Friday, July 30, 2021

Recommended Viewing: Harriett Olson Emerging Methodism Interview

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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Pandemic Broke Our Narratives, and We Haven't Found New Ones Yet

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Do you remember January of 2020? I mean, really remember? What sorts of things were you spending your days thinking about?

Humans are story-telling creatures, and we usually have a number of stories that we tell ourselves about what is going on in our lives and in our world. So, in January 2020, people had stories that they were telling themselves about their lives, their families, their churches, their denomination, their city, state, and country. We remember what some of those stories were: In US politics, foreign election interference and the impeachment of President Trump dominated much of that January. For United Methodists, the story of the impending division of the church and the Protocol loomed large. People made plans based on the assumption that the narratives they were telling themselves would continue to carry them forward.

Then, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. And with it, all of the story lines that we thought we were living in suddenly changed. The legacy of the impeachment or the possibility of church division suddenly became less relevant than trying not to get deathly sick while grocery shopping. In churches, not only worship but other programming and strategic initiatives like capital campaigns were suspended. In families, gatherings were postponed. Schools and companies shut their buildings and had to radically rethink their model of operation. The things that people thought they were preparing for in January or February of 2020 probably didn't happen, and if they did, they looked dramatically different than anticipated.

Of course, the pandemic itself was a tremendous source of story lines as people struggled to come to grips with what COVID was and what it meant for their individual and collective lives - spiritually, politically, socially, economically, etc. Although everyone experienced the pandemic differently, everyone had a story about what the pandemic meant for them and for those around them. The pandemic became one of the most significant stories in most people's lives and an overarching narrative impacting almost all other narratives.

The pandemic did not completely forestall other narratives. Some stories begun before the pandemic, whether they were about climate change or presidential elections or denominational division, continued, albeit with alterations and likely less attention. New stories emerged, too, most notably a reckoning with race in all aspects of US society and a divisive presidential election and its long aftermath. These new stories, however, were inflected by the story of the pandemic.

Even with the continuation in some form of old stories and the addition of new stories, the narrative worlds in which people had lived in January 2020 were broken by the pandemic. It was no longer possible to care about the same things in the same way to the same extent or to plan for the future with the same level of certainty about what it would be like. The pandemic had foreclosed that possibility.

The rollout of vaccines in the United States and elsewhere this spring raised the question then: Would it soon be possible to go back to normal? By June, people were discarding masks and returning to places they had not been in months, including, for some, in-person church. Would it now be possible to move on from the dominating story of the pandemic and return to focusing on all those stories that had shaped our worlds in January 2020?

No, as it turns out, and for several reason.

First, the story of the pandemic is not over. Granted, the pandemic no longer dominates all other aspects of life in the ways that it did six months or a year ago. Yet the rise of a fourth wave of the virus in the United States shows that the pandemic is still going in the United States, still capable of generating plot twists and uncertainty, despite the extensive availability of vaccines in this country. And the pandemic is certainly not over in other countries where vaccines are less available. The story of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to evolve, but it will not be over, not for a while, even if it gradually becomes less all-encompassing.

Second, even when other story lines are no longer subsumed under the larger story of the pandemic, we cannot go back to where we were in January 2020. In many cases, relevant details have changed: Main characters of the stories of our lives have died or moved or changed jobs. Organizational and financial realities have changed. Political realities have changed. And we ourselves have changed. Even when everything else is the same, we have, each of us, been shaped in some way by the pandemic. And for that reason alone, we cannot go back to things just as they were.

We must, therefore, continue to go forward.

But in so many areas, I don't think people yet know what that looks like. Church worship may be back in person, but does that mean we should resume planning for that building renovation? What work meetings will we continue to hold by Zoom? How can we address the racial and economic inequalities highlighted by the pandemic? What will school look like in the fall? Is it worth restarting that annual Christmas cookie sale, or should we replace it with something new? The answers to these and many other questions are still not clear.

So, we find ourselves in a liminal space. The old story lines from before the pandemic are broken. The story of the pandemic continues, but with less force. And it is not clear what new stories we will create about where we as individuals and communities are and where we are going. The future is never given, but we seem to be at a moment of cultural and narrative inflection, where it is particularly hard to predict what will come next and what will consume our time and attention in the months and years to come.

And there's not much we can do but wait to find out. Wait to see what stories will grow around us.

