Monday, November 29, 2021

Ann Hidalgo: Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana and a New Vision of Mission

Today's post is by Dr. Ann Hidalgo. Dr. Hidalgo is a missionary for Global Ministries and professor of theological sciences at Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana in Costa Rica.

I write to you from San José, Costa Rica, where I teach as a professor of feminist theology at the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana (UBL). A Methodist institution, the UBL has a long history as one of the foremost ecumenical Protestant centers of theological education in Latin America. In fact, next year, the UBL will begin celebrating its centennial.

From its earliest beginnings in 1922 as the Biblical School for Women and its formal establishment as the Biblical Institute of Costa Rica the following year, the institution has evolved continually to meet the changing needs for theological education in the region. In 1941, it was renamed the Latin American Biblical Seminary to mark the establishment of correspondence courses throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in 1997, it received formal Costa Rican accreditation as the Latin American Biblical University. Today it offers degree programs in theology and biblical studies at the bachelor, licensure, and masters levels, as well as a variety of certificate programs.

I first visited the UBL in 2013 when I was a doctoral student at Claremont School of Theology. At the time, I was preparing for my qualifying exams. In addition to my time spent in the library (marveling over the Spanish-language resources from Latin America that are seldom available in the United States), I sat in on some classes and participated in the weekly chapel services and other events. I was fascinated by the depth and richness of the classroom conversations, teaching, and preaching. In other circumstances, drawing a community together from different countries, denominational backgrounds, and genuinely different life experiences might be a recipe for conflict and discord, but, at the UBL, I experienced warmth, curiosity, generosity, a passion for learning, and a deep desire to develop the skills necessary to be of service in the churches and in society.

Last year, I accepted a position as a missionary with GBGM, and in December, my husband and I moved from the United States to Costa Rica. In January, I began teaching courses in feminist theology at the UBL. While the pandemic sent nearly all of our residential students home and moved all classes online, in this first year, I have taught students in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Spain. The UBL’s other online events, such as lectures and conferences, have regularly attracted participants from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond.

These experiences might suggest that I would have something to say about the connection between mission and theological education.

I have to confess, however, that I am as unlikely a missionary as you can imagine. Or, at least, that is how it seemed to me.

To start with the obvious, I am not a Methodist. I am a Catholic who typically attends church with my husband, an ordained pastor with the Disciples of Christ. Fortunately for me, that did not prove to be an obstacle for working with GBGM. Next, I am not ordained. While not a requirement for my position, GBGM’s application is full of language asking for call stories and visions of ministry. To me, as an academic, the application felt quite foreign.

But perhaps most significantly, my academic work has focused on the decolonial critique of the Christian churches in Latin America. From this perspective, the work of missionaries—whether in the 16th century or today—is more often seen as the source of problems than of grace. The decolonial perspective has rightly identified instances in which evangelism served as one arm of a larger political and economic project of domination, in which the teaching of religion conveyed a message of cultural inferiority to the recipients, in which the Christian churches failed to protect the most vulnerable, and in which newly established Christian communities were expected to remain subservient and were not encouraged to develop local leadership and authority.

During my application process, I was surprised to learn that GBGM has retained the title missionary, while other denominations have adopted titles like mission coworker to signal an updated vision of ministry. My experience as I filled out my application was one of mixed feelings: I was thrilled about the possibility of returning to the UBL to teach and, at the same time, genuinely uncomfortable with the title of missionary.

I wish I could tell you that this internal argument is a thing of the past. I can, however, share with you two hopeful signs that I have found encouraging.

The first is the GBGM motto for ministry: from everywhere to everywhere. As I participated in the training sessions, I was pleased to see that these were not empty words. The approximately twenty members of my training cohort came from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, significantly reducing my fears that GBGM’s work was yet another act of United States-based cultural imperialism.

The second emerged in a conversation with Dr. Elisabeth Cook, the rector at the UBL. While describing the many relationships that the UBL maintains with churches, denominations, nonprofit organizations, and other funding bodies, Dr. Cook explained that the UBL occasionally has refused funding offers when the donor organization was unwilling to relate as an equal partner. As an institution, the UBL is willing to forego much-needed cash if the other organization intends to impose projects or activities that are incompatible with the UBL mission. Again, I was grateful for this encouraging bit of news that contradicted my (admittedly pessimistic) view about how loudly money talks.

The UBL itself has become for me a symbol of mission. It is committed to reading the signs of the times in order to adapt to better meet the needs for theological education in the region. It acknowledges and celebrates its roots as a mission project and its long history of collaboration with a variety of Christian churches, but it is not willing to compromise its institutional identity in order to balance the books. Likewise, it is dedicated to walking alongside its students throughout their educational journeys and its graduates as they engage in their ministries in Latin America and beyond.

Despite my misgivings, this is a vision of mission I can embrace.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Asset-Based Mission Is a Potluck

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.

In the United States, many people will be gathering with family and friends tomorrow to share food for Thanksgiving. In some of these gatherings, one person or one host family will have done the cooking and will provide that food to others. But in many other gatherings, every participant will bring a dish or two to share with others -- the host cooking the turkey, perhaps, but someone else bringing the cranberry sauce, another person bringing a casserole or vegetable dish, another bringing the pie, and so on.

Of course, for many United Methodists in the United States, this model of shared food is a hallmark of church culture in the form of the potluck. While potlucks are not exclusively a church phenomenon, they are a staple of church dinners throughout much of the country. Their popularity likely comes from their simplicity and equality: Even a potluck in which participants are assigned a genre of dish by last name ("A through H bring a salad; I through R a main course; and S through Z dessert."), they are easy to organize and allow all participants to contribute something according to their gifts.

It is this last feature that makes potlucks a good metaphor for asset-based mission practice. An asset-based approach to mission assumes that all people have assets or gifts that they can contribute to the work of God's mission, and such an approach expects that all people will contribute those gifts. This is analogous to the potluck assumption that everyone can and will bring some sort of food to contribute to the meal.

Asset-based approaches to mission also recognize that everyone's gifts for mission are distinctive. Not everyone is expected to contribute the same thing to the mission project. Each is expected to contribute their best and their unique strengths. A good potluck depends upon everyone (or almost everyone) bringing a different gift. Variety is the strength of potlucks, and if you don't make a very good chili, that is okay. Someone else will make the chili, and you can make whatever it is you are good at.

Asset-based approaches to mission not only assume that everyone has something to give in mission; they assume that everyone can be mutually blessed by mission. Mission is not from one group to another. Mission is the work of God redeeming all. Just as everyone contributes to a potluck, everyone eats at a potluck. A potluck is not a meal that one group feeds another but does not partake in.

Asset-based mission does not try to quantify or compare what each partner is able to bring to the work of mission. Contributions reflect the abilities of the partners; benefits reflect the needs. There is usually not an elaborate cost-benefit calculation to make sure that the two are always equal. People bring as much as they can or want to a potluck and eat as much as they are hungry for. The two do not need to be the same amount.

In this way, asset-based mission is based on a presumption of abundance. There is less worrying about whether there will be enough to engage in God's mission. Instead, there is trust that God will provide what is necessary for God's work. At a good potluck, while individual dishes run out, everyone can eat their fill, and there is almost always more than enough to go around.

I hope those readers in the United States will enjoy their Thanksgiving dinners tomorrow. And I hope, as you are passing and sharing food, that you will spend a moment to think about how God calls us to share with one another in God's mission.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Lynette Moran: A Theology of Mourning and Hope: Part III: Practical Steps for Grieving the Church

Today’s post is by Rev. Lynette Moran. Rev. Moran is an ordained deacon in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. This is the third of a three-part series.

