What Does It Mean to Be a Global Church?

April 12th, 2012

A few weeks ago I was invited to sit in on a briefing for the General Conference delegations from the Tennessee and Memphis Annual Conferences. One of the first presentations featured leaders from the General Council on Finance and Administration and in the course of their presentation Scott Brewer, the chief researcher for the UMC, made a startling revelation.

According to Mr. Brewer, the total membership of the United Methodist Church world wide was over 12 million members, which is in fact the largest number of members in the history of the church. This surprised everyone, for all we have heard for the past few years is a message of doom about the looming "death tsunami" for the church, but Mr. Brewer explained that while membership in the U.S. is indeed in decline, the growth in the church in the other countries, especially on the continent of Africa, has been so explosive that it is making up for the losses in the U.S. Everyone was silent for a moment . . . and then the meeting continued, a meeting that was dominated by issues and concerns rooted solely in the concerns of U.S.-based churches.

Ignoring the Imbalance

There has been much hand wringing, rhetoric, and valid concern about the state of the United Methodist Church in the U.S. As a result, the 2012 General Conference will spend the lion’s share of time and energy considering new structures to revitalize our denomination, and better facilitate the creation of vital congregations based on research created to address the decline in the U.S. branch of our communion. Yet, this will happen in a context in which over a third of the delegates (38%) come from countries outside the U.S., and for whom the "decline of the church" is far from their reality and concern. Just scan through the Advance Daily Christian Advocate and one will find a denomination fixated on U.S.-based concerns, with the needs of our non-U.S. members almost coming as an afterthought. And yet, it is outside of the United States that our church finds our growing edge, a source of vitality and energy, and just possibly the future of the Methodist movement.

Of course, some will argue that it makes sense to focus on the health of the U.S. church first, since for the most part it is the U.S. church that pays the bills for churches in the developing world. Yet that mindset raises an important question about the nature of our church: Are we truly a global church or are we in fact colonial in our orientation? Do we truly understand the non-U.S. churches as true and equal partners in spreading the gospel throughout the world, or are we perpetuating a culture of dependency in which those with the resources are able to set the agenda due to their financial status? Do we really want to do the difficult work of sharing power to be truly global, or do we simply want to lift up our global identity when it’s convenient for our purposes and when it makes us seem more inclusive than we really are?

Of course, the answer to these questions is yes . . . and no. I don’t believe that most U.S. native United Methodists intentionally attempt to perpetuate a system of dominance of one culture over and against the other in regards to our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. But like an extrovert who doesn’t recognize that their outgoing ways doesn’t leave room for others to speak, our focus and concern about the state of OUR church leads us to often ignore that there are many others in the room with very different experiences. These folks may very well have important things to teach us, but we have to be willing to not only make provision for their inclusion at the table, but to silence ourselves to create the space for them to share.

Ideals v. Practical Concerns

What I have experienced throughout the years is that we idealize being a global church from a distance, but when it comes to dealing with the difficult realities of what that means at a practical level, we are less willing to do what it takes to encourage full participation. This shows up in our willingness to appoint people from other countries to serve on church boards and agencies, but placing the burden of always traveling to the U.S. on them, and not making adequate provision for facilitating their full inclusion. It's easy to be an idealist when considering broad philosophical points of inclusion (points that I personally agree with) but it becomes much more difficult when we have to deal with international airfare, providing for multiple translations, the vagaries of visas, and the fact that many delegates—both U.S. and non-U.S.—simply don't have the resources to pay for travel on their own, thus requiring the church (largely funded these days by the declining U.S. sector) to assume the costs of providing for inclusion.

Beyond the practicalities, there is the simple reality that trying to be a unified global body is difficult and messy—just ask the Anglican Communion. There are cultural differences that affect our interpretation of scripture and subsequent theology. Issues of power between those in the developed and the developing worlds continue to bubble beneath the conversations of our unity. And although we may not wish to admit it, racism, nationalism, and culturalism influence the decisions we make about leadership, structure, and the operation of the church.

Forbes Matonga implied as much in his recent talk to the members of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry as he bemoaned the lack of inclusion of persons from outside the U.S. in the Call to Action and Interim Operations Team (IOT) process. When he asked about why no non-U.S. members were recruited to serve on the IOT he was told that IOT members were recruited for "capacity and competence" as if somehow there were no competent or capable leaders from outside the U.S. As Matonga said, aren’t we implying that the African continent, which has produced leaders such as UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is unable to provide a leader in the United Methodist Church that can help to guide the conversation? Aren’t we in fact saying that the most important issue in the United Methodist Church today is the shoring up of the U.S. church, leaving our other brothers and sisters by the wayside?

Of course, I can imagine that the reason for not including more voices, both inside and outside the U.S., was based in practicalities—the need to move quickly, to facilitate gathering multiple times in a limited time period, and financial expense. Yet our determinations about practicalities say much about our commitment to being a global church, and I fear that we were pretty clear in this case that we weren’t willing to do the hard and difficult work needed to be fully inclusive.

Proactive Proposals

One of the charges from the 2008 General Conference was the creation of a committee to study the worldwide nature of the United Methodist Church. That group has faithfully met during the past four years to little fanfare or conversation. They have been willing to take the time to listen to voices from throughout the world. They will be bringing proposals to the General Conference to:

  • Incorporate a new worldwide United Methodist Church covenant into the Book of Discipline. The covenant will be accompanied by a Litany for the Covenant of The Worldwide United Methodist Church.
  • Create a new global Book of Discipline that specifies what decisions the General Conference makes, and which areas of ministry and organization are adaptable by Central Conferences.
  • Clarify how general agencies function in a worldwide rather than United States-centric church.
  • More clearly model Wesleyan Holy Conferencing in a worldwide church. This is intended to bring greater equity between church ministries outside the United States and those within the U.S.
  • Set in motion a process for annual conferences to study a proposed new model for a worldwide church. This study process may result in petitions for greater structural change at the 2016 General Conference.

In all the rhetoric of restructuring, IOT, Call to Action, and PlanB, there hasn’t been much said of this important work that will better help us all to understand what it means to be a global church. My fear is the that loud and overbearing voices of the U.S. will drown out the significance of this work as we take care of our own concerns, and leave the needs and concerns of the vital and growing UMC throughout the world to pick up the remnants.

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