Waiting is rarely enjoyable or satisfying. But it can be deeply spiritual. Much of the rhythms of Christian life are built around waiting. Advent is the liturgical season of waiting par excellence, but Lent is a season of waiting in its own way. As members of Christ's already-but-not-yet kingdom, the entire Christian experience is situated within one large narrative pause, a period of waiting that has persisted for two millenia at this point.

Paul often acknowledges the incompleteness of our knowledge about the future, especially the eschatological future, though he always affirms that knowledge will come. Now we see dimly and what we will be has not been revealed; but later, after the waiting, we will fully know.

So what can we do but wait, and try to keep faith that whatever comes, whatever stories emerge to shape our lives and the lives of those around us, God will be with us, will be part of our stories? What can we do but wait, knowing that there may be no more Christian practice to which we can devote ourselves at this time.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Introducing UM & Global YouTube Playlists

UM & Global is debuting a new resource to help better equip and educate United Methodists (and others) about mission and the global church. Blogmaster David W. Scott has compiled playlists on YouTube for a variety of topics, as listed below.

Mission Theology
Mission History
Mission and COVID
Creation Care
World Methodism
United Methodist Polity

These videos, which range from short reflections to long interviews, offer a variety of options for use in teaching, presentations, and other settings. Videos are ordered from most recent to oldest, to help viewers access current information first. Some videos appear on more than one list.

Videos included are mostly from denominational and para-denominational sources in the UMC and other Methodist bodies. Videos were selected to be educational rather than promotional for the producing party, though not all videos have been reviewed in their entirety.

If there are other videos that you think should be included in these lists, or if you would like to see additional lists that fit with the focus of this blog, please let me know in the comment section below.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Recommended Viewing: COVID Travel Tips from UMVIM

Although the COVID-19 pandemic remains a health threat around the world, access to vaccines in the United States has many traveling again. Included in this re-engagement with the world is the possibility for renewed travel for short-term mission. UMVIM has released this video with tips from UMVIM coordinators and project hosts about how to resume short-term mission travel in a safe way. This video is an excellent resource for anyone thinking about domestic or international mission travel in the near future.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Genilma Boehler: The Methodist Tradition: Educating for Autonomy and Freedom

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Genilma Boehler. Dr. Boehler holds a PhD in Theology from the School of Higher Education (EST) of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil, located in Sao Leopoldo. She is an ordained elder of the Methodist Church of Brazil and serves as a missionary of Global Ministries, acting as a professor at the United Methodist University of Mozambique, Africa, since January 2020.

Among the historical archives of the Methodist tradition are records of the influence that Susanna Annesley Wesley (1669–1742), mother of John Wesley, had on the formation of her nineteen sons and daughters. This is known about her method of literacy: whenever one of her sons or daughters turned five years old, Susanna would spend six hours on that day teaching him or her the letters of the alphabet (as a birthday present) and for three more months teach him or her to read by means of the words of Holy Scripture.

In the records of her life, one finds a note in her diaries expressing her frustration at having failed with this method with three of her children. In other words, three creatures born of Susanna were not able to memorize the alphabet in one day and read in three months, at the tender age of five. But later in these same records is her self-assessment, where she states that she has reflected and learned that one being is not the same as another being. That everyone has their singularities and capabilities, which do not always arise at the same time. Such notes lead us to believe that this magnificent lady did not give up teaching each of her sons or daughters to read, even if some did not learn in the time that she had stipulated as the ideal.

My memory as a Christian and a Methodist educator has sought in Susanna A. Wesley the inspiration to reflect on the educational legacy of our Wesleyan tradition.

I remember that between the years 2004 to 2010, we tried some excellent applied experiences in two Methodist institutions of education in Brazil: the IPA, Centro Universitàrio Metodista in Porto Alegre, RS, and the Methodist Izabela Hendrix Institute in Belo Horizonte, MG. Our management team, led by the Rector Jaider Batista da Silva, worked with policies of socio-economic inclusion for scholarships. Profiles were defined that reflected the needs of economically impoverished populations, difficulties of opportunities for specialized and university training, and at the same time exclusion based on race (skin color, Afro-descent), ethnic groups (indigenous populations and quilombolas),[1] gender (women imprisoned in female prisons), sexual diversity (such as transvestites or LGBTQ persons), social movements (landless, homeless, etc.), people who lived on the streets of the two large cities Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte. The schools were also opened with scholarships for foreigners from emerging, extremely poor countries such as Haiti (in the Caribbean), Mozambique (Africa), and Kosovo (Europe).