In my two previous posts, I have described the church grief that many of us in The United Methodist Church are experiencing and described the theological message of hope that we have in the midst of all forms of mourning and grief. I would like to close this series with some practical affirmations about the work of moving with and through our grief.

First, we need to name the griefs we are facing. We cannot cope with what we refuse to acknowledge. We are facing the end of the UMC as we know it. We are continuing to face COVID and its line of variants. We are facing climate change and ecological crises. These are disorienting and somber. We cannot cope with what we refuse to acknowledge.

Second, we need to provide people a place to have their grief. Everyone is at a different place. Some people are still at a place where they haven’t bought into the idea of the potential split of the UMC or the full realities of COVID or the reality of climate change. We must meet people where they are. It requires extra effort and creativity to welcome all into the fold. Hospitality, God’s radical love, calls us to do so.

Third, we need to provide opportunity for healing. Rituals, liturgy, music, and pastoral care matter. So do opportunities for storytelling. These opportunities could be in a journal, small group setting, or in general conversation. We must lead reflective conversations that acknowledge loss and change. We should offer opportunities to make meaning. Remember that people will make meaning no matter what—I would rather they do so in the care of the church than alone out in the world. These conversations will happen immediately and for months and years to come.

Fourth, we should resource out. Most of us are not counselors. Clinical complicated grief, prolonged grief, and persistent complex bereavement are serious and beyond most of our abilities to address. Remember to refer to other professionals as needed. Connect with other faith leaders and professionals in your area to see what temporary and permanent resources are available (and also consider how your church can fill any gaps).

Fifth, we should know our communities and adopt our strategies to those contexts. Someone living in a rural community of farmers might have different conversations and different grief to witness than a coastal city that is hit every year by major storms and flooding.

Sixth, we must bear witness to others’ grief. Mourning is a dark place where most people don’t feel comfortable sitting. We like to cheer people up; we like to feel comfortable; we like to fill the silences. But most of us also know that one of the most hopeful and healing things we can ever experience is someone knowing us at our deepest and darkest—and them staying and loving us as we are. Practice witnessing. Help others learn to effectively witness others' grief.

Seventh, we must practice radical hope. Provide images for what healing and the future can look like. Ask effective questions. What can go back to normal? What needs to change? How can we be okay no matter what the future holds? How can we reframe hope when life does not go as we want? How can we live out the kingdom of God now, in this circumstance? How can our congregations know it will be okay no matter what the future holds? Provide images for what healing and the future can look like. Have these conversations—ask these questions—and more.

Moreover, radical hope might involve acting radically, getting involved with social justice movements and advocating for those who are most harmed by the current environment. With COVID, many of us have worked to get the vaccine accessible to all people, not just some. Some of us advocate for clean air and water and other environmental and health needs. Again, this goes from the individual to the larger community. Big businesses that profit from ecological destruction must be confronted. As the church, I think we must take effort to connect how our mass consumption in the US causes harm in the exploitation of workers and natural resources around the world.

Finally, we should tend to our own grief. Our work with the grief of others cannot proceed without work on our grief as well.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Recommended Reading: Kirsteen Kim on Racism Awareness in Mission

While this blog does not frequently recommend academic articles, Kirsteen Kim's recent article "Racism Awareness in Mission: Touchstone or Cultural Blind Spot?" published in the October issue of the International Bulletin of Mission Research, raises some important questions about the field of missiology. Kim begins by reflecting, "The heightened awareness of race, racialization, and racism in 2020 furnishes the context for asking why these issues are not more prominent in mission and missiology." She argues, "I will show that, although on the one hand, sensitivity to culture and context in postwar and postcolonial missiology has encouraged diversity, interculturality, and movements for greater equity, and so mitigated what we now call 'racism,' on the other hand, ... attention to 'culture' and 'context' may also obscure racism in mission and missiology" and therefore "racism awareness should be integral to mission education and that antiracism should characterize mission practice." Given the current cultural landscape of the United States, this article is highly recommended reading for US missionaries and missiologists. For those without access to the written article, much of the same ground is covered in Kim's 2020 Louis J. Luzbetak Lecture at Catholic Theological Union.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Long Backstory of UMC Conflict in Nigeria

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.

United Methodist Insight and United Methodist News Service have both reported on recent conflict in the Nigeria Episcopal Area, especially that between Bishop John Wesley Yohanna and his supporters on the one side and Rev. Ande Emmanuel, the former Administrative Assistant to the Bishop, and those associated with him on the other.

Despite quality reporting by United Methodist Insight and UMNS, it is easy for news readers in the United States to see the conflict in the UMC in Nigeria through the lens of the Traditionalist vs. Centrist/Progressive conflict in the United States. To do so, however, is to fundamentally misunderstand the long roots of this conflict, which extend back over a century to ethnic conflict and missionary divisions in the beginnings of what is now Nigerian United Methodism. Tracing the history of that conflict suggests different conclusions about the present conflict.

To get a better view, we must begin with a geography lesson. The UMC in Nigeria is mostly located in the eastern state of Taraba. Taraba is divided by the Benue River, which flows from the northeast to the southwest. North of the river is a plains, which then rises to hills.

Onto this physical geography is mapped the human geography of tribal affiliation. South of the Benue live the Mumuye people. North of the river live the Karimjo, sometimes (falsely?) referred to as the Wurkun. Still farther north, in the hills, the population is primarily Tangale-speaking. Each of these groups has its own history, language, and customs. While there is intermingling and exchange among groups, there also was and occasionally still is conflict along ethnic lines.*

Into this situation came missionaries associated with the Sudan United Mission. Rev. C. W. Guinter, a member of the United Evangelical Church (later the Evangelical Church after its reunification with the Evangelical Association) went to Nigeria as a missionary of the Sudan United Mission in 1906 to serve, initially with the Jukun people and then with the Karimjo/Wurkun. Although Guinter went as an individual, he drew on denominational sources for support, and eventually his work was taken over by the Evangelical Church, which sent additional missionaries to the area. In addition to strengthening his work, they commenced work among the Tangale-speaking Pero people in the hills to the north of the Karimjo.

Slightly later, in 1928, a group of holiness-inspired British Methodists began work among the Mumuye people to the south of the Karimjo, also through the Sudan United Mission. While the British missionaries were associated with the Sudan United Mission, the same parent organization that gave birth to the Evangelical Church’s work in Nigeria, that does not mean the two missions were closely related. With the two mission efforts drawing on separate home bases and the work among the Karimjo becoming ever more closely associated with the Evangelical Church, the two mission efforts proceeded on largely separate tracks.

Thus, the pattern that continues to dominate The United Methodist Church in Nigeria was set: one group in the center, one in the north, and one in the south. These groups are/were connected to each other ecclesiastically but not well, with particular tensions between the center and the south.

Despite the separate histories, separate ethnic groups, and largely separate organizations, in 1946, the British branch of the Sudan United Mission decided to turn its areas of work over to the care of the neighboring Evangelical Church mission among the Karimjo, at just the same time the Evangelical Church was merging into the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church.

Whatever sense the decision to combine Mumuye, Karimjo, and Pero work made to Western mission boards, it meant that the EUB was suddenly overseeing the developing of a multi-ethnic church. Yet, this multiethnic mission did not reflect a natural harmony between these ethnic groups nor decisions made by Nigerian people themselves. It was a decision from the outside, one that would bring ethnic conflict into the nascent church.

