Church Plan

American readers will no doubt be familiar with the terms on which the debate over the plans before General Conference 2019 has played out among American United Methodists. Americans, however, are generally less privy to how that debate is construed elsewhere. Two recent Facebook posts give a sense of how that debate is playing out in the Philippines.

The first post is by Luther J. Oconer, a Filipino living in the US and teaching at United Theological Seminary, where he is a member of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, sponsors of this blog. Oconer argues against the One Church Plan and for the Traditional Plan.

The second post is by SJ Early Canlas, a Filipino United Methodist living in Manila and former secretary of the Philippines Central Conference. Canlas rebuts Oconer's argument and instead argues for the One Church Plan over the Traditional Plan.

While many elements of their cases will seem familiar to Americans - discussions of unity, mission, theologies of sexuality, etc. - what is unique about this discussion in Philippine perspective is the added dimension of what this debate says about the relationship between the UMC in the Philippines and the UMC in the United States. Oconer charges that the One Church Plan is a way for American United Methodists to resist being influenced by United Methodists from the Philippines and Africa. Both authors argue that some American United Methodists are unduly influencing United Methodism in the Philippines.

While for American United Methodists, the debates surrounding GC2019 are debates about how American progressive and traditionalist United Methodists should relate to one another, for many United Methodists outside the US, the debates are instead about how American and non-American United Methodists should relate to one another.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

What are the possible outcomes for GC2019?

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.

General Conference 2019 begins one month from today. While GC2019 will certainly not be the end of the story about debates over sexuality in The United Methodist Church, it is a climax in that debate towards which events have been building for many years.

There is no way of knowing what exactly will happen at GC2019 until it happens. Moreover, some surprising thing may happen in the next month that would dramatically affect debate at GC2019. Yet, we do know a lot about the range of possibilities. The Commission on a Way Forward has made its report, the Judicial Council has ruled on that report, other groups have submitted their own legislation, the Committee on Reference has decided which of these proposals are in harmony, and groups have lined up behind various proposals. With all that background in mind then, here are some reflections on the range of possibilities for next month.

It seems there are five primary plans under consideration: the One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan, the Connectional Conferences Plan, the Simple Plan, and a relaxation of the trust clause that would allow churches to exit the denomination with their property. These plans do not have equal amounts of support and therefore are not all equally likely to pass, but all have some level of support. That there are multiple plans under consideration make the negotiations, politics, and discernment much more complicated.

While a relaxation of the trust clause alone has not been treated as a formal plan in much of the discussion leading up to GC2019, there are good reasons to regard it as such. That there were five different petitions to take this action, all of which were ruled in harmony, indicate a significant level of interest. Deciding among the different details of these five may create complications for this option, but it is an option. There have also been people publicly supporting this option, even if no official group has backed it.
In addition to (or instead of) these five primary plans, it is possible that GC2019 could revise church teachings by adopting one of the petitions ruled in harmony without adopting a broader plan that would address a full range of polity issues related to gay marriage and gay ordination. These petitions seem to be mainly the work of individuals rather than broader groups, making this option unlikely.

The General Conference will begin its work as a committee of the whole and will select which proposal it wants to take up and work on. That proposal will then serve as the main proposal with the best procedural shot at passage. It does not, however, assure passage of that proposal. As I have previously noted, there is a bit of strategy for supporters of various plans in determining which plan should be taken up first. If a plan is taken up but then defeated, that may make it easier to pass an alternative plan. Such a sequence of events may benefit the trust clause relaxation plan in particular. If another plan is taken up but then defeated, supporters of a variety of plans may agree to relax the trust clause as a way of trying to provide some resolution.

It is possible that none of the five proposals will pass. Since support is divided among a number of different proposals, none may have majority support. Furthermore, as I have indicated before, some delegates, especially from Africa and the Philippines, may prefer that no changes are made. It is also possible that if the first plan (or two) considered fail, General Conference may simply run out of time to fine-tune and pass a plan acceptable to all.

Whatever happens at General Conference, annual conference, local churches, caucus groups, central conferences, and other entities will likely need to make decisions in response in the days, weeks, and months following GC2019. Some plans, including all three from the Commission on a Way Forward would allow for or require some decision making about standards for ministry and/or affiliation with the church. Any constitutional amendments would need to be ratified. Those unhappy with whatever plan passes are likely to make decisions about next moves and strategies to accomplish their long-term strategy goals. If a plan passes with only simple majority support, it is possible that opponents could seek to reverse that decision at General Conference 2020.