The two Methodist university centers, in both cities, are over a century old and by tradition worked to form an elite originating from social classes with access to resources and the financial stability to pay monthly payments to private institutions for higher education. Certainly, offering scholarships to marginalized and impoverished sectors generated resistance and a lot of noise from students and teachers.

But, with the experiment, what we found is that the presence of different social segments can bring excellent results in education, from groups and face-to-face or virtual classes, with possibilities of the construction of critical knowledge compared at a high level and with opportunities to wonder about topics not previously valued. In addition, it generated possibilities for structuring intelligences and solutions for the future, for problems that until then had not been considered in the teaching and research in the courses offered in such institutions.

Subsequently, between the years 2011 to 2019, as a missionary of Global Ministries, I was assigned as a professor of theology for the Latin American Biblical University (UBL) in Costa Rica. Such an institution, with more than 90 years of tradition, is very competent in Latin American Liberation Theology. Its students come from many Latin American and Caribbean countries. As an institution specialized in theology, the training it offers is very much aimed at leaders, pastors of churches of the various evangelical inclinations (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Neo Pentecostal), as well as nuns or lay people of the Roman Catholic Church.

At the UBL, what was for me, as a teacher, more relevant was the cultural richness of students originating from different cultures and with diverse academic backgrounds. Many of them came to university education with a minimum of what is considered basic training. On the one hand, higher education led to a demand for studies based on readings and on deep research into current and challenging topics, often generating personal difficulties due to the lack of academic preparedness; on the other hand, the cultural richness that permeated all students generated fruitful debates and unusual conclusions as a result of the proposed research. I want to say that the experience that adds socio-cultural particularities to the construction of scientific knowledge generates new results or understandings of the same reality that challenge the knowledge of life, God, and the challenges ahead in our human and/or community experiences.

Finally, I find myself working in Africa, Mozambique, at the United Methodist University, located in Cambine, since the beginning of 2020. One of the elements that challenges me around here is first and foremost the linguistic diversity. Mozambique is a country that speaks 42 different languages in addition to Portuguese, which is the language of the colonizer. One of the curious aspects that makes it difficult for those who teach is that students think with their mother tongues and have great difficulty in understanding and capturing epistemologies generated in academic circles that have nothing to do with their way of thinking or speaking locally. In addition, Africa, on the shores of the Indian Ocean and far south, is very distant from Western thought.

Thus, some difficulties are observed: It is difficult for the students to grasp the dissonances between the Western theories, because they were constituted in far distant worlds and unknown to the Mozambican people. Secondly, the cultural richness based on parental relationships and rural contexts differs from an urban and academic background. Local cultures are transmitted orally, and therefore, academics registered through writing cause difficulties of comprehension. Or in other words, the academic often tries to impose him- or herself on the local knowledge, rooted in traditions and experiments of thousands of years. Here in Africa, as in Central America, with students from ancient indigenous cultures, I have experienced the challenge that academics blocks the cultural knowledge that permeates the minds of those who study.

I return to the memory of Susanna A. Wesley mentioned initially: no person is the same as another. People, as subjects – with their intelligences, desires, and subjectivities marked by cultural inheritances – do not obey the same order of cognitive structuring. This does not mean that someone is superior to the other because he or she goes faster, nor does it imply that some may know more than others due to one or another socio-cultural condition. It is not a question of falling into the traps of universal scientism or the superiority of those who possess political and economic power.

But, as we walk with people who belong to multiple cultures, we learn that there are no weights or measures to classify people's ability to know and to learn. There will always be new and curious universes to stimulate our attention and to capture other notions that are as true as others that exist in the universe of knowledge.

Education understood in this way makes it possible to think of the human being as a learning being. We are all apprentices. There is never a limit to knowing! We will always find a horizon that escapes us and that points to the beyond, and there are so many things to know, much still to be unveiled, intelligences to encounter.

From its origins, Methodism was marked with the goals of education. Educate for autonomy and for freedom. Never educate for slavery, for subjugation, for exclusion. One thing the Holy Scriptures—the source that Susanna A. Wesley applied in her methods of literacy—teaches us is that the written word once deciphered from the codes of the alphabet opens up windows for life and its mysteries, for the human being and for the encounter with God.