Still, true to its mission principles of fostering indigenous churches, the EUB worked to establish an independent, autonomous denomination, a process begun in 1954 with the creation of the Muri Church Council and completed in 1968 with the launch of the EKAN Muri Church. Nevertheless, missionaries from the EUB and then, following another merger, the United Methodist Church continued to serve with the EKAN Muri Church.

However, the ethnic diversity within the Muri Church helped fuel an internal conflict in the 1970s that involved issues of leadership and property. Notably, the ethnic coloring of a conflict about determining legitimate leadership that played out in a contest for control of property would set a pattern for things to come. The conflict in the 70s resulted in a temporary schism within the church, which was healed by 1976, in part through the mediation of international Christians and civil authorities, another pattern which would recur.

In the aftermath of this conflict, leaders within the church, working in collaboration with several UMC missionaries, decided that the solution to the internal problems in the church should be to rejoin The United Methodist Church.

The UMC approved that proposal in 1984 and assigning Bishop Arthur Kulah of Liberia to oversee the area, a role he served until 1989. Bishop Thomas Bangura of Sierra Leone served until 1992, at which point Nigeria became a full annual conference and elected its own bishop. Those eight years between 1984 were spent addressing internal issues within the church and training church leaders in United Methodist systems. Much of that work was carried out by Ethel Johnson, a retired seminary professor from Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

For its first indigenous bishop, the Nigeria Annual Conference elected Done Peter Dabale, from the Chamba tribe, a group related to the Mumuye, in the Jereng District, just east of the British Sudan United Mission stronghold of Zing. Under Dabale’s leadership, the church grew greatly in membership, from 10,000 to 400,000. But it did not grow evenly. Almost all the growth was in the south. Membership in the central and northern regions grew much more slowly.

Nor did this pattern of growth exempt the church from its lingering ethnic conflicts. Those conflicts would continue to re-emerge late in Dabale’s episcopacy, rising even to the level of violence in the church. Significant mediation by United Methodists from the United States and the Congo and by civil authorities was necessary to quell tensions in the church.

After his death from cancer, Dabale was followed by Bishop Kefas Kane Mavula, another southerner. Mavula died of a sudden illness, within a year of his consecration. After Mavula’s death in 2007, the region was once again overseen by Bishop Arthur Kulah from Liberia.

Ethnic tensions in the church came to a head again around the process of electing an indigenous successor to Mavula in 2012. There was a dispute over the number of delegates to the nominating convention allotted to each area, which by then were their own annual conferences. This led the southern and northern conferences to boycott the meeting and the subsequent West Africa Central Conference. As a result, the current bishop, John Wesley Yohanna from the central region, was elected.

Ethnic conflicts and lingering disputes about the validity of his election have continued to plague the entirety of Yohanna’s episcopacy. A complaint about the election was sent to the UMC Judicial Council. Some groups from the south split from the church. A few of these have since rejoined. Others have not. There continues to be a separatist Southern Annual Conference that still identifies as United Methodist but does not recognize Yohanna, in addition to the Southern Nigeria Annual Conference that does recognize Bishop Yohanna. There have been significant disputes over control of church property between the separatist group and Bishop Yohanna, disputes which have drawn the government in.

It is within this context that some details of the present conflict in the UMC in Nigeria take on heightened significance. Ande Emmanuel and almost all of the other pastors supporting him are from the south. There are issues of control of church property (in this case a radio station). Emmanuel’s arrest continues a pattern of the government becoming involved in church disputes. Viewed from this angle, this conflict has little to do with the impending UMC/GMC split and everything to do with long-standing ethnic and ecclesial tensions indigenous to Nigeria.

But perhaps that assessment lets the rest of The United Methodist Church off the hook too easily. The pattern in the UMC in Nigeria is not just ethnic conflict among the three groups – those from the south, central, and northern areas. The pattern is ethnic conflicts that repeatedly pull in and involve the international church, with Nigerians seeking to enlist either its aid to calm conflict or its power to resolve conflict in favor of one group or another.

This, then, is the true pattern in the current conflict in Nigeria: ethnic factions in the church that seek to draw powers from the international church and civil government into internal Nigerian church conflict, along with actors from outside Nigeria that wittingly or unwittingly allow themselves to be drawn in. This is a complex pattern, and there is a lot to unpack here: questions about mission strategy, local decision-making, and international relations within the church; about ethnic conflict and peace and reconciliation efforts that seek to address it; and about branches of the church in one nation, whether the United States or Nigeria, that seek to use other branches of the church as pawns in their own games.

This is not a story about heroes and villains. It is a story about complexity and the intractability of conflict. It is also a cautionary story. Those who go into a context without understanding the internal dynamics of that context are likely to find themselves bogged down, sidetracked, and struggling to achieve the objectives they set out to achieve. To avoid repeating such mistakes, US Americans should be careful not to see the context in the church in other countries as the same as in their own.

* The names of different ethnic groups, the precise meanings of names used to designate people groups, and the precise locations inhabited by various groups are all subjects of debate. I have made every effort to use correct terminology, but there are inconsistencies across sources.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Lynette Moran: A Theology of Mourning and Hope: Part II: Hope Amid Grief

Today’s post is by Rev. Lynette Moran. Rev. Moran is an ordained deacon in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. This is the second of a three-part series.

I study grief, especially grief in The United Methodist Church [link to previous article], but hope is why I do the work I do. I believe that the church has a unique message of hope that is relevant in our own experiences of church grief and in the many other sources of grief in life, including grief from COVID and from climate change.

We all learn that part of life is living in pain. I have also learned of the transformative power of hope, forgiveness, and reconciliation through Jesus Christ. For me, it was a life-saving message. It is a radical message. And it’s one that we, as the church, uniquely have to offer to the world: radical hope—that in the midst of horror, wonderous things also occur.

The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones writes about trauma and grace, and I appreciate how she ties together mourning and wonder. She writes:

To mourn and to wonder, that is what the spirit yearns for when it stands in the midst of trauma and breathes in the truth of grace. Mourning and wonder…They are states of mind, that, if nurtured, open us to the experience of God’s coming into torn flesh, and to love’s arrival amid violent ruptures…. Mourning and wonder… there is a space that both carries traumatic loss and yet remains open and new. Poised here, we always wait to be dragged from despair into light. The cross trains us in these dispositions of body and imagination. It narrates for us, again and again, two paradoxical stories about who we are: God’s inevitably broken children, and God’s constantly renewed beloved; these two stories run down parallel tracks of resolution. We are not becoming better or worse: we just are these two things, in the juxtaposed tension of our everyday life. (pp. 161-163)

We live as broken and beloved. We live with trauma and grace. To address trauma, we mourn. As we experience grace, we stand in awe and wonder.

We don’t know exactly what the United Methodist Church will look like in the next few years. We don’t know what COVID has in store for us next. We don’t know exactly how we’ll be impacted by climate change in the next five or ten or fifty years. We don’t know how any of the currents of grief in our lives will develop. We don’t need to.

We, like the disciples, struggle to see what can come next. One day, the disciples thought they were living in one kind of world, and three days later, they were living in an entirely different world of understanding. They couldn’t grasp what could come next—they could not do the work that Christ called on them to do— until they let go of how they thought things should be and realized grace and love were always there to conquer all.

