Monday, October 31, 2022

UM & Global Collection on Theological Education

A new UM & Global collection is now available. This collection examines theological education, including its intersection with mission and Methodism, access to theological education, and the ways in which it is changing in various contexts around the world.

The collection includes eleven posts by Ann Hidalgo, Genilma Boehler, Benjamin L. Hartley, Andrew Harper, David N. Field, Robert A. Hunt, Dana L. Robert, and David W. Scott. As with other collections, there is a set of discussion questions at the end of the volume, intended to help church members, students, and others reflect on how theological educators can help prepare their students and the church as a whole to effectively join in God's mission to the world.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Recommended Viewing: Fresh Expressions Webinars

Discipleship Ministries is sponsoring a year-long series of monthly webinars on Fresh Expressions, the movement to start new forms of church in new places for new people. According to the description, "Fresh Expressions UM is a distinctly Wesleyan Spirit-led movement of new Christian communities that serve the present age. We are seeking to cultivate inclusive, accessible, transformative, and connectional communities of love and grace for people currently neglected by the church."

The announcement notes, "The structure of the symposium is a series of free live-streamed events using Zoom. Each speaker will consider a core theological distinction that needs to be reappropriated to “serve the present age,” and then respond live to your questions. The recordings from these conversations will be made available with a study guide for your teams to work through together."

The webinars will occur the first Thursday of each month. The first webinar will be Nov. 3, featuring Michael Beck talking about "The new 'field preaching': Intercultural hermeneutics and dialogical preaching" and Brian Russell talking about "Idolatherapy: Reading Scripture for Deep Formation in the Love of God, Neighbor, and Self." Registration for the entire series can be found here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Regionalization and Connectionalism: The Colonial Mission Era

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the second in a five-part series based on a presentation by Dr. Scott to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. 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 this and the next two posts, I want to lay out how questions of local relevance and trans-local connection and of connection and power within the church have played out for Methodists in three separate historical eras: the colonial mission era, the era of political independence and church autonomy, and the era of globalization and world Christianity.

The first era is the colonial mission era. This is the age, lasting from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, during which Methodism spread from North America to other places in the world, usually following the lines of secular colonial and commercial expansion.

European colonization of other parts of the globe stretches back to the late 15th century, but the period from the middle of the 19th century through the World Wars is often referred to as the period of “high” colonialism, the era in which Western colonialism achieved its furthest geographic spread and greatest degree of political and economic control over other lands.

Emblematic of this period of high colonialism was the “scramble for Africa,” the competition among European countries to control portions of the African continent, leading to the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, at which Europeans, without African input, agreed among themselves on how to partition Africa.

Of course, colonialism existed in Asia and Latin America as well, and indeed, European colonialism developed in these contexts earlier than it did in central Africa. And we must remember, too, that the United States entered the act of holding foreign colonies in 1898 with its victory in the Spanish-American War.

Along with the extension of European (and American) political control over other areas went the extension of Western economic networks. Often, political control and economic exploitation were deeply intertwined. This phenomenon of economic expansion was one in which the United States participated vigorously after its Civil War, especially in Latin America. As part of both colonialism and commercialism went the extension of various new technologies of transportation and communication: trains, steamships, telegraphs, and even postcards.

This was the context in which American Methodist missions began to spread, first to returned former slaves in West Africa, next to American businessmen in Latin America, then to immigrant homelands in Europe, and then to populous nations in Asia, and so on.

By 1919, when American Methodists from the North and the South celebrated the centenary of their mission agencies, Methodist churches had hundreds of missionaries and tens of thousands of converts in dozens of nations across five continents. Mission work included not only evangelism, but also education, healthcare, literacy, agriculture, and the promotion of democracy and Western culture. This wave of founding new branches of Methodism in new countries crested in the mid-1920s, when financial problems with mission fundraising and budgeting forced consolidation and retrenchment of mission efforts.

These missionaries organized their converts into new branches of their denominational structures, especially in the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South. As mission historian Wade Crawford Barclay wrote, “There is no record of the Missionary Society having given instructions to their missionaries to transfer to their respective fields the exact pattern of church organization existing at home. It was assumed by all, without question, that this would be done.” That is, missionaries, mission executives, and bishops all assumed that connections across geography must include structural connections.

Nevertheless, founding new branches of the church in new geographic and cultural locations did raise questions about the process of trying to establish “the exact pattern of church organization existing at home.” How exactly should these new branches of the church relate to existing branches? What should be done if local conditions made some elements of the home pattern of church organization impractical, or even impossible? How could the church maintain connection—and often, control—over long distances that made travel and communication slow?

The answers that the church developed, slowly, through experimentation, and often outside the boundaries of existing polity, reflected the means of connection and local relevance that characterized the early church. Missionaries were a form of itinerants and the most important link in holding the various branches of the church together. They were not the only such link—migrants, traveling preachers, and even tourists also made connections across geographic regions of the church.

Nevertheless, missionaries were the most important such link, both in their own travel to the mission field and home for furloughs, and in their voluminous amount of writing. They wrote letters, newspaper articles, magazine articles, books, pamphlets, even calendars, and this volume of writing served to communicate about the home field to those they encountered around the world and to communicate about mission, including the lives and customs of people on the mission field, back to their friends, family, and supporters at home.

