Thursday, January 25, 2024

David W. Scott: On International Mission and Cosmopolitanism

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.

International mission, by its nature as international, involves crossing national boundaries and, by its nature as mission, involves Christian practices of love and caring. Thus, international mission necessarily involves caring for and about others who are from a different nationality than oneself.

Put another way, international mission involves an extension of what Geert Hofstede and others have called the "moral circle" - the group of people who are within one's sphere of moral concern - those whom one sees as having the same moral rights as oneself - to life, health, happiness, love, etc. International mission is not the only way such an expansion happens - migration or contact with immigrants is another significant means - but it is an important way for Christians around the world to come into contact with people from other countries.

Granted, this extension may be imperfect and not lasting. Someone may participate in international mission and show concern for others without believing that those others are entitled to be treated by the same standard as oneself. Or, a Christian who takes a short-term mission trip may feel concern about the life conditions of those they encounter while on the trip, but three years later may largely have forgotten this new concern for people in other lands.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, international mission may be completely transformative of how one sees one's moral world. The annals of mission, especially of long-term mission, are replete with stories of Christians in mission who come to have a deep and abiding concern for the people of another country, wanting good for the people of that other country just as much as they want good for the people of their own country.

Beyond even that, there are stories of Christians in mission who come to see themselves as attached not just to another country and their own home country but attached to all countries, to see themselves as "citizens of the world." An academic term that describes this sense of connection to and concern for people all around the world is "cosmopolitan," which literally means "citizen of the world." It is clear that at least some Christians through their engagement in international mission take on a cosmopolitan outlook on life.

There is at least a little academic literature on missionary cosmopolitanism in the past two centuries of Western-led and then global Christian international mission. (See, this book for instance.) But the notion that Christians' sense of citizenship extends beyond a particular nation to encompass all goes all the way back to the roots of Christianity (as in, for instance, the Epistle to Diognetus).

Much of the academic discussion of cosmopolitanism, though, is not linked to religion but rather to secular forms of what might be called globalization - international trade, migration, international professional and cultural networks, etc. Moreover, secular cosmopolitanism is positively correlated with urban areas, wealth, and education and can carry a critique of rural provincialism.

These characteristics of secular cosmopolitanism and the existence of missionary cosmopolitanism raise for me a variety of questions, including the following:

First, to what extent is an openness to people from other countries a prerequisite for becoming involved in international mission, and to what extent is increased concern for people from other countries a result of participating in international mission? Both could be true. In a way akin to prevenient grace, perhaps a nascent openness to concern for others from other countries allows for the actual extension of moral concern to those others after participating in international mission. Yet I am left with the question of whether international mission only transforms the moral circles of those with larger than average moral circles to begin with or whether international mission has the power to potentially transform the moral outlook of anyone.

Second, if it is true that The United Methodist Church is a disproportionately rural church but secular cosmopolitanism is associated with urban living, where one is more likely to encounter people, goods, and ideas from other countries and cultures, then where does that leave the outlook for cultivating cosmopolitanism among United Methodists? Are United Methodists, because of their rural distribution, less likely to adopt cosmopolitan outlooks on the church than people in other, more urban, denominations, or does Methodists' penchant for mission increase their cosmopolitanism?

This question feels particularly important to me as the UMC looks forward to a more world-wide future. The ability to successfully live into that future seems to depend, if not on widespread cosmopolitanism, at least a sustained sense by enough people in enough parts of the church that they have a moral and religious connection to fellow denomination members throughout the world. A successful worldwide church cannot be the work of a few church bureaucrats or denominational insiders but must be rooted in the impulses of people in local congregations.

Third, where does the rising tide of nationalism over the past decade leave international mission and missionary cosmopolitanism? Nationalism emphasizes one's identity in connection to their home nation (however defined). It is thus in tension with cosmopolitanism, which views the world in a supranational way (that is, beyond one nation). Is international mission destined to decline or to become more of a niche endeavor if its association with cosmopolitanism goes against the nationalist trends of the day?