I do want to emphasize that we hold these things—trauma and grace, mourning and wonder—in tension. If we just skip to resurrection and eternal life, I think we’re making the same mistake that Freud did in his concept of successful grief as leaving the traumas behind, detaching from the pain, and moving on to the hope. That’s problematic. We cannot erase wounds.

Dr. Shelly Rambo emphasizes ideas kindred to contemporary grief theories about continuing bonds and narrative construction in our trauma in her work that really digs into the story in John 20, where Jesus returns to the disciples. Jesus shows the scars on his hands and side. Even after the hope-filled resurrection, he wears the evidence of past pain.

Touching again on the individual and collective, this story has elements of Jesus and the disciples as individuals, like Thomas individually struggling to grasp what is in front of him. But there are also elements of the collective—that they came together in their grief in the Upper Room, that they witnessed Jesus together, that they received the Holy Spirit together. Additionally, Jesus himself is both an individual in that moment but also enfleshed. Upon him is evidence of the brokenness of the whole of humanity.

So as the church, what we really need to do is to help the world remember both trauma and grace, mourning and wonder, resurrection and wounds. These things can be held in tension, both in our own lives and in the good news narrative of Jesus Christ. There are other places that the church gets to have a unique voice—in talking about resistance or confrontation and repentance, in forgiveness and what Dr. Andrew Sung Park calls forgiven-ness. He, and others, rightly argue that we have messages of healing and wholeness, holiness and sanctification. We have stories of jubilee and the inspiration of Christian perfection.

It is important to acknowledge what we lose—and don’t get me wrong, the losses with the UMC and ecological degradation are immense. We need to mourn. We need to sit in darkness. We can’t just brush away our pain. But I am concerned that individually and collectively we sometimes struggle to move forward. There can be a dark, sinister comfort in wallowing.

When we draw on our unique message of hope amid mourning, we get to play a role in gently walking beyond the veil with people because loss is always only one part of the story. God is already present and playing a role in what is now and what is to come. That is our radical hope.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Sung Il Lee: The Late John Wesley’s Understanding of Mission

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Sung Il Lee. Rev. Dr. Lee is a missionary of Global Ministries and Missionary Practitioner in Residence at Candler School of Theology.

Having looked at the missiology of the “middle” Wesley, I would like to now examine the “late” John Wesley’s understanding of mission. I see 1767, the year Wesley published “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” as a watershed dividing “middle” Wesley and “late” Wesley. From the point of view of sanctification, the “late” Wesley's understanding of mission in a qualitative sense, including economic perfection, led to a more mature Methodist movement. In this post, I would like to deal with the qualitative characteristics of the Methodist missional movement.

In his journal, Wesley emphasized Christian perfection in "The Character of a Methodist," saying:

These are the same principles and practices of our sect; these are the marks of a true Methodist; that is, a true Christian, as I immediately after explain myself: ‘by these alone do those who are in derision so called desire to be distinguished from other men.’ (P. ii.) ‘By these marks do we labor to distinguish ourselves from those whose minds or lives are not according to the gospel of Christ.’ (p.12). (John Wesley 1951, 186)

The “late” Wesley’s emphasis on Christian perfection deepened his Methodist movement in two ways: One is that the qualitative transformation in domestic missions accelerated, saving Britain from the negative consequences of the French Revolution, a result of the Methodist movement bringing about socio-political and economic changes in Britain.

The other is that on September 4, 1771, John Wesley commissioned 26-year-old Francis Asbury and Richard Wright as American missionaries (Hong-ki Kim 2013, 193), and the era of American missions began. In this regard, the “late” Wesley saw mission as the transformative power to change persons as well as the world.

The nature of mission for Wesley must be understood in terms of how Wesley understood human beings and salvation. Wesley saw the Lord's "death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality" (Wesley, "Salvation by Faith," I.5). Sin caused a loss of relationship with God, but Wesley saw fallen man “as living, not now under a covenant of works, but under a covenant of grace” (Chong-nam Cho 1984, 257). And salvation through “justification by faith through grace” brought restoration of the broken relationship with God. Wesley articulated his concept of salvation in terms of relationship with the Lord by likening the process of salvation to a house. “Prevenient grace serves as the porch, justification as the door, and sanctification or holiness as the room of the house” (Runyon 1998, 27).

Original sin, in Wesley’s view, leads to both the temporal and spiritual death of humanity. “Holy love of God” (Wesley, "Justification by Faith," IV.1) always “‘comes before’(pre-venio) we are conscious that God is seeking us out” (Runyon 1991, 27). That is prevenient grace that reawakens the spiritual senses to let sinners hear the call of God and respond to salvation in terms of supernatural gift of God (Runyon 1998, 31-32). Since humanity inevitably commits sin, prevenient grace must now issue in what Wesley calls convincing grace and a more active role must be taken by the Holy Spirit in convicting men and women of their guilt in the sight of God. Conviction of sin and repentance lead to justification by grace through faith. In this sense, with the manifold operation of the Holy Spirit, Wesley understood mission as participation in the drama of God’s redemption. It purposes not only to “renew our hearts in the image of God” (Wesley, "Original Sin," III.5), but also "to reform the nation, especially the church, and to spread scriptural holiness." (Hong-ki Kim 2013, 153).

Wesley did not understand sin and salvation in solely individualistic terms, though. Wesley stressed that “Christianity is an essentially social religion” that cannot survive in isolation (Wesley, "Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount IV," I.1). It is God’s work to change the lives of men and women. In this sense, Christians are called to live out their Christian testimonies in human society, comprised of good and evil persons (Hynson 1984, 118). Wesley regarded the spiritual relationship of Christians as analogous to the community of the Holy Spirit that “becomes a transforming community in the larger human society” (Ibid, 121).

According to Hynson, Wesley understood the task of the church as, first, “fostering the Christian life of its members through the means of grace it provides,” and second, “to stimulate the practice of love in all the relations of Christians to their neighbors outside the Church” (Hynson 1984, 128). In other words, “the church is marked by love… The moral demand of love is to regard every person as neighbor, to avoid partiality, and to act from the motive of concern.” (Ibid). As Jesus taught us to live out “the Christian lifestyle based upon a new motivation, not the old ‘eye for an eye’” (Ibid), the church as a missionary community cannot withhold the Good News from the world but is “toward conversion or transformation, not accommodation or capitulation. (Ibid, 128). Wesley’s “purpose in the Methodist societies was not to raise up a new church, but to reform the nation and the church and to spread scriptural holiness across the land” (Hynson 1984, 129).

By nature, Christians cannot be remained as isolated individuals. In the close relation between the individual and the society, the church can expect a series of chain reactions, like a domino theory, from the individual Christian. If each Christian applies his/her personal holiness to their social contexts, in which they can demonstrate Christian influence, the world gradually will become the kingdom of God.

Thus, changed individuals transform the world by their Christian influence and actions. As a channel of God’s blessing, “Whatever grace you have received of God may through you be communicated to others” (Runyon 1998, 163). The love of God should “flow through us to all the world’s creatures, especially to those in need and distress” (Ibid). In this sense, mission includes not only individual but also social dimensions. Runyon says, “Orthopathic experience expresses itself in orthopraxy as faith is at work in service. True Christianity cannot exist without both the inward experience and outward practice of justice, mercy, and truth” (Ibid, 164).

