Friday, February 10, 2023

UM & Global Announces Hiatus

UM & Global is announcing that, as of this post, it is going on a hiatus. We are taking a break from our publication schedule while we address some technical issues with the site and re-evaluate our editorial purpose. In the meantime, you can continue to follow @globalumc on Twitter for reposts of news related to mission and worldwide Methodism.

The primary impulse for this hiatus is that the platform the blog uses, Blogger, is now only being minimally supported by Google, its parent company, and has lost features. In particular, the function that sends notifications of new posts to readers has disappeared. Several of you have commented to me on its loss, and analytics show that this does seem to be impacting our site traffic. Currently, there is no alternative notification system available on Blogger. I want to explore other possible platforms for the blog, but since UM & Global is (and has always been) a one-person team run in addition to other full-time duties, I lack the bandwidth to do that while also continuing to produce regular content for the site.

On another level, this is a chance to not just tweak features but rethink how the blog functions. There has been a lot that has changed about the world, about The United Methodist Church, about mission, and about online fora for discussion since the blog launched. Indeed, the rise of new online platforms such as YouTube, podcasts, Substack, and various social media outlets has challenged the idea of what a blog is and should do. A hiatus will also create space to think about how UM & Global fits into the information landscape within and beyond the church in 2023.

Furthermore, a pause to reassess the purpose and function of the blog seems well timed given the accomplishments of the blog and the landmarks it has reached. UM & Global launched on March 3rd, 2013, so we have published for ten years now, and this is our 1200th post! Over those ten years and 1200 posts, the site has hosted a lot of good writing by about 120 different authors. Whatever comes next for the blog, this body of work is an accomplishment that all those who have contributed to the blog can be proud of.

I am not yet sure what the timeline for the hiatus or the next steps will be, but I anticipate that one way or another, there will still be demand for reflective, high-quality analysis related to “fostering conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church,” as the tagline for the blog has been. When we come back from this hiatus, UM & Global will continue to advance that mission.

Dr. David W. Scott
Blogmaster, UM & Global

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

An Appreciation of My Congregation

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In my last post, I wrote that in order for our congregations to continue to reach new people, we need to be able to talk about what goes right in them, not just what goes wrong. As a practice of that, I want to share an appreciation of some of the many things that go right at my congregation, Decorah First United Methodist Church, even amidst a decline in members and worship attendance.

My wife once described a church she served as “the type of Methodists who like to drink coffee and do good.” I think Decorah FUMC has a lot of that type of United Methodist, though I would add sing and learn to the list of things that the congregation likes to do. So, I will talk about singing, drinking coffee, learning, and doing good, or if you prefer church words, worship, fellowship, discipleship, and mission, as I have experienced them at Decorah FUMC and as I have come to know them as Methodist practices.

One of my distinct impressions of Decorah FUMC growing up was the singing. Not only was there a good choir, but the congregation would sing in four-part harmony during the hymns, singing “lustily and with good courage,” as John Wesley instructed. Even now, a much smaller choir continues to offer anthems as an important part of the service, and you can hear the voices of those around you during the hymns.

As I have come to learn more about Methodism and other Christian traditions, I have learned that Decorah FUMC’s emphasis on singing is perhaps to some extent an influence from our Lutheran neighbors, with their strong choral traditions, but also something intrinsic to Methodism. For a tradition co-founded by Charles Wesley and claiming some of the other top hymn writers of all time (Fannie Crosby, Charles Tindley, etc.), singing comes naturally.

But it wasn’t just that we sang, it was the joy expressed in the singing that stuck with me. The church I grew up in was generally a joyful church. They made plausible Psalm 122:1, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” There is less joy and more weariness in the church these days, but the old joy still pops up every now and then.

This joyfulness taught me something important about Methodism and about faith. It taught me that church should be a blessing and not just an obligation. And it taught me the importance of emotion in experiencing one’s faith. Methodism has always been a tradition that combines head and heart, and growing up around joyful Christians helped me internalize that.

Drinking Coffee
After the singing (and the rest of worship) is over, most folks at Decorah FUMC head downstairs. The church is part of that large group of US Protestant churches that believe that coffee time is the third sacrament. Of course, despite what my children might tell you, the real point of coffee time is not the treats or the coffee (organic and fair trade though it may be), but the opportunity to sit around a table and talk with other congregants.

Every church has its cliques and its social customs that feel foreign to outsiders, and I expect Decorah FUMC is no different than others in that regard. But I have experienced their fellowship to be open, warm, and meaningful.

I remember as a kid watching my parents interact with their friends at coffee time and learning from those models of Christian adulthood. Then as a teenager, I remember the thrill of sitting at a table without my parents and talking to other adults who treated me seriously and with respect and affection. It was an important step in forming my own identity. Now, I appreciate the chance to talk with people I wouldn’t otherwise during the week – people with different ages, abilities, and life histories than me. Each of these experiences of fellowship fits with the larger Methodist emphasis that religion must be a communal experience. One cannot be a solitary Christian.

Decorah FUMC has always scheduled Sunday school for after coffee time. Those faith formation options for children and adults have ebbed and flowed over the years, and they are not always confined to Sunday mornings. Church members have formed a long-running book club, and there are a variety of occasional presentations on a wide range of topics related to the practice of faith in the world. This is perhaps not surprising for a congregation with an overrepresentation of teachers.

As I’ve come to know more about Methodism throughout the world, this also strikes me as representative of Methodism as a tradition broadly: the emphasis on learning and education. This expresses itself in various ways, from starting Sunday schools to starting universities, but Methodists care about education.