[1] The so-called "Quilombos" in the past constituted places of refuge for Africans who fled their slave status in Brazil. Today the descendants and remnants of those refugees are called Quilombolas.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Genilma Boehler: La tradición Metodista: Educar para la autonomía y la libertad

La publicación de blog de hoy está escrita por la Rvda. Dra. Genilma Boehler. Dra. Boehler es Doctora en Teologia por la EST (Escuela de Enseñanza Superior) de Sao Leopoldo, da IECLB, pastora-presbítera da Igreja Metodista do Brasil e missionária de Ministérios Globais atuando como docente na Universidade Metodista Unida de Moçambique, África, desde janeiro, 2020.

Entre los archivos históricos de la tradición Metodista se encuentra los registros de la influencia que tuvo Suzannah Annesley Wesley (1669-1742), madre de John Wesley, en la formación de sus diecinueve hijos/hijas. Es conocido acerca de su método de alfabetización: siempre que uno de sus hijos o hijas cumplían cinco años, Suzannah se dedicaba por seis horas en este día para enseñarle las letras del alfabeto (como un regalo de cumpleaños) y por más tres meses, para mediante palabras de la Sagrada Escritura, enseñarle a leer. En los registros de su vida, mediado por la oportuna metodología de los diarios de vida, se encuentra en una primera nota su frustración por haber fallado con este método, con tres de sus hijos. Dicho de otro modo: tres criaturas nacidas de Suzannah no fueron capaces de memorizar el alfabeto en un día y de leer en tres meses, en la terna edad de cinco años. Pero, en estos mismos registros se encuentran más adelante su auto-evaluación, cuando afirma que ha reflexionado y aprendido que un ser no es igual a otro ser. Que cada cual tiene sus singularidades y capacidades, que ni siempre acompañan a un mismo tiempo. Tales apuntes nos llevan a creer que esta magnífica señora no ha desistido de enseñar a leer a cada uno de sus hijos o hijas, aún que alguno no aprendiera en el tiempo que ella había estipulado como el ideal.

Mi memoria como cristiana y educadora Metodista ha buscado en Suzannah A. Wesley la inspiración para reflexionar acerca de este legado de nuestra tradición wesleyana. Recuerdo que entre los años 2004 a 2010 en dos instituciones Metodistas de Educaciòn en Brasil, hemos probado algunas excelentes experiencias aplicadas en el IPA, Centro Universitàrio Metodista de Porto Alegre, RS y en el Instituto Metodista Izabela Hendrix, en Belo Horizonte, MG. Nuestra equipe de gestión guiada por el Rector Jaider Batista da Silva, hemos trabajado con políticas de inclusiones socio-económicas para becas de estudios. Se definiera perfiles que reflejaban las necesidades de poblaciones económicamente empobrecidas y con dificultades para oportunidades de formación especializada, universitaria, y a la vez con recortes de exclusión basados en raza (color de piel, afrodescendientes), etnias (poblaciones indígenas y quilombolas[1]), género (mujeres reclusas en presidios femeninos), diversidad sexual (como travestis o homosexuales), movimientos sociales (sin tierra, sin viviendas, etc), personas que vivían en las calles de las dos grandes ciudades Porto Alegre y Belo Horizonte. Además se abrió con becas para extranjeros de países emergentes, extremamente pobres como Haití (en Caribe), Mozambique (África), Kosovo (Europa).

Los dos Centros Universitarios Metodistas, en ambas ciudades, son centenarios y por tradición trabajaron en la formación de una élite, oriundas de clases sociales con acceso a recursos y estabilidad financiera para pagar mensualidades de instituciones privadas para la educación superior. Ciertamente ofrecer becas para sectores marginados y empobrecidos ha generado resistencias y mucho ruido por parte de estudiantes y docentes. Pero, con el experimento, lo que hemos constatado es que la presencia de seguimientos sociales diferentes pueden traer excelentes resultados en la educación, desde los grupos y clases presenciales o virtuales, con posibilidades de construcción de conocimientos críticos, comparados de alto nivel, con oportunidades de preguntarse acerca de temáticas antes no valoradas. Además, ha generado posibilidades de estructuración de inteligencias y soluciones hacia el futuro, para problemas que hasta entonces no habían sido considerados en la enseñanza y en las investigaciones, en los cursos ofertados en las diversas carreras de tales instituciones.