In "Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount IV," Wesley made it clear that as a lamp cannot light the whole world and a handful of salt cannot prevent the rottenness in the whole world, there is a clear limitation of a Christian's influence in a society. However, a believer or a Christian community who “have need daily to retire from the world, at least morning and evening, to converse with God, to commune more freely with our Father which is in secret” (IV) can only be the “divine favor which is in you, to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself, on every side, to all those among whom you are” (I.7). The reason is that Christianity is "essentially a social religion" (I. 1), when Christians communally "that every holy temper, and word, and work of yours, may have an influence on lo them also" (I.7). The intensity is increased, and the concentration of salty taste is naturally strengthened. It is sure that Wesley proclaimed this sermon with a prophetic conviction that as the collective “we,” the stronger the light of Christians, the saltier the Christian life, the more the corrupt and decayed British society, and even the whole world, will change and be transformed.

It is interesting to note how Wesley measured the degree to which society had been changed into a new social state. According to Jennings, “economics has a central place in Wesley’s project of transforming the nation and spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land” (1990, 15). Whether the enterprise of scriptural Christianity could be said to succeed or fail can be judged only by the transformation of the nation linked to economic issues. In this sermon, Wesley gave “three rules of gaining, saving, and giving ‘all you can’” (Jennings 1990, 165). With these rules, Wesley once lamented that “Methodists have proven all too willing to gain and even save but have failed utterly to give with the same willingness” (Jennings 1990, 165). These three rules certainly serve as one of the ways in which Wesley measures how Methodism transformed the nation.

In the awakening of the Wesleyan tradition, Holy Spirit-filled Christians in the community of the Spirit could transform the evils of society, liberate the oppressed from their bondage, and reform their organization. The revival movement recharged them to continuously work in the world. Without the power of the Holy Spirit, who can transform his/her society? No human beings have the power to change even bad habits by his/her own efforts. In conclusion, true revivals that impact mission fields to be transformed are God’s witness to urge unbelievers repent and believe in Jesus and to transform nominal Christians from selfish, self-centered lives to Christ-centered lives.

Works Cited:
Cho Chong-nam. 1984. “John Wesely’s View of Fallen Man” 248-264. In Theology of John Wesley. Seoul: Korean Christian Publishing House.
Hynson, Leon O. 1984. To Reform the Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press of Zondervan Publishing.
Jackson, Thomas, editor. 1872 Edition. The Sermons of John Wesley.
Jennings, Jr. Theordore W. 1990. Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
Kim Hong-ki. 2013. A Methodist Church History: From John Wesley to Henry Appenzeller. Seoul: KMC.
Runyon, Theodore. 1998. The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today. Nashville: Abingdon.
Wesley, John. 1951. The Journal of John Wesley. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

A Primer on General Conference, Travel, and Vaccines

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.

Today's post is an attempt to address frequently asked questions about General Conference and the effects of the on-going pandemic on it.

I have seen contradictory statements about General Conference 2022. The "A Call to Grace" statement said it was unlikely to happen, but Good News says that's not true. Is General Conference happening next year or not?

In short, that decision has not been made yet.

The Commission on General Conference is the group tasked with preparing for General Conference, and they get the final say on whether General Conference happens or not. The Commission has already decided to postpone the General Conference twice, to its currently scheduled dates of Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022. While the group is making preparations for an in-person conference next year, there is also the possibility that the could decide that conditions related to the pandemic necessitate a further postponement or even cancellation of General Conference. In the latter case, General Conference would likely not meet again until its regularly scheduled 2024 meeting.

The Commission will make a decision sometime in the first several months of 2022.

What about a virtual General Conference? Is that another possibility?

While holding a virtual or distributed General Conference is an idea that has gotten a lot of discussion, including on this blog, the Commission on General Conference seems opposed to the idea. A sub-committee released a report earlier this year that explored a variety of virtual options, but ultimately concluded that such options did not provide for equitable participation across the globe. A proposal by the Council of Bishops for a very limited virtual General Conference earlier this year had to be scrapped because of opposition. While it is possible that the Commission on General Conference could reconsider the idea, that seems unlikely.

What factors will the Commission on General Conference use to make a decision on whether or not to hold General Conference next year?

Based on the decisions made and reports issued by the Commission thus far, its strong preference seems to be for an in-person meeting that a broadly representative swath of delegates are able to attend. The main factors then become whether delegates from around the world are able to travel to Minneapolis, MN to attend. The largest influencing factor there is the policies that the United States government sets for travel to the United States for visitors from other countries.

What are those US government travel policies? I heard that the United States reopened to visitors this week.

The US government did update its travel policies for visitors to the United States as of this Monday, Nov. 8. It loosened requirements to allow all fully vaccinated persons from outside the United States to travel to the United States, provided they had a negative COVID test within three days before travel. While this is good news for delegates from Europe, where there has been extensive access to vaccine, this policy change does not much help delegates from many parts of Africa, where less than 10% of the population in almost all cases and less than 1% of the population in some cases is fully vaccinated.

But isn't there an exception for travelers from countries with low vaccination rates?

There is such an exception, but only for certain types of visas. B1/B2 visas, which are the type of visa that General Conference delegates use, are not covered under this exception.

Can't UMCOR do anything to vaccinate delegates to allow them to attend?

UMCOR is helping sponsor the “Love Beyond Borders: The Interfaith Movement to End the Pandemic” campaign to promote global vaccine distribution. That campaign does not allow UMCOR to direct vaccine doses to particular recipients. The process of distributing vaccines, especially internationally, is a complicated logistical process that requires significant medical, storage, legal, and transportation infrastructure. UMCOR does not possess such infrastructure on its own, which is why it is partnering with other organizations to promote global vaccinations.

But if delegates can get vaccinated, they should be set, right?

Even vaccinated delegates from developing countries could still face obstacles in obtaining visas or may have limited access to COVID tests, which must be taken within three days before travel. Even when such tests are available, they may be expensive or may add to the expenses of in-country travel for delegates, if they must therefore arrive in an airport city an extra day or two in advance of their departure to take a COVID test.

How much world-wide participation will be enough for the Commission on General Conference to decide to proceed?

This is ultimately the big question. No General Conference has the full participation of all its elected delegates, if for no other reason than US visas are a perennial problem for General Conference delegates. The Commission on General Conference cannot guarantee that all delegates will be able to attend a General Conference in 2022, no matter what. But they seem to want to make sure that large groups are not automatically excluded from participation.

The biggest consideration to watch, then, is the Democratic Republic of Congo. With nearly a quarter of the denomination's membership and over a sixth of General Conference delegates, the DRC is the largest group of United Methodists outside of the United States. It also currently has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world (0.04% of its population fully vaccinated). If it looks like most delegates from the DR Congo will be unable to attend General Conference, then the Commission is likely to postpone or cancel General Conference, rather than hold it without representation from such a significant group within the church. There will be and should be "no GC without the DRC."

Monday, November 8, 2021

Lynette Moran: A Theology of Mourning and Hope: Part I: Church Grief

Today’s post is by Rev. Lynette Moran. Rev. Moran is an ordained deacon in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. This is the first of a three-part series.

In my doctoral work, I study grief, first and foremost—what is common about grief, how we grieve social problems, what impacts our grief experience. The United Methodist Church is the primary field where I’ve dug into these questions.

I bring to this work contemporary perspectives on grief that stress relationship and narrative. Those two umbrellas often overlap. Concerning relationship, grief studies now recognize that grief is often ongoing because our connections to others don’t just go away, even after death or the end of a relationship. I would argue this applies to all types of significant loss.