I’m currently in the middle of teaching a short Sunday school session on mission at my church, and it’s reminded me of another thing I appreciate about Decorah FUMC. It’s a church that’s interested in learning and, as part of that, willing to talk about faith and how to live out one’s faith in the world. Most of the people at Decorah FUMC do not subscribe to a privatized faith that is only something internal. They are interested in talking with other church members about how to better understand and live out their faith.

While the church has not had (to my knowledge) a formal “discipleship system” or “Wesleyan accountability groups,” but this is the work of discipleship, overflowing into in the lives of the congregants. This, too, is very Wesleyan: an emphasis on discipleship that impacts people’s everyday practice of their faiths.

Doing Good
It is this fourth category, doing good, where Decorah FUMC perhaps shines the brightest. The congregation has always been and remains civic-minded, willing to volunteer, generous, and serious about mission.

Decorah FUMC did not and does not have the town’s wealthiest or the most prominent college professors on its rolls. Instead, it has had a lot of teachers, small business owners, nurses, and a smattering of other professionals. In other words, the congregation has had a lot of the civically oriented middle class among its members.

These are the sorts of people who volunteer for things and serve on committees and generally help keep the gears of the local community turning. They helped launch the local Habitat for Humanity organization, serve on the library board, help keep the food pantry running, and the like. Not all of this happens through the church, but it is still a form of local mission.

As I have learned more about Methodism, this strikes me as quite frequently Methodism’s place in the religious ecology of communities. It may begin among the “upwardly mobile poor,” but in many places, Methodism comes to be characterized by people who care about the common good, the health of the community, and who have enough to contribute to that common good without necessarily having a lot left over. Sometimes those contributions to the community are organized through the church; sometimes church members make them on their own.

As part of caring about its community, Decorah FUMC has long been a generous congregation. My first experience of church committee work was serving on the mission committee in high school and being impressed by the number of organizations in the community that the church helped support. Now, I am the treasurer of the local food pantry, and I know that the tradition of generosity continues in the church.

Nor is it just money that the congregation gives. It is generous about the use of its space, too, hosting everything from AA meetings to preparations for the community Thanksgiving meal to holiday celebrations for students from the local college to concerts to community forums on various topics.

Yet Decorah FUMC has never believed that mission is just about giving money or letting others use their space. Instead, over the past several decades, the church has subscribed to a notion of mission that has emphasized personal relationships. I know that this practice of personal relationships in mission has impacted how I understand mission and how I have taught others about mission.

I remember the United Methodist Congolese student at the local college that the congregation helped support during and beyond her studies. I think of the church’s commitment to the Ulster Project, which sought to foster reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland by forming relationships among youth from the two groups. I remember how the church showed up for families impacted by the immigration raid in nearby Postville, IA, the largest such raid in the nation’s history. First and foremost, I think of the congregation’s now 25-year-long commitment to a sister congregation relationship with a congregation in Central America.

It is this commitment to mission, this dedication to putting faith into action for the sake of others, that strikes me as most characteristic of Methodism. Methodism is a missional movement, as its proponents have repeatedly emphasized throughout the years. I am grateful to have been molded into that tradition of Methodism by Decorah FUMC and further grateful that I am now able to share that understanding back with them and with others throughout the world.

Monday, February 6, 2023

A Defense of My Congregation

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.

One of the unexpected upsides of the pandemic for me and my family has been the opportunity to move back to my hometown, Decorah, IA. Along with that move, I’ve been able to resume my connection to the church I grew up in, First United Methodist Church of Decorah.

Being a part of Decorah FUMC has not only been a nice opportunity to reconnect with people who have been an important part of my spiritual development, it has also been a unique opportunity to reflect on the challenges that have faced American Christianity in the past 25 or 30 years as they have played out in this congregation.

Like many United Methodist churches (and like many churches of other denominations), Decorah FUMC is a smaller and older congregation than it was when I grew up in it. While it’s easy to interpret that statement in entirely negative ways, I think it’s worth saying a word in defense of the church, a word about why the church does not deserve to shoulder all the blame for that change.

I make this defense of my congregation not because I think it is unique, but rather because I know it is not. From my wife’s experiences as a pastor, my knowledge of the ministry of other pastors, my teaching of Course of Study, and my reading of stories about United Methodist and other churches in the United States, I think what is true in Decorah is true in a lot of places. I’m able to make this defense for Decorah FUMC because I know it better than other congregations, but a lot of what I have to say carries across congregations.

Changes in Attendance
Although The United Methodist Church and only mainline denominations have been losing members since the 1960s, Decorah FUMC, like a number of other United Methodist and other mainline congregations, was actually doing really well through the 1990s. Indeed, the 1990s were something of a heyday of members and ministries for several United Methodist congregations that I know, including congregations across the theological spectrum.

Since the 1990s, though, membership and attendance has dwindled, at Decorah FUMC and at most of the other congregations I know for whom the 90s was a heyday. Attendance at Decorah FUMC peaked at somewhere around 120 a week in the 90s. Currently, it’s probably somewhere between 40 and 50 on a given Sunday.

While that drop may seem dramatic, it’s more typical than one might think. One Hartford Institute for Religion Research study found that the median worship size for US congregations across denominations fell by just over 50% between 2000 and 2020. Another recent Hartford study has shown that average attendance has decline by a further quarter compared to pre-pandemic.

Put these two figures together, and one would expect Decorah FUMC to have attendance in the average low 40s these days just based on national trendlines. As dramatic as this drop in attendance figures may seem, it’s not exceptional. It’s normal.

Small and Rural
Both of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research articles cited above make clear that drops in typical attendance have been especially pronounced for smaller churches and churches in rural areas or small towns. Decorah FUMC fits both these categories. Indeed, given the unique challenges of rural and small congregations, Decorah FUMC is doing somewhat better than one would expect.