Often inspired by visits and letters from missionaries, church members in the United States (and Europe) in turn sent money to the mission field, both through denominational mission structures and directly through personal relationships with missionaries. This generosity underwrote the development of the church around the world, though it also often established long-standing traditions of dependence. Some mission leaders such as William Taylor attempted to cultivate self-support on the mission field, opting for local relevance instead of international financial connection.

As the church outside the United States grew, the structures of the church grew there as well, including both conferences and bishops. Annual conferences outside the United States were formed quite early, already in the 1830s, though initially in an adapted form as “missionary annual conferences.” Central conferences were added later in the 1880s, originally on the local initiative of missionaries in India, though eventually adopted into the regular practice and polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and carried over to successor denominations, including the UMC. Jurisdictions in The Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church were modeled in part on central conferences.

Questions about episcopal supervision and the availability of ordination also arose from the church outside the United States, first in Liberia and then elsewhere. This led to a variety of polity experiments in providing episcopal supervision, including travel by general superintendent bishops from the United States, missionary bishops limited to areas outside the United States, and general superintendent bishops appointed to live outside the United States. None of these arrangements were fully satisfactory to both areas of the church outside the United States and to decision-making centers of the church in the United States.

Several branches of the church outside the United States, starting with Japan in 1907 and continuing through Korea, Mexico, and Brazil in 1930, became autonomous churches, structurally separate from their parent denominational bodies, though still connected through missionaries, writings, and money. The desire to unite separate branches of Methodism, local political considerations, and, in the case of Brazil, disputes over episcopal supervision motivated these moves to autonomy. These developments, however, did not initiate a new wave of rethinking the relationship between autonomy and connection. Instead, with the 1939 merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Methodist Protestant Church, the international polity of the new Methodist Church took on a settled character.

In the attempt to ensure both local relevance and trans-local connection, the Methodist churches of this era tended to emphasize trans-local connection over local relevance. Moreover, this was usually connection as a form of control by those in the United States, who in this era exercised dominance over other branches of the church, especially those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Methodists in the United States set the standards, and others were occasionally allowed to adapt those standards to a greater or lesser degree. But Methodists in the United States were slow to recognize the need to adapt the practices of the church to ensure local relevance outside the United States.

When adaptation did happen, it usually did so through American missionaries taking initiative outside the regular system of polity, and even American missionaries were often suspicious of local control by native leaders. American Methodists in this era spread the gospel to others around the world, but the relationships and structures they created to do so stressed connection as control instead of connection as an aid to local relevance.

The next post will look at the era of political independence and church autonomy.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Henk Pieterse: The Necessity of Intercultural Theology

Today's post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and Intercultural Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In September, I was privileged to be able to launch a two-year transcontinental initiative in intercultural theology, supported by a grant from the In Trust Center for Theological Schools and a matching grant by my institution, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

The focus of the project is to encourage and facilitate deep-running theological exchange between North American scholars in the Wesleyan/Methodist traditions and their sub-Saharan African counterparts. Key outcomes of the project are the strengthening of intercultural Wesleyan/Methodist communities of theological inquiry, the generation of fresh scholarship, and the production of innovative scholarly resources—all in the service of a global Wesleyan/Methodist movement whose diverse witness today demands the theological contribution of all.

In approaching this work, I am guided by two convictions:

(1) The future of theology in the Wesleyan/Methodist traditions is intercultural. As with theology generally today, Wesleyan/Methodist theology finds itself in an unprecedented moment. Theological production in the Wesleyan/Methodist traditions is more widely distributed and culturally diverse than ever before, with unrivaled capacity for dialogue, mutual learning, and collaboration.

(2) Theological isolationism perpetuates theological ethnocentrism. A polycentric Wesleyan/Methodist witness calls for a polycentric approach to theology.

Such a polycentric approach to doing Wesleyan/Methodist theology finds a promising model in intercultural theology. With deep roots in missiology and world Christianity studies, intercultural theology attends closely to the hermeneutics of cross-cultural communication and the dynamics of culture, context, and power in theological dialogue across boundaries. In short, it offers a ready model for theological exchange in a Wesleyan/Methodist theological community that now spans the globe. There simply is no reason for not doing our theology “connectionally,” through a global “web of interactive [theological] relationships,” to adapt the language of the Book of Discipline.

This is of particular note for North American Wesleyan/Methodist theology, which thus far has tended to be rather insular. I believe the time has arrived when engaging Wesleyan/Methodist scholarship in Africa and elsewhere merely out of courtesy or curiosity—as an option and not an obligation—is no longer adequate.

Why should this be so? To begin, the fact is that the crisscrossing forces of globalization, denominational ties, personal relationships, professional partnerships, and, yes, theological networks have given us all a stake in one another’s lives.

Further, and in a more theological vein, if theological isolationism breeds theological ethnocentrism, then the notion of a self-sufficient theological tradition is never far behind. By “self-sufficient” I mean a tradition that views itself as having within itself all that is required to pursue the theological task in today’s world. Others elsewhere are welcome to join in, the reasoning goes, but our theological work does not depend on their contribution. I fear this has all too often been the tacit disposition of North Atlantic Wesleyan/Methodist theology.