Posteriormente, entre los años 2011 a 2019, como misionera de Ministerios Globales, he sido asignada como profesora de Teología para la Universidad Bíblica Latino Americana (UBL), en Costa Rica. Tal institución con más de 90 años de tradición, es muy competente en la Teología de la Liberación Latinoamericana. Sus estudiantes llegan de muchos países Latinoamericanos y Caribeños. Como institución especializada en Teología, la formación que ofrece está muy direccionada a líderes/lideresas, pastores y pastoras de Iglesias de las varias vertientes evangélicas (Metodista, Bautista, Presbiteriana, Pentecostales y Neo pentecostales), como también monjas o laicos de la Iglesia Católica Romana.

En la UBL, lo que ha sido para mi, como docente, más relevante ha sido la riqueza cultural de las personas estudiantes oriundas de diversas culturas y con formación académica plural. Muchas de ellas llegaron a la enseñanza universitaria con una formación mínima de lo que se tiene como formación básica. Se por un lado la educación superior conducía a una exigencia de estudios basados en lecturas y en las investigaciones profundadas en las temáticas actuales y desafiadoras, generando muchas veces dificultades personales por la falta de preparo académico; por otro lado, la riqueza cultural que permeaba al conjunto de estudiantes, generaban debates fecundos y conclusiones inusitadas como resultados de las investigaciones propuestas. Quiero decir que la experiencia que detiene las particularidades socio-culturales suman con la construcción del saber científico, generando nuevos resultados o de comprensiones de la misma realidad que desafían al saber de la Vida y de Dios y los retos que hay hacia adelante, en nuestras vivencias humanas y/o comunitarias.

Finalmente me encuentro a trabajar en África, Mozambique, en la Universidad Metodista Unida, ubicada en Cambine, desde inicios de 2020. Uno de los elementos que me desafían por acá, está en primer lugar en la diversidad lingüística. Mozambique es un país que habla 42 idiomas diferentes además del portugués, que es la lengua del colonizador. Uno de los aspectos curiosos y que dificultan a quien ocupa el lugar de la docencia, es que estudiantes piensan con sus códigos lingüísticos maternos y poseen mucha dificultad de comprender y captar epistemologías que fueron generadas en medios académicos que nada tienen que ver con su modo de pensar o de hablar local. Además África, a las orillas del Océano Índico y más al Sur, está muy distante del pensamiento Occidental. Entonces, se observa algunas dificultades: Es difícil para las personas estudiantes captaren las disonancias entre las teorías Occidentales, hasta porque se constituyeron en mundos muy distantes y desconocidos para las gentes mozambicanas. En segundo lugar, la riqueza cultural basada en las relaciones parentales y de contextos rurales diferencian de un bagaje urbano y academicista. Por otro lado, las culturas locales son transmitidas oralmente, y por lo tanto, el academicismo registrado mediante la escrita, causan dificultades de comprensión, o dicho de otro modo: el académico por muchas veces intenta imponerse sobre el conocimiento local, arraigado en tradiciones y en experimentos de miles de años. Acá en África como en Centroamérica, con estudiantes advenidos de las culturas milenarias indígenas, he vivenciado el desafío que traban el academicismo con el conocimiento cultural que permean las mentes de quien estudian.

Vuelvo a la memoria mencionada inicialmente de Suzannah A. Wesley: ninguna persona es igual a la otra. Las personas, como sujetos - de sus inteligencias, deseos, subjetividades marcadas por las herencias culturales – no obedecen a un mismo orden de estructuración cognitiva. Esto no significa que alguien es superior al otro, porque va más rápido, como también no quiere decir que puede ser que unos sepan más que otros, por una o otra condición socio-cultural. No se trata de caer en las trampas de los cientificismos universales o en las superioridades de quienes poseen poder político-económico. Pero, al caminar con personas que pertenecen a múltiples culturas, aprendemos que no hay pesos o medidas para clasificar la capacidad de las gentes de saber y de conocer. Siempre habrá universos nuevos y curiosos para estimular nuestra atención y para captar otras nociones que son tan verdaderas como otras que existen en el universo del conocimiento.

La educación comprendida de este modo, posibilita pensar al humano como ser de aprendizaje. Somos todos aprendices. Jamás hay un límite para el saber! Siempre se encontrará un horizonte que nos escapa y que apunta para el más allá, y que hay tantas cosas a conocer, mucho todavía a desvendar, inteligencias por venir a nuestros encuentros.

