Thursday, November 30, 2023

Highly Recommended Listening: Bar of the Conference Podcast

When I (David) started this blog over a decade ago, blogs were an important venue for discussing ideas related to the church, with multiple authors making regular insightful contributions. There were problems with representation in blog authorship, but it still felt like a significant medium. That has seemed less and less true over the 10 years I've written this blog, as internet ecology has changed.

However, newer forms of media have arisen to replace the blog as venues for having thoughtful conversations about the church, its mission, and its future. None of these have been more significant than the podcast. Moreover, podcasts have some real advantages over blogs. They usually take the form of dialogue, thus including more voices. Podcast hosts represent a greater range of gender and racial diversity than blogs did. They're often longer form, which provide more space for deep reflection.

There are now multiple excellent United Methodist podcasts and video podcasts. And one of the best is undoubtedly Bar of the Conference, hosted by Derrick Scott III.

The focus of Bar of the Conference is "the stories shaping the future of the United Methodist Church." It is structured as hour-long interviews by Derrick Scott of various significant United Methodists. The interviews include both personal story-telling about how the interviewees came to United Methodism as well as insightful conversation into the current realities of The United Methodist Church, including how the passage of the Traditional Plan in 2019 changed the church and how people see General Conference 2024 playing out.

Many of the people Scott interviews have personal and/or professional connections to the UMC outside the United States, including Simon Osunlana, Izzy Alvaran, Mighty Rasing, Betty Kazadi Musau, Ande Emmanuel, Lloyd Nyarota, Jeffrey Kuan, and Neal Christie. Other American interviewees have a particular interest in mission, including Tara Barnes, Katie Dawson, Cynthia Weems, and Lisa Greenwood. Racial justice and LGBTQ inclusion are also strong themes across the podcasts.

If I were starting UM & Global from scratch in 2023, I would start it as a podcast. And I would be lucky if it were nearly as good as Bar of the Conference. Bar of the Conference does a lot of the work that this blog has tried to do over the past decade, and it is doing it in a fresher, more contemporary format.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

David W. Scott: The Challenges of Being a Rural Church in an Urbanizing World

Last week, I wrote a blog post entitled "The UMC is a rural church in an urbanizing world" in which I argued just that. I ended by asserting that there are missional, financial, cultural, and other implications of this thesis for the mission and ministry of the church. This post will expand on those implications.

But before I do that, I want to make clear that I do not think it is a bad thing to be a rural church.

There are plenty of tropes made by urban dwellers in cultures around the globe about rural areas and rural people. Biases and stereotypes flow both ways between the city and the country, but the church's mission strategy can never be driven by assumptions that "those people" are not entitled to the same things that "we" are. As someone who has lived half my life in towns under 10,000 people and the rest of it in small to medium cities, I can vouch that there are differences between those contexts, but one is not inherently a better or worse place. The church must be clear that all people are worthy of the gospel, no matter where they live.

The UMC is a rural church because it has been successful at sharing the gospel with rural people. That is a success, and we should not be ashamed of it. We should also not be content to stay with the successes of the past if they distract us from what God is calling us to do now. But I believe that rural ministry is part of God's call to Methodists in the past, present, and future.

The challenge then, as it always is, is to think critically about the context so that we can better and more faithfully answer God's missional call. I will highlight three challenges posed to rural ministry from the current context of urbanization.

Stagnant and declining populations

The flip side of growing urban populations around the world is that rural populations are often not growing. Indeed, in some settings, rural areas are facing depopulation or population aging as people, especially younger people, move from rural areas to urban areas. Rural areas with a stagnant to declining population mean that there are only so many people that the church can include as members. This number of potential members is further limited when rural areas are experiencing overall declines in religiosity, such as is common in Western countries as a whole.

Small congregations are not necessarily a problem. Most United Methodist congregations are small. But when the Methodist tradition and current denominational systems emphasize growth in membership, that creates a problem because of the gap between expectations of growth and the limited margin for growth that exists in many rural populations.

Part of the solution to the problem of this gap between expectation and reality is to develop better theologies around faithful persistence that can provide a sense of meaning and accomplishment for churches that are located in populations where dramatic evangelistic growth is just not likely.

Another missional implication is that if the church believes in continuing to bring the gospel to new people, it cannot afford to be just a rural church. It also needs to expand into urban areas. Part of the Methodist DNA can help here. Methodist geographic expansion has historically been driven primarily by migrants. Often that has included migrants from rural areas to cities. Thus, the church needs to think about how it can better support its members who move from rural to urban areas and how it can capitalize on them as potential evangelists and missionaries who can bring Methodism with them to the city.

Rural income limits

Rural areas are not necessarily poor, though rural poverty exists just as surely as urban poverty does, even if it looks different. Yet the church faces a couple challenges related to the money it can bring in from rural areas for mission and ministry.

In some rural areas, the church does face challenges in raising money because of poverty and other economic conditions. Appalachia is a rural area of the United States with extensive poverty and many United Methodist churches. Rural inhabitants there have less money, on average, to give to the church. In rural areas of developing countries, many rural residents are subsistence farmers who raise crops for their own consumption but do not earn a cash income. That may mean they have no money whatsoever to give to the church, though they may have other assets and resources to give.

In all rural areas, smaller populations mean smaller groups of donors and therefore smaller total donations than would be possible in a city-wide giving campaign. This is true regardless of whether the rural area is wealthy or poor.

God is more concerned with our generosity than the total given (as in the story of the widow's mite). Yet, when there are price tags associated with certain church-related activities (paying for a roof, supporting a missionary's salary, contributing to a pastor's retirement fund, running a tutoring program, etc.), there is the potential for mismatch between the amount that a rural area can generate and the amount necessary for these activities.

This challenge highlights the importance of connectionalism and cooperation in the church's mission and ministry in rural areas. If one church cannot run a tutoring program by itself because of limited finances or limited volunteers, can it partner with other churches to run the program? This partnership may be ecumenical with churches in the same area or partnership with other United Methodist churches that are not too far distant.

A broader answer to this challenge is that the church needs to think more deeply about how it supports agriculture as the basis of rural economies. This can range from seeing agriculture as the direct source of giving (as in programs like Growing Hope Globally) to recognizing that the better the agricultural economy is in rural areas, the better the community will do and therefore the more resources will be available for mission and ministry in the church (as in the Yambasu Agricultural Initiative).

Inefficiencies of scale

Underlying both of the above issues is a basic challenge of all facets of life in rural areas: inefficiences of scale. In many instances, it is cheaper and easier to provide good and services to larger, more concentrated populations in urban areas than it is to provide those services to small, more spread out populations in rural areas. In the secular world, this economic reality shows up in everything from the closure of rural hospitals and consolidation of rural school districts in the United States to more difficulty in buying things, especially specialized items, in rural areas everywhere to the lack of cell phone and broadband internet access in many rural areas around the world.

In the church world, the rise of megachurches are a clear expression of this same market logic. It is more efficient to provide religious services to 10,000 people who travel to one location than it is to provide religious services to 10,000 people spread out among 200 small, rural churches. More buildings, pastors, and travel are required for rural ministry.

Again, having 200 churches with an average of 50 attendees each is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. The problem for rural ministry arises when a drive toward efficiency in the church comes into conflict with the realities of rural ministry.

Part of the answer to that problem is to question the premise. Is more efficiently provided church ministry better church ministry? Not necessarily so. If the church really values rural ministry and takes seriously the missional call to engage people in rural areas, then it would just accept higher costs. Indeed, mission is rarely the most cost-effective thing to do, but God consistently calls us to missional generosity with our resources. In some instances, it may make sense for the church to think about what missional investment by urban churches in rural churches might look like, recognizing that rural churches are not just recipients of mission but potential sources of mission giving and mission personnel, as the above sections highlight.

Another response to this challenge is to think carefully about what sort of infrastructure is really necessary to carry out mission and ministry in rural areas. If there is a relatively stable congregation of 12 people, does that congregation need a building, or does it make more sense to meet as a house church? Where is it more effective to have a pastor serve a multi-point charge full time, and where does it make sense to have a bivocational pastor serve a single point charge part time?

Again, the Methodist tradition of connectionalism is highly relevant here. Methodists have never believed that each congregation should be completely autonomous and sufficient in itself. We have always believed that the church depends on gifts and assets being shared across and pooled among congregations. As I mentioned in my last post, practices like circuit riding, quarterly meetings, and revivals were a means to overcome the efficiency challenges of rural ministry, and modern-day versions of these old Methodist practices remain relevant for rural ministry today.

