Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: Opposition from Vested Interests

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.

Last week, I began to explore possible reasons why the institutions of The United Methodist Church are in decline, at least in the United States. For the purpose of this analysis, I am defining decline as a reduced capacity to produce regular behaviors among the constituency of the UMC, which is primarily its members.

Last week, I examined the case for a loss of institutional relevance as a factor in explaining decline. That analysis looked at the constituency of the UMC’s institutions generally, and it focused on the willingness of that constituency to pay the costs of time, effort, and money needed to sustain institutions.

Yet, looking at the constituency of an institution as a whole misses important details. No institution’s constituency is monolithic, and different groups within that constituency will have varying attitudes towards the institution. When a specific group within the general constituency has a unique set of interests in and attitudes towards an institution and the motivation to pursue those interests independently of the interests of the constituency as a whole, that group forms a vested interest within the constituency.

Part of the reason for the decline of UMC institutions comes from the actions of four different (and largely distinct from one another) groups of vested interests and their impact on the perceived legitimacy of the UMC’s institutions. Institutions require not just resources to keep functioning but also perceived legitimacy. Rules, beliefs, and norms are an important part of institutions. But these all require a sense of legitimacy to influence people’s behavior. People largely do not adhere to norms that they see as illegitimate. Thus, a loss of perceived legitimacy leads to institutional decline.

One vested interest within the constituency of an institution is those running the institutions. This is particularly true for institutions as organizations. While in many cases, the interests of those running an institution overlap with the interests of the general constituency, there is also a possibility that an institution may be “captured” by elites running it and, as a result, the functions of that institution may be altered to serve the interests of those elites and not the interests of the general constituency. When that happens, it de-legitimizes the institution and makes the general constituency less willing to pay the costs of maintaining an institution, leading to decline.

This is a favorite critique of conservatives within the UMC of the boards and agencies and of the bishops. According to conservatives, the actions of boards, agencies, and bishops reflect elite liberal interests that are “out of touch” with the general membership of the denomination, thereby making them illegitimate sources of authority. UMW’s continued strong direct financial support by members despite liberal social positions suggests that the critique of elite liberal capture leading to alienation of general membership is not true in all cases, or at least not for the reasons conservatives allege.

Still, that does not mean that insider capture of institutions never occurs. Certainly, bishops and agency executives tend to differ from the general membership of the church in matters such as education and life experience, which gives them different perspectives, and they are closer to and more invested in church institutions than the average lay person. That means that what institutional leaders understand as in the best interests of their institutions does not always align with or make sense to those more peripherally connected to those institutions, who may therefore view leaders’ positions as illegitimate.

Conservatives themselves represent another vested interest within the denomination that has contributed to the decline of its institutions. As suggested above, conservatives object to many of the functions of boards, agencies, and bishops for ideological reasons. Since the formation of Good News in the mid-1960s, conservatives have had a sense that the institutions of the denomination are closed to them and do not reflect their interests.

Therefore, conservatives have been engaged in a long-term effort to de-legitimize many of the institutions of the denomination. The various lines of critique advanced by conservatives against boards, agencies, bishops, apportionments, and other aspects of the denominational infrastructure are well known to those familiar with the UMC.

The impact of this campaign of de-legitimation is that constituents of UMC institutions who are influenced by conservative leaders are less likely to conform their behaviors to the institutions of the UMC, regardless of the nature of those behaviors. In other words, it is not just that conversative-influenced members refuse to participate in particular behaviors they see as objectionable. Instead, because of de-legitimization, they are less likely to cooperate with all aspects of denominational institutions.

The other thing that conservatives have done to undermine the institutions of the UMC is to start alternative institutions. As a result, conservative UMC members have alternatives for shaping their worship, small group, mission participation, conferencing and other church behaviors. To give a concrete example, they don’t need to purchase Sunday School materials from the United Methodist Publishing House; they can buy them from Seedbed.

A third vested interest (or set of vested interests) also feels that the institutions of the denomination are closed to them and do not reflect their interests. This vested interest includes racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities within the church. Unlike the conservatives, however, these groups are generally interested in reforming the institutions of the church to make them more open, rather than tearing them down.

While many no longer remember this, the first action of Black Methodists for Church Renewal was to protest the General Board of Global Ministries and demand that GBGM devote more attention and funding to issues related to racial justice in the United States. BMCR did not want to abolish GBGM or replace it with an alternative mission agency, but they did have a sharp critique of the agency as an institution. One can think of more recent examples in the sorts of critiques of bishops and conferencing advanced by those supportive of gay marriage and gay ordination.