While I do believe that Christianity requires that we enlarge our moral circles, I don't think it necessitates that all Christians adopt a cosmopolitan view of the world. It is possible to live as a good Christian without much of a sense of the world community. Indeed, the vast majority of Christians across time and space have oriented their lives primarily toward local concerns. This localism often does not even rise to the level of nationalism, let alone cosmopolitanism.

Still, as someone who cares about the church as an international body, who cares about mission, including international mission, these questions about international mission and international Christian community on the one side and the idea of cosmopolitanism on the other leave me somewhat unsettled. Even if it will not be a primary concern for all Christians, how does the church keep alive the sense of the transcendent kingdom of God, which is beyond all nations or other allegiances, in the world, but not of it?

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Methodism and American Empire Book Now Out!

I (David) had previously shared an announcement and description of a book I have co-edited with Filipe Maia: Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church. At the time, the book was available for pre-order. I am happy to share that it is now printed and available for purchase! You can find it on Cokesbury, Amazon, or wherever you buy your books. Note that in addition to being the denominational book seller, as of this writing, Cokesbury has the book at a discount over Amazon.

Here is the brief description of the book from the publisher (Abingdon):

"Methodism and American Empire investigates historical trajectories and theological developments that connect American imperialism since World War II to the Methodist tradition as a global movement. The volume asks: to what extent is United Methodists’ vision of the globe marred by American imperialism? Through historical analyses and theological reflections, this volume chronicles the formation of an understanding of The United Methodist Church since the mid-20th century that is both global and at the same time dominated by American interests and concerns. Methodism and American Empire provides a historical and theological perspective to understand the current context of The United Methodist Church while also raising ecclesiological questions about the impact of imperialism on how Methodists have understood the nature and mission of the church over the last century. Gathering voices and perspectives from around the world, this volume suggests that the project of global Methodism and the tensions one witnesses therein ought to be understood in the context of American imperialism and that such an understanding is critical to the task of continuing to be a global denomination. The volume tells a tale of complex negotiations happening between United Methodists across different national, cultural, and ecclesial contexts and sets up the historical backdrop for the imminent schism of The United Methodist Church."

I am very impressed by the contributions to this volume of all the authors, and I think the book will make an important contribution to some really significant conversations going on in The United Methodist Church (and beyond). It was also a joy to work with Filipe Maia on this book. You can hear some more of his reflections related to it on this Bar of the Conference podcast. I'm proud to have worked on this book, and I hope you will check it out.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Future Is Networks

January is a time for making predictions about the future, so here’s a prediction: The future is networks, not formal institutions.

This prediction requires some elaboration of what I mean by networks and formal institutions. The prediction should also be qualified somewhat: This is less a prediction of what is to come and more an observation of how human organization has already been changing, coupled with an assumption that such a shift will continue.


A network may be defined as a collection of separate individuals or organizations that come together for collaboration. A network is definitely a type of organization itself, in that it organizes people or other organizations. Networks are, though, defined by their relational nature – relationships are the basis of their organization. There is a large literature in several social science fields on network organizations, and this post does not even begin to scratch the surface of this literature, but this definition will do.

A network may also be a type of institution, in that it may involve “rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior,” though it lacks much formalization of these rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations. Instead, a network relies on relational ties to produce those qualities. Moreover, the focus of a network may not be so much on regularity of behavior as on responsiveness, that is, on coordinating behavior in response to particular conditions or events rather than coordinating behavior toward a pre-determined end.

As relational organization, networks involve (relatively) equal status among their constituent parts. They may be organized around common interests or a shared desired outcome. They may also be short- or long-term oriented. Networks, especially those organized around shared interests, are often open ended, with the purpose of the network evolving as its constituent relationships evolve. Thus, networks are a relatively flexible form of organization.

Networks usually serve as avenues of communication among their members and for exchanging or pooling resources around shared objectives. A network may carry out a project as an organization itself, but more often, networks serve to loosely coordinate the activities of their members through exchange of information. Thus, those members are the primary actors in carrying out any work, not the network.

Formal Institutions

A formal institution may be defined as an organization with formalized rules and structures for working towards a goal or goals. Such formalized rules and structures include aspects such as legal incorporation, by-laws, assigned roles and responsibilities within the organization, clearly defined leadership roles, organizational hierarchies, defined mission and vision, etc. Formal institutions as organizations are defined by their formalized nature.