Rural churches often don’t receive a lot of attention. Most Americans live in suburbs; only 14% live in rural areas and small towns. But 47% of American congregations are in rural areas and small towns. That means while the typical American Christian may be in the suburbs, the typical American church is not.

This is true for United Methodism as well. One of the legacies of the circuit riders is that the UMC has churches in most small towns in America. There are about the same number of UMC churches in the United States as there are post offices. The typical UMC congregation is small and located in a rural or small-town setting.

While detailing all the challenges of rural and small-town life in 21st century America would go far beyond this essay, a pervasive sense of dwindling and decline applies to many aspects of rural life. Businesses close. Young people move away. Schools are consolidated. The population ages and declines. Why should churches be exempt from these trends?

Here, too, Decorah FUMC is indicative of broader trends. Decorah, IA, is in many ways a successful and thriving small town compared to others. But the population has been static since 1980, with a recent dip from declining enrollment in the local college. There are fewer people in the surrounding county now than there were in 1870. In a static to declining population, even maintaining church membership is a challenge, especially given national trend lines away from religion.

This is especially true given the outmigration of people from small towns. Looking through pictures of the confirmation classes from the years my brothers and I were being confirmed, I see that probably 75% of the kids who grew up in Decorah FUMC have moved away. It’s not that other young people haven’t moved to town since, but the experience of moving can be disruptive those with weaker church attachments. Newer young people moving in are less likely to affiliate with a church than the young people who grew up in a congregation but are now moving away.

Focusing on young families (the golden grail of so many churches) reflects another challenge that small churches have. As churches contract, it becomes harder to maintain a critical mass of young families. My family has been the only young family in some churches we’ve attended, and my kids have been the only kids under 10 in those churches. It can be rough.

For parents who care about passing on the faith to their kids, there is an incentive to switch to another church with more kids and perhaps a Sunday school. Even when I was in high school, the attraction was palpable of the larger, Lutheran youth groups when compared to the small band of Methodists. I know other families in Decorah who were connected to First United Methodist Church but switched to other churches than still had a larger attendance so that their kids would have age-level peers in church.

Exegeting the Experience
Am I making excuses and saying that it’s okay that membership and worship attendance at Decorah FUMC have dropped? No! I sincerely wish it was different. It breaks my heart to see the congregation a fraction of its former self, especially because I know the faith of those who have been a part of the congregation and the good work that the congregation has done.

What I am saying is that I don’t think we should place all the blame for these changes on the congregation itself. Has the congregation made mistakes in the past 25 or 30 years that have cost it members? Sure. Every organization makes mistakes, and the congregation and its ministers have made mistakes too.

But the congregation has also done things right and tried new things in the past 25 or 30 years, things that the experts say should lead to growth and vitality. They experimented with a new, non-traditional worship experience. They’ve been heavily involved in their local community. People are willing to talk about their faith. They have welcomed new members. When I look around on Sunday, a good portion - probably between a quarter and a third - of the people in the pews were not yet there when I was growing up.

And many of the factors affecting the congregation are far beyond its control. It cannot control the educational, economic, and cultural incentives that make young people decide to leave town. It did not control the 2019 General Conference, though its outcome did cost the church members. It certainly didn’t control the COVID pandemic, though that’s been the most disruptive impact on church attendance in living memory. And, while everyone bears some responsibility for the larger cultural shifts away from church attendance and membership, it is unfair to hold individual congregations responsible for solving a problem that US Christianity as a whole has not been able to.

Decorah FUMC is a good congregation, and it has done good ministry and continues to do good ministry, even as its numbers have declined. And as hard as it may be to see empty pews, what’s even harder is to see good, faithful people feeling like they have failed because of those empty pews.

Yes, evangelism should be a practice and a value of the church. But to fault every congregation that is not growing amidst a tidal surge in the opposite direction, especially congregations in areas with real demographic limitations to growth, is cruel. We cannot expect every congregation to be like those in growing suburbs. And to insist that they must is to abdicate responsibility for really engaging with the reality of nearly half of American congregations.

Nor is it productive to make congregations feel bad because they have fewer members. No one wants to join a floundering or failing organization. Telling congregations that they have failed because they have lost members is counter-productive to the goal of bringing in new people. Christianity is about good news, not about fulfilling obligations even though the experience is sort of a downer.

To continue to reach new people, we need to focus on what goes right at our churches, not just what goes wrong. So, in my next post, I’m going to write an appreciation of Decorah UMC and celebrate the things that go right there, and in so many other United Methodist congregations in the United States.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Recommended Reading: How To Save the Planet

The European Methodist Youth Climate Team has created a 4-page guide to creation care entitled "How To Save the Planet." The European Methodist Youth Climate Team had been active around environmental issues in the lead-up to the COP27 meeting and issued a statement after that meeting. This new guide (written in English) is an extension of their previous work.

The guide presents 15 practical and spiritual steps that Methodists (and others) can take for "meaningful action on climate change." The steps range from advocacy to changing personal consumption habits to caring for those impacted by climate change. Throughout, there is an emphasis on cultivating the spiritual habits and dispositions and the theological undergirding for such work.

This guide is sure to be a helpful resource as a conversation starter for individual Methodists, Methodist congregations, and other settings where Methodists are committed to caring for God's creation.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Bolivia and the Challenges of Church Financing

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.

The Swiss UMC published a profile of the recently-elected Methodist bishop of Bolivia. The Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia is an autonomous Methodist denomination with historic connections to The United Methodist Church and on-going partnerships with Swiss United Methodists through the Swiss mission and development agencies, Connexio hope and develop.

