Today's post is by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. Bishop Wenner is a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, having led the Germany Central Conference, and is currently the Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council.
As I noted in an earlier piece, in my role as Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council to connect the World Methodist Council (WMC) with the World Council of Churches (WCC), ecumenism is my daily work. In my previous blog, I discussed new expressions of ecumenism. Now, I would like to turn to the topic of migrants, mission, and ecumenism.
Methodist history has been influenced by migration. In the 18th and 19th century Methodist ministers and lay preachers served those immigrants to what is today the USA. They offered spiritual support to those who settled on the East Coast and accompanied those who went westwards.
German settlers came to personal faith in Methodist congregations in the USA. They became instrumental in sending missionaries to their home country which led to the foundation of Methodist congregations in Germany.
Migration is an opportunity to share Gods love also in our days. According to the 2020 World Migration Report of the International Organization on Migration, in the year 2000, 2.8 % of the world population were migrants, and it increased to 3.5 % in the year 2019. Unfortunately, the growth of refugees is even higher: In 2000, 14 million people were forced to leave their homes; in 2020, 25.9 million people seek refuge in a foreign land, and 41.3 million people are internally displaced.
In several countries, including Germany, discussions of migration have the potential to divide society. Fear of an increase of migration is nourished by the false assertion that migrating people are enemies of the “Christian Occident” because they belong to other religions and potentially bring fundamentalistic Islamic beliefs.
Statistics prove, though, that 55 % of the immigrants to Germany are Christians. Many of them worship in so called migrant congregations. These congregations often operate separately from the well-established churches. If anything, there are only loose links to the national or regional ecumenical councils. Even on a local level we rarely interact in worship and service.
Churches in countries where many people leave for economic reasons or because of conflict or climate change often seek to accompany their migrating people. We see this phenomenon within the World Methodist Council. The Korean Methodist Church established congregations all over the globe. The United Methodist Church in the Philippines responds to the call of the huge number of migrant workers by sending pastors or officially recognizing lay preachers in the Middle East, in Europe, in several Asian countries and in Australia. The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe formally registered in Great Britain to serve their members in the British diaspora. The Methodist Church Ghana supported the inclusion of Ghanaian Methodist congregations into the UMC in Germany. In North America though, a mission diocese was established.
These migrant churches are outposts for mission, evangelism, service, and advocacy mainly for migrants of the same country of origin. Long established Methodist and Wesleyan churches in the various countries where migrant congregations are formed, though recognizing the spiritual needs and missional opportunities of the migrating siblings, often receive the formation of new Methodist churches as a lack of ecumenical courtesy, if not as offence.
In June 2019, the World Methodist Council organized a Consultation on Migrant/Diaspora Churches at the Heigh Leigh Center near London, UK. Church leaders and practitioners from both migrant sending and receiving countries listened to reports from the various regions and engaged in honest conversations. Those who are long experienced in humanitarian aid and advocacy to refugees and asylum seekers shared experiences with those from countries like Bangladesh or Peru, where the work with refugees is relatively new and often the needs are overwhelming. Stories were shared of mission activities, of struggles to overcome the trauma many migrants face, of gracious ways to support refugees, of pain because of a lack of mutual understanding, and of cooperation and growth in building diverse communities.
The participants worked on a statement: “God is on the Move – a Call to be the Church in a New Way.” It is an invitation to intentionally re-think theology, relationships, and mission in the light of migration and it offers joint principles: Being “in mission together” shall be expressed by “collaboration through partnership and mutual accountability,” “intercultural awareness” and “advocacy and humanitarian assistance.”
Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted efforts to intentionally overcome silos between “old” churches and “new” congregations. Plans to organize round tables to establish formal partnerships had to be postponed. People got stuck when boarders were closed. Online worship services and webinars offer possibilities to connect with home churches, which is well received by migrating people. Yet uprooted people need more then virtual worship services; they need fellowship and accompaniment just where they are right now. This is especially true for migrating children and youth.
COVID-19 increases the vulnerability of migrants and refugees. Immigrants who are illegally in a country do not dare to ask for vaccination. Workers in precarious conditions lost their jobs. Do established churches see the siblings in Christ who are on the move? To be the church in a new way not only calls for acts of mercy, but also for repentance and restauration of those who build their economic wealth and their intellectual superiority on the exploitation of other people and of mother earth.
We have to take into action what the participants of the WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in March 2018 in Arusha, Tanzania, stated, when they called Christians to “transforming discipleship”: “We are called to break down walls and seek justice with people who are dispossessed and displaced from their lands—including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers—and to resist new frontiers and borders that separate and kill (Isaiah 58:6-8).” And: “We are called to follow the way of the cross, which challenges elitism, privilege, personal and structural power (Luke 9:23).”
Whilst we are waiting for opportunities to learn from one another at the World Council of Churches 11th Assembly August 31 to September 8, 2022, in Karlsruhe, Germany or at the World Methodist Conference on the theme “On the Move” postponed to 2023 or 2024, we can intentionally reach out to those who bring Global Christianity to our neighborhoods. Perhaps we might host angels as we create platforms for mutual learning and Christian fellowship (Hebrews 3:2).
Monday, September 20, 2021
Today's post is by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. Bishop Wenner is a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, having led the Germany Central Conference, and is currently the Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council.
Friday, September 17, 2021
Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Robert A. Hunt. Hunt is responding to “Love and the Christian Way of Being in the World,” a piece by Don Manning-Miller, which is itself a response to “Lifestyle Evangelism and Moral Convictions” by David W. Scott, which draws on essays by Hunt and by Thomas Lambrecht.
While continued conversation is welcome, Don Manning-Miller’s recent response to David Scott’s piece misses the point a bit – primarily because he’s driving toward a standard of his own, and one long embedded in the conversation of progressives in this regard.
As I read this post, Manning-Miller begins with what seems unassailable: an assertion that love is the fundamental “ethic” that forms Christian ethics. Yet, despite his mischaracterization of Lambrecht’s work, Manning-Miller knows, I think, that the claim of love as an ethic is problematic when everyone claims it.
So, as he ends his post, he acknowledges that making ethical judgments, in particular judgments about those with whom to fellowship is possible, is indeed necessary. Then he offers what seems to an airtight basis for such judgments: Do the ethics of a group cause harm? And of course, he asserts that the ethics of Good News do indeed cause harm.
The problem is that the definition of harm is no more obvious and shared among United Methodists than the meaning of love. And this gets us to the real problem. Good News and the WCA operate out of a classical ethic based on attaining the teleos for which each creature, including humans, was created. In this view, that which causes harm is that which prevents a person from reaching the end God has designated for their personhood as a human and as an individual.
The progressive ethic, which Manning-Miller expresses, is not teleological, in my view. It is a process ethic in which the name of the process is love and in which there is no particular teleos to be seen. The Reign of God is less an end than a set of values that guide the process. As long as all those engaged in the process of love manifest those values, their behavior is ethical. At best, any discussion of an end or purpose for humankind would be couched in terms of ever-changing forms of human fulfillment. But this fulfillment can’t refer to a true teleos, because it isn’t linked to a genesis.
So, Lambrecht could say in perfect sincerity that the ethics of the Good News/WCA/Traditionalist United Methodists doesn’t cause harm, even if it does cause pain. In fact, he could claim their ethic prevents harm by keeping individuals and the church moving toward their divinely appointed teleos, when all those who either refuse their divinely appointed end or hinder others, that is (to quote scripture) “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)
But for Manning-Miller, this approach certainly causes harm because harm is anything that interferes with the discernment and realization of human fulfillment. Put another way, the concept of harm is embedded in the concept of fulfillment, and a classical and a process understanding of fulfillment are fundamentally different, as are their understandings of the Reign of God.
This fundamental difference between these two perspectives demands the hard kind of dialogue, the kind that is met in real inter-religious dialogue, the dialogue between groups that do not begin at the same place in understanding the nature of reality. Schubert Ogden and Mark Heim recognized this back in the 80’s.