While the intention of these critiques may be to reform rather than undercut institutions, the critiques advanced can still have the effect of de-legitimizing those institutions in the eyes of those sympathetic to the critiques. This de-legitimizing then also has implications for United Methodists’ behavior when they are less willing to pay apportionments or use the church’s logo or allow the mechanisms of General Conference to happen.

A fourth vested interest, one which overlaps at different points with the two previous vested interests, is megachurches. Megachurches, regardless of their theopolitical ideology, have incentives to either actively or passively resist some of the institutions of the denomination.

Megachurches have an incentive to actively resist the frequent change of pastors that is implied by the appointive system and to resist the paying of apportionments, which can be quite expensive for megachurches. While most megachurches do still pay apportionments, they frequently function as exceptions from the general system of itinerant ministry, which has the effect of weakening itineracy as a denominational institution.

Moreover, even when not trying to oppose the institutions of the denomination, the model of megachurches can end up corroding them. Megachurches are built on their own brand, not on the brand of their denominational affiliation. Moreover, megachurches have the funds to create their own resources and programming separate from those offered by denominational institutions. While some megachurches are good about supporting denominational agencies or about sharing their material with denominational networks, conforming to denominational norms is essentially optional for most megachurches, and there are almost always ways in which they do not do so.

That refusal to follow denominational norms is itself a weaking of denominational institutions, but when megachurches are held up as the exemplars of success within the denomination, that further weakens denominational institutions. The implicit message is that there is no need to follow denominational norms in terms of worship, programming, and resources, since some of the most successful churches in the denomination do not do so.

The point here is not to offer a moral critique of any of these vested interests. Depending on one’s theo-political views, the motivations of these various groups will be seen as good, bad, or indifferent. My overall point is simply to point out that the cumulative impact of de-legitimization (and occasional withholding of funds and effort) by these vested interests weakens denominational institutions.

Yet there is another set of significant forces that have been pushing United Methodist institutions towards decline, forces that originate not within the constituency but beyond it. I will examine these forces next week.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Lester Dornon: Reflection on my (Medical) Mission in Nepal

Today’s piece is by Lester Dornon, M.D. Dornon is a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries, assigned as senior physician at the Tansen Hospital in western Nepal in Asia.

My path towards medical missions started when I was growing up as a missionary’s kid (MK) in Japan. Seeing the hours that my father was away from home counseling young people rather than coming home to play with me, I proclaimed to my mother with as much conviction as a pre-school boy can muster, “I’m never going to be a missionary!” But there is no doubt, when I look back, that the seed of my desire to serve others, to make my life matter, was planted while watching how my parents lived, worked, and served for 45 years in Japan.

My enjoyment of the sciences led naturally to medical school, and a desire to serve took me through family medicine training. God’s call was to serve those who had no one else to care for their medical needs. So, in July of 1990, I found myself in Kathmandu, starting into language studies, in preparation for a term of service in the mission hospital at Tansen in rural Western Nepal. My wife and I even had our two young children in tow! A three-year commitment has now extended into 21 years of service over these past 31 years. It is a good thing that we were not given the long-term plan at the beginning, which would surely have scared us away!

We are sometimes asked how many people we have converted over all these years in Nepal. We don’t think we have “converted” anyone. (It is actually illegal in Nepal.) We have had people say how they appreciated something we did or said that helped them during a difficult time. Often, we don’t even remember doing what they are remembering. This reminds us that even though we speak about our faith when we can, it is God who brings someone to saving faith in Jesus. Our mission is of course to proclaim the Gospel, using words when necessary. Our lives are our message. The incarnational lives we live, by being among those we minister to, living with them and alongside them through their ups and downs, allows God to show seekers what their life might be like as a Christian, and what difference it might make to choose to follow this Jesus.

I believe that just as faith without action is dead (James 2:26), proclamation without service is at best unproductive, and at worst counterproductive, because it hardens the hearts of those who hear us. (“How can we believe in this God of love they speak about, if they don’t even care enough about us to help us in our need?”)

Others might similarly argue that service without proclamation is pointless, since it doesn’t bring anyone to faith if they don’t hear about Jesus (Romans 10:14). But our experience is not so. This hospital, which has served the poor for 67 years, is known as the mission hospital, where help is available for all. The initial missionaries, who were also forbidden to proselytize, left behind a congregation of believers who came to faith in Jesus through the healing ministry in the hospital and through seeing the lives of the Christians.