One thing in particular struck me about what Bishop Medardo Vedia Gutierrez said about his vision for the future of the church in Bolivia. He argued that the church needs to become less financially reliant on its school system to pay for the ministries of the church.

Some background is important here. Methodism in much of South America was heavily influenced by William Taylor, a Methodist world-traveling evangelist, missionary, and eventually bishop. Taylor recruited most of the missionary personnel that forwarded the development of Methodism in South America in the later nineteenth century.

Taylor was a strong proponent of self-supporting mission. That is, he wanted mission to be primarily funded by local sources, not by donations from the United States. In South America, the main source for local funds to support Taylor missions was operating schools. Taylor missionaries made running schools (especially English-language schools) a primary focus of their work.

When leadership of Methodism in South America passed from missionary to local hands, these schools continued and continued to be an important part of South American Methodism, both as a source of revenue and as a marker of identity.

Thus, Bolivian Methodism's reliance on income from its school system has deep historic roots.

There have been real advantages historically to this system of church financing. It has made churches, even those serving poorer groups, less financially dependent on the United States, which has meant more freedom to make decisions locally.

But every strategy has its limitations, and the pandemic exposed the limitations of this strategy for church financing. During the COVID shutdown, income for Methodist schools in Bolivia fell sharply, which means that money to support the church in Bolivia dried up as well. That put a pinch on both the schools and the church.

Hence, Bishop Gutierrez would like to cultivate more congregational giving and more members and congregations to give and thus reduce the church's financial dependency on the schools. The challenge with congregational giving, however, comes when congregational members themselves have limited financial resources to share with the church.

This example from Bolivia is a good reminder: there is no perfect model for financing the activities of the church. Churches have had varying means of paying for the work they do throughout the centuries, and each of these means have had advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the goal, though, is not to find the perfect model for church financing that can apply universally, but rather to do the work of discerning what model can best support the mission and ministry of the church in a particular context at a particular time.

Running schools has had real advantages for Methodism in Latin America, but COVID caused a shift in the context. That calls for a rethinking of financial models, as Bolivia is doing. May God bless Bishop Gutierrez and the Bolivian church as they seek to continue to be faithful and wise in shifting contexts.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Kirk Sims: Is the Essence of Methodism about Method?

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Kirk Sims. Rev. Dr. Sims is a United Methodist missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries, serving as a consultant and theological educator based in Prague. He is an ordained elder in the North Georgia Annual Conference.

One misconception about Methodism is that we are all about method. In fact, it’s in our name! Yes, Wesley and the other members of the Holy Club of Oxford had a method to their pursuit of living holy lives. When others used “Methodists” in a derisive way, they embraced it as a name of honor. And yes, Methodists have been known for keeping meticulous records and holding to a Book of Discipline.

However, to conclude that we are primarily about method is to miss the essence of what it means to be a Methodist. In his widely distributed pamphlet, John Wesley described “The Character of a Methodist.” According to Wesley, “We do not place our religion, or any part of it, in being attached to any peculiar mode of speaking, any quaint or uncommon set of expressions. … Nor do we desire to be distinguished by actions, customs, or usages, of an indifferent nature.”

Rather, he described a Methodist as “one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him.” Wesley chose to speak in general terms. A Methodist gives thanks in all things, prays without ceasing, loves neighbors, keeps God’s commands, serves, does good, and thinks and lets others think.

Wesley does not define Methodists by a method, but by a way of life and commitment to Christ.

Sure, Wesley had his forms, but even in his lifetime, he would innovate and adapt based on what he was seeing in society and what was working—all for the aim of ensuring a people with the love of God shed abroad in their hearts. According to Howard Snyder, “John Wesley saw that new wine must be put into new wineskins. So the story of Wesley’s life and ministry is the story of creating and adapting structures to serve the burgeoning revival movement.”

Wesley could see that some things may work in one context but not another. For instance, even though he embraced an episcopal polity, he was certain to say that was not the only way prescribed by the apostles or the scriptures. And when he chose an edited version of the Articles of Religion for what would become the Methodist Episcopal Church, one phrase remained.

“It is not necessary that rites and ceremonies should in all places be the same, or exactly alike; for they have been always different, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. … Every particular church may ordain, change, or abolish rites and ceremonies, so that all things may be done to edification.”

For Wesley, forms were secondary to a living and active faith. In fact, Wesley said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” A living [Methodist] faith is not about perpetuating forms of religion but a living faith.

The early Methodists borrowed and innovated. Wesley learned and adapted the approach of bands from Peter Böhler and the Moravians, and he sort of stumbled into the concept of classes in Bristol. The high churchman “submitted to being more vile” through field preaching as he met people where they were. Francis Asbury knew he could not simply be appointed superintendent for America. The democratic culture demanded that he be elected by Conference. As the faith spread, circuit riders saw that the camp meeting was an effective means of evangelism, so they embraced that form.

In fact, Methodism is at its best when it uses forms that fit cultural contexts and point to deeper meanings. When the emphasis has been on making the love of God shed abroad, we have often seen growth—when we are less worried about maintaining a strict method or form.

In the latter half of the 20th Century in the US, many churches began to use instruments in worship similar to the style of music that people listened to in their free time. Methodists in India saw the value of retreating in culturally relevant ways, and Christ-centered Ashrams developed there. In many African contexts, it is fitting to express joy through dance, and many Methodists have incorporated collective dance into their worship. And in recent days, we have seen innovation in the digital realm.