Intercultural theologians demur. They reject the idea of a self-sufficient tradition. All theological traditions are contextual and thus partial, fragmentary, and incomplete. This means we all need one another’s insight and contribution and, when necessary, one another’s correction in adequately interpreting our shared faith. Indeed, there are theological insights into the meaning and relevance of the Wesleyan/Methodist message that one can gain only through conversation with a colleague from another cultural context. For just this reason, intercultural theologians insist, all theology should be intercultural theology, with dialogue (or, as I prefer, polylogue) as its primary modality.

There is something very Wesleyan about seeing things this way. After all, at the heart of our connectionalism lies the idea of a worldwide community held together by relationships of radical interdependence, mutual learning, and mutual accountability. Should these commitments not characterize our global community of Wesleyan/Methodist theological inquiry as well?

The fact is no one of us today can render a theological account adequate to the depth, scope, and reach of the Wesleyan/Methodist heritage by relying on only one contextual expression of it, no matter how prominent. We truly need the counsel, collaboration, and correction of a worldwide theological collegium to do our theology responsibly. Think how much richer and fuller—and dare I say, more plausible and more persuasive—our theological labor would be wherever we are!

As an intercultural theologian, I submit that all Wesleyan/Methodist theology today should be intercultural theology. And the mode in which we pursue such theology should be dialogue—or, to use our own parlance, “conferencing.” It is in the spirit of these convictions, and with great humility, that I enter the project noted at the outset.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Recommended Reading: Slovakia Decides to Leave UMC, Join GMC

The Slovakia District of the Czechia and Slovakia Annual Conference decided on Oct. 15th to leave The United Methodist Church and join the Global Methodist Church, according to an announcement from Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, the presiding bishop for the Czechia and Slovakia Annual Conference. Like the decision by the Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference, the decision was taken without reference to provisions by the Book of Discipline for the separation of branches of the church outside the United States.

While Bishop Streiff announced the decision "with great sadness," the decision is not unexpected. Slovak Methodists were among leaders of the Eastern Europe Wesleyan Covenant Association, along with those from Bulgaria and Romania. As Streiff noted, Slovak leaders had declined to participate in a roundtable process about the future of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference. And at the Czechia and Slovakia Annual Conference meeting in May, the possibility of separation was openly acknowledged.

The Czechia portion of the now former Czechia and Slovakia Annual Conference intends to remain in The United Methodist Church.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Regionalization and Connectionalism: The Early Church

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the first in a five-part series based on a presentation by Dr. Scott to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Book of Discipline introduces the Standing Committee thus: “Section XVI. Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, ¶2201. General Provisions¬¬--1. The General Conference recognizes the differences in conditions that exist in various areas of the world and the changes taking place in those areas…” This introduction raises two questions: How should we understand “the differences in conditions that exist in various areas of the world”? And, how should we understand “the changes taking place in those areas”?

This series of posts will be talking about regionalization, or how the church responds to “the differences in conditions that exist in various areas of the world,” especially as this practice is shaped by “the changes taking place in those areas” – that is, current events within and beyond the church.

Questions about regionalization in today’s United Methodist Church connect to two related problems in church history that go back to the early years of Christianity: How should Christians uphold the local relevance of the church and the unity of the church (or, we might say, connections among local churches) amid cultural and regional diversity? And, how should Christians preserve connection among churches in a way that avoids control of the weaker by the more powerful?

Related to the question about local relevance and trans-local connection, Andrew Walls wrote about the “indigenizing principle,” that impulse in Christianity which pushes Christians to relate to their surroundings, and the “pilgrim principle,” that impulse in Christianity that reminds Christians that they are part of something broader than their local surroundings. For Walls, these two principles stood in dialectic tension with one other and have since the early days of the church.

Indeed, while we often think of the early church in idealized terms, it was a church with a great deal of cultural diversity, which mapped onto geography and theology. There were Jews from Judea and from the Jewish diaspora in Jerusalem at Pentecost, Jewish and Gentile believers in the time of Paul, Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking theologians among the so-called “Church Fathers,” and five major episcopal sees by the fifth century, each leading a branch of the church. Each of these geographic differences reflected varying cultural, linguistic, and theological traditions.

Amid this cultural, linguistic, and theological diversity, how did the church maintain its local relevance and its broader connection? First, it must be said that diversity helped ensure local relevance. Diversity meant that believers in different locations could not only worship God in their own languages but also bring their own cultural traditions to their practice of Christianity and use the resources of theology to speak to the issues around them.

At the same time, there were various means of unity that connected these local or regional expressions of unity with one another. I will mention five, and I will return to these five means of connection throughout my posts.

The first means of connection is itinerants, those who travel. Obviously, Paul and other early missionaries did much to knit the very early church together. Later, itinerant teachers and eventually monks would take up similar tasks of traveling from one region to others to build up the church. Migrants, either temporary or permanent, also created linkages among regions.

We know Paul not only from his travels but his letters, which point to another form of linkage: writings, whether these be letters or the exchange of theological essays. Writing allows people to be in conversation with one another, even when not face-to-face.

Money also connected Christians across cultural and geographic differences. Paul’s collection from among the Gentile churches for the poor of the Jewish church in Jerusalem is the most notable instance, but it gets at something important: money can be a form of connection and potentially a way of uniting different Christian groups.