Formal institutions tend to be goal oriented. They are very concerned with regularity of behavior and planning toward a particular end. They exist to direct the behavior of constituent parts and the use of labor and financial resources towards certain goals.

Formal institutions tend toward a long-term orientation. Their formality gives them a greater permanence, and some of a formal institution’s efforts are likely to be directed towards the continuation of the institution. Formal institutions can and do change, grow, and shift over time, but their focus is on regularity.


Both networks and formal institutions are solutions to the problem of collective action – how can humans act together for the sake of achieving goals beyond what any individual is capable of? Formal institutions and networks can be thought of as two ideal types of solutions to this problem with actual organizations falling somewhere in the middle. Moreover, networks are often composed of formal institutions as members. Again, there is a large literature available for those interested in the spectrum of organizational types.

Each of these solutions is better at some things and in some situations. Networks have advantages at information sharing and are more flexible. Formal institutions are better at standardization and central coordination.

Yet whatever the absolute advantages and disadvantages of each organizational form, there has been a significant shift in recent decades away from formal institutions towards networks. Formal institutions were one of the crowning achievements of the modern era of human history – the world coordinated through bureaucracy, in a non-pejorative sense. In the 21st century, however, the flow is in the other direction, towards the creation of more networks and the dismantling of some existing formal institutions.

Applications for Churches

This shift from formal institutions to networks has implications for many areas of life, the church among them. Three ways in which this shift will impact churches are in denominational structures, ecumenical organizations, and ministry collaborations.

Denominations are, at their most basic, an organization that brings together multiple congregations. Yet there are varying ways in which denominations can serve to organize congregations, and some are more similar to networks, while others more closely resemble formal organizations. Some of this depends on polity. (Baptists tend more towards networks; Methodists towards formal organizations.) But even within a denomination, shifts are possible. Thus, for United Methodists, a shift towards a more network understanding of denominational structures would mean structures that serve to equip and coordinate churches in their own work rather than structures that seek to represent churches through the work of the denomination.

A similar principle applies to ecumenical organizations. At one time, the National Council of Churches was a significant organizational force, carrying out major work itself, work that was supported by the member denominations because of the formal structures that tied them to the NCC. Nowadays, the NCC serves more as a forum for discussion among member denominations, who may sign off on statements released by the NCC, but who maintain more autonomy in deciding what of the NCC to go along with.

Such a shift applies to more local and regional forms of ministry collaboration as well. In the past, inter-congregational ministry efforts may have involved forming new formal organizations with carefully balanced representation from participating congregations and extensive binding agreements as to how the congregations would relate to one another and the new entity. Now, though, inter-congregational ministry is more likely to be ad-hoc and project-based, involve a sharing of information rather than entering an MOU, and/or involve creating an informal “coordinating committee” instead of founding a new 501(c)3 entity.

Again, these are not necessarily bad or good shifts; they’re just different. Walter W. Powell, in his 1990 article, “Neither Market Nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization,” wrote that “the open-ended quality of networks is most useful when resources are variable and the environment uncertain.” In that way, the shift away from formal institutions towards networks is a reflection of other shifts going on in society. 

The point is not to try to resist this shift or to try to be the first to hop on the bandwagon. The point is to recognize the ways in which how we as humans collaborate and organize work are changing so that we may continue to do what Christians have always done: work together to make disciples and transform the world.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Recommended Listening/Viewing: Thursdays at the Table

For over a year, Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling of the Washington Episcopal Area has conducted a video podcast called "Thursdays at the Table." Bishop Easterling's conversation interview style makes for engaging and thoughtful theological material.

Two recent episodes, both embedded below, are likely to be of particular interest to United Methodists who are interested in mission and service to others. First is a conversation with Rev. Janet Wolf about shifting from charity to partnership understandings of service. Second is a conversation with Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ, about the spiritual underpinnings of transformative work in society. Both episodes are well worth their hour-long length.

Practicing Resurrection with Janet Wolf

Going to the Margins with Gregory Boyle