As Methodists, our “method” is to point people to a living faith, one where the love of God is shed abroad.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Recommended Readings and Events: Fresh Expressions in the UMC

The Fresh Expressions movement for starting new churches for new people in new places continues to gain traction within The United Methodist Church in the United States. Fresh Expressions has already been significantly supported by the Florida Annual Conference and in the curriculum of United Theological Seminary. Two more indications of the growing interest in Fresh Expressions have recently come in:

First is a report on some of the Fresh Expressions in the North Georgia Annual Conference. These vignettes of Fresh Expressions work there include new faith communities at a brewery, among young men, and at an assisted living facility.

And the Wisconsin Annual Conference is hosting a Zoom training on Fresh Expressions in rural settings tomorrow, January 28th, from 9am-noon Central time. The training will be hosted by Michael Beck of the Florida Annual Conference who also teaches at United. Since a large percentage of the UMC's nearly 30,000 churches in the United States are in rural areas, extending the Fresh Expressions conversation into rural settings is an important development for the church's mission.

Discipleship Ministries is also running a monthly series of webinars on Fresh Expressions, starting on February 2nd and running through September 7th of this year. The webinars will take the format of symposia featuring a conversation between two theologians on topics related to Fresh Expressions.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

5 UMC Story Lines for Spring 2023

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.

After the conclusion of episcopal elections in November and the focus on Advent and the Christmas season last month, United Methodists are now beginning to discern what 2023 has in store for them, individually and collectively.

Of course, the most important story lines in The United Methodist Church remain the routine, every day, often overlooked work in congregations and conferences around the world of making disciples for the transformation of the world. Such work doesn’t always garner headlines, but it remains the heart of United Methodism.

What follows is five story lines to watch this spring on a connectional level. That is, they are story lines that impact the sorts of relationships (United) Methodists have with one another and the conversations about being the church that occur within those relationships. There is one story for each of the four regions of the church, plus one world-wide story.

United States: How will disaffiliations play out?
Disaffiliation of local churches has been a phenomenon mostly limited to the United States. Book of Discipline Paragraph 2553 provides a path for congregations in the United States (but not elsewhere) to leave the denomination by the end of this year.

About 2,000 of the denomination’s 30,000 churches exercised that option in 2022, but it is unclear how many more will leave. Exiting Traditionalists have sought to take as many congregations as possible, while those remaining in the denomination have in some instances sought to make the process more difficult to retain as many churches as possible.

Those remaining in the UMC have some incentive to try to wrap up the disaffiliation process this year so that they can turn their energy into renovating the denomination that remains. Some annual conferences have already scheduled end-of-year meetings to finalize 2023 disaffiliations. However, recent developments such as a new process for disaffiliation in South Carolina and a pause on disaffiliations in North Georgia open the possibility for the process to drag out beyond 2023.

Africa: How will the bishops, the Africa Initiative, and other groups shape the future of the church?
The African bishops released a statement last September in which they pledged loyalty to the UMC and condemned advocacy groups such as the Africa Initiative and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. While the statement caught many in the United States by surprise, it merely brought into the light a long simmering and slowly growing conflict between the bishops and the Africa Initiative.

That conflict continues, and both groups will continue to use the resources at their command to push for their vision of the future of the church – in the case of the bishops, one in which the UMC in Africa remains a part of the worldwide connection, and in the case of the Africa Initiative, one in which the church in Africa considers other possibilities starting in 2024.

One factor that may add to how these debates shape up is the creation of a new group, the United Methodist Africa Forum, a group of Africans promoting loyalty to the UMC. It remains to be seen whether this new group (or other similar groups, like the Voice of Africa Unity) will become significant players in the debates about the future of The United Methodist Church in Africa.

Philippines: Can new bishops keep the church united?
Amidst conflict elsewhere, the recently retired Filipino bishops have been remarkably successful in holding the church in the Philippines together and focused on their common mission and ministry in the Filipino setting. Moreover, Filipino advocacy for the Christmas Covenant and the idea of regionalization more broadly has made a distinctive contribution to debates about the future of the worldwide connection.

Three new bishops are new serving in the Philippines as of the start of the month. Indications are that they intend to continue the approach of their predecessors, emphasizing Filipino unity and a regional focus on the church’s ministry in the Philippines.

However, they will need to nurture the relationships and spread the messages necessary to pull off such a vision while also learning the ropes of a new and multifaceted ministry role. Many Filipino annual conferences happen in the spring, so these annual conferences will be a chance for the bishops to establish themselves and to solidify their vision for the future of the church.

Europe: Can plans to maintain unity within diversity hold?
Europe received a lot of United Methodist attention in 2022 because it was the site of the first annual conference seeking to leave The United Methodist Church: the Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference. Methodists in Estonia and the Slovak Republic have also indicated their desire to leave, and indications are that Methodists in the Eurasia Episcopal Area will follow suit.

Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about European Methodism is not that some are leaving but that many are staying, including those with differing views on sexuality, different theological emphases, different languages, and different cultures. Such unity has been forged by carefully negotiated compromises built on a long history of connectional relationships.

Yet such arrangements remain fragile and will require continued effort and goodwill to maintain. If Europeans succeed in this task, however, it will serve as an example to United Methodists elsewhere.

Worldwide: What will the focus of legislative conversations for 2024 be?
Because the 2024 General Conference is the delayed 2020 General Conference, all legislation initially submitted for 2020 remains in effect. Yet, much has changed in the 4-5 years since that legislation was written, and new, additional legislation may still be submitted. That means that the legislative priorities for General Conference 2024 remain very much up in the air.

On some level, it will be impossible to tell what the focus for General Conference 2024 will be until shortly before or even at the General Conference.