El metodismo desde sus orígenes estuvo marcado con las metas de la educación. Educar para la autonomía y para la libertad. Jamás educar para la esclavitud, para el sometimiento, para la exclusión. Se algo nos enseña la fuente que aplicaba Suzannah A. Wesley en sus métodos de alfabetización – las Sagradas Escrituras – es que la palabra escrita una vez descifrada desde los códigos del alfabeto, abren ventanas libertarias para la vida y sus misterios, para el humano y para el encuentro con Dios.

[1] Los llamados “Quilombos” en el pasado constituyan en locales de refugios para los africanos que huyan de su condición de esclavos en Brasil. Hoy día se llaman Quilombolas a los descendentes y remanecientes de estos refugios.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Recommended Reading: Ted Campbell on the Un-Tying of The United Methodist Church

Ted A. Campbell has written a three-part piece on "The Un-Tying of the United Methodist Church" (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) at Firebrand Magazine. Despite Firebrand's association with Traditionalists, Campbell, who does not identify as a Traditionalist, tries for an even-handed approach to the subject. He writes as a historian, seeking to avoid "multiple misleading narratives about the present situation of The United Methodist Church, narratives used all too handily to justify diverging trajectories in the church." For that reason, Campbell does not touch directly on debates over sexuality until the third piece. Before getting there, Campbell touches on several topics of interest to this blog including demographics, money, and organizational structure. The pieces conclude with a prayerful and sincere meditation on the current state of the denomination. The pieces are well worth a read.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

United Methodists and the American Religious Landscape

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.


PRRI (the Public Religion Research Institute) just released their 2020 Census of American Religion. And surprisingly, the results of the census contain some encouraging news for United Methodists.

For decades, The United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations have declined in membership and as a percentage of the overall US population. In the UMC, this decline has been primarily driven by declining white membership.

Thus, it comes as a bit of a surprise that, according to PRRI surveys, the percentage of the US population who self-identify as white mainline Protestants has increased over the past four years, from 12.8% in 2016 to 16.4% in 2020. Based on the numbers, it seems that in the past few years, white mainline Protestants have benefited from transfers both from white evangelicals and white unaffiliated.

At the same time that white mainline Christians have grown, Christians of color have held steady as a share of the population, though the PRRI report does not break out trends over time for each sub-group within that larger amalgamation (Black non-evangelical Protestants, Hispanic evangelicals, Asian Catholics, etc.).

This survey is based on self-identity, not denominational membership, so there is some possibility that the changes reflected in the survey are the result of new self-understandings rather than new congregational or denominational homes.

Still, the survey should give some encouragement to United Methodists in the United States. For the first time in a half century, there is a growing interest in mainline Christianity as a religious option in the United States, at least among white Americans. As the largest mainline denomination and a predominantly white body, that should be good news for United Methodists, even as it seeks to dismantle racism and contemplates a denominational split.

More than just it being good news that United Methodists celebrate, these survey results should be good news that encourages United Methodists of all backgrounds to think more about the Good News and how to share it with others regardless of racial background. These encouraging survey results are an indicator of a spiritual hunger that the UMC, despite all its flaws, is capable of fulfilling by sharing with others the fruits of Wesleyan theology and spirituality. That should be an incentive to evangelism.

Moreover, there are a number of excellent evangelism resources that have come out in the past several years by a number of United Methodist evangelism professors. It is as easy as ever for churches and individuals to prepare themselves to share the Good News with others in a culturally-sensitive, informed, non-coercive way.

It is easy these days as a United Methodist to get down on the church, its internal politics, and its standing in the world. And the PRRI report isn't all good news. The percentage of the population that self-identifies as Christian in the United States still declines among younger groups, a corollary of an increasing number of younger people who do not identify with any religion. That trend will still negatively impact United Methodist membership numbers.

Nonetheless, it is good to be reminded that the good things we experience from our Methodist heritage and Methodist way of being church are not just good for us, but might be good things that others could appreciate as well.

We will see in another four years or so when PRRI or Pew comes out with their next poll whether this increase in white mainline Protestantism persists or not and how trends among Christians of color develop. But how that future plays out depends in part on whether United Methodists take courage from this current report and engage in evangelism because of it.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Matthew A. Laferty: Dialogue as a Tool for Unity and Mission

Today's post is by Rev. Matthew A. Laferty. Rev. Laferty an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church and director of the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome.