It is this continued decision making that will ensure that GC2019 is not the end of this story. It may prove to be a denouement or a turning point, as many expect it to be, but it will not be the end. As they say in broadcast, stay tuned for more!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Recommended Reading: European and Eurasian delegates discuss GC2019

The following is an English translation by David W. Scott of the article "Respektvolle Gespräche trotz großer Unterschiede" by Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic/Baltic Episcopal Area. This article first appeared on the website of the Evangelische-methodistische Kirche (EmK), the name of the United Methodist Church in Germany.

Respectful Conversations Despite Great Differences
The European delegates met in preparation for the extraordinary General Conference. Concerns about lobbying and desire for unity.

The European and Eurasian delegates to the extraordinary General Conference met from January 11-13 in the Hessian city of Braunfels. General Conference, the highest governing body of the world-wide United Methodist Church, meets at the end of February in St. Louis in the US state of Missouri.

Community and Consultation
It is no secret that among the 40 European and Eurasian General Conference delegates there are different understandings of human sexuality. Following from that, there are also different views on what the best Way Forward for the United Methodist Church should look like. That was also clear at the meeting in Braunfels, where the delegates met for interchange, worship, prayer, and cultivating community.

The goal of this meeting was to offer the delegates from Europe and Eurasia an opportunity to meet one another and to prepare for the imminent extraordinary General Conference. Bishops Patrick Streiff, Harald Ruckert, Eduard Khegay, and Christian Alsted led the worship services and the plenary discussions. In small groups with people from each episcopal area, the delegates discussed both the report of the Commission on a Way Forward and also other proposals. In the conversations, the participants especially lifted up to what extent the various proposals were challenging or problematic. They also discussed possible improvements of the existing proposals. The One Church Plan and the Traditionalist Plan received the greatest attention. Beyond that, a quick glance was given at those proposals that were submitted in addition to the report of the Commission on a Way Forward.

Church Political Maneuvers Feared
An important topic of discussion was the question of what impacts the various packages of petitions could have on the individual Annual Conferences and also on the three European Central Conferences. The present delegates unanimously decided to introduce an amendment to the One Church Plan that prevented a legal vacuum between the extraordinary General Conference in 2019 and the first regularly occurring meetings of the Central Conferences in 2021.

The delegates deliberated how they could mutually support each other in the run-up to and during the meeting of the General Conference, which is especially important if the tensions should increase. In this context, a prayer-dependent attitude of "conviction in humility" was emphasized. But many also expressed their concerns about church politics maneuvers and lobbying before and during the General Conference. These behaviors are difficult to bring in harmony with how a church should proceed in its decision-making process.

Conviction, Respect, and Positive Regard
Culture, national legislation, and service in the 27 countries of Europe and Eurasian with a United Methodist presence - from Kazakhstan to Algeria and from Germany to Latvia - are very diverse. But it is a strong solidarity, formed from love, trust, community, and Methodist identity, that holds the churches together. The meeting showed that Methodists in Europe and Eurasia have strong convictions but are still able to stay in respectful conversation with one another, to listen attentively to one another, to try to understand one another, to hold one another in positive regard, and to avoid an approach to one another that creates winners and losers. The delegates uttered their anxiety in looking to the future of the United Methodist Church, while at the same time the atmosphere was characterized by hope. Several of those present stressed their great wish that it might be possible to remain united as a church. In the context of very different realities in Europe and Eurasia, the church should together live out its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Heinrich Bolleter: Experiences in Multicultural Community

Today's post is by Heinrich Bolleter, retired bishop of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference. The article first appeared in German on Rev. Bolleter's personal blog. Translation is by UM & Global's David Scott.

A "multicultural community": for many, that rather sounds like an exotic concept.

I have experienced the reality of churches that are multicultural already for 25 years in my service as bishop of Central and Southern Europe. For instance, in Voivodina, Serbia, there are churches in which Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Ukranians, and so-called Danube Swabians lived with one another. In North Africa, there are churches in which Kabyle people, French, and black Africans, who had immigrated from the south beyond the Sahara, lived together.

With the new wave of migration in Europe, we also speak of a growing number of multicultural communities. With us in Aarau, we have many colors and cultures in our church services: Asians, Africans, and Swiss. Alongside this, an Arabic-speaking congregation has formed. I would exaggerate if I said that this community ran along under one church roof without tensions. We learn the right approach to one another. Experiences of respect and acceptance arise in lively and sustained exchange with one another.

