Monday, April 13, 2020

COVID-19, Travel, Zoom, and the Future of United Methodist Mission

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 coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many things around the world, among them the practice of mission. This blog has examined some of the impacts of the pandemic on United Methodist mission around the world. Lisa Beth White has reflected on “Short-Term Mission in a Time of Coronavirus,” including what happens when you are “Not Going on the Mission Trip.”

In addition, I have noticed in the past month has been a significant drop-off in the number of pieces posted by the US annual conferences about their work with mission partners around the globe. The boards and agencies and UMNS have continued to share stories about global United Methodism, even going out of their way to inform United Methodists about responses around the world, but annual conferences and local churches have not as much. Our own readership at UM & Global has also been markedly lower in the past month.

It seems safe to conclude that amidst the pandemic, US United Methodists are not paying nearly as much attention to global mission.

That is to some extent perfectly understandable. Churches have been overwhelmed trying to transition to online worship, figuring out how to celebrate Easter without in-person services, and in some cases providing expanded local mission services in greatly changed circumstances. Certainly, these pressing concerns have left US churches with less capacity to focus on many things, and international mission is just one of those things.

I think this drop-off in interest in international mission is, however, also a sign of just how dominant short-term mission trips have become as a form of mission engagement for American United Methodists. In the present context, no mission trips are happening, and upcoming mission trips have been canceled. That leaves annual conferences and local churches with a lot less to share about their engagement in international mission, especially since those trips may or may not be part of on-going relationships involving significant other aspects beyond trips.

The dominance of short-term trips in the US ties into differences I have noticed between US responses to the pandemic on the one hand and Swiss and Norwegian United Methodist responses on the other. While short-term trips are part of Swiss and Norwegian engagement with international mission, they are a smaller part of on-going relationships with specific partners that also involve regular communication, prayer, and funding. Despite COVID-19 cases and church closures in Switzerland and Norway, those branches of the UMC have continued to be engaged with their international partners, sharing information and launching special fundraising campaigns to support them. There has been some of that in the US (the Michigan-Haiti partnership is one example), but much less.

Given that the pandemic has been so disruptive to perhaps the major form of US United Methodists’ engagement with global mission, there are questions about what the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be on US United Methodists’ relationships with international partners. The pandemic will certainly disrupt mission travel for the next couple of months at least, but as commentators have noticed about many aspects of life, things may not just go back to pre-pandemic normal afterward.

For instance, if US United Methodists are left with heightened concerns about travel in general and the risks of various diseases or of being stranded, short-term mission trips may be perceived as riskier and thus become less popular. Or, if local church finances are significantly impacted by the lack of in-person giving and the economic fallout of the pandemic, congregations may decide that they cannot afford to take international trips as they did in the past.

Alternatively, increased comfort with videoconferencing services such as Zoom for meetings within the United States may lead US United Methodists to become more willing to use video conferencing to talk to mission partners around the world even when not traveling to see them. Although internet availability and speeds vary around the world, it is still possible to conduct video calls with partners in most major urban areas, even in developing countries. More communication outside of trips could strengthen rather than hurt international mission partnerships.

Another possibility is that if US United Methodists become more inward-focused because of a felt need to focus on their own survival during the pandemic, that inward focus will persist after the pandemic is over. There was a rising tide of nationalism in the US (and many other countries) before the pandemic. That desire to separate from international connections and focus instead on the domestic may be exacerbated by the psychological impacts of the pandemic, which would be bad for the future of international mission partnerships.

A more optimistic prospect is that the pandemic could help to de-colonize mission partnerships between US United Methodists and their partners around the world. If partners discover that they can survive without short-term mission teams from the US, or even that they are able to flourish in some ways without such teams, they may be reluctant to return to the status quo after the pandemic. On the other side, if US United Methodists become chastened about their ability to save the world because of the severe impacts of the virus in their own country, they may bring a humbler attitude to mission partnerships in the future.

Finally, it is possible that things pretty much go back to normal after the pandemic. Once the virus is under control and travel is possible again, people take up the same patterns of mission practices as they previously did. Perhaps the resumption of mission trips will even give people a sense of normalcy restored.

It is impossible to know at this point what the long-term consequences, if any, of COVID-19 and the interruption of the short-term mission trip model of missions will be for US United Methodists. And it may be too much to contemplate these consequences on top of scrambling to respond to the many disruptions and large amount of sickness, death, and economic pain that are a part of our current experience. Yet, when we have the capacity, we should look for what is emerging from this situation. The answer may be surprising.

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