As the church continued to develop, bishops became important symbols of the unity of the church, its connection across geography. Through their collegial recognition of one another, bishops recognized that their churches were not merely local institutions but part of a broader community of faith.
Eventually, the church began to call together bishops and theologians for church councils, first on local or regional bases, and eventually on a much broader basis starting with the council of Nicaea in the fourth century.

Interestingly, these means of connection could also be means of ensuring local relevance. Itinerants could help each church they visited speak directly to its setting, as Paul did at the Areopagus. Paul’s writings were writings to specific communities, intended to help those communities address specific issues in their lives of faith. Money was shared not only across churches, but at least occasionally among the rich and poor within local church communities. Bishops not only upheld the unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church throughout the world, but also worked to ensure the unity of the church within the local areas under their supervision by mediating a host of day-to-day conflicts. And while we think of the grand ecumenical councils, councils happened in local areas as well. Thus, means of upholding the connection of the church may also be means of upholding the local relevance of the church.

While these five means of connection and local relevance have recurred throughout church history, there is no one permanent or normative solution to the question of how to ensure both local relevance and trans-local connection. This is a question that each generation must answer for itself, a driving tension throughout church history.

The second question I raised—How should Christians preserve connection in a way that avoids control of the weaker by the stronger?—is deeply related to the first question about relevance and connection. Too often, connection has been achieved by the exercise of power. The more powerful dominate those with less power, forcing them into unity on their terms.

In this way, questions about relevance and connection are deeply tied to the secular settings of the church. We may think, of course, relevance is about relating the church to its secular setting. But we must be aware of how secular power also impacts the practices of unity in the church.

We see examples here in the early church as well. Cultural chauvinism drove the Judaizers to try to insist that Christian unity be achieved through the imposition of Jewish practices onto Gentile believers. Economic power in the church in Corinth turned the practice of Holy Communion, perhaps the deepest expression of the unity of the church, into an exercise of class distinction. And political empire under Constantine ensured that the edicts of the Council of Nicaea were promulgated not just as teachings but with the force of the state.

Thus, as we consider how relevance and unity are to be achieved together, we must pay attention to how cultural, economic, and political power—in the church and in the world—influence the development of the church itself.

One last framing comment is in order. Note that connection or unity can be understood in various ways. For most of the early church, the concern was with spiritual unity, that is, mutual recognition of one another as siblings in Christ and fellow members of Christ’s body, the church.

With the gradual development of the hierarchy of the church, alongside this concern for the spiritual unity of the church arose a concern for the structural unity of the church – that is, not only recognizing one another as fellow members of the body of Christ in a spiritual sense, but recognizing one another as belonging to the same church organization or structure.

In modern times, the rise of the concept of denomination as a means for understanding the nature of Protestant churches tends to put the emphasis of the question of unity on structural or organizational considerations, since denominations are themselves organizations. This has implications not only for the connection of the church, but for the relevance of the church as well, since structure brings with it questions of authority and decision-making, which have an impact on relevance.

But this structural side of questions of connection and relevance is only one side. When I discussed the means of connection and relevance, at least two of them—itinerants and writings—are largely relational and not structural. Money may be an expression of either structure or relationship. We must keep this relational dimension to the questions of relevance and connection in mind.

In the remaining posts in this series, I will look at how these dynamics played out in the history of Methodism and continue to play out in the church today.

Monday, October 17, 2022

UM & Global Collection on Mission and Food

A new UM & Global collection is now available. This collection examines the connections between mission and food: its production (through agriculture), its provision (in relief efforts), and its consumption (as a means of community-building and connection). The essays, reflecting contexts in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the United States examine various forms of food-related mission.

The collection includes ten posts by David W. Scott, Jack Amick, John Walter Ngoy, Caleb Kanyimb Mbaz, Nan McCurdy, Temba Nkomozepi, Maria Van Der Maaten, Jonathan McCurley, and Elliott Wright. As with other collections, there is a set of discussion questions at the end of the volume, intended to help church members, students, and others reflect on the ways in which the church should engage in food-related ministries.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Recommended Reading: Church Trauma Program Spreads Across Countries and Cultures

United Methodist News Service reported this week on the spread of a church-related program to help trauma survivors. The program has its roots in work carried out collaboratively by Congolese women and Harper Hill Global, a US-based non-profit led by Rev. Neelley Hicks. Hicks and Congolese women have been collaborating through the Mama Lynn Center to bring healing to Congolese women affected by rape.

From her awareness that work, Nigerian United Methodist leader Doris Adamu Jenis requested Hicks expand her work to Nigeria. Hicks collaborated with Joan Gillece, director of the Center for Innovation in Health Policy and Practice, to develop an online course that Jenis led in Nigeria and Uganda.

The program was so successful that Gillece asked Hicks to bring it to the United States. Hicks agreed, and developed several different versions of the curriculum, including a Native American one written by United Methodist clergy Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin “Morning Skyhawk” and the Rev. Michelle Oberwise Lacock “Morning Star Spirit.”

Thus, this curriculum spread from the Congo to Nigeria to Uganda to the United States and to Native communities within the United States. At every step of that way, women led the work.

This story is important because it shows a model of mission that spread from Africa to the United States and is not just about exporting "spiritual vitality" from Africa. There is a trope that reciprocal mission between the United States and Africa should involve Americans sharing financial resources and Africans sharing their spiritual resources. This example is significant because it points to other possibilities.