Conclusion

Urban (and suburban) ministry has its own challenges that I have not tried to address in this post. Certainly, as the world urbanizes, we must also think more carefully about that ministry context as well. But even as urban areas and churches there grow, the UMC will continue to have a significant rural constituency in many settings around the world. It does not benefit the church as a whole to ignore or take for granted the rural portion of itself.

Ultimately, the goal for the rural and urban ministries of the church should be the same that it is for the church as it extends itself missionally across cultures, nations, and other boundaries. The goal must be for the church in each location to reflectively engage with its local context while the church in all locations joins together in mutual sharing and partnership for the sake of advancing God's kin(g)dom. May it be so, in the city, in the country, and everywhere in between.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

The UMC is a Rural Church in an Urbanizing World

The UMC is a rural church in an urbanizing world.

This is perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but it underlines important facets of the history and present of The United Methodist Church in many locations around the world, facets that have significant implications for the mission and ministry of the UMC in the present age.

In this post, I will share some historical and anecdotal evidence to support the two components of the argument: first, that the UMC is in many ways a rural church, and second, that the world is urbanizing. In a future post, I will look at the missional, financial, cultural, and other implications of this thesis.

The UMC Is a Rural Church

I know of no database that has yet been compiled that conveniently provides the percentage of UMC congregations or congregants in rural vs. urban areas. This is true both in the United States and even more so around the world. Thus, my argument will be more historical and anecdotal than statistical.

In the United States, the classic elements of Methodist history - circuit riders, class meetings, camp meetings - were all associated with Methodism's spread along the rural frontier of the new United States. Circuit riders were a successful innovation to bring religion to small, widely dispersed rural settlements. Class meetings kept the faithful going between visits from the circuit riders. And camp meetings provided a place for rural people to gather together for religious (and secular) experiences not available in scattered communities of a few dozen people. These elements combined to allow Methodism to spread well across the new republic, mostly in rural areas. While Methodism would eventually get into urban missions (at the end of the 19th century), and while there were some areas (such as New York City) that had early urban Methodist congregations, the focus for most of US Methodism's early history was on the rural hinterlands, not the cities.

The success of this rural strategy is still apparent in the distribution of UMC congregations in the United States today. Prior to disaffiliation, the UMC had more churches than the US had post offices. This was not largely the result of plentiful churches in urban and suburban areas but rather the continuation of the many rural congregations started by early Methodists, especially east of the Great Plains (where almost all the population lived prior to the Civil War and where the majority of the US population lives still today).

Indeed, if you compare a map of congregations per county in 2020 of United Methodists and Catholics, you can easily tell the more rural composition of United Methodists (on top below) and Catholics (on bottom). The Catholic map allows you to clearly identify Dayton, for instance, because of the urban nature of US Catholicism. The United Methodist map includes many congregations per county in entirely rural parts of Appalachia.


If a rural focus, rural distribution, and rural character has marked US United Methodism, this is true in many other countries around the world.

The current largest episcopal area in the entire UMC is the North Katanga Episcopal Area. The portion of that episcopal area in the DR Congo is almost entirely rural in its composition. There are, to my knowledge, no cities of over 200,000 in an area that contains almost a million United Methodists. These United Methodists, like many in the United States, live in small towns and villages.

In Zimbabwe, although there are now United Methodists throughout the country, an early comity agreement with the British Methodists meant that the British Methodists focused on the cities during the early evangelization of the country, while the predecessors of the UMC focused on the rural area. It was only after United Methodists migrated from rural areas to cities that the denomination opened churches in urban areas.

In Mozambique, there was no United Methodist congregation in the capital and largest city of the country until decades after the church was established, a testimony to the early rural focus of the church on one district of eastern Mozambique.

In Nigeria, the UMC has a strong presence in Jalingo, a state capital about the size of Des Moines, Iowa. But, like Des Moines, Jalingo is merely an anchor for Methodism that is spread throughout the rural areas of the territory as well.

Manila is a huge metropolitan area, and the UMC has always had a presence there, and one of the three Filipino episcopal areas is focused on Manila. But the Baguio Episcopal Area to the north includes mostly rural areas and small cities. Baguio itself, the urban center of the area, only has a population of about 345,000.

The UMC in Norway has congregations in the nine largest cities in Norway. But it also has congregations in three small villages north of the Arctic Circle. If the UMC there is perhaps concentrated near Oslo, it has by no means shunned rural areas.

This is not a comprehensive survey, and there are, of course, counter examples. I have already acknowledged United Methodism in metro Manila. And The United Methodist Church in Liberia, for instance, has a urban flavor to it because of its historic base among Americo-Liberian settlers, who were originally based in Monrovia and other newly formed urban areas.

Still, looked at broadly, I think it is fair to say that The United Methodist Church at very least has strong rural roots in many places throughout the globe and that these roots remain evident in the geographic distribution of the church to this day.

The World Is Urbanizing

Many of the historic, rural roots of the UMC described above were set during the 19th century. It is fair to point out that most of the world lived in rural areas in the 19th century. A rural focus for the UMC was notable but not out of line with the experiences of the majority of humanity.

But there has been a dramatic transformation of where and how humans have lived in the past century, as ever larger numbers and percentages of people congregate in urban areas, a process social scientists refer to as urbanization.

The United States became a majority urban country about a century ago, in the early 1920s. At the present, almost 80% of the US population lives in urban or suburban areas. Only 21% remain in rural areas of the country. The trend in other developed countries was similar, a steady march to the cities beginning in the late 19th century and continuing on such that the vast majority of the population lives in urban areas at present.

Yet urbanization has not only been a process in developed countries. Over the past half century, there has been a massive population shift in developing countries as well, as people flock to cities. The majority of the world's population now lives in urban areas. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, 70% of the world's population will live in cities.

This move from rural to urban areas (and the creation of many new urban areas) represents a fundamental change in human societies that has implications for all areas of human life. But religion is certainly one of the areas impacted by the shift to cities. And The United Methodist Church, as a church with rural roots that is facing a rapidly urbanizing world, would do well to be cognizant of the missional, financial, cultural, and other implications of this process of urbanization and what they mean for the mission and ministry of the church. I will explore that further in a subsequent piece.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Recommended Reading: AI Is Into the White Savior Complex

One of the more public-facing uses of AI (artificial intelligence) is in creating images. There are several websites that will allow you to enter prompts and receive back AI-generated pictures. These images are created by computers based on patterns detected in an existing trove of images on the internet.

As reported in this NPR article, researcher Arsenii Alenichev decided to test AI image generation on an issue related to global health. While existing images of white, Western doctors treating black, African children abound, Alenichev wanted to see if he could get AI to generate the opposite: images of black, African doctors treating white, Western children. In short, he couldn't.

Although Alenichev's results were not intended to be scientific, they do point to two important findings that are relevant to Christian mission:

1. These results show how prevalent the white savior trope is. There are so many existing images of wealthy, white, Westerners helping poor, black, Africans (and others who are not wealthy, white, Westerners) that imagining the reverse is nigh impossible, even for extremely powerful computers. But if we (humans) can only imagine help and mission flowing in one way (from wealthy, white Westerners to others), it is impossible to create reciprocal mission relationships that are based on mutuality. We are locked into patterns where wealthy, white Westerners are givers and everyone else, especially poor, black Africans, are receivers. There is no mutuality possible in such a scenario. We need to expand our missional imaginations.

2. While artificial intelligence has a wide range of potentially beneficial applications, it cannot overcome the human biases that shape the world as it is. Because artificial intelligence operates by assimilating content from the internet (and elsewhere) and detecting patterns in that content, it is constrained by the pre-existing biases and prejudices that are part of existing content. That content is overwhelmingly made by Westerners and thus reflects the national, social, racial, economic, and other biases common on the West. Computers might save us from some things, but they won't save us from the biases in our hearts. We will need to continue to rely on the Holy Spirit to carry out that work.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Recommended Viewing: Rev. Musi Losaba on African Assets and Aspirations

A couple months ago, the Methodist Church in Britain released a video interview with Rev. Musi Losaba. Rev. Losaba is the Director of the Mission Unit of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. The MCB and MCSA have a historic relationship and an on-going partnership.

The first part of the ~11-minute interview described the situation of the MCSA and some of the current challenges the church is facing, including recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, a common theme for churches around the world. This first part of the interview is certainly worth watching for a better sense of the global Methodist family.