John Stott wrote, “We are sent into the world, like Jesus, to serve. For this is the natural expression of our love for our neighbors. We live. We go. We serve. And in this we have (or should have) no ulterior motive. True, the gospel lacks visibility if we merely preach it, and lacks credibility if we who preach it are interested only in souls and have no concern about the welfare of people’s bodies, situation, and communities. Yet the reason for our acceptance of social responsibility is not primarily in order to give the gospel either a visibility or a credibility it would otherwise lack, but rather simple uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself. It merely expresses itself in service whenever it sees need.”[1]

All service to neighbors can be and is used by God to advance His Kingdom. Yet there is something unique about medical missions. Physical illness or injury causes an immediate and deeply internal anguish, which the healthcare provider can assuage with compassion. And the death, either of oneself or of a family member, is so universally feared, that we all need help in facing it, whatever our nationality or faith. Being there during those times when life is hanging in the balance, doing whatever can be done to help, we have a chance to minister to the deepest needs of a person’s soul. I have truly been blessed to have the opportunity to work in this field.

Yet the longer we are in Nepal, the more I have come to realize that what I do impacts others much less than who I am and how I live. We often complain about the “fishbowl” living that happens here. Nepal is traditionally a very community-based society: every detail of everyone’s life is known to everyone else. It is considered normal conversation to ask what we would consider highly personal questions about income, child rearing, marriage, and personal habits. Those of us from Western countries long to be invisible in the crowd or left alone inside our houses at times, but even what we do at home is often watched, questions asked, and talked about in the community. Even more than how I treat patients and visitors at the hospital, people notice how I treat my family at home, or those who come to our door.

We talk about how all our works will be judged and rewarded at the end times (1 Corinthians 3, Revelations), but in Nepal at least, all our works are scrutinized each day, sometimes every minute of the day, by the people around us who are watching. Some are just curious at seeing a life that is different and novel, but others are looking for a different kind of life, to see if we have something worth listening to our not. Our prayer is often for our actions and words to not get in the way of someone seeing Jesus.

And what better place to show God’s love than in the family? There were four of us when we came, and we added one more while we were here. Now the children are grown and on their own. Some people might say that my family responsibilities took me away from the “real ministry” that was happening in the hospital or in the local church. But I would reply that the priority that I gave to my family, and how I treated my wife and children, especially in dealing with difficulties like discipline, illness or injury, disappointments, or failures, was a much more important ministry than anything else that happened here. Do they want to know about a God who loves them and forgives them? They will be able to believe in him when they see how we forgive each other and love each other even in our failings.

[1] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (London: Falcon, 1975), 30.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Recommended Viewing: Methodist Church of Great Britain Twinning Training

The Global Relations team of the Methodist Church of Great Britain has created a series of training resources for what they call "church twinning," but is also called "sister church" or "sister parish" relationships. These training materials are intended for local congregations with partner congregations in other parts of the world. Many UMC congregations have such partnerships as well. The resources constitute five 10-15 minute long videos, each with discussion questions. The topics covered include "Mission Today," "Money and Power in Global Partnerships," "Sharing Gifts," "Crossing Cultures," and "Race, Racism and Unconscious Bias." The videos are highly recommended for churches looking to improve the quality of their international partnerships.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: Declining Institutional Relevance

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.

Last week, I explored the decline of institutions, defined as “system[s] of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior.” I indicated that The United Methodist Church as a denomination is composed of many institutions, and these institutions have experienced decline in the sense of no longer being about to produce the same regular behaviors as in the past, at least not to the same extent as previously.

Yet the question remains: Why have the institutions of The United Methodist Church experienced decline over the past several decades?

To answer that question, it is necessary to begin with an observation: Institutions require resources of time and money to keep running. Although most institutions are set up to continue indefinitely, that continuation is only possible because of the time, effort, and money that humans are willing to devote to the maintenance of those organizations.

A wisely established institution will include the dedication of time and money for its own maintenance as one of the regular behaviors that it seeks to generate. Thus, when institutions are running well, people willingly contribute the time and money necessary to keep them running well, often without thinking much about it.

As an analogy, think about a subscription service. Most subscription services are set to automatically renew every month, with the money being directly withdrawn from your credit card. Netflix as an institution is set up to make your regular financial contribution as easy and thoughtless as possible. While theoretically, you could cancel Netflix at any point, practically, you probably don’t ask yourself every month, “Should I continue to subscribe to Netflix?”

Similarly, while people do need to contribute time and money to the perpetuation of institutions, for the most part, they are not asking themselves every month or year, “Should I continue to put in this time and effort?” They simply do it because of the inertia of habit.