African leaders and African societies (and other leaders and societies around the world) are innovating missional approaches to problems including mental health, public health, climate change, poverty relief, and more. Missional efforts in the United States can and should look to countries around the world for best practices in mission and not just for spiritual vitality.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Political context and the meaning of church

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. This piece originally appeared as a commentary on the United Methodist News Service site and is republished here with permission. 

The United Methodist Church aspires to be a worldwide church. Yet both because of the current separation happening within the denomination and its changing international composition, it finds itself in a time of rethinking what it means to be a church, and a global church at that.

“Church” is one of the most foundational terms used by Christians, but the meaning of that word may not be as universally agreed upon as one might expect. First, church can be used for three different levels of Christian gathering: local congregations, denominations and the church universal. The United Methodist Church is a church in the second, denominational sense.

While the nuances of theological understandings vary, there is at least an intuitive common meaning of congregation and the church universal: a gathered Christian community and the body of all Christians, respectively.

Not so with the other category. While most Christians could point to a denomination, they might be harder pressed to give a definition, and those definitions might vary widely. There are historical reasons for this uncertainty. Congregations have been a feature of Christianity since its beginning; denominations have not.

One might think of a denomination broadly as a middle level of church that unites local congregations and is a part but not the whole of the church universal, but this still leaves a lot of room for divergent understandings of how a denomination should go about uniting congregations and how it should interact with other denominations and broader society.

Moreover, the exact meaning of denomination is heavily influenced by context and the political and cultural factors at play in each context. Political contexts and their effect on the religious landscape mean that The United Methodist Church’s identity as a denomination means different things in different branches of the church.

Not only are there are different understandings within the denomination of what it means to be a “church,” but these different understandings go along with different strategies for how to be a successful church. Here, the notion of religious marketplaces — how religious groups behave in their social and political contexts to grow and thrive — is helpful. Even if talking about religion as a marketplace is inadequate theologically, it highlights issues of fit between an organization (such as The United Methodist Church) and its environment.

Because of differing political and religious landscapes in the United States, Africa, Europe and the Philippines, United Methodists in those different regions have adopted different postures toward political leaders and the general populace, part of divergent strategies to help the church succeed in the sense of attracting members and avoiding outside interference.

The United States

The concept of denomination came into its own in the United States, fostered by the American principle of separation of church and state. In the United States, there is minimal government regulation of religion (most of what does happen is through tax laws), and religious identity is seen as a personal choice by Americans. That does not mean that Americans view faith as solely a private matter — there may be public and political implications of one’s faith — but ultimately, one’s choice of faith is minimally constrained by political or other public forces. The United States is thus close to a religious free market.

In the United States, The United Methodist Church (and its Methodist predecessor denominations) has functioned as a leading competitor in the denominational marketplace. American Methodism’s goal has always been to grow and appeal to the masses. Unlike other traditions (Mennonites, for example), Methodism was never content to be a niche player in the religious marketplace. At times, this has led to conflict or compromise (as in dropping early American Methodism’s opposition to slavery), but the goal has been consistent: to be a major denomination with an extensive membership.

Historically, American Methodism has been successful in achieving this goal. Methodism (across denominations) was the most popular variety of Protestantism in the United States at the end of the 19th century, and The United Methodist Church remains the second-largest Protestant denomination. It is the most nationally distributed of any major denomination, crossing all regions of the country.

The United Methodist Church in the United States has, of course, experienced a prolonged loss of members over the course of its lifetime. Yet part of what has made that experience so painful for U.S. members is because it represents the loss of a former dominant position in the American religious landscape.

There have been myriad proposals for how to reverse the membership decline in the United States, but they all have several features in common: They are focused on appealing directly to individual potential members, usually through the preaching and programming of the church. None of them address the denomination’s relationship with the government. While some of these reflect on the “brand” of United Methodism, very few of them talk about the role that the church plays in the public square. These strategies to retain and gain members are about appealing to individuals’ choices across broad swaths of the American public.


The United Methodist Church functions very differently in Europe. Most of Europe has a long tradition of state churches supported by the government. In some instances, state support has recently ended, but the legacy remains. In that context, The United Methodist Church has functioned as a “free church,” that is, one that people freely choose to join (rather than doing so because it is the government-set default). Indeed, in several countries, Methodism helped pioneer the idea of religious freedom.

But free churches are necessarily small. The state church, as a government monopoly of sorts, will always have the dominant position in society. In such a setting, Methodism has never aspired to win over the masses, as it has in the United States.

Instead, The United Methodist Church has sought to avoid the stigma of a being a “sect,” a label that would bring popular aversion and possibly government interference. The goal is survival and ideally modest growth, but not becoming a dominant player in the religious landscape, which is not possible.

To avoid the label of “sect,” United Methodism tends to emphasize its ecumenical relations and its contributions to the common good. Both these habits demonstrate that the church is willing to get along with and benefit others, rather than being closed-off like a sect.

But this approach of being a good citizen is a very different model of engaging the religious marketplace than American churches’ appeal to the interests of individuals as free consumers. It is a different set of strategies with a different end goal.


People might look at the lack of a state church in most African countries and conclude that they are free denominational marketplaces, as in the United States. Yet such a view misses two important points about how religion functions in most African contexts.