Then, at 5 minutes into the video, Rev. Losaba begins to talk about what he sees as the church's assets and its aspirations. He talks about the church's land and its people as important assets that the church possesses for mission. He talks about the need to redefine partnership among African churches and churches in the West, away from a focus on finances in which the West gives to Africa and towards a mutuality of sharing of various gifts by all partners. Rev. Losaba names relationship as the ultimate goal of mission partnership.

Rev. Losaba's vision of mission theology is one to be affirmed. It's also strikingly similar to themes raised up by United Methodist leaders at the African Partners Consultation convened by Global Ministries in Maputo, Mozambique, in April. Leaders there also talked about African assets, including land and people, and the need for more mutual partnerships.

The vision for a new approach to mission is not lacking. It only remains for all of us - regardless of location and denomination - to live into it.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Celebrating 150 Years of Methodism in Mexico: Napoleon, Cinco de Mayo, and Reform

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Rev. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Professor of Missiology, World Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary.

What does Cinco de Mayo have to do with Methodism in Mexico? Restaurants, schools, and breweries in the U.S. have made the holiday popular—mostly for commercial gain. However, few can articulate the history or significance of the Cinco de Mayo holiday. Some people wrongly assume that it is Mexican Independence Day. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mexico launched its war on September 16, 1810, and won its independence from Spain in 1821, while the Battle of Puebla happened over 50 years later on May 5, 1862. Mexico’s victory was against the French army. 

Now what were the French doing in Mexico? This brings us to our topic of Methodists in Mexico. But first a little background.

Ever since Hernan Cortez and Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs and Emperor Moctezuma in 1521, politics in Mexico have been intimately intertwined with religion. The Spanish arrived with the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. The Roman Catholic Church and clergy enjoyed broad ranging power, influence, and wealth – owning approximately 1/3 of Mexican land.

This began to change when President Benito Juarez (1806-1872) and the liberals advocated for the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. They fought for a constitutional federal state, subjugation of the army to civil authorities, public education, freedom of religion, and the equal distribution of wealth through the sale of unused church property. In 1856, the liberal government headed by Juarez passed the Ley Lerdo, which ordered the sale of church lands (monasteries, cemeteries, etc.) not used for religious purposes. The Catholic Church and clergy fought back in the War of Reform (1858-1860). The liberals won this war and recaptured Mexico City in 1860, passing the freedom of religion law, which allowed other denominations besides Catholics to legally operate in Mexico. The government carried out reforms, nationalizing Catholic properties and secularizing charitable institutions (e.g., hospitals). The liberals turned around and sold these properties to the public, which allowed for the creation of a Mexican middle class.

The Roman Catholic clergy and conservative allies were on the losing end of these reforms and encouraged French Emperor Napoleon III to intervene, which he did under the pretext of an outstanding national debt to France. The French invaded Mexico in 1862, and Napoleon named Maximiliano I to be emperor of Mexico. A sense of national pride and sovereignty rallied Mexican troops, who initially defeated the French army on May 5 at the Battle of Puebla. The victory was short-lived as the better-equipped army advanced and entered Mexico City in 1864. Maximiliano I tried to create a unified government, but he was caught between the competing claims of liberals and the coalition of conservatives and clerics. In 1867, Maximiliano was defeated by Benito Juarez and executed, marking a victory for the liberals and for the Reform. 


What does this have to do with Methodism? 

The liberal government found an ally in North American and European Protestants who believed in literacy, public education, health care, democracy, and ministry in rural areas—especially to the indigenous populations. A former Franciscan convent on Gante Street in Mexico City was one once of the properties confiscated and sold by the liberal government. It was and is a majestic site. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the lands had been used by Emperor Moctezuma as a garden before it became the first and largest Franciscan convent in New Spain. Between 1862 and 1873 after being sold during the Reforma, this building had various owners and was used for different purposes. In 1865, it was home to the Chiarini Circus, which Emperor Maximiliano once attended with his wife, Carlota. While the National Palace was under repair during 1868-9, this site became a place of legislation as temporary home to the Chamber of Deputies. It was also used as a theatre, restaurant, and cantina, among other functions. 

In 1871, the Missions Committee of the Methodist Episcopal Church approved $10,000 for missions in Mexico. The following year, William Butler, missionary and founder of the Methodist Church in India, was named secretary of the American and Foreign Christian Union and was tasked with mission work in papal lands, specifically in Latin America. Ms. Matilda Rankin, a Congregationalist based in Brownsville, Texas, invited the Butlers to go to Mexico, and so on February 1, 1873, the family sailed for Veracruz and took a train to Mexico City. The Butlers purchased the former Franciscan monastery for $16,300 to start the first Methodist Church. They began an orphanage with 37 girls, and Mrs. Butler established a support group for mothers every Tuesday night. 

Alejo Hernández became the first Mexican to be ordained by the MEC, South in December of 1871. Born in Aguascalientes, Hernández came to Brownsville, Texas, in search of a Protestant Bible and was ordained a deacon by Bishop Enoch Martin in Corpus Christi, Texas, and then he traveled back to Mexico City to assist Butler to help the new Methodist mission on Gante Street in 1873. The same year, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South sent Bishop JC Keener, and he purchased the former chapel of St. Andrew on the corner of San Andres and Callejon 57 streets in Mexico City. 

The liberal reforms and defeat of the French army created a window of opportunity for the Methodists, along with the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Protestants, to begin mission work in Mexico—150 years ago this year. To honor this history, the Methodist Church of Mexico will hold a celebratory conference later this year with the theme “Renovation and Future,” to be held at the Santisima Trinidad Methodist Church at Gante Street 5, November 30 – December 2.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

David W. Scott and Filipe Maia: Methodism and American Empire

The following is a preview excerpt from the Introduction to Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church, edited by David W. Scott and Filipe Maia. The forthcoming book will be published by Abingdon Press in January 2024 and is available for pre-order now: https://www.cokesbury.com/Methodism-and-American-Empire.

Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church investigates historical trajectories and theological developments that connect American imperialism in the post-World War II period on the one hand and Methodist and Wesleyan traditions on the other. Methodist and Wesleyan traditions have been shaped by the imperial practices and mindsets of their American members, even when they aspire to be global denominations united by a shared Methodist conviction in connectionalism as an ecclesial principle. 

The United Methodist Church, the largest denomination in the Wesleyan family, was founded in 1968 and strove to uphold the connectional principle in an ecclesial structure that was global in scope. United Methodists are unique in both the fact that they represent a typical example of an originally Unites States-based denomination and that they currently embody the distinct tensions and fractures of a global church. The complex negotiations that take place across different national, cultural, and political contexts have set up the historical backdrop for the imminent schism of The United Methodist Church. They might also be perceived as symptoms of lingering forms of American imperialism that persist in global Methodism.

The guiding question that informs the reflections in this volume is: to what extent is Methodism’s vision of global connection marred by American imperialism? To tackle this question, Methodism and American Empire offers a series of historical and theological analyses that focus on the entanglement of Methodism and empire in the second half of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century. This chronological focus recognizes the significance of the recent wave of globalization in shaping American empire, Empire writ large, and global Methodist denominations such as The United Methodist Church. It also seeks to capture the intersections between global and American tensions in church and society. With this volume, we seek to provide a historical perspective to understand the specific context of The United Methodist Church while also raising ecclesiological questions about the impact of imperialism on how United Methodists have understood the nature and mission of the church over the last century.

From the start of North American colonies of European powers, empire has characterized the American experience. The role of empire in shaping the United States extends far beyond its origins as an imperial hinterland itself or its turn-of-the-twentieth-century heyday of possessing its own colonies. Empire as concentrated, top-down power that seeks to control others for the sake of its own agendas is a constant within U.S. history. The impulses and perspectives of empire have characterized and continue to characterize American politics, economics, culture, and religion in a thorough-going way. Empire is a basic strategy by which those with power in the United States have sought to unite larger groups for the sake of asserting power over others, even as those within these in-groups often act against their own interests by participating in such imperial projects. Thus, empire is a technique of exploitation of those within and beyond the empire, especially those on the margins.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the category of Empire became an important concept in political philosophy with the publication of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire.[1] The book traces changes in the political constitution of sovereignty over the last decades of the twentieth century to suggest that we no longer live in the age of imperialism. In contrast to it, the concept of Empire speaks to a political and social situation that lacks a clear center of power and where national imperialist interests give room to transnational corporations and political alliances. For Hardt and Negri, Empire represents a new dispensation of sovereign power “composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule.”[2] Under the conditions of Empire, sovereign power no longer rests at the seat of the monarch or the head of government; it has been dispersed throughout transnational entities that, though still potentially connected to nation-states, transcend the agency of any one nation. Empire is quite adept in accepting and incorporating regional and cultural differences while proliferating structures of power that remain more homogenous, more widespread, and more global. Empire is more insidious because it is more subtle, more incisive because it does not rely exclusively on imposition, and more ubiquitous because it shapes people’s subjectivities on a deeper level.