The question remains whether those holding the classical view of reality and those holding a process view of reality can find a way within their distinct worldviews to accommodate some kind of cooperation with the very much other. A fair amount of work has been done on this in the world of inter-religious dialogue, but I see no evidence that either the WCA or UM Progressives have thought of one another clearly in these terms.
Thus, neither group has formulated a sensible and internally coherent approach to dialogue with the other, and as a result, both engage in polemic primarily intended to shore up the support of their own faithful while wondering why they keep talking past rather than to each other.
Wednesday, September 15, 2021
The United States is, it seems, in a time of institutional decline. There has been a lot of (digital) ink spilled in the last five years about the turmoil in and disruption of political institutions in the United States. But already twenty years ago, sociologist Robert Putnam was writing about the impact of declining social capital on civic organizations and other communal institutions.
As many commentators (Putnam included) have noted, a decline in institutions in general is bad for religion, at least in its institutional variety. Yet it is particularly problematic for denominational religion. Congregations, which are most Americans’ primary connection to institutional religion, are their own set of institutions, but denominations add an additional set of institutions to those of the congregation. Thus, denominations are doubly threatened by institutional decline: It can impact both the denomination and its constituent congregations.
If, then, the United States is in a period of general decline in multiple forms of institutions, that trend is likely to have significant importance for The United Methodist Church as a denomination.
To get a better grasp on what is at stake for The United Methodist Church, though, it is necessary to get a better handle on the scope of the problem: What exactly are institutions, what does it mean for them to decline, and why do they decline?
Historian Patrick Wyman, drawing on the work of economic historian Avner Greif, has defined an institution in this way (https://patrickwyman.substack.com/p/what-are-institutions-and-why-are): “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior.” While many might think an institution is the same as an organization, Wyman’s definition gives a broader scope.
Applied to the UMC, this definition highlights the wide variety of institutions at work in the denomination. Certainly, the boards and agencies as central organizations count as institutions. But so do things like the appointive system of ministry, episcopal oversight, the paying of apportionments, the practice of conferencing, and The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). Each of these works in its own way to create regular behaviors among United Methodists, ranging from worship to pastoral ministry to finances to mission.
Institutions exist to serve a particular constituency. In the case of denominational institutions, that constituency is ostensibly the members of The United Methodist Church. Yet the issue of identifying an institution’s constituency is actually more complex. There are subgroups within the nominal constituency (say, for instance, clergy and laity in the UMC), and an institution may impact the behavior of those outside of its nominal constituency as well, which may then give them a vested interest in the performance of that institution. For example, the UMC Social Principles (which are a form of institution) are against gambling, which impacts not only United Methodists but also non-United Methodist who may try to expand gambling in an area, only to encounter opposition from United Methodists.
To say that institutions exist to produce regular behaviors is to say that institutions are intended to influence the actions of individuals and groups on an on-going basis. Regularity implies predictability and persistence. In order to “generate a regularity of behavior,” then, institutions are generally set up to continue indefinitely. Changes in behavior make them less regular, so institutions have a bias against change. Institutions are set up to continue; change is in many ways the exception.
One sees this persistence in most of the institutions of The United Methodist Church. Episcopal oversight is not a limited-time practice in the UMC; it’s a central feature of the denomination, intended to persist over time, even as there have been shifts in what episcopal oversight looks like in the 200+ years of American Methodism. Similarly, while the amounts asked and collected in apportionments vary from year to year (or quadrennium to quadrennium), there is no sense that apportionments are going to be a feature of the church for these four years, and then they will stop, to be replaced by something else. Even when it comes to denominational hymnals, where it has been common practice to issue a new hymnal every generation, the concept of a hymnal as a means to shape worship has carried throughout (most) of Methodist history.
Of course, as acknowledged, change does happen to institutions, in big and small ways, suddenly or gradually, because of internal and external factors. Even though institutions are set up to produce regularity, some amount of change is not incompatible with that purpose. The world in which institutions exist is always changing, so it is impossible for those changes not to influence institutions in some ways. Institutions could only be truly unchanging in some sort of abstract, ahistorical sense. Nor is all institutional change is bad for the institution; some change allows them to adapt to continue to serve their function.
Decline, however, is a particular form of institutional change. Institutional decline is a loss of institutional power to generate regular behavior. Institutions decline when they are no longer able to produce the same sorts of behaviors that they have previously or at least not to the same extent.
Hymnals can provide a good example. For most of history, the official denominational hymnal had significant power to shape what sorts of songs Methodist congregations sang; the liturgies used for communion, marriages, and funerals; and even the order of worship services. Yet the denominational hymnal’s role as an institution that sets norms for United Methodist worship behavior has declined. Due to the advent of contemporary worship, a growing recognition of the significance of ethnic and global worship styles, the availability of worship resources online, and other factors, the hymnal is a less significant force in shaping the worship activities of any given United Methodist congregation on any given Sunday. Depending on your view, this development may be good, bad, or indifferent, but regardless of its moral valuation, it represents a form of institutional decline.
At the extreme of institutional decline is institutional failure or institutional collapse. In these cases, an institution completely ceases to exist. Were the United Methodist Publishing House to close permanently without a designated successor organization, that would be an example of institutional collapse. Institutional collapse is the most dramatic form of decline and gathers the most attention.
Yet, while institutional failure is sudden, it is usually preceded by a long period of institutional decline that is the result of subtle shifts that happen over time due to long-standing pressures. To take the example of the Publishing House again, if it ever does close, it will not be a case of brisk sales and comfortable revenues one day and then closed the next. It will be the result of years of falling sales, shrinking budgets, and reduced staffing and capacity.
As the examples of The United Methodist Hymnal and the state of the United Methodist Publishing House suggest, many, perhaps even most, United Methodist institutions are indeed facing decline. Moreover, this decline goes beyond the numeric decline in the number of US United Methodists. It’s not that UMC institutions are in decline because there are fewer US United Methodists to generate regular behavior among. It’s also the case that UMC institutions are struggling to generate regular behaviors among the US United Methodists that remain in the same ways that they have in the past.
That leaves the question of why. The answers, it turns out, are multi-faceted. I will examine them over the course of a series of subsequent blogs.
Monday, September 13, 2021
Rosemarie Wenner: Changing Christian Landscape – Opportunities and Challenges for Mission and Ecumenism
Today's post is by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. Bishop Wenner is a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, having led the Germany Central Conference, and is currently the Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council.
Ecumenism is my daily work. Currently I serve as Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council to connect the World Methodist Council (WMC) with the World Council of Churches (WCC). In this blog and a following one, I will explore two topics that I am involved in: new expressions of ecumenism and migrants, mission, and ecumenism.
The World Missionary Conference 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland was a landmark in the ecumenical movement. The meeting was chaired by John R. Mott, an American Methodist layman. Although only nineteen out of 1200 attendees were non-Western Christians, John R. Mott flagged a change when he said: “The evangelization of the world… is not chiefly a European and American enterprise, but an Asiatic and African enterprise.”
His words came true. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity indicates that in 2018 66% of Christians lived in the Global South. In its 2021 report, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity states that 47 % of the missionaries are sent from the Global south, versus 12 % in 1970.
The United Methodist Church often uses the motto introduced by the Board on Global Ministries: “Mission from anywhere to anywhere!” This is an exciting concept, and it is a challenging reality. Speaking of my home country Germany, established churches expect that pastors, missionaries and worshippers who come from the global south quickly adopt to a European way of (church) life. Despite paying lip service to decolonialization, we often do not realize how much our mindset and our theology are shaped by white privilege and a sense of superiority embedded in Western cultures.
In October 2019, the World Methodist Council and the Organization of African Instituted Churches met for the first time to start a dialogue in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Listening to the partners from the African Instituted Churches, I learnt a lot about the missionary history with its power imbalance between churches with official links to the colonial powers and the indigenous churches. I realized not only the deep wisdom expressed in African cultures, but also my uneasiness with spiritual practices that are unknown to me. I now better understand how unfamiliar worshippers from abroad might feel themselves when they come to Germany.