The Feast of Peter and Paul on June 29th is a major affair here in Rome. Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, and their tombs remain to this day important pilgrimage sites. Many representations and icons of the two saints exist, but the Eastern Orthodox icon of Peter and Paul meeting and holding each other in embrace remains for me the most powerful. In Rome this icon of the two saints in embrace is an important symbol for the ecumenical movement and holds a prominent place of viewing in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican’s ecumenical department. The icon reflects the deep longing and love for one another and the reconciliation with God and each other found through Christ; it too remains us that as contemporary followers of Jesus Christ that each of us embodies both elements of Peter and Paul in our lives.

For me this icon engenders our journeys in Christ and the point where the unity of the church meets the mission of the church. In recalling Jesus’ prayer from John 17, the Rev. Dr. Kyle Tau, former ecumenical staff officer at the Council of Bishops, remains us in his blog post on this website of the clear linkage between unity and mission, concluding that, “mission is the beginning and true end of ecumenism.” The church cannot separate mission and unity as if they are two unrelated activities; rather, unity and mission, like Peter and Paul, are intrinsically linked at the heart of our ecclesiology.

Yet, mission and unity too often are severed from one another. Instead of close embrace, unity and mission are broken apart and only gaze at each other from a distance. Equally as disturbing is our impulse to privilege mission over unity as if the unity of the church is a secondary calling to mission in the world; it cultivates a situation where missionary zeal demands theological purity which, in turn, diminishes or entirely negates the call for Christian unity. Methodists are often plagued by both approaches.

It then begs the question – what tools are necessary and fundamental to draw together the mission of the church and unity of the church into loving embrace like Peter and Paul? How do we bridge the division between Christians so that “mission is the beginning and true end of ecumenism”?

In this journey, dialogue remains a relevant instrument in the quest for the full and visible unity of the church and necessary to manifest the greatest expression of the mission of the church.

I am hesitant to strictly define dialogue because many theological/philosophical understandings and typologies exist. In its broadest sense, dialogue is a conversation between two or more people which is characterized by the exchange of ideas or opinions.

In the church, dialogue is often marked by encountering one another to gain greater understanding of our own Christian faith and the Christian faith of others, dispel myths or misperceptions, mutually recognize of a common baptism and faith in Jesus Christ, and grow together in God. Dialogue is formal and informal, local and global, and short and long. Dialogue is contextual and has different points of departure.

For church leaders, dialogue can be viewed within a formal context which seeks to bring one church into dialogue with another church for the purpose of full communion and interchangeability of clergy. Such dialogues for The United Methodist Church have been conducted with the Moravian Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), and The Episcopal Church. These formal dialogues also take place between world communions (association of churches with a shared theological heritage and mission like the World Methodist Council or the Lutheran World Federation).

An example of international dialogue is the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission, a special theological dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. The international Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue celebrates 55 years of continuous dialogue in 2022, working for “a vision that includes the goal of full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life” (§20, The Nairobi Report, 1986). For the international dialogue (and in my opinion, every Christian dialogue), unity and mission are intertwined; we dialogue so we may be in unity and mission together.

I do caution that dialogue should not be viewed strictly as a project of the elite nor within a formal framework. While church-to-church (or denomination-to-denomination) and international dialogues are critical, dialogue should find a home in local congregations, not as formal theological dialogues but rather informal dialogues with siblings from different Christian churches which focus on faith practices, encounter, friendship, and mutual discernment. Local dialogue should give attention to the gifts of each local congregation and what can be shared with one another. Local dialogue can be shaped in learning-settings in small groups or shared action or mission projects in a community. Sometimes it is easier to bring together different Christian congregations through service to the community, thereby building friendship and trust. For local dialogue, encounter is key.

We cannot expect dialogue on its own to resolve all differences or heal all wounds. But dialogue opens Christians to one another, so the Holy Spirit may draw the unity of the church and the mission of the church into loving embrace.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Recommended Reading: AME General Conference

The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is currently meeting for its 51st Quadrennial General Conference. Like The United Methodist Church, the AME had to postpone its regularly scheduled General Conference from 2020. Unlike the UMC, the AME has gone forward with its meeting this year, despite the ongoing pandemic.

However, there is a twist: the AME General Conference will be a conference in two locations: Orlando, Florida and Cape Town, South Africa. Like the UMC, the AME is an international denomination. It has branches in the United States, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and India. The six (out of 20) African districts of the church will meet in Cape Town. The other districts will meet in Orlando.