The second umbrella centers around narrative—around meaning-making or constructive grief. We construct meaning as part of the grief process. We are always updating our narrative. We make meaning from our memories; we make meaning in new events; we make meaning in real time and over time.

With those framing approaches in mind, I’d like to turn to the UMC.

The UMC is a kaleidoscope of grief right now with multiple dynamics happening. I can note a few ways grief is manifested—most of which apply to both local church closures and potential denominational schism.

Right now, we mourn unmet expectations: what we thought the UMC was or was not, what we thought our local church was or was not.

We also mourn our relationships. We mourn the tension in our relationships as people take a stand for this or that. This manifests itself from seemingly silly arguments over the church furnace to darker, troublesome arguments about who really is or isn’t Methodist or Christian. Sometimes we take a stand out of moral principles. Sometimes we take a stand out of emotion, including grief.

We have anticipatory grief. What we see happening in the future—we’re already grieving that. We mourn what our future UMC and relationships will lose. If my friends stop coming to this church or I start going to that church, relationships will change. We mourn how our sense of community will shift.

I think we also feel almost suspended in time—whether you’re talking about church closures or denominational schism, it’s been years, if not decades, in the making. The anticipation weighs heavy on our shoulders.

There are also griefs we bear based on our position and place in society. We aren’t all grieving the same exact thing. The one I must underscore is the pain the UMC has caused many in the LGBTQ community. As people who “first do no harm,” much harm has been done. The LGBTQ community is the precarious frontline that endures while the UMC decides ‘what to do about them.’ Their grief is substantial and unique.

Having said that, many of us feel particular pains. We all have a context by which we experience loss. Provisional clergy or recently ordained clergy have invested years of education and money and effort into a system that is on the precipice of a significant shift in identity.

There are life-long United Methodists, people who feel forced to leave due to their beliefs, people who are angry that we can’t “all just get along,” people living in different geographic regions of the world.

And again, grief doesn’t happen in a bubble. Grief now attaches to pain in our past. Some of us have been injured by the church in the past and may still carry that. This is us constructing our narratives. In Pennsylvania I talk to people who still hold feelings from when the EUB church merged to help form the UMC. That experience and perspective folds past narrative and grief into the present.

Finally, grief related to the UMC ties into the pains of our daily lives. We are also coping with the pandemic, job loss, loss of loved ones, children passing through milestones like graduation, divorce, political tensions, and so on.

So many things impact how we experience grief in the moment and long-term and how we experience this grief as Methodists, both individually and collectively. The things I’ve mentioned get to the bulk of factors, but a full account of our denominational grief certainly can’t be contained to this post or this moment.

In my next post, I will suggest theological resources that can help us cultivate a sense of hope, even amid this multifaceted church-related grief we bear.

Friday, November 5, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: What About Membership 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.

In response to my series on the UMC and Institutional Decline, reader (and United Methodist Professor of Mission) Rev. Dr. Jack Jackson writes:

“Hello David, thanks for these articles. You are bringing up some important issues. I wonder if you plan to address the underlying problem which, if not addressed, will make all these other renovations irrelevant? Namely, the current collapse of the United Methodist species. We simply aren't reproducing ourselves in the West. Clearly the denomination is reproducing in the Philippines and a handful of countries in central Africa. But apart from those 6 or 7 countries (so much for being a global church) the UMC is in the midst of species collapse. Will you address the need [for a] new vision regarding mission and evangelism that centers on making disciples for Jesus? I'd love to hear more of your thoughts.”

Given the significance of Rev. Dr. Jackson’s question, I wanted to spend an entire post responding to it, rather than trying to do so within the confines of the comments section.

The Relationship between Membership Decline and Institutional Decline
First, in his comment, Jackson gets at what is absolutely an important truth: It doesn’t matter what denominational institutions look like if there are no denominational members left to be part of them. Decline in denominational membership (especially among white Westerners) is an essential bit of context that shapes and shades all other discussions of the UMC’s future, including discussions of its institutions.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude that because membership decline has the potential to make institutional decline irrelevant that we should focus entirely on membership and not on denominational institutions (not that Jackson is saying so). Such an argument would only make sense if membership and institutions were unconnected, but there is a relationship between the two.

The sorts of institutions that we have as a denomination can influence how effective we are at inviting new members through evangelism, retaining our current members through discipleship, and developing the next generation of members through Christian education. Rightly conceived, updating institutions can be a means to better equip the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

A football analogy may help. The only undefeated NFL team in history was the Miami Dolphins in 1972, incidentally the same year that many of the institutions of the UMC achieved their current form. Obviously, that team knew how to win. But if we were able to bring that team and their equipment, strategies, and training regiments to the present, the 1972 Miami Dolphins would likely struggle in the 2021 NFL season, where rules of the game have changed, game strategies have changed, technology used to help players play their best has evolved, offensive and defensive lines are much larger physically, and the season is three games longer. We can’t assume that just because the 1972 Dolphins knew how to win, none of the rest of these changes would matter.

In a similar way, evangelism (and discipleship and Christian education) is not just about knowing how to win people to Jesus in some ahistoric sense. It’s about knowing how to win people to Jesus in our present time and contexts, as Jackson’s writings highlight, and then developing the systems of rules, equipment, strategies, etc. necessary to support that approach. And our rules, equipment, strategies, etc. should be updated from their 1972 versions, just as the 1972 Dolphins would need to update if they played in the 2021 NFL.

The importance of church structure for the growth of the church is something I have addressed in several other posts (;;

Tracking Membership Trends
Second, as Jackson points out, there are important differences across The United Methodist Church in terms of how the church is doing in reproducing itself. Assessing the danger of “species collapse” and responding appropriately requires good information about where The United Methodist Church is and is not growing, how those trends compare to other forms of Christianity and population demographics, and the group-specific trends within the whole.

Over the years, developing this sort of data that can help United Methodist leaders discern where the church is and is not doing well, including in comparison with others, has been a major effort of my writing on this blog and elsewhere:
Much of the above work can be found in the UM & Global collection “Methodist Maps and Membership”:

In addition, I have suggested a variety of explanations for these trends that try to look not just at The United Methodist Church but at other forms of Christianity and wider societal contexts, especially in the United States.

I have tried to enumerate factors influencing church growth ( including organizational and cultural explanations (;; and the role of the witness of the church amidst suffering (

I have examined the role of empire in the fate of Christianity in the West:;;;

This work is not the same as developing a theology or method of evangelism, but I do see it as important background for such work. Since evangelism must be contextual, United Methodists must understand the contexts in which they evangelize.

Jackson suggests that the UMC needs a “new vision regarding mission and evangelism that centers on making disciples for Jesus.” I wholeheartedly agree that evangelism is an essential part of mission and that the UMC should be engaged in evangelism.

That is an important part of why I developed the definition of mission I use in my book on mission for congregations, Crossing Boundaries: Mission is “cultivating relationships across boundaries for the sake of fostering conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news” ( By emphasizing conversations about God’s good news, this definition of mission is intended to include evangelism as a core component of mission.

This conviction that evangelism is an essential part of mission means that evangelism is among the subjects that UM & Global covers, even if I don’t always write those articles myself. You can find UM & Global articles about evangelism here:

Given my background as a social historian, I tend to write about areas that I feel I am uniquely qualified to analyze and that others are not writing about extensively (such as organizational theory and demographics). I then try to lift up the voices of those who are more insightful than me on other topics. Evangelism tends to fall into that latter category, not because I don’t believe it is important, but because I recognize the insights that others have go beyond my own in this area. I believe I can better contribute to furthering evangelism by doing some of this background work that I hope others will draw upon.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Darryl Stephens: The UMC and Institutional Decline: Commissions and Omissions

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens, responding to a recent series on UM & Global by Dr. David W. Scott. Rev. Dr. Stephens' post originally appeared on his personal blog, Ethics Considered, and is republished here with permission.