Regarding ecumenical encounters, we must admit that the conciliar way of engaging is hard to accept for many churches around the globe, especially for many of the fast-growing Pentecostal, charismatic or evangelical churches.
Carefully negotiated attempts to create places for encounters to foster Christian unity for a broader variety of churches are an important step to give credibility to the Christian witness. Since 2018, I am a part of the Global Christian Forum (GCF) Committee. It is composed of about 25 representatives of the four so called pillars of the GCF (WCC, Roman Catholic Church, World Evangelical Alliance, and Pentecostal World Fellowship), and of several World Communions, global Christian organizations, and mega churches.
At its first Global Gathering in 2007 in Limuru, Kenya, the Global Christian Forum developed the vision “to create an open space wherein representatives from a broad range of Christian churches and interchurch organizations, which confess the triune God and Jesus Christ as perfect in His divinity and humanity, can gather to foster mutual respect, to explore and address together common challenges.”
Sharing of personal faith stories is the hallmark of the Global Christian Forum. It is an eyeopener to many to recognize that no matter how different the theological perspectives and the cultural and economic situation of others might be, they are siblings in Jesus Christ.
The Global Christian Forum affirms time over time that it is not an institution, but an open space with an invitation to all Christians to come to the table. This is its strength and its weakness at the same time. No one is a member, no one has made formal commitments, there are no attempts to create programs that over time might lead to systemic changes. Yet the encounters within the Global Christian Forum help to build trust, to discuss hot bottom issues like proselytism and to create openness to engage with one another in dialogue, service, and advocacy.
Just to mention one example: At the moment, a broad alliance of communions and institutions like WCC, Lutheran World Federation, World Vision International, ACT Alliance, World Evangelical Alliance, Micah global, Mennonite World Conference, WMC, and others work on a campaign towards World Food Day October 16: “Weekend of Prayer and Action against Hunger – Give us this day our daily bread”. Regarding advocacy, these diverse partners even join hands with interreligious organizations.
As I engage with rather unfamiliar fellow Christians, I am challenged to listen carefully, to invest trust, and to make myself vulnerable because I express my theological convictions and my personal faith journey. This is an exercise in community building, which enables me to reach out also to interreligious neighbors and to those who are in “camps” distant from where I am in this polarizing world. Ecumenism is not an aim in itself; Jesus prays that we may all be one “so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21)
Friday, September 10, 2021
Today’s post is by Thomas Kemper, translated by David W. Scott. Kemper is former General Secretary of Global Ministries. This piece appears in its original German in the September 12th issue of unterwegs, the magazine of the Evangelisch-methodistische Kirche (UMC in Germany).
Where were you, dear readers, on September 11, 2001? I was in the office of the EmK-Weltmission (mission agency of the UMC in Germany) in our house in Wuppertal. My children, still elementary school aged, rushed to my desk and were the first to tell me that a plane had flown into a skyscraper in New York. I had traveled to New York many times before, including as director of Global Ministries, the United Methodist Church's agency for mission, which was based there. We had our Weltmission office in the basement of our house, and I quickly walked upstairs, just in time to watch live as the second plane hit the World Trade Centre. This is how it is for almost all of us of a certain age: we remember where we were on September 11, 2001.
Later, I witnessed the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack in Manhattan itself. I then worked there as the leader of the mission work of our Church. I saw how the deep, dark crater in the heart of Manhattan transformed over many, many years into a new, living center dominated by the so-called Freedom Tower. I witnessed how the very authentic memories of the construction fences and of Trinity Church, where the first aid had been organized on September 11, were replaced by an impressive museum. And I saw how the narratives about what September 11th means led to more and more conflicts and cracks in American society.
Certainly, the most moving place of remembrance are the two basins with constantly flowing water, exactly where the foundations of the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood. All the names of the victims are engraved. It is an important sign for the relatives, because no traces of most of the dead could be found under the rubble. So, this memorial is aptly called: Reflecting Absence.
Orlando Rodriguez experienced and suffered through this absence. He belongs to Memorial Church, the UMC congregation in White Plains that we visited during our New York years. He comes from Cuba, had already been a Methodist there, and was now also a very committed parishioner in the USA. His wife Phyllis is Jewish but also visited our church services from time to time. On September 11, Greg, their only son, had not managed to make it out of the World Trade Center, where he had his job. He died there with so many others. His remains were never found. All the more important for Phyllis and Orlando was the public collective memory of the victims year after year.
On September 15, just four days after the terrible death of their son, they wrote an open letter in which they said:
"Our son Greg is among the many missing from the World Trade Center attack. Since we heard the news, we have shared moments of grief, comfort, hope, despair... We see our hurt and anger reflected among everybody we meet. We … sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands, dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son’s death. Not in our son’s name.
“Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world.”
Today, 20 years later, when I read these lines and see the pictures of desperate people from Afghanistan, I am overcome with sorrow and shame that we were not more courageous to stand up for a non-violent response, as Orlando and Phyllis did. Instead, it came to a military response, which not only dramatically worsened relationships between Muslims and Christians but also brought so much more suffering and so much more death to Afghanistan and many other parts of the world. In Afghanistan alone, the US invested $2 trillion in the war. And these days, we are witnessing the final failure of this response.
The letter resulted in the campaign "Not in our son's name." Phyllis met with the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the co-conspirators of September 11th. She publicly campaigned against the death penalty for Moussaoui. The two mothers, Jewish and Muslim, regularly came together and became friends. Not in the name of our sons! Stop abusing religion to spread hatred and violence. As Martin Luther King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can.”
15 years after the terrorist attack, a documentary was released about Phyllis and Orlando and their untiring and intrepid reconciliation work. We showed it at one of our Board meetings in New York. Afterwards, our directors from all over the world were able to ask their questions in a personal conversation with Phyllis and Orlando. Inspired by the two of them, our colleagues went home encouraged to look for non-violent answers to conflicts in the Philippines, Nigeria and many other places.
Once I came very close to terror, in June 2016 in a suicide attack on Istanbul's Ata Türk Airport, where over 40 people died. I can still clearly hear the explosions that tore me out of a short nap in the airport lounge. I see the rushing, fleeing, frightened people around me. I feel my fear as I hid in a kitchen cabinet together with another man with whom I had no common language. We shared the fear because nobody knew how many terrorists were still in the airport. Many hours of anxiety and panic.
After that, still in the lounge and now almost all alone, I wrote on Facebook. I wanted to inform my colleagues that I was safe, because they knew I had flown through Istanbul: "I feel safe now. Now that terror has come so close to me, it brings me even more gratitude for my life and my family. And terror calls for us to work against hatred and terror wherever they show up. It leads us into a deeper solidarity with all those who experience terror and violence not just once, but every day and every night. "
I think of the young, veiled Turkish woman who at some point sat next to me crying bitterly. She told me falteringly in English that she had actually only brought a friend to the airport and then in the chaos had somehow gotten on the wrong side and was now without papers in the international terminal. Now she was very afraid. She could not reach anyone and feared being treated as terrorist. And I think of Sudjit Pereira from Sri Lanka, who still calls me today on every anniversary of the attack, because at the time I lent him my cell phone, with which he could call and reassure his completely distraught family. A common humanity.
Somehow, that Facebook message of mine came to CNN, and I was interviewed that night by the well-known host Anderson Cooper. This resulted in dozens of interviews with broadcasters from all over the world: BBC and Al Jazeera, ABC and some German broadcasters among them. I think a reason for the many requests was that I had already tried on CNN to talk about the meaning of religion. Everywhere I tried to talk about how important it is that we give room for conversation and friendship between the believers of all religions. A network of peace, in which religions are at the forefront.
That must be the lesson and the message of September 11th: religions that contribute to peace and reconciliation and not to more hatred, violence and exclusion. There is no alternative in this global world. Will we, as the Methodist Church, contribute to this goal? Or shall we remain in our own fragmentation and internal strife? We should courageously lean far out of the window of our own comfort, seek dialogue and build bridges.
Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Bellini frames the question in terms of the relationship between science and theology. He writes, "I believe, in some quarters of the church, we are facing ... a suspicion of the discoveries of science." Bellini explains that an exclusive reliance on divine healing coupled with a distrust of science causes some to reject medical approaches to healing.
Yet Bellini argues that, while divine healing is a possibility, that does not preclude the use of medical healing as well. He asserts, "As the grace of God in creation causes the sun to shine on the just and unjust, so also does the grace-filled created order of God allow for healing in creation through the internal healing mechanisms of our body, medical advancement, and the gifts of care in the health professions. Healing can occur through supernatural, natural, and even artificial means, all under the providence of God."
To further bolster his argument, Bellini turns to John Wesley's approach to the issue of healing. Bellini notes, "Wesley considered both spiritual and natural factors that cause and treat health problems. Rarely did he take a single approach, but often integrated a variety of treatments that were available, including prayer, medicine, natural remedies, and other therapies."
Bellini adds, "The theological point is that Wesley did not find science and religion strictly incompatible. In fact, he believed their partnership could contribute to the overall well-being of the human person. To this end, Wesley meticulously attended to every dimension of health and wholeness found in the eighteenth century. Wesley believed the sick should first consult a physician. Methodist leaders, when visiting the sick, were trained to support and supplement the care that was already provided for by medical professionals."
These investigations into Wesley's attitudes towards science and scientific medicine lead Bellini to conclude, "Would Wesley get a COVID-19 vaccine if he were around today? I speculate that as Wesley trusted the advancements of science and the medical profession of his day, so would he today as well. I venture that he would receive the vaccine. More so, when I think of his innovative use of the electric machine, I think he might have been one of the first in line!"
If Wesley would have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, then we, the followers of Wesley, should too!
Friday, September 3, 2021
The African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AME Zion) publishes a quarterly magazine about mission, both domestic and foreign, call The Missionary Seer. Last year, the issue for the fourth quarter covered "Global Missions in Black Methodism," providing an overview of the mission work of the AME Zion, African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME). For those interested in Black involvement in mission, comparative Methodist missiology, and the ways in which race and mission intersect, this issue is a helpful resource. In addition to being available through the AME Zion directly, past editions of the magazine are available in some libraries.
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
I was teaching a Course of Study class on mission recently, and several of my students asked how they could lead mission in their small, rural, elderly, and tired churches. I appreciated the sincerity and the trace of anguish in their question. There are a lot of small, rural, elderly, and tired churches in the United States, and they don’t fit with the models we usually hold up for church success.
Their question also resonated with me personally. I’ve spent half of my life living in towns of less than 10,000 people, and the majority of the churches I’ve been associated with have worshipped under 100 people on a Sunday, some of them as low as 12-20 people. I know the sense of repressed grief in good, faithful church people as they look around at Sunday school classrooms that haven’t been used in a decade and as they try to figure out whether they can scrape together just enough volunteers to hold their annual charity fundraiser at least one more time. I know that it’s not just the church; that small towns in general feel left behind by the modern world. I’ve walked throughout downtowns that are just a hair salon, a restaurant, and a lot of empty buildings. I know that the best and brightest frequently leave small towns because there are no good jobs locally. And I’ve sat in pews where 80% of the congregants are over 65 because of this combination of younger generations leaving for work or just not coming to church at all anymore.
Yet, despite all these winds blowing against small, rural, elderly churches, I do believe that God still calls them to participate in God’s mission. I believe there is good they can do in the world. God does not call us to be successful in the world’s eyes; God calls us to be faithful, and there is plenty of room yet for faithfulness, even in small, rural, elderly churches.
So, I want to share here the affirmations of the role of small, rural, elderly churches in God’s mission that I shared with my class. There have been other recent articles and commentaries about small, rural churches, and I hope this post adds to those to offer a sense of encouragement.
My comments draw on the six principles of asset-based ministry set out by Michael Mather in Having Nothing, Possessing Everything. Although Mather’s work was in poor, urban areas, I am convinced that his insights apply more widely.
I want to begin by saying that God doesn’t require tired, elderly congregants to have all the resources or energy of a congregation filled with 30- or 40-somethings. God can work with whatever your congregants are able to provide, and God will supply the rest of what’s needed through other people. Mather’s process of learning to see abundance in his communities wasn’t about getting more out of his congregants. It was about noticing the abundance that was outside of but all around his congregations. Part of engaging in God’s mission as a small, rural, elderly church is about discovering the abundance around the church, not figuring out how to get more out of already tired congregants.
Mather’s first principle is “Our neighbors are God’s people. Act like it.” Acting like our neighbors are God’s people is both sometimes easier and sometimes harder in small communities where people know each other. People have an easier time seeing people as individuals and not stereotypes, but at the same time, people can get locked into seeing each other in one way, and it may be hard to escape previous bad impressions. Part of engaging in mission, then, is being willing to see those around the congregation in new ways, even if congregants have known them their whole lives.
As part of this principle, I think it’s important to reframe mission from “the well-to-do helping the needy” to “neighbors helping neighbors,” a practice with long roots in many rural areas. While God does call us to serve others, we should not see other people as just “needy.” We need to see other people as full people, full children of God, with assets and abilities as well as needs. That’s essential to treating people with dignity.
Mather’s second principle is “Everything begins with and builds on the gifts of our neighbors.” Even if there are fewer of them, rural churches still have neighbors, and those neighbors still have gifts that can be used to serve others. Part of living out this principle is collaborating ecumenically or with other community organizations rather than a small, elderly church trying to run all mission endeavors themselves.
It is also about drawing on the sorts of personal, informal networks that often characterize rural areas. If your congregation includes people that have connections to others in the community, draw on those connections! That could be a helping professional like a teacher, police officer, or social worker, but it could just as well be a member of the classic car enthusiast club or quilting group, or it could be the person who works at the local gas station and knows everyone in town because they come in to buy gas.
Mather’s third principle is “Parents and guardians are the first and best teachers. Respect this.” I think this principle is equally valid in cities, suburbs, small towns, and the countryside.
Mather’s fourth principle is “We invest first and foremost in the good the people of the neighborhood seek.” I think rural communities have their own sense of what they want for their communities (or individuals within those communities may have several different senses of this), and I still think it’s worth listening to what those are rather than deciding that we know what the community needs. Also, we’re very used to thinking about need in economic terms. We assume those “in need” are those with less economic resources. And rural poverty can be particularly grinding and invisible. But all of us are in need in some way. Maybe the work God is calling your church to is not about money. Maybe it’s about loneliness, or maybe it’s about support for those going through cancer and their families, or maybe it’s grief support, or maybe it’s help finding childcare. Needs are everywhere, just as gifts are.
Mather’s fifth principle is “Money must flow to the neighborhood.” In an age where it’s almost always cheaper to drive 30 miles to get something at Walmart or to order it online, I think making sure that money flows back to local communities is essential in rural areas. Support your local small businesses whenever possible in whatever you do in mission, even if it costs a bit more.
And finally, Mather’s sixth principle is “Practice neighbor love.” I think love is just as important in rural areas as anywhere else. And I don’t think love requires a formal program that runs in perpetuity. Churches often get hung up on trying to establish on-going programs that they run themselves, which can be especially challenging for a small, rural, elderly congregation. But loving people, in whatever way presents itself at that moment? That’s something that all people everywhere can do. And when we change or those we’re loving change, then the ways in which we love them can change too.
Following these principles doesn’t guarantee that your small, rural, aging congregation will suddenly be filled with new, young families. But that’s not the point. Your church may still close in ten years. But if you knew that was going to be true, if you knew that your church would close no matter what, what would you want to do with those last ten years? What sort of legacy would you like to leave?
The good news is this: Small, rural, elderly churches can be faithful in responding to God’s call, and when they do, they produce fruit and establish a faithful legacy, no matter what happens in the future. God is at work, including in rural areas. May our churches see God’s mission proceeding and join in.