The passage from imperialism to Empire is therefore a central aspect of Hardt and Negri’s analysis of power in the latter portion of the twentieth century. Yet if Empire today can operate beyond the central control of a nation-state, it remains true that concentrations of power continue to be clustered around the United States and its wealthy global partners. Whether as symptom of a passage to Empire or as the stubborn nature of sovereign power, the force of the nation-state remains steadfast and has been reclaimed by nationalistic movements as of late.

This book demonstrates that global Methodism is an example of the complex interplay between imperialism and Empire, between a U.S.-centric perspective on globalization and a transnational ecclesial body that lacks an exclusive center of power but that nevertheless finds itself structurally caught up in a typically American mindset. By paying close attention to the impact that the United States had in the shaping of global Methodism, specifically The United Methodist Church, this book will point out that ecclesial developments can be situated in this larger context of Empire. 

That is to say, when Methodists in multiple settings negotiated a common understanding of a “global denomination,” they did so in a “globe” that was being created in the image and likeliness of empire. We will show that these negotiations were always tied to the central role the United States played in global Methodism. At times, it is possible to observe Methodist traditions that have too quickly been subsumed by the logic of Empire. In other instances, we hope to demonstrate, Methodist voices might be perceived as resisting imperial forces and shaping what might be understood as a subversive view of the globe.

This volume provides a critical perspective on the efforts of The United Methodist Church and other Methodist bodies in constructing a global denomination. Through archival research, historical analyses, and theological reflections, this volume chronicles the formation of a global ecclesial ethos amongst United Methodists since the mid-twentieth century. These accounts demonstrate how the denomination has struggled to find a balance between centralized ecclesial authority and local and national autonomy. The authors in this volume suggest that this ecclesial tension ought to be understood in the context of imperialism.

Methodism as a denominational tradition has historically resisted U.S. imperialism even as it has often also succumbed to it. That process of struggle and contestation is on-going, as references to an on-going split in The United Methodist Church indicate. We hope this volume will give encouragement to those engaged in that struggle

This volume contains contributions from the following:

A Foreword from Joerg Rieger

David W. Scott and Filipe Maia: “Introduction: Methodism and the Spirit of Empire”

Joon-Sik Park: “The Worldwide Nature of The United Methodist Church: A Historical and Missiological Reflection”

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: “The Autonomous Process of Latin American Methodism: A Critical Review”

David W. Scott: “American Power in the Global Church in Ecumenical Methodist Perspective”

Jørgen Thaarup: “The UMC Discipline: A Parallel Power Structure to the American Administration of the Nation”

Darryl W. Stephens: “A Global Ethic for a Divided Church”

Taylor Denyer: “Ecclesiastic Empires: American Conflict and the African UMC”

Lloyd Nyarota: “The Struggle of African Voices in The United Methodist Church”

Cristine Carnate-Atrero and Izzy Alvaran: “The Christmas Covenant: Toward Decolonizing UMC Polity”

Filipe Maia: “Whither Global Methodism?”


[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[2] Hardt and Negri, xii.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

Recommended Readings: Methodist Marriage Debates in Norway

There's been a significant debate in Norway in the past month about Methodist marriage, but it has nothing to do with whether the UMC in that country should consecrate same-sex marriages. Instead, the discussion has been among Methodists, the government, and law experts over whether minor changes to the Methodist marriage liturgy since 1991 invalidated the approximately 800 marriages performed by Methodist clergy since then.

Here's the background: In Norway, church bodies are required to submit their wedding liturgies to the government in order to get government approval in order for church-performed marriages to be recognized by the government. The Methodist Church in Norway did that in 1970, and the government approved the liturgy and agreed to recognize marriages performed by the church. Then in 1991, 2009, 2017 and 2019, the church made minor changes to the liturgy to modernize it. The church, however, considered these changes sufficiently minor that they did not require re-approval from the government.

Then, at the beginning of September, one of the major newspapers in Norway, Dagen, published an article which included an interview with a law professor who asserted that these changes to the marriage liturgy of the Methodist Church in Norway could make the weddings performed invalid in the eyes of the state. This set off a debate across multiple publications about the professor's claims.

Methodist theologians and church leaders worked with the relevant government body (Bufdir) to explain the changes and reassure them that these changes did not constitute significant revisions that would require re-approval from the government. The government now seems satisfied with this response, and the marriages should not be invalidated.

This story is worth sharing for two reasons:

1. It's always good to know about and sympathize with in prayer the challenges that fellow Methodists around the world are experiencing.

2. It's a fairly dramatic example of just how differently people think about church, marriage, and law in different national contexts around the world. To many US Americans, the idea of the government approving church liturgies is likely incomprehensible. But it's an accepted reality for Norwegians.

To read more, see the following links (use a web translator to translate from Norwegian):

https://www.metodistkirken.no/ugyldige-vigsler-oppslag-i-dagen

https://www.metodistkirken.no/arbeider-hardt-for-a-rydde-opp-i-forvirringen-om-vigsler

https://www.metodistkirken.no/vigsler-vil-nok-bli-ettergodkjent-av-statsforvalteren-om-det-er-nodvendig

https://www.metodistkirken.no/oppdatering-om-vigsler-i-metodistkirken

https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=722842773217309&set=a.337998871701703

Thursday, September 28, 2023

David W. Scott: The Coming Pastoral Shortage as a Missional Concern

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.

At the annual meeting of the Northern Germany Annual Conference this past June, conference leaders shared a startling statistic: the number of active pastors in the conference is expected to drop in half in the next eight years. In response, the conference is looking to promote more collaboration across congregations and to form "multi-professional teams" of pastors and skilled lay workers who can collectively provide leadership to United Methodist congregations.

United Methodists in the United States would do well to watch and learn from this experiment as it unfolds in Germany over the next several years. While the statistics might not be quite as dramatic as in the Northern Germany Annual Conference, there are indications that the United States is heading towards a growing clergy shortage as well. This is something that this blog wrote about a year and a half ago, and a Washington Post story from this summer drew similar conclusions.

Clergy decline is not a new trend. The number of ordained elders in the US UMC has been declining since 1990, according to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. There are almost half as many ordained elders now as there was thirty years ago (21,507 in 1990 vs. 11,168 in 2022).

However, up until recently, this trend of declining elders has been masked and managed by other trends:

At the same time as the number of ordained elders has gone down, the number of licensed local pastors has increased substantially. The number of licensed local pastors rose from just under 4,000 in 1990 to over 7,500 in 2020, again according to the Lewis Center.

Moreover, as smaller churches have closed and proportionately more members have worshipped in larger congregations, the number of elders required to serve US United Methodists has decreased.

And as small, rural congregations have gotten smaller, the number of multi-point charges (groups of churches served by a shared minister) has increased, with some charges now including four or more churches.

Masked within the number of elders is another trend: an increasing reliance on clergy who have immigrated from another country. Without these immigrant clergy members, the decline in the number of elders would have been even more stark.

Yet, these various off-setting trends will likely no longer continue to provide adequate solutions to a decline in the number of ordained clergy from the United States. The number of licensed local pastors has itself been declining since 2019. Increased visa restrictions and issues of regionalization may make it harder for the United States to import pastors in the future. And while multi-point charges are certain to increase, there are limits to just how many churches can be served and how many miles can be driven by one pastor.

Thus, churches in the United States will need to look to other solutions and other models for clergy deployment in the next decade, which is why the Northern Germany story is so significant. It is an experiment, one that may yield models worth copying. There are others as well, including from the Methodist Church in Britain. But wherever the ideas come from, experiments will need to be tried.

Finally, it is important to point out that the question of finding models that will match the number of clergy and the number of churches is not just an administrative one, but a missional one.

In the 18th and 19th century, Methodism's model of itinerant clergy was a major factor in the growth of the denomination throughout the United States. Not all those clergy were ordained elders, but finding a way to develop and deploy enough leadership to where the missional needs of the community and the country are was part of what made Methodism a successful missional movement.

