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.


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.