Monday, August 30, 2021
United Methodist Traditionalists have been a fairly successful bunch over the past several decades. They have achieved many of their legislative goals in the church, have undercut the power of bishops and bureaucrats that they deem too liberal, and have created a plethora of paradenominational organizations with extensive membership.
Now, Traditionalists are facing a new challenge: launching a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church (GMC), to be carved out of the present United Methodist Church. But in their quest to launch the GMC, Traditionalists are coming up against new challenges.
At the heart of the matter is this tension: Traditionalists want to take as much of the existing UMC as possible into the GMC, but current UMC law makes it difficult for groups to leave en masse to another denomination. Thus, Traditionalists have chosen to wait in hopes of the Protocol being passed, but that waiting risks divisions within the Traditionalist ranks.
At the heart of restrictions against departure from the UMC is the trust clause, the piece of church law that stipulates that all property held by local congregations actually belongs to the denomination as a whole. There are provisions for both congregations and annual conferences (especially outside the US) to leave, but they are difficult, time-consuming, and costly.
Moreover, none of these provisions provide for the possibility of different parts of the church to leave together. If a congregation here, a congregation there, and an annual conference over there all depart piecemeal, there is the challenge of stitching them back together, a process that requires legal, financial, and administrative work.
This piecemeal route would also require all those components leaving separately to be willing to be sewn together into something new, and that is not a given. After decades of hearing disparaging remarks about denominational structures, many Traditionalists have become skeptical about the value of denominations in general, even denominations run by Traditionalists. Especially for congregations, becoming independent and non-denominational may seem like an attractive option.
Thus, Traditionalists are beginning to advance arguments about why they do need a denomination. Such arguments should be seen as a response to questions raised within Traditionalist ranks: What is the value of waiting to join a new denomination vs. leaving now and becoming independent?
The arguments for a denomination become more difficult, too, as more details emerge about the denomination being formed. While some might agree to the idea of joining a new Traditionalist denomination in general, the more that denomination takes on concrete shape, the more likely it is that some will find specific things to dislike about that denomination in particular. Already, there are some public critiques of the specifics of the GMC, and even if these critiques are not persuasive (and the ones in the link are not likely to be persuasive to Traditionalists), there is always the chance that other critiques could be.
The Protocol would provide a clearer and easier path for launching the Global Methodist Church than congregations and annual conferences leaving individually. If passed by General Conference, it would allow for annual conferences, central conferences, and churches to all leave together for a common denominational destination in a way that minimizes costs and makes the process relatively simple and straightforward for those departing.
Thus, passage of the Protocol has become a central goal of Traditionalists because it is the simplest, easiest, and cheapest way to launch the GMC. The GMC's website makes it clear that Traditionalists are willing to wait to launch the GMC while there is still a possibility that the Protocol might pass, even if it means running the risk that some Traditionalist congregations will choose to leave the UMC in the meantime and become non-denominational.
US Progressives often gripe about the $25 million payout to Traditionalists in the Protocol. But to focus on the $25 million is to miss the real value of the Protocol to Traditionalists: It provides a means for a large group of Traditionalists to leave, without bumping up against the trust clause, in a way that is relatively cheap, easy, and minimally disruptive for congregations, and ensures that all those departing will end up in the same denominational home.
The catch with the Protocol as a route to launching the GMC is that it requires General Conference action, which cannot happen until General Conference meets again. Right now, that is set to happen a year from now, but there is no guarantee that it won't be postponed again because of a future lambda variant or other COVID complications. Still, the centrality of the Protocol to Traditionalist plans to launch the GMC is why Traditionalists are arguing that General Conference "must" meet in 2022.
Even if General Conference does meet in 2022, and even if it does pass the Protocol (also not a given), Traditionalists are left with the challenge of holding their coalition together in the meantime. Traditionalist leaders are already receiving questions about what churches and pastors should do while waiting to see if the Protocol passes. The longer that wait extends, the more incentive there will be for individual churches and pastors to seek their own exit path from a UMC they see as corrupt and irrelevant, even if that exit path does not lead them to the GMC.
Thus, especially if there is another delay or likely delay to General Conference, Traditionalists are likely to abandon their Protocol-centered strategy and instead decide to search for quicker forms of exit. Of course, these other forms of exit will likely run into the problems of piecemeal approaches, as outlined above.
United Methodist Traditionalists are not the first group in history to discover that the task of building something new is more difficult than the task of tearing down the old. But the series of challenges involved in Traditionalists' current Protocol-focused strategy to launch their new denomination are highlighting tensions within Traditionalist ranks.
Despite these challenges, Traditionalists will leave the UMC. That is not uncertain. The questions are more about how many, how that will happen, and how many of those leaving will end up part of a new Global Methodist Church denomination.
At this point, it is impossible to know the answers to these questions. Too much--about the COVID pandemic, about General Conference politics, about the decisions of Traditionalist leaders and individual Traditionalist pastors and congregations--remains up in the air. But the Traditionalist leaders' balancing act of trying to hold their constituency together to wait for the Protocol will be one of the major United Methodist story lines to follow over the next year.
Friday, August 27, 2021
The Evangelish-methodistische Kirche im Deutschland (UMC in Germany) has recently published two profiles of Methodist mission leaders. Both profiles (written in German) are well worth reading for understanding the character of Methodist mission engagement in the 20th century and early 21st century.
The EmK website published a nice biography of Philip Potter on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death. Potter, who was born in Dominica, went on to serve as the Secretary of the British Methodist missionary society, the Director of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and ultimately the General Secretary of the WCC. As Klaus Ulrich Ruof writes in the profile, "Potter shaped the ecumenical movement like no other in the second half of the last century."
Emk-Weltmission (the German Methodist mission agency) published an obituary of former long-time EmK-Weltmission Treasurer Walter Volz. The obituary, written by Thomas Kemper, gives a sense of how one person can live out the principles of mission through faithful service. As Kemper writes, "Mission is friendship. Mission is relationship. Mission is sharing life. Walter Volz lived it."
Wednesday, August 25, 2021
We are now just over a year from the dates currently set for the next General Conference: August 29 - September 6, 2022. At this point, it is too early to tell whether such a meeting will actually be possible, given the challenges of organizing a large international event amid an on-going pandemic with unequal global access to vaccines. For the sake of this post, I will assume it will be.
In some ways, the COVID pandemic has felt like a break from denominational politics. There still have been some major developments--consecutive postponements of General Conference, the abortive May 8 Special General Conference, the announcement of the Global Methodist Church, continued promotion of the Christmas Covenant, etc.--and this blog has commented on those as much as anyone.
Still, without many large meetings of United Methodists from around the United States or around the world happening, a lot of the public politicking that characterized the several years before the pandemic has been on hold. Developments have still happened, but they have come more from closed networks not visible to the public. And many pastors and annual conference staff have had their attention consumed by local programmatic and financial concerns associated with the pandemic.
Yet, the ways in which the pandemic has distracted from and diminished denominational politics should not lead one to think that GC2022 will be any less conflict-ridden, if it happens. On the contrary, the coronavirus pandemic will likely increase the amount of conflict at GC2022.
To understand why, think of the current debates over school mask policies in the United States. Conservatives government leaders have forbidden schools in some parts of the country from instituting mask requirements, to the ire of local school leaders and parents concerned for the well-being of their children. Where schools have been able to require masks, there has been significant push back, at times even to the point of violence. COVID precautions have become a culture war issue.
This is apparent in local church ministry and at the annual conference level. Much of what has distracted clergy and annual conference leaders from denominational politics over the past year and a half has been trying to figure out how and when to require and/or provide guidance on COVID precautions. This has not just been a scientific issue of trying to understand medical best practices; it has been a social issue of negotiating vastly divergent views of the pandemic among congregants. Questions about whether churches should meet in person, wear masks, sing, be required to be vaccinated, shake hands, and more have generated heated debate in many congregations.