Why is The United Methodist Church in decline? And what can be done about it? These questions are the focus of a series of articles by David Scott, webmaster of UM & Global. The theme of the series, “The UMC and Institutional Decline,” is complicated. Scott presses his readers to consider the issue from many perspectives. The problem is not just a result of failed leadership, he argues, but also antiquated structures that no longer meet the needs of the institution.

Scott leverages his analysis to provide constructive ideas for moving forward. In a recent post, he suggested that the impending breakup of the UMC is an opportunity for denominational rebuilding. Boards, agencies, and the general way of doing things in United Methodism need to be overhauled. A breakup is an opportunity not only for cleaning house but also renovation.

“General Conference could create a series of commissions to work on denominational revamping,” suggested Scott. For this approach to be effective, I argue, we must learn from past and current efforts. We must examine the institutional history of United Methodist commissions and omissions.

Not so long ago, General Conference approved a major piece of overhaul legislation. “Plan UMC,” as it was called, was celebrated wildly on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. “Finally,” thought many Methodist leaders, “General Conference has broken its pattern of gridlock.” Plan UMC was a bold blueprint for renovating the structures of the general church. The next day, the Daily Christian Advocate headline read, “Delegates approve a new structure.” One delegate from Susquehanna Annual Conference was quoted prominently: “The time is now. The world is waiting to see what we are going to do.” The article was accompanied by a confident picture of Bishop Janice Riggle Huie presiding over the previous day’s session.

Bishops, general agency executives, and delegates from across the connection immediately busied themselves. The full ramifications of the new restructuring plan were still being discovered. Power brokers filled the hallways and conference rooms. Who would occupy the seats of influence on the newly created “General Council for Strategy and Oversight”? General agency staff (I among them) scurried to learn what was left of program offices and mandates. Meanwhile, in other meeting rooms, the legality of the plan was under intense scrutiny (by me and others).

The bottom fell out of this botched renovation job within 48 hours. In a decision announced in the afternoon of Friday, May 4, Judicial Council ruled the entire plan unconstitutional.

We have reviewed the plan to determine whether any part, portion, or all of Plan UMC can be saved and conclude that it cannot. The broad delegation of legislative authority and the commingling of the role of oversight so inextricably permeate the Plan as to render it constitutionally unsalvageable.

UM Judicial Council Decision 1210
General Conference’s attempt to innovate outside of normal legislative processes backfired. Backroom dealing and high stakes compromises had resulted in fundamentally flawed legislation. In an aside, Judicial Council noted that “the adoption of Plan UMC by the General Conference came through a tortured course, and outside of the established legislative processes.”

There was a clear precedent for ruling Plan UMC unconstitutional. In a sad situational irony, the crux of the Council’s ruling echoed a very similar judicial decision rendered forty years earlier (Decision 364). Why did this flawed renovation plan captivate and entrance so many church leaders? And why were so many General Conference delegates so unfamiliar with denominational polity that they failed to notice this legislation’s inherent incompatibility with the UMC’s constitution? Perhaps the delegates’ desperation for renovation was fueled by a mounting sense that the denomination was veering out of anyone’s control.

General Conference 2016 picked up where the previous legislative session had left off: amid chaos and division. Within days, the plenary ground to a halt on the issue of human sexuality. An immediate meltdown was narrowly avoided through an appeal to the Council of Bishops to establish a study commission and to call a special session of General Conference.

From an institutional renovation standpoint, however, this was not the only item of business referred. General Conference referred no less than nine major legislative initiatives to various commissions and other entities.
Issue (petition no.)Referred to:Working Entity
Human sexuality (“A Way Forward”)Council of Bishopsnew “Commission on the Way Forward”
Ministry for the worldwide Church (60509)General Board of Higher Education and Ministrynew “2017-2020 Study of Ministry Commission”
Revision of Our Theological Task (60676)Committee on Faith and OrderCommittee on Faith and Order
World-wide Social Principles (60062)General Board of Church and SocietyGeneral Board of Church and Society
General Book of Discipline (60276, 60277)Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, in collaboration with othersCommittee on Faith and Order, Study of Ministry Commission, and Connectional Table
General Church Council (60815)Connectional Table and Council of Bishopsnew “Missional Collaboration Group”
Restructuring General Agencies (former “Plan UMC Revised,” 60945-47, 60950)Connectional Table, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, General Council on Finance and Admin.Connectional Table, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, General Council on Finance and Admin.
U.S. bishops (60932)Council of Bishops, in consultation with Inter-Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacynew “Jurisdictional Study Committee”
Study of Ecclesiology Document – Wonder, Love, and Praise (60033)Entire denomination, as well as ecumenical partnersCommittee on Faith and Order
Nine Referrals by UM General Conference 2016
These items were referred to seven existing and four newly created entities of the UMC for the 2017–2020 quadrennium. New commissions included the Commission on the Way Forward, a Jurisdictional Study Committee, Missional Collaboration Group, and Study of Ministry Commission. The creation and work of the new commissions were overseen variously by the Council of Bishops, Connectional Table, and General Board of Higher Education and Ministry—the Inter-Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy was also a consultative partner. The other five referred items were the responsibility of the following additional entities: Committee on Faith and Order, Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, General Council on Finance and Administration, and the General Board of Church and Society.

Thus, the UMC already has plenty of commissions to test Scott’s theory that “a series of commissions” will help the UMC “to work on denominational revamping.” Will these commissions succeed in renovating United Methodist denominational structures?

Renovation or Renewal? General Conference offered little guidance as to how the diverse work of these eleven different commissions, councils, boards, and committees would be coordinated. What is the likelihood that these pieces of legislation will be developed in concert? The debacle of reports and results from the Commission on a Way Forward at the special session of General Conference in 2019 has shaken my confidence in “a series of commissions”—or even one commission—as a viable means of renovating this denomination.

For a church desiring unity, the work of revisioning and restructure requires a comprehensive plan. The Plan of Union prepared for the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968 was years in the making, involving much more than hurried power plays scribbled in the hallways during a contentious legislative assembly. Supermajorities of delegates from both churches approved a new constitution guaranteeing rights and responsibilities. It was not a perfect structure, but it lasted for more than a generation. Scott is right in asserting that United Methodism has outlived the usefulness of that structure. But where do we go from here? Renovation or renewal?

As a church, we should repent of our previous commissions and omissions, seeking not renovation but renewal. Perhaps this denominational edifice, this structure-become-stricture, needs to be left behind in order to grow into the church God would have us become.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Sung Il Lee: The Missiology of the "Middle Wesley"

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Sung Il Lee. Rev. Dr. Lee is a missionary of Global Ministries and Missionary Practitioner in Residence at Candler School of Theology.

Extending W. Harrison Daniel’s concept analysis of the mission theory of the “young Wesley” (pre-1938) (Daniel 2000), I would like to examine the missiology of the “Middle Wesley” (1738-1765).

After he returned to England, Wesley had a warm experience at Aldersgate on 24 May, 1738. This experience helped to intensify and organize the middle Wesley’s Methodist movement. In this period, Wesley’s mission was consistently evangelical. I argue we must think of Wesley’s understanding of mission in the living context of his vital renewal movement.