The systems for recruiting, training, and deploying congregational leadership are likely to look very different in the future than they did in the era of the circuit riders or in the recent eras of the ubiquitous M.Div.-trained elder or the rise of licensed local pastors.

But the need for called and trained leaders who can lead the church forth in mission will always be constant. May the church experiment successfully with new models for finding such leaders.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana: A Journey of Solidarity: Ruth and Naomi’s Story, Part II

Today’s post is by Deaconess Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana. Marquez-Caramanzana is an Area Liaison for Asia and the Pacific with Global Ministries. It is the second of two parts. This post was originally developed for the World Methodist Council Consultation on Migration.

In my previous post, I introduced the story of Ruth and Naomi’s relationship and named the resonances that it has for our ministry with migrants in our time and locations. I raised the question of Ruth and solidarity.

Ruth’s story is instructive of the who, the why, and the how of solidarity. Despite her own vulnerability, Ruth embarked on the unknown because of her deep love for Naomi. She did not look on her personal struggle as a vulnerable woman solely, but she grabbed the opportunity to show to Naomi, who was then desperate and surrendered to her lot, to see that it is better if they are together in the journey. It was radical love professed in this mother-in-law – daughter-in-law relationship.

Ruth’s story is instructive of our missiological task of ministering to those who need God the most, those whose only hope is God.

When we talk about mission these days, and when we talk about the plight of migrant men and women and gender minorities, are we not supposed to be talking of how deep our solidarity is with them?

With Ruth and Naomi embracing a journey together, I see two individual women charting their own future and deciding for themselves the outcome of that future rather than just waiting for others to dictate their course. It was a journey of mutual support that challenged how people and society looked at and treated them. It was a risky journey but a worthy one to undertake.

I don’t have any intention to romanticize the story of Ruth – it was truly, definitely a difficult journey.

But her story speaks to every one of us – as individuals resisting cultural impositions and anything that denies us of our full humanity. It speaks to struggling migrants and immigrants actively looking for ways out of poverty, dehumanization, and insecurity. It speaks to us as churches seeking to be in solidarity with those who are vulnerable.

And I would like us to focus on the last: Ruth’s story speaking to us as churches seeking to be in solidarity with those who are vulnerable.

Part of Global Ministries Theology of Mission Statement says:

The Church experiences and engages in God’s mission as it pours itself out for others, ready to cross every boundary to call for true human dignity among all peoples, especially among those regarded as the least of God’s children, all the while making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.

In solidarity we have to empty ourselves. It is in emptying ourselves that we are able to identify with our struggling and distressed brothers and sisters. We cannot claim to journey in solidarity with them when we ourselves are limited by our own impositions and claims to correct knowledge and expertise.

Our readiness to cross boundaries defines the way in which we incarnate our faith. Emptying ourselves is a pre-requisite in crossing boundaries. More than geographical boundaries, we focus ourselves on crossing the boundaries of race, class, gender, age, and others. We cross our own personal boundaries of individualism, egoism, privilege and comfort. We break down the walls that keep us apart from the suffering of others. We break down the walls that render us numb to the pulsating pain brought about by oppression, dehumanization, and marginalization.

To be in solidarity is to recognize that people are decisive in charting their course. To be in solidarity with them is to provide them support as they affirm their agencies and build their capacities. We share our resources with them – yes. But it is not the determining factor in regaining their humanity. Our roles should be to render our presence in their journey in such a way that obstructions are eliminated and they are able to regain their power. To be in solidarity is to embody the hope that they themselves are capable of rising up.

We will need to take into full account that our understanding of the plight of migrants and immigrants should be our primordial concern. Their context defines the response that we as churches or mission agencies can learn from. Their journey, their struggles, their hopes and aspirations should inform our perspectives, practice, and theology of mission.

Ruth may have undergone a lot of self-emptying so that the essence of solidarity was incarnated in her accompaniment of Naomi. Solidarity was not just a word or concept for Ruth. It was in flesh, lived out in her decision to be with Naomi until death. Her solidarity resulted in hope. A hope that assured Naomi that her battles were not just hers. A hope that enabled their community to see Ruth and Naomi on a different light.

As churches we participate in the emancipatory struggles so that we, too, become ambassadors of hope. For those who are not able to see light clearly. For those struggling to get up on their feet. Ruth became a beacon of hope for Naomi. And so must we. For the sake of the least, the last and the lost.

Our theme for the consultation is “On the move.” As the spirit, as Ruah, is with us, we must we be on our feet, on the move. We can’t just tarry in the garden. We need to move. We need to do something. Our faith compels us to serve. Our God is calling us to move. But let me also affirm that as we move, God is also in the movement or movements of people, in movements where we participate meaningfully so that life abundant becomes a lived reality for the world’s most vulnerable people. Amen.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana: A Journey of Solidarity: Ruth and Naomi’s Story, Part I

Today’s post is by Deaconess Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana. Marquez-Caramanzana is an Area Liaison for Asia and the Pacific with Global Ministries. It is the first of two parts. This post was originally developed for the World Methodist Council Consultation on Migration.

In 2013, Joanna Demafellis’ home in Leyte was among those torn and decimated by Typhoon Yolanda (Hayan). The raging flood stripped down the family home to its frame. In 2014, through the help of an aunt, Joanna was able to fly to Kuwait to work as a domestic helper. As a domestic helper, she was promised a monthly salary of $400. Under the kafala system, foreigners entering Kuwait need sponsorship to act as a bridge to the country. The employer got to keep her passport and confiscated her mobile phone, and she was only allowed to use it every 3 months. In 2016, her family sensed a problem when they couldn’t find two of her Facebook profiles and her roaming number became out of reach. In 2018, Kuwaiti authorities found Joanna’s body by chance, kept in a freezer of her second employer.

Jullebee Ranara was a domestic worker. She could not send her 4 children to school because she was poor. In her desire to offer better lives for her children, she decided to work abroad. Perhaps also a victim of illegal recruiters or human trafficking, she ended up working for a family in Kuwait. On January 21, 2023, she was reportedly raped, murdered, burned, and thrown in the desert. News reports would point to her employer’s 17-year-old son as her tormentor and killer.

We remember their stories as we engage in Bible study on the Book of Ruth. I would center our thoughts on the part of the Book of Ruth that is focused on Naomi and Ruth’s relationship.

Ruth’s story resonates with me as a deaconess engaged in mission work through Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. How does her story deepen my commitment to be in solidarity with those who need our significant presence, and what is the role of mission agencies as people journey in risky situations in foreign lands?

Ruth’s story also resonates with the many women, like Joanna and Jullebee, who leave our country everyday by the thousands to find a greener pasture in foreign lands so that their families here in the Philippines may live.

Naomi’s family, along with daughters in law Ruth and Orpah, left Judah to go to Moab because of famine. In Biblical narratives, the most common consequence of famines is involuntary migration. This was evident in the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel and their sons. They would usually migrate to Egypt to seek food, even if it meant being subjected to exploitation by Egyptian masters and rulers. Most of these people’s lives were turned upside down by the realities of famine during their time. Their stories speak of the vulnerability that migrants face as they rely on the mercy of people to help them and yet are in turn subjected to abuse and exploitation of those in power.

Mijal Bitton, a teacher, writer, and leading thinker on questions relating to Jewish American identity, pluralism, gender equity and sociological diversity asserts that “starvation is not a function of scarcity, but rather a function of how societies distribute food.”[1] This is confirmed by economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen whose “work demandsthat instead of examining food availability, we should be investigating whether individuals can gain access to food and control food resources. This shift is borne out by the Genesis stories. The Mesopotamian region and neighboring Egypt could potentially feed everyone. But Abram, Sarai and their children must fight to get access to food, and must confront the dangerous vulnerability embodied by economic migrants.”[2] This is also the same context that prompted Naomi’s family to move from Judah to Moab.

As I reflect on the stories I earlier shared about Joanna and Jullebee – I can’t help but also point out that if we talk of resources, my country, the Philippines, has enough resources to feed and provide for all of its people. But the question remains: why do people need to migrate, and why are people poor?

Let’s go to Ruth . . .

In the story, Ruth showed a deep faithfulness to Naomi. In losing her husband and two sons, Naomi is resigned to the kind of life awaiting her. She knows that nothing is left for her but to wallow in poverty and shame. She blessed her two daughters-in-law and sent them home. Orpah obliged. Ruth did not. And to this Ruth pledged to never leave Naomi and spoke of a beautiful, poetic commitment:

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried (v.16 NIV).