If such questions have divided congregations with pre-existing relationships, some shared characteristics, and immediate common interests, how much more will similar questions roil preparations for General Conference? How will debates about whether General Conference delegates must be vaccinated go? What will the guidance about masks at General Conference be, and how will participants react when some attendees do not follow, or even flout, that guidance? How will General Conference be set up to promote social distancing? What will worship look like when some will want to sing lustily and with good courage and others will feel threatened by the same?
Some of these questions will have to be settled before General Conference starts. But that is likely to leave people of varying opinions upset, defensive, and therefore aggressive before the meeting ever begins. It will not lead to people, as the bishops urged before GC2019, showing up with "a heart of peace." Moreover, whatever fights over setting COVID precautions happen before the meeting will be immediately compounded by whether or not people follow those precautions.
Beyond COVID, there's the issue of race, which has taken on increased salience within the United States and within the UMC during the pandemic. Both US Progressives and US Traditionalists are likely to try to use this issue against each other, with US Progressives accusing US Traditionalists of disregarding people of color in the United States on domestic racial issues, and US Traditionalists accusing US Progressives of disregarding people of color around the world on the issue of sexuality.
General Conference has long been a forum in which the tensions of US culture wars have exploded in increasingly dramatic ways. Historically, most (but not all) of those tensions have been focused on issues surrounding the status of LGBTQ persons in the denomination. Although delegate elections in 2019 may have shifted the balance of delegates identifying with different sides of the US culture wars, people on both sides will still be present.
The pandemic has also done nothing to reduce the tensions around the status of LGBTQ persons, which both sides have largely accepted as irreconcilable at this point. Instead, what the pandemic has done is provide a series of new cultural flashpoints to fuel conflict at General Conference. The pandemic has made United Methodists wait for the next General Conference. But the conflicts at that meeting will be only more spectacular because of it.
Monday, August 23, 2021
On Tuesday, August 24th at 8pm EDT, the Asian American Language Ministry Plan of Global Ministries, the New Federation of Asian American United Methodists, and Church and Society will jointly host the next “Raise Up Your Voice Against Racism” webinar on “Racism and the Criminal Justice System.” Rev. John Oda of the Asian American Language Ministry Plan describes the import of these webinars in a piece entitled "Hate is the other pandemic." Rev. Oda also wrote a piece for UM & Global earlier this year on a related topic: "Why Asian American Should Speak Out about Racism." For more information about the webinar, contact Oda at joda (at) umcmission.org.
On Thursday, August 26th at 7pm EDT, Church and Society will host a webinar entitled "Environmental Justice Day: A Just and Equitable Vision for Creation Care." A four-member panel will "equip attendees to deepen their perspective on Environmental Justice that centers equity and justice and raises awareness on the importance of honoring the past, present, and future of the Environmental Justice movement." To register for the webinar, visit this link.
Friday, August 20, 2021
United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) put out new COVID guidelines earlier this week in response to the rising number of COVID cases resulting from the Delta variant. The new guidelines cover those traveling in mission and those hosting mission travelers; the fully vaccinated, the partly vaccinated, and the unvaccinated; and domestic and international mission journeys. The guidelines are based on CDC recommendations but helpfully condense that guidelines for mission team members. All churches considering short-term mission experiences this fall are recommended to consult these guidelines, whether or not the experiences are official UMVIM journeys.
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
Many US Christians grew up singing the Sunday School song "We Are the Church" by Richard Avery, with its lyrics asserting, "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple." Yet despite how often these words have been intoned by US Christians, they have often acted as if the church were a building.
For a long time, constructing or buying a structure has been the sign that a congregation has arrived. This understanding was actively exported around the world, too, by Western missionaries. A real church has a building, or so the reigning assumption has been.
Much of a congregation's budget often goes towards maintaining and improving that building. The average mainline Protestant congregation in the United States is well over 100 years old. That means in many cases buildings that are similarly old and thus in need of frequent and frequently costly repairs. Yet it also means generations of emotional attachments to the building, which have driven congregations to keep investing in their buildings, despite the costs.
When the pandemic hit, most churches had to worship outside of their buildings. Many US Christians were eagerly awaiting the day that they could reconvene in their buildings and once again experience the sense of God in worshiping together in that place. The togetherness is certainly important, but the place is quite important for many too.
Yet for a small but noticeable group, the pandemic has had the opposite effect: Instead of eagerly awaiting the day when the congregation could return to its building, experiencing church apart from the building got those congregations to reflect on whether the time and money it costs to maintain a building are really worth it. Again, I'm not the first person to point this out. Mya Jaradat wrote an excellent piece for the Deseret News about this trend, focused on a profile of a recent United Methodist church start in Houston.
Congregations in older, dilapidated structures are probably more likely to entertain such questions. Smaller congregations, who have experienced greater financial impacts from the pandemic, may also be more likely to ditch their buildings, especially since it is easier to accommodate a smaller number of people in a variety of alternative settings, from living rooms to cafes to other community locations. And newer congregations, with less history and emotional attachment to their buildings, may also be more willing to ask whether a building is really worth it.
The question, then, is not just whether congregations will close and leave behind their buildings because of the effects of the pandemic, but whether congregations will decide to continue to exist but without their buildings, having been pushed in that direction by the pandemic.
This possibility that congregations might decide to continue to exist but without a building is both a revolutionary approach to being church in the United States and a missional opportunity. House churches have characterized Christianity is places from the early Mediterranean to contemporary China, but the model has not been extensively used in the United States. The pandemic may make the house church model more prominent, if congregations decide to ditch their buildings in favor of more distributed or virtual places to connect.
Another pre-pandemic model that might be useful for churches considering jettisoning their buildings is the Fresh Expressions movement. Fresh Expressions focuses on creating instances of church that are adapted to a specific local community. Quite often, these expressions of church do not meet in traditional church buildings, but rather cafes, parks, restaurants, and even tattoo parlors.
If a congregation decides to dispose of its building, that creates some different missional opportunities than if a the church closes and leaves the building to the denomination. Rick Reinhard argued in a commentary for UMNS that closing congregations could leave the denomination with a "real estate crisis." Pre-pandemic, The Atlantic called attention to this problem as well.
Yet local congregations have greater incentive to sell or repurpose their properties than annual conferences or other regional bodies who are trying to manage a portfolio of closed church properties and are less familiar with the specifics of any individual property.
This has led to some examples of churches finding creative solutions to use their buildings to forward mission instead of trying to keep a too-large physical plant going for a small number of people. Tom Sine and Dwight J. Friesen share some examples. Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Ann A. Michel share another example. Even if the result of selling a church is just freeing up more money for mission and ministry, the results can be significant, as Weems and Michel mention.
Given the investment that most US congregations have in their buildings, it will likely be only a small number who decide to go building-less as a result of the pandemic. But, as in other aspects of life, this small number pushed in that direction by the pandemic will amplify nascent trends from before the pandemic. Even if church-in-a-building remains the dominant model, as it almost certainly will, the resulting ecclesiological and missiological reflections from building-less churches are likely to be helpful to the church's self understanding.
Monday, August 16, 2021
As a different approach to recommended readings, I (David) would like to put two pieces into dialogue with each other: a recent blog post by Tom Lambrecht entitled "Lifestyle Evangelism" and a somewhat older blog post by Robert A. Hunt entitled "Moral Convictions - the Wrong Start in Human Relations."
Lambrecht's piece draws on the book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider to argue that the growth of the early church "was not primarily due to missions or evangelism" but was instead due to early Christians' "distinctive, lived-out faith that becomes attractive over time to people unfulfilled by the world’s pleasures and possessions." In illustrating what that practice of faith looked like, Lambrecht cites a variety of what might be termed moral practices by both the early church and early Methodism: business integrity, sexual purity, respect for life, inclusion of all peoples, care for the poor, etc. Lambrecht concludes:
"Evangelism programs and missional strategies are good and helpful. But people will not buy what we are selling unless they see that it works in making our lives different and more fulfilling than theirs. Otherwise, why make the sacrifices that being a Christian entails?"