In the United Methodist Church (EmK) in Switzerland, we have two classical models:

1. The integration model - the joint congregation

The first model strives to integrate speakers of other languages into the local congregation, that is to say, to be and form church together with in-migrating people and groups. That is a large challenge, not only in common worship, which requires translation capacities and the desire to operate on a larger bandwith, but also a broadly supported openness to interpersonal contacts and intercultural experiences. Thus can a "we-feeling" develop in a multicultural congregation. Despite linguistic barriers, the multicultural community can avoid social isolation of immigrants by taking great joy in interacting with them. Stephen Moll writes about an experience in Baden: "Relationships and friendships are central. Cooking and eating together is a wonderful way to meet at eye-level. We also involve the asylum-seekers in the responsibilities for the life of the congregation." (Column in «mein TDS» 2018/30, page 14).

2. The migrant congregation

Language is not the only reason for forming a separate migrant congregation. It is a deep desire for "home" in a foreign land and in a foreign culture. The question arises whether a migrant congregation is a congregation for a limited time or one of lasting institutional size? It is said that the children of immigrants rather tend to be Swiss and join the group of Swiss congregations. The third generation of immigrants will likely think again of their roots in their family's country of origin. Migrant congregations are therefore being visited by members of the third generation of immigrants, although they could easily integrate into the multicultural "Swiss congregations." The migrant congregation remains a place of "safety," a refuge, where one can absorb the culture shock. The migrant congregation remains a great help against the emotional and social isolation of the immigrants. The characteristic quality of a migrant congregation is "here we are like a family." Here I point to the book of an Arabic friend of Jörg Niederer's, Usama Al-Shamani. It received the sponsorship prize of the city of Frauenfeld. His book bears the title, In the Foreign Place, the Trees Speak Arabic ("In der Fremde sprechen die Bäume arabisch").

Multicultural Experiences - Biblical Models
The question of biblical models leads us to the conclusion that multiculturalism in the church is not a modern phenomenon. The Bible is full of multicultural experiences.

Migration is present in the reports of the Old Testament and the New Testament. That helps us see today's churches with new eyes.

What I have seen in church and society has sensitized me to read anew these texts in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. I have discovered that God has frequently led the people into intercultural experiences to allow them to grow and mature in life and to strengthen and distinguish themselves in their service.

God's call made the people in biblical times into boundary-crossers and bridge-builders between cultures.

I now point out here examples of how God led people across their own boundaries of ethnicity and culture to prepare them for and summon them to service.

Moses, who was commissioned by God as the "savior of the people of Israel from Egypt," is a dramatic example of how God works across the boundaries of culture. Moses was born as a Hebrew and raised in the court of the Pharoah in Egypt. On his flight into the land of Midian, he married a foreigner, Zippora, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian.

Moses spoke with an accent. He was an outsider to the Egyptians and also to the Hebrews. His "yes" to God's commission made him into the leader on the flight from Egypt.

Naomi and Ruth: Naomi and Elimelech emigrate from their home into the land of the Moabites. The reason was a famine. Her husband and both sons die. So she leaves with her daughter-in-law Ruth, a Midianite, to return to the Promised Land. Through marriage with Boaz, Ruth became a mother and a limb in the family tree of the Messiah.

In the New Testament, it is Jesus who, in a multicultural world divided by religion, crosses the boundaries of religion and culture in the name of God. He went physically across the boundaries into gentile territory and thereby broke a taboo of the Jewish community. He spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well and thereby broke through the social, cultural, and religious rules of his time. This behavior as "boundary-crosser" was a hallmark of his way and service. Many more examples could be compiled.

The Acts of the Apostles reports how the growing number of Christian congregations must wrestle with whether they can - or should - reflect multicultural society (especially in urban areas). Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women, rich and poor, joined the Christian communities. Through the Passover event and the mission command, the communities in Jerusalem and Antioch became multi-ethnic and multilingual. The Apostle Peter confessed: "Now I am learning in reality that God does not regard the person. Instead, persons from every people group are pleasing to him, if they fear him" (Acts 10). So what is the distinctive mark of a Christian community? Not nationality, not uniform culture or equal social standing, but faith in Jesus Christ alone is the definitive bond of the community.

In the net of relationships among natives and foreigners, among the various ethnicities and cultural expressions, we seek our identity today as a multicultural congregation following Jesus.

