Coming just days before Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, reports from Zimbabwe and the Philippines prompt David W. Scott to ask if United Methodist Central Conferences will lead the denomination in caring for God’s creation.
I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two United Methodist news stories from the last week: the first about a litter clean-up project undertaken by a Zimbabwean church and the second about a coastal cleanup project undertaken by United Methodists …
David W. Scott muses on how global issues and perspectives can be found in local initiatives during annual conference season.
It’s Annual Conference time again in The United Methodist Church. For many, this is a much-anticipated (or much-dreaded) time to reunite with, confer with, and sometimes fight with other pastors and laity from within the geographic bounds of the confer…
This blog has previously covered the case of Bishop Daniel Wandabula, bishop of the East Africa Annual Conference of the UMC, and his dispute with various UM groups over his use of funds and financial auditing. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a Judicial…
Today’s post is by regular contributor Dr. David N. Field. Dr. Field is the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.
I am a migrant and the descendant of migrants – a South African living in Europe. The majority of my ancestors left Europe to make a new life on the Southern tip of Africa; they fled wars, political uncertainty, poverty, and persecution for their religion. A few were shipwrecked off the coast of the Cape. At least one was fleeing from the law. Another was brought as a slave.
Yet until recently this migrant identity has not been part of my theological reflection. Being involved in planning and teaching a course dealing with the church and migration stimulated me to begin to reflect on the theological challenge posed by the movement of people across the world as an integral and pervasive feature of globalization. The recent sinking of a ship drowning over 800 refugees in the Mediterranean, the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa, and reports of refugee boats being turned away from Malaysia and Indonesia have sharpened this challenge for me.
To rephrase Wesley’s famous quote from a European perspective: “The world is coming to our parish.” What does this mean for the church? In a recent Blog Michael Nausner discussed some aspects of this challenge. I plan to continue the discussion in a few blogs reflecting theologically on different aspects of this challenge.
The presence of “the world in our parish” provides an often ignored but profoundly radical challenge to the way we think about what it means to be the church. It is radical because it confronts us with a long forgotten understanding of the identity of the church that is ironically hidden in the word “parish”. In contemporary English parish refers to a small bounded local area. The related word “parochial” refers to being focused on a local area to the exclusion of the broader world.
The irony is that the word parish comes from the Greek word parokia which means a stranger or a sojourner. It was a word used by the early church to describe itself (see I Peter 2:11) as communities of foreigners who were never fully at home in the societies in which they lived. They were strangers because they owed an ultimate loyalty to the One who was rejected by the religious and political establishment and then tortured and executed as an enemy of the empire.
The presence of the world in our parish is a call to remind us that our primary identity and loyalty can never be defined by citizenship of a particular nation state. The church can never be “at home” in any country or socio-political system, for we are citizens of the dominion of the Crucified One. The church is always to be a restless community of foreigners looking for and embodying in a partial way the coming dominion of the Jesus. It is from this identity that we should address the ethical challenge posed by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (a topic for a later blog).
The presence of the world in our parish reminds us that the community of the Crucified transcends national and geographic. Significant numbers of the migrants coming to Europe and North America are Christians – many are Methodists; in fact, many are United Methodists. To be a Christian, to be a Methodist, to be a United Methodist, is to be part of an international community of communities. We are part of the “catholic” church, in the words of the Apostles creed, or to use a more contemporary word, “ecumenical” church; that is, the church that is present across the whole inhabited world.
The presence is a summons to break out of a “parochial” mindset (in its contemporary English meaning) and discovers our spiritual siblings in other countries and continents, people who live in such situations of need that they engage in long, potentially deadly journeys in search of a new life. Many of us are ignorant of the lives of these fellow members of the church – these strangers who come and those strangers who die on the way.
It is a particular challenge to the UMC as a church that affirms its identity as an international or even global church. To be an international or global church is not merely about participating in mission trips, nor about sending finances and resources to people in need, nor about the logistic and theological complications of having people from other countries at General Conference; it is about the challenge to recognize these people as our spiritual siblings, fellow members of the body of Christ whose lives, sufferings and joys ought to be part of our primary concern. The question is how can we embody this in the structures of the UMC, in the lives of our local congregations, and in the programs of our General Boards, agencies and other institutions, not as an extra concern, but as integral to our identity?