As for Mijal-Bitton, “Ruth’s persona is intersectional: she embodies the vulnerabilities of women, of widows, of economic migrants, of foreigners, of stigmatized strangers (she is a Moabite).”[3]

In their time it was not easy for Naomi, Ruth and Orpah to lose their husbands. They have to bear the brunt of a difficult life in a patriarchal world – without property, without status, without economic power, non-existent.

When Ruth decided to leave her all and be with Naomi, she put to risk her own life. Her decision meant that whatever happens to Naomi would also happen to her.

This story raises questions for me: How did Ruth embody solidarity with Naomi? How does this solidarity challenge us as churches to do our ministry with struggling migrants and immigrants? How do we see the image of God in Ruth’s decision to accompany Naomi? What image of God do we want to profess or give witness to as we engage in ministry with migrants?

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Rodney Aist: Mission Bound: Short-Term Mission as Pilgrimage

Today’s post is by Rev. Rodney Aist. Rev. Aist is a United Methodist clergy in the New Mexico Annual Conference, currently serving as the course director at St George’s College, Jerusalem. It relates to his recently published book, Mission Bound: Short-Term Mission as Pilgrimage (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2023).

The mission journey is a response to the longings of the world, addressing issues from poverty and health care to natural disasters. People, near and far, lack sufficient food and shelter, safety and security, hope for a better tomorrow. Christian mission is a response to an imperfect world, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was moved to compassion by the needs and potential of others. The mission journey offers a pathway for everyday Christians to embody the love of God, to serve others, and, in doing so, to change the world.

The mission journey changes lives: our own and others, in immediate and long-term ways. Mission travel takes us beyond the scenes and routines of our everyday lives to paradoxical settings: to places in need where we encounter God in the Other, to people of faith who grace us with gifts to transform our lives back home.

Through serving others, we encounter God, and our lives are changed as well. What we discover on a mission journey is that the people who we’re called to serve bless us with the power and grace of God. While the call of short-term mission is to journey faithfully as a servant, guest, and stranger, the lesson of religious travel is that our everyday world is also in need of healing, salvation, and reconciliation. That’s an important, if overlooked, aspect of the mission adventure: the self-awareness that our everyday world isn’t perfect, that our culture doesn’t hold all the answers, the humility to know that we are all incomplete people in need of God and one another.

In my book Mission Bound: Short-Term Mission as Pilgrimage, I offer a transformative approach to short-term mission. Pilgrimage is a comprehensive image of the Christian life that encompasses both personal and social transformation, and Mission Bound reframes short-term mission as pilgrimage as a holistic expression of faith that includes the experience of God, self, and the Other.

On a mission journey, we engage the Other, encounter God, and (re)discover ourselves in transformative ways. Pilgrimage is crossing boundaries, following God in unfamiliar places, both being and befriending the stranger, and walking alongside one another. As the imitation of Christ, pilgrimage embodies humility, service, love, and compassion, as well as our vulnerability with others. Espousing the union of God, self, and the Other as the objective of the Christian life, Mission Bound casts the mission partnership as one of reciprocal relations based on the body of Christ. Being partners in mission is the practice of journeying together. It’s discovering together, through the grace of God, solutions to the worlds in which we live.

Mission Bound develops a pilgrim spirituality for short-term mission, offers the gift of cultural humility, and addresses the challenges of the mission experience. In doing so, it covers the entirety of the mission journey in detailed, practical ways, including preparation and departure, time at the mission site, the return home, and the aftermath of the journey. As a pre-departure study guide, questions for individual and group discussion conclude each chapter.

The core of the book explores short-term mission through the lens of the Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell), which follows a threefold pattern: the traveler (1) leaves his or her ordinary world, (2) crosses a threshold into a special world full of ordeals, allies, conflicts, and treasures, and (3) returns home transformed, sharing the rewards of the adventure with others. Heroes consist of ordinary people who are summoned on a journey, face challenges, sacrifice and suffer, and emerge as wiser, more virtuous figures. Through short-term mission pilgrimage, ordinary Christians can be heroes in their faith.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

News Roundup 8/31/2023

Below is a run-down of significant (United) Methodist stories from the past month.

Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters Approves Regionalization Plan: The unanimous action now sends the eight petitions of the plan, which was also endorsed by the Connectional Table, straight to General Conference next year: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/regionalization-plan-heads-to-general-conference and https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/regionalization-legislation-petitions-submitted-to-general-conference

Church Separation Discussed in Liberia: In July, Bishop Quire convened a meeting at which proponents of both disaffiliation from the UMC and of continuing in the UMC shared their views: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/church-separation-takes-center-stage-in-liberia

Global Ministries Hosts Missionary Consultation: Global Ministries convened missionaries, staff, and partners at the beginning of Atlanta to discuss the guiding principles of missionary service: https://umcmission.org/story/consultation-reexamines-principles-of-missionary-service/

GCFA Approves Bishops’ Raise, Increase in Agency Pay Scale: The board approved the actions at its August meeting, and they will take effect in 2024: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/finance-board-votes-on-bishop-agency-pay

GCFA Conducts Training for African Leaders: GCFA hosted a virtual training on administrative matters for over 200 United Methodist leaders from across Africa: https://www.gcfa.org/resource/gcfa-hosts-administrative-training-for-africa, with related resources available in English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili: https://www.gcfa.org/central-conference-training

Africa University Announces New Degree in Journalism: Africa University is creating a Bachelor of Arts Honours in Media and Journalism: https://twitter.com/Africa_Univ/status/1690013782439809024/photo/1

Network Renamed to United Methodist Broadcast Network: The former United Methodist Radio Network, composed of United Methodists from across Africa and the Philippines, renamed itself to reflect a broader vision: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/radio-network-transforms-to-reach-more-people

Zimbabwe UMC Conducts Evangelism Campaign: The Mubvuwi weUnited Methodist, the UMC men’s organization, of the Harare East District conducted the campaign in a rural area: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/evangelism-campaign-fuels-church-growth-in-zimbabwe

Zimbabwe United Methodists Promote Business Success: A new WhatsApp platform is designed to increase business collaborations among United Methodists in the Zimbabwe West Annual Conference and its international diaspora: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/church-whatsapp-group-fosters-business-collaboration, while a career fair at UMC-run high schools sought to promote professional pathways: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/career-expo-helps-dreams-take-flight-at-rural-schools

North Katanga Orphanage Promotes Entrepreneurship: UMC-run Kamina Children's Home seeks to help its residents prepare for long-term success by fostering entrepreneurship: https://westohioumc.org/conference/news/orphanage-helps-youth-become-successful-entrepreneurs

UMC Hospital in DRC Opens Mpox Research Lab: The new center at Tunda Hospital was opened with support of the Congolese government and will respond to an on-going epidemic of Mpox/monkeypox in the DRC: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/church-congolese-government-unite-against-monkeypox

East Congo UMC Seeks to Help Displace People Following Fires: The East Congo Episcopal Area is mobilizing to provide help in South Kivu after fires destroyed two camps for displaced people: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/fire-ravages-two-camps-for-displaced-people-in-congo

UWF Africa Regional Missionaries to Itinerate in the US: The three regional missionaries working in Africa and supported by United Women in Faith will be itinerating in the United States this fall: https://uwfaith.org/latest-news/2023/meet-united-women-in-faith-regional-missionaries/

Methodists Celebrate International Partnerships: Methodists in several countries reaffirmed international partnerships, including Methodists in the following places:

Fresh Expressions Continue to Generate Interest: The Fresh Expressions movement continues to receive increasing interest among U.S. United Methodists, including in the Dakotas and Minnesota: https://www.dakotasumc.org/calendar/fresh-expressions-imagine-day?recur=2375 and in Wisconsin: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/an-exploration-of-fresh-expressions-tickets-685054395137?aff=oddtdtcreator.

Methodists Care for Creation: Methodists in several congregations and conferences engaged in various forms of creation care work, including the following:

Wespath CIO Defends Sustainable Investing: Wespath CIO Dave Zellner published an opinion on UMNews arguing that sustainable investing makes smart business sense, in addition to having positive values associated with it: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/sustainable-investing-is-smart-not-political

GBCS Appoints First-Ever Climate Fellow: Dr. Becca Edwards, a climate scientist and candidate for ordained ministry in the Rio Texas Conference, will fill the position, which is split between the General Board of Church and Society and Texas Impact: https://um-insight.net/in-the-world/disasters-and-climate-change/new-climate-fellow-aims-to-get-churches-talking-about-creati/

Thursday, August 24, 2023

David Scott: Looking at autonomy and connection together

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.

