Monday, June 14, 2021

Otto Harris: Race, Mission, and The United Methodist Church

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Otto D. Harris III. Rev. Dr. Harris is an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference, pastor of Saint Mark's United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC, and Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Theology at Hood Theological Seminary.

According to the Markan gospel, from the onset of His Galilean mission, Jesus proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the [reign] of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15 NRSV). The imminent extension of God’s love, redemption, salvation, forgiveness, mercy, and justice to a bewildered humanity was and is indeed good news. In the Pardon in response to the Confession of The United Methodist “Service of Word and Table I,” we pronounce, “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven!”[1]

Humans do not have to suffer with the deleterious effects of guilt, shame, and estrangement that result from sin-sickness. We declare the mystery of faith, “Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.”[2] God loves you (John 3:16). Jesus is with you (Matthew 28:20). The Holy Spirit dwells in you (Romans 8:9). That news transcends culture, ethnicity, and race. That news is eternal. That news is ubiquitous. That news is good!

The quintessential task of the Church is to vivify and share this good news. This task is not to be relegated to a committee or outsourced to a particular order. This task is to be fulfilled by all who believe in the good news. Notwithstanding, some (such as the American Society of Missiology (ASM)) particularly focus on and represent this task. I celebrate this brilliant collection of minds who offers theoretical frameworks to help the Church more fruitfully fulfill this task.

While I celebrate this brilliance, not one Black person is an ASM officer, on the ASM Board of Directors, on the ASM Board of Publications, a Missiology Editor, on an ASM Editorial Committee, or on any form of leadership listed on the “Key People” page ( While this claim would certainly benefit from more scholarly research, I surmise that ASM leadership is ethnically representative of the discipline of Missiology.

To what can we attribute the absence of Black thinkers and leaders in conventional missiological conversations? Is the good news that Jesus embodied and proclaimed not good enough for Black persons to proclaim? Are Black persons perspectives not relevant to the conversation? Perhaps, Black persons are not significantly represented in faith traditions (denominations), including The United Methodist Church, typically associated with the dominant voices of missiology and mission work. According to a 2014 Pew Research Report, Black persons represented less than 1% of The United Methodist population.[3] Black persons cannot be a part of the missionary population if they are not part of the general population.

If the low representation within faith traditions can be overcome, how can Black persons be included in the mission work of the Church? Of The United Methodist Church? How can an institution, who has been racialized as superior, contextualize this good news for Black people, who have been racialized as inferior? Methodism has a history of being able to present the good news to Black persons in a way that it was received and celebrated. Vance P. Ross observes, “Black People gladly joined Methodism because Methodism, in divine obedience, avowed the humanity of Black people.”[4] However, relatively early in the conception, Methodism quickly devolved from this ability.

United Methodism shares this relative inability to appropriate the good news for Black persons with the universal Church. Missiology to “urban” (e.g., softened way of describing undesirable Black spaces) communities has often seemed like toxic charity and/or colonization. Black communities, along with the world community, has recently been overwhelmed with news that has been not so good. Along with pandemic-related news, powerful institutions have been weaponized to discipline Black bodies, poverty and pain endemic to “urban” communities have been criminalized, and access to dignity has been monetized to the detriment of Black persons who cannot afford it. In the midst of all of this, the loudest voices for the Church have sanctified these travesties and voices of lament from the Church have been strangely silent.

What about the Black persons who already believe in the good news? What is, or can be, their role(s)? And how can the Church, The United Methodist Church, contribute to fruitfulness in these roles? Maybe, there is an opportunity to explore a different theoretical framework for missiology, which may be used to transcend other cultural, racial, and/or ethnic spaces.

Perhaps, the good news has not been sufficiently interpreted and appropriated for Black persons and Black communities. The Church would do well to provide opportunity and support to help Black thinkers and leaders lead in presenting and representing a counternarrative to the loud travesty-sanctifying voices and the strangely silent voices of lament. This counternarrative could interpret and appropriate the good news for the disregarded “urban” mission field. The residents of this mission field may receive anew, or new, the good news as it has been contained in and expressed through our liturgies, our litanies, our social principles, and the work of our general agencies.

The Church can find ways to promote these thinkers and leaders as public theologians, as they vivify and share the good news. The Church should include these brilliant minds among the other the brilliant minds who provide theoretical frameworks for all those who believe in the good news to embody and proclaim. God’s love, redemption, salvation, forgiveness, mercy, and justice are indeed imminent in “urban” areas, as they are all the world. God disrupts the sin-sickness of weaponization, criminalization, and monetization, which do not have to be suffered by those who wield them or by those receive them. That news certainly transcends culture, ethnicity, and race. That news is eternal. That news is ubiquitous. That news is indeed good enough to be shared by all to all!

[1]1. Thomas Anderson Langford III, gen. ed., The United Methodist Book of Worship. (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 35.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[4] Vance P. Ross, “I’m Black. I’m Methodist. I’m Challenging (To What End)?” in I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist, ed. Rudy Rasmus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020), 141.