David W. Scott examines proposals to make The United Methodist Church’s coordinating agency, the Connectional Table, into a more globally representative body.
At its recent meeting, the Connectional Table (CT) submitted legislation to General Conference to restructure itself to achieve greater representation on the CT from United Methodists from outside the United States. Currently, seven out of the 47 membe…
In a previous post here on UM & Global, the question was raised about U.S. Christians helping to solve problems they have helped to cause. This is a question that deserves some thought and consideration. Although the article mentions the work of UMCOR, I believe the question also points to the complexity of short term mission.
United Methodist short term mission participants are often deeply committed to living out their faith and to showing the love of neighbor in tangible ways. Revealing that the ways in which our U.S. culture and habits of consumption contribute to the very problems our short term mission work seeks to solve is difficult for short term mission participants. Volunteers who spend their vacation time and money in service have very little training in the complexities of cross-cultural encounters or in critical theological reflection. Critiques such as “solving problems you have helped to cause” can sound personal and far harsher than intended.
The critique points to structural sin, in which we as individuals benefit from economic, political or social systems in which others are trapped in cycles of poverty. The Social Creed found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline (2012) can be used as a starting point for revealing the ways in which our individual actions function in structural sin and systems of oppression, but this statement alone is nearly 40 pages long and quite complex. Short term mission team training often does not include the time needed for engaging such a lengthy document with critical theological reflection on one’s own practice of mission.
The World Council of Churches document Together Towards Life begins to articulate another complexity found in short term mission as well. In paragraph 76 it states that “increasingly popular short-term ‘mission trips’ can help to build partnerships between churches in different parts of the world but in some cases place an intolerable burden on poor local churches or disregard the existing churches altogether”. Short term mission has the potential to build relationships between Christians across borders in ways that were not possible before the availability of air travel, the internet and smart phones.
However, as indicated above, short term mission practiced without engaging structures of sin and oppression carry the potential of simply reinforcing boundaries between Christians. When short term mission is conducted in ways that diminish the agency of host churches – or at worst, disregards the local churches where short term mission teams travel – then the practice of short term mission serves to benefit those who travel rather those who receive. In this way, the purpose of short term mission is subverted, and can no longer be considered mission.
However, the short term mission participants that I have encountered in my research would be surprised and mortified to learn that their mission work contributed to a problem rather than solving it. I see in this complex problem of short term mission the possibility of living more fully into the Together Towards Life call to “live out the faith and hope of the community of God’s people” (paragraph 78). U.S. short term mission participants express their desire to be faithful to Christ in their short term mission work. Many use the terminology of being the “hands and feet of Christ” to people who need help.
Together Towards Life states that “[t]hrough service the church participates in God’s mission, following the way of its Servant Lord” (paragraph 78). The challenge is to help short term mission participants learn how to manifest “the power of service over the power of domination” through learning their own participation in those structures of domination. Short term mission trips have the potential for education and transformation of U.S. Christians, but only if time and attention are given to thoughtful and careful revelation of the ways in which we contribute to the problems we seek to solve.
International short term mission has potential for both the power of service and the power of domination. I believe that U.S. short term mission participants desire to live into the potential of building relationships and partnerships. They have the capacity to critically reflect on their participation in God’s mission.
Church leadership can walk with short term mission participants through the hard work of revealing structures and systems of oppression, reflecting theologically on their mission work, and examining whether they are truly working with host churches to build partnerships. In this way, short term mission can address the critique of “solving problems they helped to cause” and at the same time meet the challenge to “find ways of exercising spiritual gifts which build up the whole church in every part” (Together Towards Life, paragraph 76).
A request from the church’s global missions board for General Conference to create a provisional regional body in Asia points out how mission destabilizes institutional structure, writes David W. Scott.