Open Doors for Multicultural Encounters
Multiculturalism was already in biblical ages the normal case. Here are two more reminisces:

In the booklet of daily watchwords of the [Moravian] Brethren, a prayer from Africa reads, "Lord Jesus Christ, you were born of a Hebrew mother. Babylonian wisemen paid homage to you. You were full of joy at the belief of a Syrian woman and a Roman captain. An African carried your cross. We thank you, that we may belong to you. Help us to bring people of all races and nations into your reign as co-heirs." A living fellowship, which follows this Jesus, must have open doors for all. Article 4 of the constitution of our church also holds fast this point: "All, without regard to race, color, national origin, status and social position should participate in the life of the church and receive the sacraments."

By the way, the United Methodist Church has always grown the fastest among migrants and people on the edges of society. Our mission therefore does not allow national, political, and other loyalties to limit unity in Christ. If God loves life, then Others are not excluded. We need a "church-with-one-another" which makes a contribution to reconciliation among people. Experiences of respect and acceptance are rooted in lively and sustained exchange.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Now the the Committee on Reference has met, what plans will be before GC2019?

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.

The Committee on Reference, a typically obscure administrative committee that reviews petitions submitted to General Conference, has taken on significantly increased importance for General Conference 2019. Since GC2019 is a special, called General Conference, this committee was charged with determining which petitions are "in harmony" with the bishops' call for the General Conference. While General Conference can, by two-thirds majority vote, decide to take up any matter it chooses, only those petitions considered in harmony with the call will be part of the initial options under consideration when it convenes next month.

So, what will those options be? The committee met recently to make its decisions on which petitions were in harmony. A review of the Committee on Reference's report, combined with the text of the petitions in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate yields the following range.

First, the Committee on Reference ruled that all three reports submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward are in harmony with the call. That means that the One Church Plan, Connectional Conference Plan, and Traditional Plan will be, as anticipated, major options for General Conference.

The UMC Judicial Council did rule some portions of the Traditional Plan and One Church Plan unconstitutional, but these plans could move forward at GC2019 with modifications to correct the areas ruled unconstitutional. The Judicial Council did not rule on the Connectional Conference Plan, as it proposes constitutional amendments.

In addition to the plans submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward, the following additional plans have been submitted by other individuals or groups and were ruled in harmony. I have grouped similar petitions for the sake of clarity.

Plans that allow congregations to leave the denomination with their property:
Petition 90051 by Lonnie Brooks of Alaska, entitled "A Graceful Exit as a Way Foward"
Petition 90056 by Monte Tull of Oklahoma, entitled "Abeyance of Trust Clause Enforcement"
Petition 90058 by James Ottjes of Indiana, entitled "Disaffiliation"
Petition 90059 by Keith Boyette of Virginia, entitled "Disaffiliation"
Petition 90066 by Leah Taylor of Texas, entitled "Disaffiliation"

Alternate versions of the Traditional Plan:
Petitions 90078-90079 by Maxie Dunnam of Tennessee, entitled "Modified Traditional Plan"
Petition 90052 by Lonnie Brooks of Alaska, entitled "A Traditional Way Forward with Enhanced Enforcement"

Plans that remove language opposing homosexuality, gay marriage, and/or gay ordination:
Petitions 90068-90075 by Alex da Silva Souto of Connecticut, entitled "A Simple Plan"
Petitions 90090-90092 by Lonnie Brooks of Alaska, entitled "Fully Inclusive Way Forward"
Petition 90088 by Sean McRoberts of Iowa, entitled "Chargeable Offenses"
Petition 90083 by Jack Ryder of Illinois, modifying P161.G

Plans that revise or affirm teachings on sexuality in a more traditionalist direction without making structural changes:
Petition 90055 by Paul T. Stallsworth of North Carolina, inserting more traditionalist theological affirmations into Paragraph 161.G
Petition 90056 by Monte Tull of Oklahoma, defining gender as biological sex at birth
Petition 90062 by John Carroll of Tennessee, retaining Paragraph 161.G without change
Petition 90067 by Albert Cunningham of North Carolina, entitled "Marriage," adding biblical passages in justification of a traditional definition of marriage to Paragraph 161.C