But on another level, groups wanting to shape the conversations leading into 2024 have an incentive to begin pushing their legislative packages (existing or to-be-submitted) much sooner. While there is the possibility of significant shifts in attention in the intervening months, the first group to really bring attention to a proposal can help set the terms of the debate. The supporters of the Christmas Covenant continue to advocate for that legislative package. Others may join the debate to promote their own hoped-for reforms later this spring.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism

Today’s blog post is adapted from the introduction of The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism: Emerging Trends from Everywhere to Everywhere, edited by David W. Scott and Darryl W. Stephens. The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism, initially published by Routledge in 2021, is newly out in a more affordable paperback version.

Why do we need another book about Methodist mission? Methodist and Wesleyan understandings and experiences of global mission have undergone significant changes in the past decade. We live in a world context much different than previously imagined. Much has shifted, with increased migration and nationalism, a growing recognition of impending environmental catastrophe, increased secularism in the West, and the continued growth of the church in the Majority World. These factors have reshaped the church and the world in which it is in mission.

The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism: Emerging Trends from Everywhere to Everywhere contributes to the ongoing development of Methodist mission by offering global perspectives on the theology and practice of mission and evangelism within a changing world context. A contemporary missiology must engage these new conditions in the world. There is a great need for new scholarship on mission and evangelism that brings together Methodist and Wesleyan voices from around the world to address pressing current topics in mission that transcend national borders.

This is an ambitious title for one volume. The word “practice” signals attention to the activities involved in mission, not just the theories behind it. Yet there are many forms of mission, from evangelism to health care, women’s empowerment to creation care, theological inculturation to education, and beyond. The term “global Methodism” signals a similarly wide purview. Methodism is present in some form on all six inhabited continents and across dozens of countries, cultures, and languages. This emphasis is reinforced by the phrase “from everywhere to everywhere” in the book’s subtitle. A frequently-used slogan at Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, this phrase indicates that missionaries can come from any context and any context can be a site of mission. Significantly, the qualifier “emerging” signals the constructive, forward-looking orientation of this volume.

This book explores emerging trends within Methodist mission practice in four areas: global relationships, contextual engagement, education and formation, and discernment about the future of Methodist mission. These four areas structure the book into four sections, while overarching themes such as decolonization, the growth of Christianity in the global South, holistic mission, Wesleyan theology, evangelism, culture’s impact on theology, and the significance of collaborative relationships are addressed throughout. Other topics are present in two or three essays, such as women’s mission work, migration, creation care, peace, justice, health and healing, ecumenism, economic development, political engagement, and students and youth.

This volume begins with Part I, Cultivating Global Relationships. Among mission leaders and practitioners from the global South and East, mission scholars around the world, and mission practitioners in the global North, relationships are characterized by both collaborations and tensions. Global connections make new forms and levels of mission collaboration possible across countries, cultures, and denominations. Increasing divisions within global connectivity pull global mission relationships in different directions. Several chapters address economic, cultural, theological, political, and economic divisions impacting the practice of Methodist mission and attempts to work together across these differences.

The nature of global relationships raises a host of questions regarding the nature of mission partnerships among Methodists around the world. How is it possible to foster mutuality in mission? How can Methodists from the global West and North use their resources to support and not to dominate partners from the global South and East? How can partners from the global South and East and those from the global West and North learn from and appreciate the gifts of the others and not overly value their own? How can these (and other) groups best work together to further the mission of God?

Part II, Practicing Contextual Engagement, is the largest section of the book. Scholars and practitioners address how Methodists around the world practice mission in its many forms and many contexts, including those shaped by colonial legacies. In the colonial era, Methodist evangelistic mission often went hand-in-hand with the construction of schools, hospitals, and clinics. These missional practices of evangelism, healing, and education remain as popular as ever among Methodists around the world. Moreover, practices such as social service, justice seeking, peace building, and economic development that have more recent pedigrees—dating perhaps to the past century or so—have also continued to be important practices of Methodist mission in the twenty-first century. Therefore, it is important to understand mission holistically and to be able to identify the connections between these various forms of mission work.

Part III, Educating for Missional Formation, combines intellectual formation with spiritual formation, skills development, and organizational planning. Methodists educate each other about mission through theological, spiritual, and practical preparation, including evangelism as a form of mission. How should Methodists pastors, seminarians, lay people, and youth educate themselves to live into a faithful vision of Methodist mission? How can they be encouraged to see the interconnections between different forms of mission as parts forming a holistic understanding? How can they learn from the resources of the faith and learn about the world in which mission occurs?

The final section is Part IV, Discerning the Future of Mission Together. God’s word abides even as our understandings of mission, the contexts in which we practice mission, and the people involved in mission are always changing. These changes call for the exercise of Christian discernment in mission practice. How is God calling us to articulate the gospel anew so as to connect with the world as it is and as it is becoming? How can we encourage new people, especially youth, to listen carefully to God’s calling to mission? How can we better understand God’s calling by listening to the voices of those different from us? The collective work of discernment is an essential component of mission practice.

This book aspires to enable faithful and effective Methodist mission in the twenty-first century. The authors open creative avenues for dialogue and engagement, furthering the conversation that is our collective responsibility as scholars and reflective practitioners of mission. Challenges facing Methodist mission arise from a desire for mutuality amidst the reality of global inequities; local expression of Methodism confronting lingering, systemic patterns of colonialism; and reciprocal learning despite xenophobic and tribalistic tendencies. How shall Methodists in mission promote partnership across cultures, rootedness within cultures, and exchange among cultures that are themselves in flux? Each contributor to this volume brings a distinctive viewpoint on these issues as they offer descriptions of and prescriptions for the practice of mission in global Methodism.

This book is designed for students, scholars, and practitioners of mission, both within Methodism and ecumenically. It is written for practitioners, scholars, and students in the fields of missiology, evangelism, world Christianity, and Methodist studies and will be of particular interest to those studying contemporary global Methodism and its understandings of mission and evangelism. Readers of many disciplinary backgrounds, including theology, ethics, history, and the social sciences, will find a rich, multidisciplinary conversation in these pages.