I would like to see Wesley first as a proclaimer. As a proclaimer, Wesley considered “preaching the principal means by which converts are gathered into Christian fellowship and nurtured in faith and holy living” (Carder 1994, 82) and was convinced that “God had raised up the Methodists as means of reforming the nation and the church” (Carder, 81).

Wesley’s understanding of preaching was very missiological. He viewed preaching as “serving two basic purposes: to convert and to nurture” (Carder, 82). Wesley believed it was “God’s will that all should be saved, redeemed, and shaped by God’s grace revealed and mediated in Christ” (Carder, 82). Yet, his field preaching was “not a ‘hit and run’ operation; instead, it was re-enforced by the societies and class meeting in which converts were taught the faith, nurtured, admonished, and held accountable” (Carder, 83-84).

Wesley’s evangelical preaching and his organizing skills resulted in a group of the people called Methodists. Wesley was convinced that this people was called to do extraordinary rather than ordinary ministry. He pondered the meaning of Methodism as “spiritual churches within the Anglican Church” (Snyder 1996, 128) and as “little churches within the ecclesia” (Snyder, 128). Most importantly, Wesley viewed Methodism as a dynamic movement and “noted with great interest the depth and intimacy of community that developed in the Methodist societies, classes, and bands” (Snyder, 127).

As a renewal movement within the church, the Methodist movement has great missiological implications. “Wesley regarded Methodism as a movement of authentic Christianity within the larger church, which was largely decadent” (Snyder 1996, 128). Snyder continues, “The Methodists did not want to be a separate sect living only for themselves. They existed for the health and renewal of the whole body” (Snyder, 128) .

Through this renewal movement, Wesley wanted to “‘renew the church’, ‘spread scriptural holiness’, and ‘reform the nation.’” (Hunter 1986, 24). Hunter argues that Wesley’s “more apostolic goals are not as widely recognized” (24). According to him, Wesley “sought no less than the recovery of the truth, life, and power of earliest Christianity , and the expansion of that kind of Christianity. He single-mindedly managed the movement for fifty years primarily by that objective” (24) and “communicated this objective to the growing ranks of Methodists” (24). To Wesley, mission meant spreading scriptural Christianity throughout the lands and nations.

Wesley saw “the call to parish ministry and the call to mission as one” (Daniel 2000, 452) not “separated” (453). He observed painfully how the presence of “nominal Christians without experience of the new birth” in Savannah (455) hampered Indian and Black missions. Just as he needed mission before being born again, Wesley accepted the call to parish ministry (home mission) and the call to mission field (foreign mission) as an “indivisible unity” (453).

The Savannah mission experience made Wesley maintained a synthetic view that regarded the parish (home mission) and mission field (foreign or cross-cultural mission) alike as both mission field and parish (Daniel, 455). Wesley argued, “Suffer me now to tell you my principle in this matter. I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to.” (Letter, possibly to John Clayton, generally dated from March of 1739 in Baker, Letters, 1:616).

Though Wesley was a “home” missionary, he saw foreign mission as a “natural extension of the apostolic and extraordinary ministry by which the unchristian of his own nation were to be reached.” (Campbell 1992, 56). Campbell argues that “this ‘home’ work, in Wesley’s sense, was inseparably linked to the broader prospect of global evangelization. Wesley did, in fact, engage in evangelization beyond his ‘own nation’ (using this term in a strict sense) in the Evangelical Revival” (Campbell, 57).

Nonetheless, Campbell criticized Wesley as too captivated by the “sense of the Christian message as radiating out from a central core (i.e., where the Revival was occurring) ” (Campbell, 60) to encourage “the thought of mission (such as the proposed mission to Africa) in places that were not contiguous with the Revival” (Ibid.). Campbell shows Wesley’s cautious approach to foreign missionary work, stemming in part from his refusal to start missionary ventures without a sense of providential opening.

In the expansion of the scriptural Christianity, Wesley’s strategic approach to the task in England was the same as Paul had in the Roman Empire. Paul worked with Pauline mission teams to spread the gospel through a network of people undergirded by the prayers and financial support of house churches. In Paul’s strategy, he selected the great cities of the Roman Empire with several characteristics in common: Roman administration, centers of Greek civilization, Jewish influence, and trade and commerce. From these centers he sent his younger helpers to radiate out to the smaller cities of the region.  (Sung Il Lee, 2 )

Wesley, who aspired to restore scriptural Christianity, learned Paul’s missionary methods and developed them in his contexts  . Wesley tried every means available such as Methodist societies, bands, class meetings, itinerary preachers, lay preachers, etc. to bring “a consistent version of contiguous proclamation, that is, revival beginning in one place and spreading from thence to contiguous areas until the world was saturated. It was the model suggested, in general, by the Acts of the Apostles” (Campbell, 60). Campbell illustrates that “Wesley’s understanding of the mission of the Church laid the heaviest burden on his own people. For there to be a ‘core’ from which evangelism could radiate, it was necessary that his own people should be truly converted, and should display the fruits of Christian faith which, he believed, would be the strongest testimony to the world on behalf of the faith” (Campbell 1992, 60).

In relation to spreading scriptural Christianity, Wesley’s mission was guided by his radical recognition that “his own people, their society and their culture, were not themselves Christian, and thus stood as much in need of the Gospel as any foreign people” (Campbell 1992, 54). Campbell argues that Wesley’s mission was contingent upon bringing others to real Christianity, beginning “in the nominally Christian lands of Western Europe, followed by the conversion of Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and finally the rest of the world” (Campbell, 56).

In other words, his basic recognition of the unchristian character of his own world directed the goal of the Methodist movement and shaped Wesley’s evangelistic outreach. The middle Wesley expanded his missionary experience in Georgia and established himself as a missional reformer by transforming nominal Christians and their churches in England into a missionary constitution that opened the Great Century of Protestant missions, which began with William Carey only two years after John Wesley died (Campbell, 61).

In brief, Wesley believed that “proclaiming the gospel of grace … faces no less formidable obstacles that were confronted by Paul in the first century” (Carder, 93). “To fulfill the Great Commission in our generation, in order to proclaim Christ to the modern pagans who surround us, we must ask the kinds of questions that vexed John Wesley  between 1736 to 1739: ‘What kind of Christianity do we now have to offer the world?’” (Campbell 1992, 62). Do we really want people of foreign lands to become something like modern-day North American or Korean Methodists? “Can there be any authentic global evangelization today that does not proceed from a recognition of the failures of our society and culture to follow Christ, and that does not begin with the evangelization of our own people?” (Campbell, 62).

Works Cited:
Campbell, Ted A. 1992. “John Wesley on the Mission of the Church.” In The Mission of the Church in Methodist Perspective: The World is My Parish. Ed. by Alan G. Padgett. 45-62. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.
Carder, Kenneth L. 1994. “Proclaiming the Gospel of Grace.” In Theology and Evangelism in the Wesleyan Heritage. Ed. by James C. Logan. 81-94. Nashville, TN: Kingswood.
Daniel, W. Harrison. 2000. “The Young Wesley as Cross-Cultural Witness: Investigations into Wesley’s American Mission Experience And Implications for Today’s Mission.” Missiology 28(4): 443-457.
Hunter, George. 1986. “John Wesley: A Church Growth Strategist.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 21(1-2) Spring-Fall: 24-33.
Snyder, Howard A. 1996. The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.