  1. Otto Harris asks important questions. Since I teach in Cleveland, Columbus, and Detroit, I have interaction with Black students on a regular basis. It is true that many come from traditions that do not emphasize foreign missions. When they take my Kingdom Mission in the Global Church course, some push back because the class educates about global Christianity and equips them to engage in global missions. A typical critique is this. "An emphasis on the global context removes the emphasis from us and our suffering. We need to stay focused on our own struggle and not be distracted by global missions at this point. We need to remain focused on mission to our people, not mission to other people. Our great mission is to fee Black people from the chains and legacy of racism." Some have suggested that social justice is the primary mission of the church. Also, instead of saying that American Blacks mostly belong to churches that do not emphasize global missions, why not ask how we can help those churches to catch the vision and heart for global missions. The AME is fairly involved in the global scene. I am using an adjunct from Lagos, Nigeria to teach my required Kingdom Mission course in its online format. Some Black students say the same thing to him. However, others are really transformed by his teaching and his social location. He is going to stay with me during September. We will make the rounds to all the cities and try to build interest in global missions in Africa.

    1. Hello Bill. Thank you for your profound question and recognition of nuance. I hear the heart and plea of your students and do not immediately dismiss their claim. Justice is a priority in the Black Church, as it should be in all churches. And justice and global mission are not mutually exclusive. You're exactly right, the AME Church, as well as our AMEZ and CME sisters and brothers have global emphases, while attending to justice. Certainly, we can glean from their vision and heart through conversation and engagement with those with whom we are in "full communion." Our familiarity and access to one another through tools to facilitate virtual connection can make this much more feasible. While this is a broadly general statement, I think it bears some merit: United Methodist congregations with majority Black constituencies can learn from our "full communion" about heart and vision for global mission, and United Methodist congregations with majority White constituencies can learn about heart and vision for struggle, suffering, and justice more locally. May God continue to bless and strengthen you, your colleague from Lagos, your students, and the Church.

  2. Dr. Harris, thanks for your advocacy for Black persons in missiology. We need your voice and the voices of others to supply the much-needed missional counternarrative you describe. I'd like to offer a more complicated statistical narrative, affirm your main point, and suggest a recently published resource with a significant number of Black voices.

    According to denominational records, about 6% of members of the UMC in the US are Black. The Pew study you referenced marginalized the voices of Black United Methodists through significant undersampling. Accordng to GCFA, African Americans accounted for more than 6% of the UMC's membership in the US in 2017 ( As you noted, Pew reported only 1% in 2014 ( If we include the other half of this denomination (those members who reside ouside the US), then it would be more accurate to say that Black persons represent about 50% of The United Methodist population globally.

    Whether we count Black persons as 1%, 6%, or 50% of the total UMC membership, your main point stands affirmed. We need to hear Black voices in missiology. I wonder why Pew had difficulty sampling Black voices in the UMC and if a similar problem exists for hearing Black missiologists in the US. What is the cause of undersampling and how can improve our listening skills so as to hear these voices?

    You may already be familiar with a book I co-edited with David Scott, The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism. Of 19 contributors, more than half are persons of color. Five are Black, though almost all of them are from beyond the US. As for Black missiologists in the US, we are still listening with earnest. What are your proposals for providing them opportunity and support?

    1. Greetings. Dr. Stephens. Thank you for your response and additional perspective. Also, for sharing the details about The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism. I look forward to reading. I am searching for the best way to purchase. Please share any recommendations you may have.

      The Pew statistic that I referenced is US centered, but still seems to be outside of a reasonable margin of error in comparison with GCFA data. Perhaps, there is a difference between the source data and/or methodology. Or, perhaps, there is another agenda. However, as we both conclude we have opportunity within United Methodism to include Black voices in missiology, including African American voices in the US.

      1) Probably, the lowest hanging fruit is to engage with our AME, AMEZ, and CME sisters and brothers with whom we are in full communion, who have evidence of fruitfulness in global missions. 2) More longitudinally, for the 1% or 6% African American United Methodists in the US, we have opportunity to be more intentional about exposing, preparing, and including them/us in global missions. 3) Certainly, the more locally focused concerns of many African American congregants claim many of their/our resources. They/we could stand to hear more about how the good news of Jesus Christ can transform our immediate communities AND be spread abroad to our global neighbors. Perhaps, congregations and/or Conferences, who are fruitfully engaged in global ministry can intentionally include African American United Methodists in planning, preparing, praying, administration, and logistics.

      I praise God for your listening with earnest!

  3. Dr. Harris, partnering with AME, AMEZ, and CME seems a logical path for expanding missioloigical conversations within Methodism. Good idea!
    As for the book, The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism: Emerging Trends from Everywhere to Everywhere, it is available as an e-book for less than $50. A paperback edition will be released Fall 2022. In the meantime, please encourage your seminary library to purchase a copy and, if they cannot, utilize ILL for a loan.