Plans that revise teachings on sexuality in a more progressive direction:
Petition 90084 by Douglas Crockett of Virginia, entitled "One New Discipline Plan," affecting Paragraph 161, sections A, C, and G
Petition 90082 by Jeffrey Carr of Missouri, entitled "Inclusiveness," adding sexual orientation to the non-discrimination clause in Paragraph 4 of the Constitution
Petition 90087 by Sean McRoberts of Iowa, entitled "Inclusiveness," adding sexual orientation and other statuses to the non-discrimination clause in Paragraph 4 of the Constitution
Petition 90089 by Donald Malone of Delaware, entitled "Sexual Practices," amending Paragraph 161.C to define marriage as between "two adults of the same sexuality"

Plans affecting marriage for deacons:
Petition 90077 by John Nupp of Maryland, entitled "Interpretation of Fidelity in Marriage for Deacons"

Monday, January 14, 2019

Recommended Reading: Korean-Americans and the Way Forward

Rev. Sungho Lee of the California-Nevada Annual Conference recently wrote a commentary on UMNS about the debate over sexuality in the UMC. Rev. Lee argued that the best way forward for Korean-American churches would be to keep the current stances against the practice of homosexuality, gay marriage, and gay ordination, but to decrease enforcement of these clauses. Essentially, Rev. Lee argues for a "don't ask, don't tell" policy as best for Korean-American United Methodists.

This commentary is interesting for two reasons:

First, it does not conform to the positions of either of the two main camps of white American United Methodists, who desire to either remove the current stances or increase enforcement. Rev. Lee advocates doing neither of these.

Second, Rev. Lee's post is evidence that what I wrote last month about some delegates from African annual conferences and the Philippines may be true of other groups as well: They may prefer no plan pass to either the One Church or Traditional(ist) Plans passing. These delegates may want to keep the current prohibitions but be uninterested in enforcing these prohibitions on progressive Americans.

It is interesting that Rev. Lee advocates an exit clause passing. It may well be that an exit clause alone is the plan that has the most chance of approval by General Conference next month.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Missionaries as children in a fosterage system

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.

Traditional histories of missionaries often cast them in hagiographic light as those coming to save the lost and benighted. Post-colonial critiques have pointed out the ways in which such images of missionaries degrade those among whom they are in mission. This raises a question: If we should not depict missionaries as hero-saviors, what other images can we use to understand them?

One surprising example comes from the medieval European system of fosterage. Although the details varied among times and places, in general, the fosterage system involved children being raised for a time by families other than their own. Unlike in the modern foster care system, this arrangement did not indicate that the children's parents were deceased or unable to care for the children. Instead, fosterage was a way of providing children with opportunities to learn important skills and a way of forging connections between families. Sometimes families would even exchange children.

Fosterage usually lasted for a set amount of time, after which children would return to their families of origin. The system of fosterage did not intend to cut ties between children and their families of origin, but rather to transform them in ways not possible if they had stayed home. It would then reconnect them so that what they learned might benefit them and through them, their family of origin.

In many ways, the role of missionaries parallels the role of children in the fosterage system, with culture (or country) of origin and host culture standing in for the family of origin and host family.

Viewing the sending of missionaries as a form of fosterage emphasizes that the goal of mission is not to impart the benefits of one superior culture to another inferior culture, as mission was often previously understood to entail. Indeed, if anything, the fostering family was usually the more socially and economically advanced. Instead, seeing sending missionaries as fosterage emphasizes the goal of mission as establishing connections between cultures.

It therefore also makes sense of the possibility of bilateral sending of missionaries. It is perfectly reasonable to send missionaries from Country A to Country B and from Country B to Country A because, if the goal of mission is connection, then exchanges in both directions facilitate more connection.

Seeing missionaries as children in the fosterage system also emphasizes the importance of learning for missionaries. Missionaries are not primarily those who are sent to impart truth or technique, but those who are sent to learn from their hosts. Of course, mission does involve sharing one's understanding of God and mutual learning, but the image of missionary as teacher is so deeply ingrained that an emphasis on missionary as learner is a useful counterbalance.

Finally, just as the goal of fosterage was not to separate children from families of origin but to return them transformed in ways that could benefit their families of origin, so too the goal of mission is not to separate missionaries from their cultures (and countries) of origin, but to transform them in ways that will allow them to benefit their cultures (and countries) of origin with what they have learned (of God and people) through their mission experience.