Lambrecht's article helpfully questions the value of top-down initiatives to grow the church, and his emphasis on living out one's faith in practical ways that impact one's treatment of others represents an important and central affirmation of Methodist theology.
As I read Lambrecht's piece, though, I thought about the challenges that cultural diversity and cultural polarization represent to the type of lifestyle evangelism Lambrecht commends. While morality is not the entirety of lifestyle evangelism, it is centrally connected. For Christians' lifestyle to be attractive involves, on some level, non-Christians being able to see the attractiveness of the moral system lived out by Christians or at least the outcomes thereof, as Lambrecht's examples suggest.
Yet, in our culture today, understandings of morality are deeply polarized, at least on some issues. While people from all background generally agree that stealing and murder are bad, some of our country's most deeply polarizing topics have been framed not just as political or social issues, but as moral issues. Thus, the treatment of LGBTQ+ persons, responses to racism, views of the police, climate change, treatment of national symbols, and more are debated in moral language. Each side sees its approach to these issues as moral and the other side's approach as immoral.
This raises a question for the practice of lifestyle evangelism: Can it only be effective among those within the same politico-cultural sphere? Can Christians in the 21st century United States practice lifestyle evangelism in a way that is genuine attractive to those on the other side of the country's polarizing issues? And if not, if morality is so tied to politico-cultural identity, will non-Christians attribute Christians' practice of morality to their faith or to their political views? If their morality is seen as a function of their political views, then a lifestyle lived in accordance with that system of morality will not be seen as a testament to Christianity.
Here is where Robert Hunt's piece is useful. Hunt raises a strong caution about morality as a starting point for Christians' engagement with the world. He argues that "[t]he traditional church has imbued us with a set of moral convictions, and indeed a moral order, that only grudgingly makes way for genuine diversity and inclusion" and because of that "a diversity of cultures and customs is all too quickly mapped onto the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous." Thus, if we as the church are too focused on morality, then we run the risk of shunning rather than attracting those who disagree with us on moral issues (whichever side we are on), and some must inevitably disagree with us in contemporary American society.
For Hunt, the solution is to focus on Jesus as "the one who leads us into the questioning of our own moral convictions" and the one who presents a new law of love. We must practice love for our neighbor "not merely when, but particularly because he or she is puncturing our posture of moral confidence." This is especially important in "a time of deep divisions, exclusion, and hatred."
This juxtaposition of Lambrecht's and Hunt's articles is not meant as a refutation of Lambrecht's piece. I am sure that Lambrecht would affirm that an evangelistic lifestyle is one that involves love of one's neighbor, and love of neighbor is present in the examples Lambrecht gives of what such a lifestyle looks like.
My intention is, instead, to encourage us as we are reflecting on Lambrecht's piece to think of those attractive aspects of the Christian as stemming from love, not from a system of morality. It is love that has the ability to reach across divisions, polarization, and boundaries, because love respects the integrity of the other. Love incarnated in our actions is what makes Christianity both credible and attractive.
Friday, August 13, 2021
In recognition of their production of U-Safe Hand Sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic, African University has been awarded the prestigious Jairos Jiri Humanitarian Award by the government of Zimbabwe, as reported in this press release. The U-Safe Hand Sanitizer is the only locally-produced hand sanitizer in Zimbabwe. Africa University, a United Methodist insitution, began production of the sanitizer as a way of aiding the coronavirus response in their setting.
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
Last week, I suggested that after the pandemic, people are done enduring wrongs. While that piece was primarily focused on movements in broader society, I connected this thesis to the church too. I wrote that, while there is an opportunity here to join in work toward the kingdom of God, "[f]or some, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to the church." I want to explore that suggestion further in this week's post and a following one next week.
This week, I'd like to explore what it means that for some pastors, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to their roles in and experience of church, and thus, after the pandemic, an increased number of pastors are done enduring ministry.
First, I must say out that I am far from the first to point this trend out. There has been a series of articles over the past year in both religious and secular press describing the exodus of pastors, including these sources: The Alabama Baptist, Kentucky Today, Religion News Service (also reprinted in The Christian Century and USA Today), ChurchLeaders.com, Lifeway Research, Business Insider, and Christianity Today. More citations could be added too.
It seems like this exodus of ministers is being driven by fall-out from a combination of the top headlines of last year: the COVID-19 epidemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the extremely contentious election cycle. All of these stories have made pastoral work harder, and misinformation related to the first and third of these stories has further added to pastors' challenges. The cumulative effects have been stressful and have left pastors asking questions about their place in the church.
The pandemic involved significant stress for pastors in figuring out what to do in the face of church shut-downs and how to do it, how to made decisions about remaining closed or reopening, and how to navigate the organizational dynamics of congregants' opinions on questions about reopening and COVID-19 precautions. Questions about how to meaningfully address racial conflict in the United States, especially when such issues are polarizing to (white) congregations, added to pastors' stress. Then trying to promote Christian love in a political climate of extreme division made the job more complicated, especially for pastors serving politically mixed churches.
In each of these instances, these issues presented large, complex challenges that required significant adaptation and presented no easy solution. In many instances, pastors felt alone in trying to navigate these challenges. Thus, the substantial stress of responding to such issues has been enough to leave some pastors wanting a break.
But these issues also raised questions for many pastors about their relationship to their congregants and denominational leaders. Pastors risking COVID infection for themselves and, sometimes, their families to do ministry wondered whether congregants or denominational leaders cared whether they got sick. Pastors asked whether their white congregants were more attached to white supremacy than they were to Jesus' gospel of love for people of all races and nations. Pastors watching their congregants write vicious or false things on Facebook, either about the election or the pandemic, questioned how that fit with the Christian message of truth and love. Pastors wondered whether denominational leaders would support them in conflicts with their congregations over any of these issues and sometimes felt that those leaders did not.
These questions also undercut pastors' willingness to endure the challenges of ministry, challenges which were usually significant pre-pandemic, but which have only grown in the last year and a half, as described above. Why endure the stress if those for whom you worked didn't care and your work wasn't going to change people's actions or hearts anyway?
So, an increased number of pastors have decided that they are done. They have left or are leaving ministry.
This trend seems to be impacting pastors across the theological spectrum, in different denominations and polity systems, and in different geographic areas (as indicated in the breadth of news sources quoted above). Varying age ranges are also involved, though anecdotal evidence collected by my wife suggests that the trend is especially pronounced among pastors in their 30s and 40s and among women. While many factors are likely at work, this group includes parents of school-aged children, some of whom are also caregivers for older relatives as well, both groups negatively impacted by the pandemic. Women in particular have borne a significant amount of the pandemic-related parenting stress.
While the resolve and faith of those pastors staying in ministry is certainly to be praised, we must be careful about treating those who choose to leave as "failures" or their complaints as unimportant. Such responses lack compassion and seek to justify oneself. Decisions to leave reflect real issues in the church laid bare by the last year, and these departures will have real impact on churches. We as the church must take both seriously and seek to learn from them, rather than write them off.
What implications does this trend have for churches? I see several.
1. Increased difficulty for congregations seeking a pastor. The number of congregations, while shrinking overall, does not seem to have reduced as sharply as the number of pastors in the past year. Thus, fewer pastors = fewer possibilities of filling open pulpits. This trend will play out in different ways in denominations with call vs. appointment systems, but it will impact them both. This impact will be manifest immediately.
2. Increased pressure on struggling congregations to close. There is already pressure on such congregations. Small, impoverished, or dysfunctional congregations will have the greatest struggles attracting new pastors and had the most significant pre-pandemic challenges. If they are unable to find pastors, that creates yet another incentive for them to close their doors. While the pressures may be immediate, the resultant closures are likely 2-5 years down the road.
3. Disruption of leadership pipelines. Especially if it proves true that a disproportionately high number of early- to mid-career pastors are leaving, that means that there will be fewer pastors to develop into leaders for large congregations and denominational positions. This impact won't be felt immediately. Instead, it will become increasingly manifest in the next 5-15 years.
