Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Worldwide Methodism amid Waning Globalization

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 my first book, Mission as Globalization, I argued that the spread of Methodism around the world in the late 19th and early 20th century was bolstered by a wave of globalization and itself a form of globalization as well. Drawing on a case study of Methodism in Southeast Asia, I argued that thinking of the historical environment for Methodist expansion as one of globalization (and not just colonialism, though that was a significant part of the pre-WWI wave of globalization) helped highlight the way in which various technological, financial, social, and cultural elements supported the spread of Methodism.

The late 19th/early 20th century wave of globalization saw major technological and financial developments that allowed for humans to send money, goods, and information around the world much more quickly than previously. These developments included the steamship, telegraph lines, and various financial instruments that facilitate the international transfer of money. Quicker and cheaper transportation also made travel and migration around the world much easier for people.

While the technological, financial, and social elements of globalization are important, the cultural is as well. I argued that Methodism "served as a vehicle for a set of cultural attitudes that emphasized autonomy, self-determination, social and economic ambition, discipline, and moral control" (p. 54), values that appealed to people around the world seeking to fashion new identities in the emerging "modern" world. Methodism appealed to people who believed (or wanted to believe) that by their actions they could do good for others and do well for themselves at the same time. Such views correlated well with education, democracy, and moral reform, values that Methodists championed not just in Southeast Asia but around the world.

This early era of globalization ended with World War I, which also marked the apogee of the spread of Methodism in the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South traditions. By the 1920s, both globalization and American-based Methodism were in retreat.

Although this goes beyond the scope of my book, I think a similar lens can be used to interpret the last 30-60 years of worldwide Methodism. The world has seen an increasing trend towards globalization since WWII, with an special uptick since the early 1990s and the fall of Communism. This era of increased globalization has correlated with the resumption of mission in new countries by the United Methodist Church (starting in post-Soviet Baltic nations and Russia) and the continued spread to additional countries by other Methodist traditions. In the case of the AME Church and others, increased migration, a key feature of the most recent wave of globalization, has been an important factor in the spread of the church.

But it is not only increased migration that has driven the spread of Methodism in the past 30 years. New forms of travel (cheap airfare) and communication (via the Internet) and additional integration of the world's financial systems has again made it easier in a variety of ways for American-derived Methodism to spread internationally. Africa in particular became much better integrated into the world system in the late 20th century, correlating with Methodism's expansion in that continent.

The same patterns of increased globalization and spreading Methodism that were active at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were thus again active at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st.

This is a very broad argument, and it needs to be nuanced and clarified as it applies to various specific contexts in different countries, regions, and decades. But I do believe that, in general, Methodism does well in contexts that are characterized by a strong civil society and democracy in which personal effort and moral behavior are generally rewarded. I further believe that a sort of internationalism is generally good for Christian mission of all forms. While there have certainly been ugly and exploitative sides to both waves of globalization, those eras have also been characterized by internationalism and have created, at least for some people, the sorts of contexts in which Methodism has thrived.

If this thesis is generally true, though, it should perhaps give us some pause about our current world historical moment. Globalization as such has not collapsed in the same way it did following World War I. But cooling indicators of globalization, rising nationalism and authoritarianism, and the impacts of the pandemic all raise questions about the future of the world system in which various forms of Methodism have thrived in the past several decades.

Globalization has at least become less popular to talk about since 2006, according to Google's Ngram Viewer, while nationalism has continued to increase in popularity. Global foreign direct investment, a frequently-used indicator of globalization has dropped since then as well. Following steep growth in the 80s and 90s, worldwide exports have leveled off since 2011. The number and percentage of migrants has continued to increase, however, though data from the most recent years is not available.

Culturally, there has been a well-noted trend towards nationalism and authoritarianism around the world since at least the middle of the 2010s. This trend has been documented in countries as diverse as Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, and the United States. Authoritarianism, which is often paired with nationalism, tends to undercut the sorts of democratic, education-affirming, strong civil society context in which Methodism does well and tends to reward those with connections to the ruling junta, rather than rewarding those showing initiative and effort.

The pandemic has, of course, prevented a lot of travel and trade, which has put at least temporary brakes on some forms of globalization. It remains to be seen how long-lasting those effects are, though, and the pandemic has also led to new forms of global connection via widespread teleconferencing.

Therefore, the indicators do not clearly point to declining globalization, though they do seem to point to rising nationalism. The future is not given. That nationalism may begin to eat into various measurements of globalization. Or the pandemic recovery may unleash a new wave of economic globalization, or collaboration in support of Ukraine may promote a new wave of international cooperation and promotion of democracy. We cannot yet say.

There are also episodes within the history of Methodism around the world in which increasing nationalism led to different forms of Methodist flourishing. The wave of political and church autonomy that swept Asia, Latin America, and Africa in the 1960s and 70s led to new growth in autonomous, indigenous-led branches of Methodism. Thus, Methodism is far from doomed, even if globalization does end up in retreat and nationalism continues to rise.

But for those with a cosmopolitan understanding of Methodism, one that values the worldwide nature of the connection, one that believes in a gospel that affirms the worth of all regardless of background and believes in a religion of respectability wherein God wants us to do good and do well, one that values Methodist engagement in the public sphere, the present historical moment feels, if not foreboding, at least precarious.

Methodism has achieved much as a worldwide tradition over the past 30 years. Whether it can continue and even expand on the successes of the last generation remains to be seen.

No comments:

Post a Comment