Like annual conferences in the United States, some European conferences are struggling with conflicts, particularly over sexuality in the church. Some have chosen to become autonomous, while others have chosen disaffiliation.

The Czech Annual Conference is an example. During annual conference sessions in May, delegates voted to become an autonomous church, no longer part of The United Methodist Church. To become autonomous, the Czech church will follow the procedure laid out in Paragraph 572 of the denomination’s Book of Discipline. The Eurasia Episcopal Area also chose to follow Paragraph 572.

Other branches of Methodism in Europe have selected different methods to separate from the denomination – a unilateral declaration in the case of Bulgaria and Slovakia and a process negotiated with the central conference for Estonia. Other branches of The United Methodist Church in Europe or elsewhere could similarly decide to use Paragraph 572 to become autonomous.

These recent developments raise theological and polity questions. What is an autonomous church? Where did Paragraph 572 originate? Is autonomy just another name for disaffiliation? What does autonomy mean for the future of connectionalism?

“Autonomy” means “self-ruling.” An autonomous church makes its own polity. Differing degrees of autonomy can be practiced by differing bodies within the church. A congregation has autonomy over its building-use policies and program calendar. An annual conference has autonomy over its clergy deployment.

An “autonomous church” is generally understood as a separate body or denomination that makes its own polity and policy decisions without additional input by a larger church body. The Discipline’s Paragraph 570 defines an “autonomous Methodist church” as “a self-governing church of the Wesleyan tradition.”

Paragraph 572 allows individual or groups of annual conferences outside the U.S. to self-govern in all matters, no longer subject to the decision-making of the United Methodist General Conference. For a church to become autonomous by following Paragraph 572 requires annual conference, central conference and General Conference approval. (For more on that process, see this primer.)

The earliest version of Paragraph 572 was added to the Discipline in 1964 in response to the desire by branches of The Methodist Church in Asia and Latin America to become autonomous. These requests came at a time when former colonies were asserting their political independence and, therefore, their autonomy in political matters. In many cases, the church also sought religious autonomy. (For more on that history, see “Autonomy, international division mark United Methodist tradition” and “The History of the Global Connection, Part 2.”)

While the wave of church autonomy related to decolonization crested in the 1970s, the provision for autonomy remained in the Discipline. It was most recently used in 2012 to allow the Swedish Annual Conference to enter into an ecumenical union with the Mission Covenant and Baptist denominations in that country.

Previous instances stemmed from political realities in secular society or from the desire for ecumenical merger, but the current requests are related to conflicts over sexuality within the church. Especially in the case of Russia, other political and cultural factors are also at work.

That difference in intention raises a theological danger: that we will conflate autonomy and disaffiliation.

Autonomy is a church body’s desire to make its own decisions. Disaffiliation is a church body’s desire to separate from another part of that body. The two impulses may coincide. Separation from a church body allows independent decision-making, and doing so when those decisions once were jointly made implies some separation. Yet, autonomy and disaffiliation are not the same.

Autonomy and connection can go together. This expectation is reflected in language from Paragraph 572 and surrounding paragraphs. “Affiliated autonomous Methodist churches” maintain a formal connection to The United Methodist Church, whereas “affiliated united churches” result when Methodists merge into an ecumenical body.

Every autonomous or united church formerly connected to The United Methodist Church or The Methodist Church is now an affiliated Methodist or affiliated united church. In the past, branches of Methodism sought to become autonomous with the assumption that connection with The United Methodist Church would continue through nonvoting participation at General Conference, the Council of Bishops, agencies and other means.

Autonomy and connection can go hand in hand. Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen led a portion of the church that became autonomous from The United Methodist Church (the Evangelical Methodist Church, Argentina), while Bishop Emerito Nacpil led a portion of the church – the Philippines Central Conference – that continued to be part of the denomination.

Etchegoyen called for “connectionality with responsibility,” in which each church is responsible for its own identity and its own government but also shows its “historical, theological and ecclesial unity.”

“The vision of a global church,” Nacpil wrote, “relates or links autonomy and connectionality organically and essentially. In a global church, one cannot have one without the other.”

While it does not involve Paragraph 572, the current conversation around regionalism is about autonomy and connectionalism within The United Methodist Church. It will undoubtedly take a good deal of conferencing, consulting and time for The United Methodist Church to propose, test and refine theological and practical answers. That is as it should be. But our process of grappling with these questions will be aided if we understand autonomy as a positive theological quality that needs to be paired with, rather than opposed to, connectionalism.

For more historical and theological insights on autonomy and connectionalism, see “Church Autonomy and the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS): A UM & Global Collection.”

Thursday, August 17, 2023

William P. Payne - How the Missional Hermeneutic Reveals the Missio Dei, Part II

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. William P. Payne. Payne is the Professor of Evangelism and World Mission at Ashland Theological Seminary. The following exerts are from a soon-to-be-published book on missional theology.

Joseph and Moses

Having previously described what the missional hermeneutic is, I will demonstrate the missional hermeneutic by means of the Joseph and Moses narratives.

As I look at the missional direction of the story, I must ask myself a question.[1]Why did God call Joseph and then cause him so much hardship? Answer, even though Jacob and his family were situated in the Promise Land, they could not survive in it as a distinct nation because they were a small people. If they had remained in that land, they would have sustained intense social contact with the Canaanite peoples including bride exchanges, joint business endeavors, and participation in cultural events. In time, they would have been assimilated into the existing social lattice. When that happened, they would have ceased to be God’s special people (Lev. 18:24-30).[2] The story of Esau demonstrates this. He became compromised when he married a Canaanite woman and interacted with the local peoples. Afterward, he and his progeny were assimilated into the Canaanite world.

This concern is illustrated when the Jews began to return from Babylonian captivity. While in Babylon, the people intermingled with the nations and married their daughters. This diluted their Jewish identity and threatened to lead them into idolatry. That is why Ezra made them put away their foreign wives and rededicate themselves to their Jewish culture. As he read the Torah to them, they wept because they had all but forgotten it (Ezra 10:1-3).

Also, cultural assimilation threatened to destroy the Jewish witness when the Jews began to adopt the Greek culture in the time of the Maccabees. In particular, Jason the high priest tried to accelerate the process (2 Macc. 4:7-22). The miracle-filled Jewish uprising that freed the nation also purged the nation of Greek influences and restored biblical Judaism.

During the time of Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, the Bible says that the Canaanites were a wicked people who had defiled the land. They were so bad that the land wanted to vomit them out (Lev. 18:24-26). They practiced the worst forms of idolatry. Also, the Jewish spies said that giants lived in Canaan (Josh. 14:6-15). The giants point to genetic contamination from the Nephilim (Gen. 6:1-4). So, in order for the Jews to fulfill God’s purposes and fully occupy the Promised Land that God claimed for them (his portion), they had to leave Canaan and return to it once they were able to displace the peoples that did not follow God. This was their “manifest destiny.”

When God sent Joseph to Egypt by means of filial betrayal to prepare the way for his family and facilitate the move to Egypt, Joseph could not have imagined that God was working out God’s plan. After all, he was abandoned by his brothers, sold into slavery, and wrongly thrown into jail. However, after God put Joseph in a position of power, God drove his family to the land of Goshen by means of a great famine. When Joseph realized what God was doing, he told his brothers that they meant it for evil, but God intended it for good (Gen. 50:20). Furthermore, he knows that God will return them to the Promise Land at a later time. For that reason, he tells them to take his bones with them when they leave (Gen. 50:24-25).

The Jews were not assimilated in Egypt because they did not have routine social interactions with the Egyptians when they lived in the Land of Goshen. For this reason, the land of Goshen became the womb of Israel. While in Goshen, the people grew into a large nation. Hundreds of years later, God was ready to birth the nation. In order to do that, God needed a deliverer to lead the people through the birth canal (i.e., a narrow opening in the Red Sea) and into the Promise Land. God picked Moses.