As with all metaphors, this image of mission is not perfect, but it is provocative in the ways it differs from traditional concepts of mission. Ultimately, the more images we have at hand to think about mission and missionaries, the better we can understand all facets of the missio Dei.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Recommended reading: Majority of top UMNS stories from 2018 were mission-related

United Methodist News Service (UMNS) has just released its list of its top 5 stories for 2018. The list is determined through voting by UMNS staff and other church communicators. Those top five stories are as follows:

1. The struggle to hold The United Methodist Church together despite longstanding division over homosexuality

2. United Methodists offering asylum and engaging in mission with immigrants, especially in the US and Mexico

3. United Methodist responses to natural disasters around the world

4. The detention and then release of Global Ministries missionaries in the Philippines

5. United Methodist responses to mass shootings in the United States

It is worth noticing that the majority of these top stories are mission-related. Stories 2, 3, and 4 are clearly about mission. The top story has implications for mission, and depending on how one construes the relationship between social/political witness and mission, the fifth story could be read as missional as well.

The missional nature of these stories is important, because it provides another narrative for the denomination. Many of the standard narratives about the UMC revolve around its conflicts over sexuality or its decline in the US. But there are other stories that are being told: stories about how United Methodists are joining in the missio Dei and engaging the world around them as messengers of Christ's love, healing, justice, and truth.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The United Methodist blogosphere, GC2019, polarization, and confirmation bias

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 the special called General Conference in February approaches, a crescendo of posts from across the United Methodist blogosphere have addressed the upcoming conference and the two main plans laid before it - the One Church Plan and the Traditional(ist) Plan. The focus on this issue in the United Methodist blogosphere is overwhelming, so much so that I sometimes wonder whether it is worthwhile to write about anything else in the next two months, or whether other conversations will necessarily be overlooked by those taking the clickbait of yet another post for or against one of the two plans.

Certainly, GC2019 is an important upcoming event, and the issues before it deserve serious consideration and discussion, on the internet as in person. However, the United Methodist blogosphere's focus on General Conference 2019 illustrates how the it reflects in many ways the general American media landscape, with its attendant problems of polarization and confirmation bias.

First, a brief description of what is out there in the United Methodist blogosphere. There are three types of United Methodist blogs: those sharing devotional materials, including sermon repostings; those sharing information about specific ministries; and those commenting on general church and cultural issues. In this analysis, I am referring to the third type of blog.

Most general church and culture blogs tend to have an easily identifiable theo-political slant to them - either conservative/traditionalist or liberal/progressive. That's not necessarily a bad thing - people are entitled to their views - but it does affect how blogs go about attracting an audience. Rather than attract readers who are interested in a particular topic (church-state relations, for instance), most general UM blogs attract readers who are interested in a particular viewpoint, regardless of the topic under discussion.

While religious types have a high tolerance for shouting in the wilderness, whether or not anyone is listening, most bloggers do still pay attention to what attracts readers. And when readers come to a blog for its viewpoint, usually what will attract the most readers are posts in which that viewpoint is expressed most strongly. In other words, polarized content is generally more popular content. Moreover, when that polarized view is applied to current hot topics, the page views increase further.

I think this is a major reason why many United Methodist generalist blogs have focused so heavily on GC2019 recently. It is certainly a hot topic, but it is also one which lends itself easily to polarized treatments. Thus, a polarized assessment of some aspect of GC2019 is more likely to be a "successful" post (in terms of page views) than one on, say, how the church should view the ethics of driverless cars (a current topic, but not a terribly hot one, and not a polarized one).

But there is a danger in this approach to content production in the United Methodist blogosphere. As current discussions of secular media in the United States have highlighted, a polarized media environment, especially when content is shared through social media, as most United Methodist blogs are, can fall victim to or even reinforce confirmation bias. In other words, when we seek out polarized media, and when media go along with incentives to produce more polarized content, that system seeks to strengthen people's existing biases and preconceived ideas about issues.

Thus, while much digital ink is being spilled debating the proposals for General Conference 2019, it is quite likely that both sides are overlooking strengths in their opponents' arguments and plans and weaknesses in their own, which could leave either or both unprepared for what actually happens. Moreover, it also means that all those words are making it less likely rather than more likely that opponents in the church will be able to work together in a spirit of prayer and charity to address our collective problems.

Here at UM & Global, we will try to avoid these problems of polarization and confirmation bias by continuing to produce non-polarized assessments of GC2019 and by focusing on other topics as well in the next two months. It may not earn us as many clicks, but I'd rather be less popular and not contribute (as much) to the problem than to go viral with content that will only further separate faithful Christians from one another.