The People Called Methodists have a long and rich history of missional evangelism. Today, hundreds of thousands of United Methodists, lay and clergy, participate in service projects at home and abroad each year. However, the minority do so under the purview of official United Methodist agencies. Whereas John Wesley sought to organize and oversee his followers in mission service, it would appear that utilizing denominational connectivity is not a priority for many American United Methodist churches today. In 2012, more than 500,000 American United Methodists reported serving in mission at home or overseas. However, less than 11 percent of them did so through the guidance of agencies affiliated with The United Methodist Church, such as United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (hereafter UMVIM).
The reasons for this are not entirely clear, and they raise several questions. Why are these large numbers of lay people forgoing official United Methodist agencies? Do they do so under the guidance and example of their pastors? Are the laity serving in mission by engaging with the Wesleyan practices of accountability? Is this a new movement of the missio Dei that is designed to equip the laity for mission which should be embraced by church leadership, or is something else going on?
Current mission patterns in United Methodism seem to be indicative of the larger American mission movement. An increase in service by the laity, a move away from the power of centralized organizations to local congregations, and the increasing influence of a "market state" rather than nation state can all be seen in United Methodist mission. Additionally, there is a perceptible move away from a designated international missionary who is supported by local congregations and supervised by leaders within a missional hierarchy.
Instead, international mission work is becoming increasingly centered in the local congregation. One indicator of such a movement to the local congregation is the evidence that more United Methodist congregations are not utilizing the denominational connections available to them. The laity, with various levels of training, preparation, and oversight are deploying themselves to bring their understanding of mission and ministry to nearly every continent, rather than being deployed through denominational channels.
Such a shift away from denominational ties is just one challenge of United Methodist mission. This shift toward focusing on local and individual desires in organizing STM correlates with a shift toward an understanding of mission as a pilgrimage experience undertaken primarily for the benefit of those going, and not connected to the impact on receiving communities or larger denominational priorities.
My research revealed that there was significant evidence that STM participants used their time, money, and service to purchase an experience of pilgrimage. My interpretation of the narratives I collected points to the conclusion that some United Methodist churches, in part or in whole, have developed STM programs with the primary goal of consuming an experience for the implicit, and sometimes explicit, benefit of the participants.
Those congregants who had participated in STM previously wanted to do so again in hopes of recapturing something they had lost since the last experience. First-timers were seeking to experience what they had seen in the veterans. All of them seemed to be ready to consume mission activities for personal growth.
When the personal experience becomes primary, as it has in many STM efforts, the central goal of Christian mission is hidden from view. Mission must be grounded in a biblical theology. Activities that are done in the name of mission but are designed, either implicitly or explicitly, for the primary benefit of the participant do not have a biblical precedent.
Trips designed primarily for the benefit of the participants can be called “learning trips”, “church-work trips”, or “educational tours”, but they should not be called “mission.” The issue is much more than mere semantics.
As a result of this fundamental misunderstanding, STM is not living up to its full potential. Many, though not all, leaders of STM continue to incorrectly and unbiblically frame these service trips, designed primarily for self-edification, experiential tourism, and personal pilgrimage, as “mission.” The tension in doing so is increasingly evident in both local churches who send these teams, the churches who receive them, and the world that watches from the outside looking in.
In subsequent posts, I will examine how this problem is related to the lack of a biblically grounded Wesleyan theology of mission and how that problem might be overcome.
 According to reports complied by the General Council for Finance and Administration. Since that time, the reporting format for mission participation has changed and, as such, the data are no longer available in this format.