Thus, the impact of the pandemic on clergy supply in the United States will last much longer than the pandemic itself, serving as a drag on Christian ministry for years to come. Clergy are not and should not be solely determinative of the health of Christianity, but it would be foolish to pretend that clergy leadership does not matter to the quality of the church's mission and ministry.
While these forces pushing pastors away from ministry are cross-cutting, there is something that congregations and denominational leaders can do. Pastors that feel supported by their congregation and their denominational leaders are less likely to leave. Tangible support can reduce stress levels from responding to the pandemic and other social forces, and the existence of support reduces the questions pastors have about their relationships to their congregations, colleagues, and supervisors. Pastors are often looked to as sources of love and comfort, but they need these mercies as well.
Friday, August 6, 2021
The Methodist Church in Ireland is offering a hybrid course on mission for church members and leaders. The course, entitled Joining with God's mission, seeks to answer the question, "What does it mean to join in with the Mission of God in the 21st century?" The course comprises six monthly groups and two in-person day-long conferences over the course of the next year. The online component of the course will be hosted on the TheologyX platform and thus be a good demonstration of what that platform can do to bring theological education to multiple audiences within the church.
Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Last week, I wrote that the pandemic has broken our pre-pandemic story lines, and we as a church, a (US) society, and the world have not yet figured out what new story lines will absorb our focus as the pandemic is no longer the overwhelming story that frames all others. I would like to suggest a framing story that puts together a number of pieces of news that have come out of the context of the pandemic but are not necessarily about the pandemic itself.
After the onset of pandemic, and in large part because of the pandemic, people are done enduring wrongs. They have new energy to protest that which they see as unjust and are not putting up with the same problems they tolerated before. This unwillingness to continue to endure wrongs is manifesting itself on individual and societal levels in a variety of realms: political, economic, and social.
In some ways, the Black Lives Matter movement was the first sign that people were unwilling to continue to endure previously existing wrongs. Police violence against Black bodies had existed for years, including some high-profile cases over the past decade. But none of those cases galvanized an international movement until George Floyd's death during the pandemic. In part, this issue caught on last June because people had more time and attention since they were at home due to the pandemic. But in part, concern about Black deaths from police violence was amplified by the information about disproportionate Black deaths because of the pandemic, data that became available prior to Black Lives Matter. These pandemic racial disparities helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence.
Such movements of protest against the powers that be have played out again and again around the world since the Black Lives Matter movement began. Last fall, protests swept Belarus. Most recently, there have been unprecedented protests in Cuba, Columbia, South Africa, and Eswatini, all of them directed against the government. In each of these cases, long-simmering resentments of government malfeasance have combined with complaints of mishandling of the pandemic to touch off mass protests. Even at this year's Olympics, athletes have felt freer than ever before to protest a variety of wrongs.
The point is not whether or not any of these protests have yet been successful in ending the wrongs protested or changing political systems. The point is that they are a sign that people are no longer willing to endure wrongs that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it's because the pandemic has amplified those issues, has put them in a new light, or has just added one more significant item to a list of complaints.
The unwillingness to put up with wrongs is evident in the cumulative effects of personal decisions in the United States. This trend is most apparent in the labor market, where many workers previously employed in low-wage jobs, especially jobs that had other harmful aspects, have not been willing to resume those jobs after the pandemic, leaving those sectors short on workers. There's still debate over whether other factors - the hourly rate of these jobs or government financial assistance - have also impacted such decisions. But it's clear that thousands of people who had jobs they were not happy about pre-pandemic decided that it was not worth returning to those jobs post-pandemic, either because they had gained new perspective on employment and/or because the jobs had become more onerous.
While this does not rise to the level of social injustice, there has even been chatter on social media and in think pieces about what social customs people are not willing to go back to, whether that is in terms of dress, who people interact with, or the sorts of interactions and social conventions deemed acceptable. After having a break from what were unpleasant or offensive pre-pandemic social interactions, many have decided that they are not willing to resume such interactions post-pandemic.
I think there are a variety of reasons leading people to put new energy into changing pre-pandemic wrongs. The pandemic has created a situation of fluidity, where the future must be renegotiated and cannot merely continue as before. Renegotiation is an opportunity to try for something better, to try to avoid what wasn't working before, whether that's in one's relationship with their government, their employer, or their friends and family.
In addition, for many, the pandemic destroyed trust in those that were supposed to keep them and their loved ones safe. Whether it was a government or an employer that people thought was going to take care of them, those expectations were repeatedly dashed, as people were laid off and governments struggled to contain the virus while also imposing restrictions some saw as excessive.
Finally, the pandemic has given many new perspectives on what's important in life. Even for those who did not get sick, the pandemic was a brush with death of sorts. Confronting the reality of one's own mortality tends to make people rethink their priorities. Many have decided to prioritize trying to change the world for the better and trying to right the wrongs around them.
For the church, especially the church in mission, this new unwillingness to endure wrong is both an opportunity and a challenge.
It is an opportunity because new energy to right the wrongs of the world represents new energy among Christians to work for the kingdom of God and new potential partners outside of the church in that work. Many Christians pray for a movement of the Spirit. It is not difficult to interpret a movement towards justice as just that. If the church can join in what God is doing in the world in this pandemic-altered moment, then there is a huge missional potential.
Yet, there is also a threat or a challenge to the church. For some, the things that they are no longer willing to endure are connected to the church. These range from a new unwillingness to tolerate casual and systemic racism in the white church to unwillingness to put up with awkward or unpleasant social interactions that are part of in-person church events to unwillingness to excuse the failures of church leadership, locally or denominationally. The church deceives itself if it thinks there is no wrong in it, and leaders will be surprised when people are done enduring those wrongs associated with church.
Yet, if leaders in the church recognize people being done with enduring wrongs as a way in which the Spirit may be speaking to the church, then they can be prepared to capitalize on the opportunities and rise to the challenges of this moment. They can look for ways to join in the work of the kingdom and respond with humility and a willingness to change when confronted with protests against the church itself. Such a response requires courage and a willingness to change. Yet the world has changed, and we cannot continue to live as if it has not.
Monday, August 2, 2021
In a strong indictment of the field of missiology, Radcliff, who is himself Black, explores the ways in which African American Black scholars and Black thinking are marginalized within US missiology, leaving a field that is black-ish: "something that purports to be Black (African American), but upon close inspection may not be authentic to, or representative of, the culture."
Radcliff identifies two driving forces behind the marginalization of African Americans within missiology. The first is an "internal structuring and epistemology" that pays little attention to African American concerns and has little room for African American intellectual methodologies.
The second is the failure of the discipline to engage with a large catalogue of scholarly writings by Black scholars that could be considered within missiology, given their focus, but are not. I discussed this second reason in my UM & Global piece "Why Are There So Few Black Missiologists?" and I am grateful to receive confirmation of what was for me a hypothesis, and grateful to have Radcliff's analysis as a Black man that is able to see things that I as a White man cannot.
Radcliff does not think missiology as a field is irredeemably marked by racism, nor do I. Radcliff gives three helpful guide points for developing an authentically Black missiology. The work of constructing such a missiology must be done by Black African Americans. But those from the dominant White culture in the United States, such as me, and those from other backgrounds may profitably ask themselves how they may support such an effort, both in structural ways through positions and funding and through the habits of scholarship, by listening, reading, and engaging with Black missiology, incorporating it into the larger discipline by taking it seriously and seeing it as an important contribution to the collective knowledge of all missiologists, regardless of racial background.
Friday, July 30, 2021
As part of the Connectional Table's "Emerging Methodism" series, Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, Chief Connectional Ministries Officer for The
Connectional Table, recently interviewed Harriett Olson, Chief Executive
Officer of United Methodist Women. The interview, which runs around 40 minutes, touches on several issues relevant to the readers of this blog: the nature of mission, the connection between mission and ecumenism, the impact of COVID-19 on mission work, the nature of Methodism, and how best to combat racism. The interview is well worth watching as a thoughtful and faithful reflection on what it means to be in mission as a Methodist in 2021.