Previously, when Pharaoh was killing the baby boys, God saved baby Moses from the reeds and placed him in Pharaoh’s home to prepare Moses for his mission. After Moses fled for his life, God caused him to learn pastoral skills while tending sheep in the wilderness because Moses would need to shepherd God’s people. At the right time, God revealed God’s plan to Moses and worked through him to defeat the gods of Egypt, free the Hebrew people from slavery, and displace the Canaanites from the Land of Promise.[3]

When viewed as individual stories, the narratives about Joseph and Moses do not fit together. However, when they are seen in light of the missional direction of the grand narrative, it is obvious that they participate in the same movement of God. The same process can be applied to the entire Bible.

Conclusion

This paper has made a case for the missional hermeneutic. It flows from the missio Dei and is employed by the New Testament writers. It posits that God has a plan and that God is pursuing that plan. Both Scripture and salvation history reveal that plan.


[1] See George Hunsberger’s the missional direction of the story in “What Is a Missional Hermeneutic?

[2] “For we have forsaken thy commandments, which thou didst command by thy servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore give not your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever” (Ezra 9:10-12).

[3] For a fuller understanding of this, see Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God, 51.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

William P. Payne - How the Missional Hermeneutic Reveals the Missio Dei, Part I

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. William P. Payne. Payne is the Professor of Evangelism and World Mission at Ashland Theological Seminary. The following exerts are from a soon-to-be-published book on missional theology.

Imagine that you are touring a large mansion. Upon entering, a labyrinth of opulent corridors greets you. As the tour guide leads you through the halls, you notice that each room is painted a different color, has its own design, and is furnished in a particular way. To get a better feel for the mansion’s floor plan, you walk around the perimeter. As you stroll, you notice large walls, decorations, a solid foundation, and gorgeous landscaping. You note that the building is not rectangular because the walls do not connect at 90-degree angles. Because of all the turns, you cannot visualize the full layout of the mansion. Finally, you go up in a hot air balloon and look down upon the mansion. From this vantage point, you can see the external design.

In this metaphor, the mansion is the Bible. The rooms are the books of the Bible. The outside walls are the main groupings of scripture. The foundation is the eternal truth that the Bible reveals. The landscaping is the socio-cultural context that influenced the Bible writers. The corridors are varying themes that connect the books together. The tour guide is the history of interpretation. The roof is the grand design that overshadows the Bible.

What Is the Missio Dei?

The missio Dei[1] (God’s mission) is the grand design of the Bible and the missional hermeneutic allows one to see it. In this sense, the missio Dei is the hermeneutical key that holds the Bible together – the all-inclusive story that the Bible tells.[2] Michael Goheen calls it the “One unfolding story of redemption against the backdrop of creation and humanity’s fall into sin.”[3] In its simplest form, the missio Dei says that God is a missionary God; the Bible from Genesis to Revelation tells God’s missional story; and the church is God’s missional agent in this age. The missio Dei begins with God, runs through the church, and ends with the fulfillment of God’s purposes on earth and in the heavenly realms (Eph. 1:19-20).[4] When the end comes, every knee in heaven, on the earth, and below the earth will bow before the glorious name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10-11). Until that time, God continues to pursue God’s mission.

Mission is the mother of theology because it is the theological hub around which all other biblical themes revolve.[5] God’s self-revelation serves God’s mission. God’s action in history shows God’s mission. Prophecy declares the direction of God’s mission. Jesus embodies God’s mission. The Holy Spirit enables God’s mission.[6] The church serves God’s mission. All of scripture explicates God’s mission. God’s mission is God’s purpose and God’s will. God’s missional character and God’s missional work are fully intertwined. To know God is to be caught up in God’s mission.

David Bosch adds a necessary nuance. He says that the missio Dei is “God’s self-revelation as the One who loves the world.”[7] God’s love is not silent. It is demonstrated by God’s involvement with the world. For instance, God created humans because God loves them and wants to be in a relationship with them. When they inhaled God’s Spirit and became sapient beings (Gen. 2:7), God gave them rulership and invited them to serve with him (Gen. 2:16 and Psalm 8:5-6). They were to be God’s representatives on this earth. When they rebelled against God’s design, God did not abandon them to sin, death, and Satan. The sacrificial system pointed to God’s plan (Lev 16).

In the New Testament, the missio Dei announces the good news that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and brings people into a right relationship with the Father (John 1:29 and 36). In this age, Jesus is undoing the catastrophe of the fall. His ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation destroy the power of Satan and give people the hope of full restoration into the image of God. Those who receive Christ and live under God’s rule are called the children of God (1 John 3:2-3). They are restored to their rightful place as members of God’s family (John 1:12-13).

The church is apostolic because God sends it into the world to announce God’s mission and do God’s work (John 20:21). The church does not have its own mission. Rather, it manifests and extends God’s mission.[8] Leslie Newbigin captures this when he says, “Mission is God’s, not ours. But God chooses men and women for the service of God’s mission.”[9] Yes. As the living Body of Christ, the church is the face of God’s mission in the world.

Theologians who make an exaggerated distinction between the mission of God and the mission of the church fail to realize that the church is dynamically and intimately caught up into God’s mission. In the same way that God worked through Moses to defeat the gods of Egypt and set the Israelites free, God works through God’s church to accomplish God’s mission today. This does not mean that God cannot work through a donkey, a Persian king, the magi, angels, a traitor, or an earthquake. Rather, it means that the apostolic church is so tightly tied to God’s mission in this world that it is defined by it.[10]The church has no reason to exist if it is not accomplishing the missio Dei.[11]

The Missional Hermeneutic

The missional hermeneutic is a heuristic device that enables Christ followers to read the metanarrative of the Bible in light of God’s missional intentions; purposes that supremely swirl around Christ and his ongoing work. It affirms that the whole Bible points to the missio Dei and that God’s mission is the central theme of the Bible.

When speaking of the missional hermeneutic, Boubakar Sanou says that the entire Bible reveals the various means by which God is seeking to redeem lost humanity.[12] He drives this point when he writes, "Missional hermeneutics seeks to recover biblical interpretation from a mere creedal and academic reading of the Bible and refocus it on the missio Dei. As both the central interest and the unitive theme of the scriptural narrative. From this perspective, biblical interpreters will see Scripture, as a whole, a missional thrust rather than having to focus only on the theme of mission in select texts."[13]

Stephen utilized this approach when he recounted the history of the Jews (Acts 7). His interpretation of sacred history shows that he and the leaders of the Jerusalem Church read the Hebrew scriptures from the perspective of the Christ event. I say this because Stephen reiterated what he had learned while studying at the feet of the apostles (Acts 2:42). Paul did the same thing when he preached in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-41). His sermon retells the history of the Jewish people from the perspective of salvation history. God was working through the events of the Jews to bring them to a new reality in Christ. Paul concludes his sermon by saying, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus” (Acts 13:32-33 RSV). From the perspective of the unfolding story, sacred history points to the crucifixion, resurrection, and the new reality that has come into existence through Jesus. In order to continue with God, the Jews must receive Christ and follow in the new way.


[1] L. Hoedemaker provides an excellent overview and critique of missio Dei in Missiology: An Ecumenical Introduction, 162-166. Also, see Darren Sarisky, “The Meaning of the Mission Dei,” 258-269, Eddie Arthur, “Missio Dei and the Mission of the Church,” 1-7, and Timothy Tennent World Missions, 487-489.

[2] Boubakar Sanou, “Missio Dei as the Hermeneutical Key for Scriptural Interpretation,” 301.

[3] Michael Goheen, “Continuing Steps,” 61.

[4] In Ephesians, the “heavenly realms” (epouranios) refers to the place where God is (Eph. 1:3, 1:20, 2:6) and the place where the powers and principalities reign (Eph. 3:10 and 6:20). As a general term, it means, the spiritual realm.

[5] Martin Kahler, Schriften zur Christologie und Mission, 190.

[6] Newbigin connects the mission of the Spirit to the mission of the church when he says, “It is the Spirit who will give them (the disciples who are sent out in Jesus’ name to do his work) power and the Spirit who will bear witness. It is not that they must speak and act, asking the help of the Spirit to do so. It is rather that in their faithfulness to Jesus they become the place where the Spirit speaks and acts” (The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, 117-118).

[7] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 10.

[8] Ibid., 391.

[9] Newbigin, The Open Secret, 19.

[10] Emile Brunner says that “The Church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning,” (The Word and the World, 108).

[11] Girma Bekele, “The Biblical Narrative of the Missio Dei,” 154.

[12] Boubakar Sanou, “Missio Dei as Hermeneutical Key for Scriptural Interpretation, 308.

[13] Ibid., 306.