First and foremost, while religious identity in the United States is a personal matter, in most African contexts, it is a public matter. That is, one’s religious identity is not merely chosen independently as an individual but is instead connected to other elements of public and communal identity — family, tribe, political party, occupation, etc. In some instances, these communal aspects of identity determine denominational identity more so than personal choice.

Second, while freedom of religion does exist in almost all African countries, there still tends to be a heavily regulated religious marketplace. There are no state churches, but the government actively intervenes in religious affairs for a variety of reasons, sometimes personal to the leader but mostly related to the government’s understandings of good of the society, including preservation of social order. Because religious identity is public, the government has an interest in regulating it.

Thus, there are various instances of African governments interfering with religious organizations, including through permitting and legal cases. Churches also often seek to use state intervention, through government officials or the police, to resolve religious conflicts within their own body — something that an American church would almost never do, except in the instance of lawsuits, which are not seen as a form of government intervention.

The goal for The United Methodist Church in many contexts in Africa is still, as it is in the United States, to appeal to the masses. Methodism tends to be growth oriented, carrying the idea that all should be welcomed into the church and that a growing church is a healthy church.

But this growth is pursued in slightly different ways. Because religion is seen as public rather than personal, Methodism emphasizes not only the personal benefits of worship, community and spiritual care, as it does in the United States, but also how the church engages with and contributes to the overall good of the society, mostly through education and health care. In many places throughout Africa, Methodism is the church of civil society, engaged in building better communities. That is one of its prime selling points. This public image of Methodism both helps attract followers (as groups and individuals) and staves off government interference, though Methodism often ends up interacting extensively with the government around the public services that the church provides.


Unfortunately, in the interest of space, I will touch only briefly on the Philippines. It is probably somewhere in between the United States and Africa. There is a relatively free market for religion in the Philippines, a legacy of U.S. colonialism. Yet the government is more likely to curtail religious speech on political issues, and the Filipino religious marketplace is structured differently than the U.S. religious marketplace. One might think of it as an oligarchy: The Catholic Church and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines exercise dominant positions within Filipino society. Within that context, Methodism is a specialty religious provider characterized by education and healthcare, just as education and health care is central to the church’s public face in Africa.


The upshot of this variation among political contexts in which The United Methodist Church operates is that there are different understandings of what it means to be a “church” and different strategies pursued to be a successful church. To the extent that the church is characterized by regionalization, these divergent understandings and strategies can coexist. To the extent that the church is characterized by centralization, there is the potential for conflict among these strategies.

One instance of such implications for how issues play out in the denomination is around sexuality: In the United States, denominations must respond to changing demands in the religious marketplace in a society that increasingly accepts gay marriage, but where there is also a good portion of individuals with traditionalist understandings of marriage, thus leading to conflict about how best to appeal to the masses. In Europe, to avoid the label of “sect,” there is pressure to follow majority opinion (whether conservative as in Eastern Europe or progressive in Western Europe). In Africa, it is important to be seen as contributing to social stability, and when the government has identified the heterosexual family as central to social stability, there is pressure for the churches to toe that line. In the Philippines, questions of sexuality are less relevant to Methodists’ identity as a specialty religious provider focused on education and health care.

Each of these strategies makes sense within the political and cultural logic of its context. The challenge comes when the church tries to come to agreement across contexts.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Recommended Reading: What Church Splits Can Teach Us About a Dividing America

Many commentators, including in posts on UM & Global, have noted the parallels between divisions within Methodism and divisions within American society. Certainly, that is true historically, especially for church divisions around slavery preceding the Civil War. Commentators then use this historical parallel to reflect on the significance of present-day conflicts in both church and society, seeking to better understand each in the light of the other.

In this vein, it is interesting to read Russell Moore's article in Christianity Today last month, entitled "What Church Splits Can Teach Us About a Dividing America." Although Moore is well-known as a Baptist and has recently been embroiled in conflicts within the Southern Baptist Convention, his article actually begins by focusing on The United Methodist Church. Moore uses the UMC to note that present polarization runs through the middle of most communities, rather than mapping neatly onto geographic divisions, as in the pre-Civil War era. Moore also writes about those directing their anti-institutionalist rage at denomination structures. While he does not connect this point to the UMC, he certainly could have as well.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Recommended Reading: North American and African Wesleyan/Methodist theological education initiative

Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, associate professor of global Christianity and intercultural theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and contributor to UM & Global, will be leading a new initiative at Garrett to strengthen networks between American and African Wesleyan/Methodist theological educators. The goals of the project include "mapping scholarly networks, institutions, scholarship, partnerships, and publications among sub-Saharan African and North American scholars in the Wesleyan/Methodist traditions who are actively engaged in-depth intercultural theological exchange, collaboration, joint research, and publishing" and "convening representative groups of African and North American Wesleyan/Methodist scholars and thought leaders to serve as consultants and partners in organizing a theological symposium for the second year of the initiative, with an accompanying book project."

As various contributors have emphasized on this blog, and as Pieterse and UM & Global blogmaster David W. Scott have argued in a recent article, intercultural dialogue is critical for the future of Methodist theology. It is hoped that this new initiative will make a substantial contribution in that direction.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Viviana Pinto: Methodism and Public Theology: A Critical Moment

Today's post is by Rev. Viviana Pinto. Rev. Pinto is a pastor of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina and Director of Training for the Centro Metodista de Estudios Wesleyanos (CMEW). It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) as part of a series organized by CMEW. It appears here in translation with the author's permission and with the assistance of CMEW.