Nevertheless, even when the maintenance of institutions is routine and incentivized by those very institutions, it is still possible for an institution’s constituency to collectively decide that they are no longer interested in doing the work or paying the money to keep an institution going. Or the constituency decides that they’re no longer interested in having their behaviors shaped by that institution and would like to shape them another way. Thus, for instance, people decide they’d rather shop online rather than put in the effort to drive to the mall, and therefore malls as institutions face hard times. Such decisions need not be conscious but can instead be the cumulative effect of many small decisions that over time shape patterns of behavior.

Hence, one possible explanation for the decline in church institutions—from general agencies to the hymnal to the system of itineracy and beyond—is that United Methodists are no longer interested in putting in the effort to keep those institutions going, no longer interested in having their behavior shaped by a denomination, and/or are more interested in shaping those behaviors around other principles (congregational, secular, consumerist, etc.) than denominational ones. In other words, United Methodist institutions have lost relevance with their constituency, which is United Methodists generally.

There is credence to this theory, as a quick review of United Methodist history shows. The institutions of the UMC by and large took on their present form by 1972 and have had only minor adjustments in the 50+ years since then. Prior to 1972, most major church institutions in our denominational predecessors were majorly revised for one reason or another at least every 30 years.

The functions the current UMC institutions were created to perform were all functions that made sense in the world of the late 60s and early 70s. Yet while there has been only tweaking of most church institutions since then, much in the world has changed. Think about how much of the rest of the collective behaviors of US Americans are different than they were in 1972, let alone the relationships among US Americans and other parts of the world. There have been profound transformations in most economic, governmental, political, social, and other institutions since 1972. That there have not been the same profound changes in the institutions of the UMC makes it plausible that these institutions have lost relevance over time.

Moreover, we can think of particular examples of instances in which new institutions have arisen that have provided an alternative and more attractive way for United Methodists to achieve the same ends.

For instance, short term mission trips as an institution have replaced older forms of mission involvement through the sending and support of long-term missionaries. It’s not that United Methodists don’t want to be involved in mission anymore; it is that there are new possibilities for how to do that now that were not as widely in 1972 but have now become available because of technological and social changes in the surrounding world.

Another example might be the increased use of contemporary worship music in US church services, a transformation facilitated through the rise of CCLI as an alternative institution to the hymnal. CCLI was founded in 1988, the year before the current United Methodist Hymnal was published. Over time, the power of the UMH to generate musical behaviors in UMC worship services has declined as the power of CCLI to do so has risen.

In some instances, the services church institutions were set up to provide have largely been taken over by the government, non-profits, or businesses. This transition can represent a successful secularization of church functions, though it still deprives church institutions of their purpose.

As an example, we no longer rely on the church to provide hospitals and retirement homes. While these were an innovative way for the church to care for society when introduced a century or more ago, now these functions are routinely supplied by other sources: government social security and healthcare programs, private hospitals, and secular insurance and retirement investment options.

In other instances, the call for the services provided by church institutions or the willingness of constituents to pay for those services has decreased as a result of social and ideological shifts, within the church and in the world at large.

Thus, for instance, itineracy as a form of ministry service is less attractive now in a world where dual-career households are common than it was 50 or more years ago, when single-income households were much more typical. Social shifts around employment have made the institution of itinerant ministry less attractive for potential ministerial candidates.

As another example, an increased emphasis on choice, customization, and individuality has pervaded American culture in recent decades, affecting everything from how products are marketed to how government-sponsored college savings plans operate. In a world of increased emphasis on choice as an ideology, sticking to the denominational norm for any type of church-related activity is less attractive since it inhibits congregational or individual free choice.

Yet just because decreased relevance to the general constituency is a factor eroding support for denominational institutions does not mean that we should assume that it is the only factor. Instead, in two following posts, I will examine the role of vested interests in the fate of institutions and the role of a constituency’s ability to maintain institutions as a separate issue from its desire to do so.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Rosemarie Wenner: God is on the Move – A Call to be the Church in a New Way

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).

Friday, September 17, 2021

Robert A. Hunt: United Methodist Divides as a Site for Interreligious Dialogue

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 UMC and Institutional Decline: What Are Institutions, and What Is Institutional Decline?

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.

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 ( “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

Thomas Kemper: Reflecting on September 11th

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

Recommended Reading: Would Wesley Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

United Methodist Professor of Mission and past UM & Global contributor Rev. Dr. Peter J. Bellini wrote an article for Firebrand magazine last spring entitled "Would Wesley Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?" With the delta variant driving a current surge in coronavirus cases, especially among the unvaccinated, Bellini's piece is well worth revisiting.

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

Recommended Reading: Global Missions in Black Methodism

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

An Affirmation for the Rural Church in Mission

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.

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.