It is not clear to me (David) whether all delegates of the AME are participating in this year's General Conference. (For instance, I don't know whether delegates from the 16th district, which covers Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe, have all actually been able to travel to Orlando.) But by having a conference in two locations, it allows much more participation than a single location would.

The conference will include a mix of live and recorded material. The live material allows the church to deliberate together, while the recorded material allows the church to conduct celebratory and ceremonial aspects of the conference on a schedule that works for local time zones.

If the AME General Conference is generally successful, it could serve as a model for other denominations to adopt in terms of distributed church meetings.

For those interested in following along, visit The Christian Recorder or follow the hashtags #IamAME and #AMECGC2021 on social media.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Bounded Sets, Centered Sets, and Networks

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Ever since Paul Hiebert introduced the terms, there has been conversation within missiology about bounded sets and centered sets as different ways of understanding the church. Briefly, a bounded set church is concerned with establishing and maintaining boundaries of belief and practice: Believe these things and do (or don't do) these things, and you're in the church group; don't believe or don't do (or do) these things, and you're out of the group. Centered set church, on the other hand, does not worry about categories of in/out and instead sees church as those oriented toward an attractional center, usually defined as Jesus. Most who use this distinction argue for centered set definitions of the church as a more missional approach to understanding the church.

There is another alternative way of understanding the church, however, that can also be a useful tool for analysis and for mission: seeing the church as a network.

A network is a set of points (called nodes) that are connected to each other, either directly or indirectly through other points. The concept of a network can be applied to churches at a variety of scales, depending on how one defines the points: One could analyze the church as a network of people, as a network of congregations, or as a network of denominations. Centered sets are actually a type of network defined by one central node, but what I am proposing is to look at the connections that exist among Christians beyond their connections to the central node of Jesus.

Looking at the church as a network is to ask about the quality of relationships among Christians and to treat Christianity as a phenomenon that is substantially about the relationships that exist among Christians. Thus, it is an ecumenical and decentralized approach to understanding the Christian community or individual Christian communities.

For some, this may seem like an un-theological approach. Shouldn't Christianity be defined by its beliefs (as in bounded sets) or its relationship to Jesus (as in centered sets)? What distinguishes the church from a social club if it is all about people's relationships with each other?

Yet viewing the church as a network is also a theological view of the church, one that stressed catholicity as a defining feature of the church. It also fits well with Pauline notions of the church as the body of Christ, in which members are different yet all connected to one another. Nor does it exclude the possibility connection to Christ or the divine as part of Christianity. And the question of what distinguishes the church from a social club is actually a helpful one, one that may be clarified by thinking of church as a network.

Analyzing churches as networks can lead to various and interesting new questions about Christianity as a phenomenon and approaches to studying it. For instance, it immediately raises the question of what sorts of connection are necessary and sufficient to link someone to the body of faith. For instance, I have a connection to my dentist, who may or may not be Christian, but that professional link does not constitute a connection to the body of Christ for either of us.

One answer to this question about necessary and sufficient connection is that the type of connections that matter to the definition of church are mutual recognition as Christians. What that mutual recognition looks like might differ for individuals, congregations, or denominations. And it is important to emphasize again that not all points in a network will be connected to each other. Thus, for instance, church A may consider churches B and C as fellow Christians, but not church D. But if church C does consider church D as fellow Christians, then it doesn't matter what church A thinks; church D is part of the network by virtue of its connection to church C.

This model thus presents a new approach to the notoriously tricky question of who counts as a Christian. Some simply count anyone who self-identifies. Others try to set up criteria that must be met. A network approach allows a third option: a group is Christian if they are recognized as such by at least one other Christian group. This approach is not based solely on self-identification but also does not prescribe the criteria that must be used, instead affirming the criteria adopted by any individual Christian group, while not insisting they all must use the same criteria.

Seeing the church as a network also presents new possibilities for understanding centrality and significance within Christianity. Generally, Christian groups are seen as central if they have large demographics, extensive funding, or historical significance. In a network perspective, nodes are more significant the more connections they have. Thus, it is possible that a small membership, poorly financed, recently started Christian group (perhaps arising through a diaspora network within the last 50 years) could turn out to be a very significant group if it has a penchant and a knack for establishing relationships with other Christian groups.

The point of this post is not to thoroughly comment on all the possible applications or interpretations of seeing churches as networks. Instead, my point has been to introduce the concept and suggest enough ways in which this concept can be used to stimulate further discussion. How can seeing the church as a network help us better understand it, historically and missionally?