Speaking loudly and clearly

Methodism, which seeks to incarnate itself in Latin America, is very silent in the face of the brutal advance of neoliberalism, disinformation, and lawfare as strategies for weakening democracies, as has been cited in previous articles.

One can observe an expansion of social inequality, which combines the naturalization of oppressions, the idea of meritocracy, and the illusion of individual opportunities. To this is added the subordination of democracy to the defense of property, which places the market in the center of the scene and hides those who manage it.

At the same time, in this realm of fictions and fallacies, the manipulation and installation of common sense hinder communication in the communities.

Before the pandemic, it was already observable that the majority of believers, without realizing it, lived locked up in their own “echo chambers.” Thus, they also sought to relate in church services and activities primarily with those with similar views. Then, with the isolation and the virtual realm into which the pandemic forced us, this phenomenon increased. Many people chose to stay in the virtual realm, thus magnifying the effect of their echo chambers, distancing themselves from contact with the surrounding world and dialogue with the most contrasting reality.

In these circumstances, it became much more difficult to generate community bonds capable of challenging the logic of common sense and the skills to dialogue with what is different, to “think and let think,” as Wesley put it.

At the same time, disrespectful, fanatical, violent, and disqualifying modes and models were fostered by the media and social networks. They seek to channel discontent through situations that will not be resolved through the discharge of these violent expressions. In social networks, they find a privileged space of impunity. From these spaces, people are motivated to imitate violence, while others end up withdrawing to avoid aggression or confrontation.

The installation of lawfare in many countries of the continent has been a strategy that grew with the use of legal instruments for the persecution of political and social leaders and activists. This has violated the fundamental rights of the people affected and seriously weakened the democratic system, creating conditions for the application of regressive public policies and even promoting coups. These practices have been unfolding on the continent, conditioning electoral processes, the political agenda, and public opinion. Recent examples of this scenario are the assassination attempt that has hit institutional life in Argentina and the serious acts of violence in Chile and Colombia, fostered by this dangerous and anti-democratic breeding ground.

Our silence...

While the continent is going through these attacks, our ecclesial communities are impoverished, exhausted, and with weakened bonds of communion. As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han well defined, each individual lives in situations of self-exploitation, often without deciphering the mechanisms that oppress her/him. S/he has a great fear of what is different, of hurting or being hurt.

In these circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to find spaces for dialogue, to recognize the mechanisms that impoverish and oppress us, and to generate networks that allow us to see beyond what we are shown and understand what is happening on a global level.

Trying to respond with a public word that allows communities to feel represented, or with a word of social, prophetic, and transforming testimony, becomes something perceived as a great risk.

At the same time, in the midst of the phenomenon of lawfare, the churches fear denouncing conditions and arbitrariness that work against democracy. They are afraid of being perceived as biased, of generating adverse reactions or schisms within the churches, of “losing people” or “generating violent reactions on social networks,” which leads to an anti-prophetic silence that is often hidden under the discourse of “we must take care of the Church from within”.

Is it time to retreat, take refuge, and seek a “neutral” position so as not to run risks and not to make waves?

Or will it be as Dante Alighieri says in The Divine Comedy, “The darkest reaches of hell are reserved for those who choose to remain neutral in times of moral crisis”?

The Gospel of Matthew says, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth …”

These words always sound harsh to us, but did Jesus shy away from conflict? Did he seek to get along with the powerful? Sustain the status quo?

So, can we ignore him in the people that suffer? If we keep quiet, the stones will cry out. If we pass by the tables of the money changers in order to avoid conflict, we will become accomplices. It is difficult to talk about this Jesus who did not come to bring peace, but is it possible to have peace with the system that plunders, destroys, and annihilates?

Perhaps, if we prioritize “taking care of the church from within,” remaining “neutral,” in a prophetic paralysis in the midst of such a complex time, should we not accept our complicity? Should we not accept that we do not incarnate the body of Christ for this reality? That we are not recognizing Jesus the friend of the marginalized, Jesus the prophet, Jesus the healer, Jesus the liberator?

While the forces of robbery are unleashed on this continent, devastating life, as we have been saying, reliable voices must intertwine in defense of the dignity and autonomy of the Latin American and Caribbean peoples and of life as a whole. The church knows that raising your voice is a risk, yes, but one that must be taken.

Following Jesus is taking on the conflict as he did, confronting the forces of exclusion and death.

How not to be biased or partisan in the world of disinformation…?!

If we remember Wesley, we can see that, immersed in the reality of his time and afflicted by the poverty and scarcity to which the people were subjected, he thought and spoke about each area of the economic system that generated it.

He faced the conflicts of his time at the risk of his own security and his academic and ecclesiastical position. He remained like a pariah from the church and the official academy. But he was faithful to the gospel. He proposed immersing himself in reality to rediscover the path and the answers found in the image of God in the neighbor who suffers.

For example, for Wesley the fundamental cause of economic problems was the great inequality between rich and poor. With this understanding, he promoted laws and taxes on luxury products. He did not avoid the conflict. Likewise, in his fight against the slave trade, he did not limit himself only to writing condemnatory treaties, but until his last days he worked politically with abolitionist parliamentarians, such as Wilberforce, so that they would not cease their fight against the “execrable villainy.”

