Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Frank de Nully Brown: The Methodist Church: Institution for Mission or Mission for Institution?

Today's post is by retired Bishop Frank de Nully Brown. Bishop de Nully Brown is a retired bishop of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina. It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) as part of a series organized by the Centro Metodista de Estudios Wesleyanos (CMEW). It appears here in translation with the author's permission and with the assistance of CMEW.

The Methodist Church began as a movement based on an incipient network of local societies with the mission of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ for all, with a spiritual and social commitment that challenged the personal transformation and the social reality of its time.

From its origins, the interpersonal connection and the connection with the social environment was something fundamental in the entire Methodist movement. That connection involved mutual support and growth in ministry. This connection was, through time, the foundation that constituted one of the largest and most well-organized denominations in its wide and diverse connections. This organization and structure were understood as a support that allowed the mission to expand throughout the world.

The Methodist churches in our Latin American continent are heirs to the mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which later became part of the current United Methodist Church.

The autonomy processes did not mean disconnection from the Methodist family, but a greater commitment at the local level. It occurred at the end of the '60s and beginning of the '70s and affirmed this missionary change in Latin American Methodism. For this reason, it generated the organization CIEMAL (Council of Evangelical Methodist Churches of Latin America and the Caribbean) as a space for connection and meaning for our evangelical mission.

Autonomy wanted to affirm our commitment to live and proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom of God in a different cultural and social context, in which we were challenged to give a Christian witness.

Autonomy confronted us with a reality where self-support was presented as a difficult path to follow, taking into account the very ambivalent socioeconomic trajectory in our Latin American countries.

We inherited an organizational structure with its virtues and defects. The organizational aspect always had an important weight for our churches because it had to do with our new way of being a connectional church.

The institutional presence was made concrete in the construction of churches and other buildings in the big cities and in places that were considered strategic, and many times autonomy showed that they could not be sustained or that mission with the people passed through other spaces that were not church buildings but were a symbol of a recognized and established church.

I share the goals of the organization of CIEMAL, written in its regulations, that reflect the dreams of being autonomous churches.

  1. Participate in the Mission of God, giving a testimony of solidarity in preaching, education, and service through the member churches to the Latin American and Caribbean peoples, giving priority to the poor and excluded.
  2. Stimulate the process of maintaining and perfecting the unity of the Church.
  3. Maintain and proclaim Methodist connectionality among its members, cultivating brotherhood and mutual support.
  4. Develop cooperative relationships with world Methodism and the ecumenical movement.
  5. Stimulate and promote awareness and practice of biblical theology in the Latin American and Caribbean context.
  6. Ensure a permanent analysis and evaluation of the political, economic, and religious reality of each country and of each member church at a continental level.
  7. Develop different programs through studies, consultations, seminars, offices, and other means that favor the fulfillment of mission.

Autonomy had its costs for each national church because it meant taking charge of a structure that showed difficulties in being sustained not only financially but also in leadership for the ministry.

So, the churches went along doing what they could, sometimes with great successes and mistakes too. On more than one occasion, autonomy was not seen as an achievement, especially when resources and gifts were limited. Sometimes, even on many occasions, the organization weighed down a congregation when it was associated with a building with a determined structure.

All this led to the dilemma of thinking about the mission of the extended parish, which is always an invitation to look at the surrounding community, our neighborhood, or to support an organization in a pre-determined way: it was difficult to recover the sense of a spiritual and social movement.

Today, there are debates about possible fractures in United Methodism, from which we recognize our origins, fractures that not only affect the church in the United States but throughout the world through the mode of our relations. These fractures are related to differing visions of our pastoral action based on certain biblical and theological interpretations.

Being an autonomous church allows us an exercise in being different and creative, making our own missional decision, building new and old networks of support and growth. We need to reconvert ourselves based on our mission and not just to make our institutional life last a while longer.

I believe that autonomy, throughout our Methodist history in our continent, has a positive balance that we have to refresh in these times of searching for paths of unity, not only with the Methodist family but with the body of Christ as a broader and more ecumenical concept.

It is a constant challenge to recover a concept of community and connectional evangelism in the society in which we have to bear witness. A community evangelism that generates congregations of faith in solidarity that seek the Kingdom of God and its justice, remembering that what is connectional is not to isolate ourselves but to connect ourselves. From there comes an ecumenical attitude in the search for justice and peace for all. We must not recognize ecumenism only as something celebratory and eventually linked to institutional hierarchy, but to adapt the essence of ecumenism, which is to weave networks for transformative mission in the world.

We need to remember that the church is only one instrument for God's mission. It can never be a burden but a tool that facilitates and speeds up the mission of God in the world.

I share some lines to rethink the life of our local congregations, recalling two concepts that appear in the previous writings about the need to rethink the mission from the margins of society and a gospel embodied in reality as Jesus did.

  • Be loving, supportive, inclusive and healing congregations.
  • Be congregations that make new disciples.
  • Be congregations open to the changes and movements that occur in the extended parish where we are inserted.
  • Be prophetic congregations, which join with other social spaces in the search for a more just and egalitarian society.

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