We hope the conversation included in this book will give rise to many more conversations among scholars and practitioners, as together we continue to improvise and innovate in the practice of Methodist mission.

The volume includes contributions from the following:
Hendrik R. Pieterse
Taylor Walters Denyer
David W. Scott
Carmen C. Manalac-Scheuerman and Akanisi Tarabe
K. Kale Yu
Nelson Kalombo Ngoy
Stephen J. H. Hendricks
Andrea Reily Rocha Soares
Sheryl Marks-Williams
Mark R. Teasdale
Darryl W. Stephens
Jenny Phillips
Elmira Sellu, Flory Atieno, Sara Jalloh, Jaka Joice, Rose Musooko, and Evelyn Ann Ouma
Jeffrey A. Conklin-Miller
Sam Kim
Mande Muyombo
Stephen Skuce
Joy Eva Bohol

Friday, January 20, 2023

Recommended Reading: Wespath Trip to DRC

Back in June of last year, Dale Jones, Wespath’s managing director of Church Relations, and Thomas Kemper, a consultant for Wespath's Central Conference Pensions program, traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo on behalf of Wespath. Wespath recently published a detailed description of their trip.

The report is worth reading for several reasons. First, any story that helps familiarize Americans with the DRC, the country with the second most United Methodists, is worth reading. Second, the report gives a good sense of what the process of hosting United Methodist delegations in the DRC is often like. Notably, while Jones and Kemper were primarily there to talk about pensions, they also saw schools and hospitals, which are critical components of the UMC's work in the DRC. Third, although many think of Wespath as a fairly US-focused agency, it is good to be reminded that there are international dimensions to the work of most of the church structures, including Wespath.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Recent Publications on Methodist Mission and Evangelism

The following is a list of books and articles published within the last six months by the Association of Methodist Professors of Mission or by other scholars about Methodist mission and evangelism. Readers are encouraged to consult these sources for the latest in scholarship about Methodist mission and evangelism.

Paul W. Chilcote, The Quest for Love Divine: Select Essays in Wesleyan Theology and Practice (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2022).

Paul W. Chilcote, “Perfect Love Restored: The Language of Renewal in the Hymns of Charles Wesley,” Holiness 7 (October 2022), 113.

Luís Wesley de Souza, “Mission and Evangelism,” in Christianity in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Kenneth R. Ross, Ana María Bidegaín, and Todd M. Johnson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

Benjamin L. Hartley, “The 1921 Founding of the International Missionary Council in the Life of John R. Mott,” International Review of Mission 111 (November 2022), 253.

Benjamin L. Hartley, “Missions,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Evangelicalism, edited by Jonathan Yeager (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

Arun W. Jones, “Hybridity and Christian Identity,” Missiology 50:1 (2022), 7.

Younghwa Kim, “Book Review: The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism: Emerging Trends from Everywhere to Everywhere,” Wesley and Methodist Studies 14:2 (2022), 227–229.

Ian Randall, “Mutuality in Methodist Mission: Murray and Olive Titus in India, 1910–1951,” Wesley and Methodist Studies 14:2 (June 2022), 146-168.

Dana L. Robert, “‘Make Jesus King’ and the Evangelical Missionary Imagination, 1889–1896,” in Global Faith, Worldly Power: Evangelical Internationalism and U.S. Empire, edited by John Corrigan, Melani McAlister, Axel R. Schäfer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022).

Dana L. Robert, “Pierson, Arthur Tappan (1837-1911),” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 4th edition, edited by Andrew Louth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

Dana L. Robert, “Conversion and Mission History: a Review of David W. Kling’s A History of Christian Conversion,” Pastoral Psychology 71 (July 2022), 789.

Dana L. Robert, “Dana Robert Responds to Mark Teasdale: ‘Extending the Metaphor: Evangelism as the Heart of Mission Twenty-Five Years Later’” Methodist Review 14 (2022).

David W. Scott and Hendrik R. Pieterse, “Soundings Towards an Intercultural Identity for The United Methodist Church: Some Historical and Theological Resources,” Methodist Review 14 (2022).

Mark R. Teasdale, “Extending the Metaphor: Evangelism as the Heart of Mission Twenty-Five Years Later,” Methodist Review 14 (2022).

Douglas D. Tzan, “Book Review: Of Merchants and Missions: A Historical Study of the Impact of British Colonialism on American Methodism in Singapore from 1885 to 1910,” Methodist History 60:2 October 2022), 305.

Darrell L. Whiteman, “The conversion of a missionary: A missiological study of Acts 10,” Missiology (2022).

Philip Wingeier Rayo, “Book Review: The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism: Emerging Trends from Everywhere to Everywhere,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 46:4 (June 2022), 611–612.

Monday, January 16, 2023

James M. Lawson, Jr. - Civil Rights Leader and Missionary

In honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, we are republishing a short biography of one of his collaborators - Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. The biography is excerpted from Linda Gesling, Mirror and Beacon: The History of Mission of The Methodist Church, 1939-1968 (New York: General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 2005), 206. It first appeared online as part of the Methodist Mission Bicentennial project.

Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1928, one of nine children of a U.S. Methodist pastor and a Jamaican mother. He took much of his attitude toward others from his mother, who did not believe in violence. Lawson grew up in Massillon, Ohio, where he became a good student in predominantly white schools.

He entered Methodist-related Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, where he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and became interested in the nonviolent methods of Mahatma Gandhi. He must A. J. Muste, the executive secretary of FOR, and others in the pacifist movement, including James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and Glenn Smiley.