Here we have a first clue – the encounter with reality and with the image of God in the other, the analysis of situations and not of reports, but also actions of care and impact for transformation.

Another key for Methodism and its long history of broad ecumenism will be to seek collective and committed responses with those who share territories and those who contribute their perspectives from other places. Seek to broaden one’s view beyond the borders of what we know immediately. In this way, raise one’s voice with a powerful and fruitful prophetic testimony, without fear. Bring good news. Confront, transform, and humanize society in defense of all life.

God allow us, in a crucial time like the present, not to hide behind a cloak of neutrality, but to take on the conflicts that are necessary in following Jesus and reflect his transforming power in this reality.

Monday, October 3, 2022

On the African Bishops' Statement, Or, Defining Success in Blogging

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.

About a month ago, the Africa Colleges of Bishops released a statement denouncing the Africa Initiative and the WCA and, by implication, affirming their loyalty to the UMC. The statement lists the bishops present for its adoption and indicates support from other bishops not present. Bishop John Wesley Yohanna of Nigeria is the only active African bishop not in one of these two categories.

When the statement came out, I know that several regular readers of this blog were looking forward to see what we would publish about that statement. Perhaps some have been surprised that this blog has not addressed that statement until now.

A word of explanation is therefore in order, and it gets to not only the statement itself but the role that I hope this blog plays in the wider ecosystem of the UMC.

The tagline for UM & Global is "Dedicated to fostering conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church." Under that tagline, I have tried to write, recruit, and highlight content that either relates to the UMC outside the United States and/or to mission, broadly defined. I am humbled that readers have responded by regularly tuning in to read the posts that I and others have written here.

Ultimately, though, as much as I am honored by and appreciate the dedicated readership of this blog, it is not an end unto itself. The goal is that there be "conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church." This site certainly serves as a venue for such conversations, but ultimately, it is my hope that those conversations will happen throughout denominational spaces. The goal is not that UM & Global become the premier place to have such conversations; the goal is that more such conversations take place, which requires them to happen in places other than on UM & Global.

UM & Global will ultimately be successful not by dominating the market for international analysis of the UMC but by growing that market to the point where we are just one small player (or even no longer a player) in that market. In missiology, they say that a good missionary works themselves out of a job. My goal for UM & Global is to work ourselves out of a job - to increase the interest in and capacity for talking about the international church such that UM & Global itself is no longer essential to that endeavor.

Thus, I am happy when other people and other venues report on, discuss, and analyze the global church. I myself am deeply dependent on UMNews for the fine work that their stable of international journalists do, and regular readers will have noted various collaborative projects between UM & Global and UMNews over the past couple years.

Similarly, I am deeply grateful for the work Cynthia Astle at United Methodist Insight does to give a place for voices from Africa and elsewhere throughout global Methodism to express themselves. I'm glad that Cynthia regularly publishes commentary by Lloyd Nyarota and others and stories about Nigeria.

So, when I am choosing what to focus on with UM & Global, the question for me is not necessarily, "What are the biggest stories going on in global Methodism?" It's more, "What stories about Methodism around the world are not getting the attention they deserve? What needs to be lifted up and highlighted that people might otherwise miss?"

Which brings us back to the African Colleges of Bishops' statement. That statement got a lot of attention, which it absolutely deserved. It was widely shared on social media. UMNews did a story on it the next day. The Africa Initiative released a response, which was also widely shared. Africa Voice of Unity released a statement in support of the bishops, which was shared as well. Rev. John Stephens invited Bishop Mande Muyombo on his podcast, where they talked about the statement (among other things - it's a good podcast episode and worth a watch). United Methodist Insight published a story and materials related to the fallout of the statement in Nigeria.

In other words, people paid quite a lot of attention to the African bishops' statement, listened to a variety of African perspectives on the statement, and discussed its meaning and implications. And all that happened without UM & Global writing anything. Success!

But for those of you who have read thus far, waiting to see whether I will actually say anything about the statement, here are my few contributions to the conversation that is going on throughout the church, as it should, and not just on this blog:

  • I think the statement reflects the strong leadership of Bishop Nhiwatiwa, currently head of the African Colleges of Bishops. Bishop Nhiwatiwa is deeply loyal to the UMC and has previously indicated his desire for African United Methodists to make their own decisions.
  • Tensions between the bishops and the Africa Initiative/WCA have long simmered. This statement certainly brings those tensions to a new height, but also indicates that the bishops feel like they have the strength to win that contest for influence.
  • Some have wondered whether bishops who have previously been aligned with the Africa Initiative/WCA, especially Bishops Kasap and Quire, "really" supported the statement. The statement should be viewed in light of the African tradition of consensus decision-making. Bishops Kasap and Quire may not have been completely in favor of the gist of the statement, but they were unwilling to go against the consensus of the bishops as a whole. Bishop Yohanna probably felt more freedom to speak out against the statement because he was not present when that consensus was formed.
  • As for what the statement means long-term, time will only tell, but the statement should be taken as a significant inflection point.
Those are my thoughts at least, and I expect and hope that others will have their own interpretations of this statement by the African bishops and will continue to interpret and discuss on their own future such statements as well.