Although he initially registered for the draft, he became a conscientious objector at the time of the Korean War and was sentenced to three years in federal prison. Baldwin-Wallace refused to grant his degree because of his prison sentence. Entering prison in April 1951, he served until May 1952, when he was paroled. He returned to college to obtain his degree, then became a short-term missionary of The Methodist Church to Nagpur, India, where he was an instructor at a Presbyterian school, Hislop College. Lawson was surprised to find that some Western missionaries did not like Gandhi and considered him a troublemaker. But Lawson considered that Gandhi had exemplified Jesus’ teaching of love.

Lawson returned to the U.S. in 1956, did postgraduate work at the Oberlin Graduate School, and also received a degree from Boston University. He met Martin Luther King, Jr., who urged him to find a way to serve in the South. Lawson accepted an invitation from FOR to develop nonviolent methods for African-American students in Nashville, Tennessee. In the fall of 1959, he began voluntary training workshops for college students there, and shortly after the Greensboro sit-ins, Nashville students started sit-ins on February 13, 1960. In the ensuing months, students continued to protest, and the lunch counters were desegregated, but not before Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt and jailed.

Lawson participated with King and others in the civil rights protests throughout the 1960s. He was a founding member of Black Methodists for Church Renewal in 1968. In 1974, he was appointed pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where he served for many years. He served the denomination as a member of its agencies and continued to articulate concerns for justice in the U.S. and peace abroad. In October 1996, he received the distinguished alumnus award from Vanderbilt University, despite never having received a degree there.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Recommended Reading: Methodists Respond to Political Violence in Brazil

As many readers will be aware, last weekend, on January 8, supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stormed federal government offices in Brasilia, Brazil. Rioters attacked the offices of the president, congress, and supreme court. Government forces were able to regain control of the buildings by the end of the day.

The attacks in Brazil were widely condemned within and beyond the country. Many drew parallels with the January 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol. Even Bolsonaro himself denounced the violence.

Among those condemning the attacks and affirming the value of democracy were Methodist bodies, both in Brazil and abroad. The Methodist Church in Brazil issued a statement entitled, "Nota de Repúdio a atos de violência e vandalismo." According to a Google translation of the statement into English, the church said, "We recognize that opposition manifestations are part of democracy, but we do not accept the totalitarian practices that we saw in these acts that deny the values ​​of the Gospel of Jesus and the construction of peace in Brazilian society." The statement denounced violence, called for peacemaking, and affirmed that Methodists are in favor of the democratic process.

Methodists in neighboring Uruguay also released a statement entitled, "Declaración por la civilidad y el respeto a la democracia." This statement affirmed that of the Brazilian church, expressed solidarity with Brazilian brothers and sisters, denounced violence, and affirmed the importance of democratic institutions.

In neighboring Argentina, the Evangelical Methodist Church Argentina called attention to a statement from el Consejo Latinoamericano de Iglesias (CLAI; Latin America Council of Churches) that condemned violence, affirmed democracy, and called for peace and prayer.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Retraction on Nigeria

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Since publishing a piece last week updating readers about the conflict in the church in Nigeria, I have received additional information calling into question the facts presented on the UMC Nigeria Episcopal Area Facebook page. Without the ability to determine from afar exactly what has been happening in Nigeria, I am removing the original post, lest it contribute to the spread of false information. I apologize to my readers for not doing more to attempt to verify the contours of that story before publishing it. I encourage United Methodists everywhere to continue to pray for peaceful reconciliation in the church in Nigeria.

Recommended Listening/Viewing: Thursdays at the Table on Whiteness, Privilege, Racism, and Faith

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling and the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference have launched a new podcast, "Thursdays at the Table." According to its official description, the podcast "makes space for intimate, authentic conversations that stir our curiosity about how our faith, culture, and ideas intersect to create meaning, transformation, and wholeness."

The first episode of the podcast is entitled, "The Courage of Our Voice," and features Bishop Easterling in conversation with three white men about their personal and church-related experiences with whiteness, privilege, racism, and faith. The three guests include David Abbott, Director of Stewardship for the United Methodist Foundation of New England; Bill Waddell, an attorney from Arkansas who provides legal counsel to The United Methodist Church; and Dr. David Scott, blogmaster of UM & Global and Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries.

The episode is an hour long and is available on Spotify, YouTube, and other sources.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Recommended Readings: German United Methodists Rethink Church

As in many places in the United States, The United Methodist Church in Germany has been facing challenging trends with many small, aging, and declining congregations. While there are certainly vital ministries and new faith congregations in Germany, the church there recognizes the challenges it faces in continuing to engage in faithful, relevant ministry in its changing context.

Stemming from that recognition, the German UMC has been taking proactive steps to change its organization at the central conference and annual conference level and encourage creativity at the local congregational level to strengthen the focus of the church on its mission. These changes are intended not just to consolidate in the face of decline but to use numeric decline as an impetus for the church to become clearer about its purpose and calling.

This process is evident in the actions of the Germany Central Conference and two of the German annual conferences, all of which met late last year. The Germany Central Conference approved a wide-ranging package of structural reforms that sought "more mission, less administration" (story in German; Google translated version). The South German Annual Conference than approved its own set of structural revisions and encouragements to congregations to try new forms of worship and outreach (story in German; Google translated version). Finally, the East German Annual Conference approved a resolution to revision its conference facility as a form of "church in a different shape" (story in German; Google translated version).

Given demographic trends and the impact of disaffiliations, many annual conferences in the United States are already having or will soon need to have conversations about how to restructure in the face of reduced membership and finances. When they do so, they could learn from the German model about how to keep mission front and center in such difficult conversations and decisions.