I have been appointed to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters so for me, General Conference began several days ago. In the United Methodist Church, Central Conferences are those conferences outside the United States; that makes work on this committee exciting. Outside the United States, in places like Africa, the church is growing and dynamic. There is a great need for additional bishops, for support of seminaries, for the empowerment of local leaders. These are wonderful needs and it’s encouraging be a part of discerning how to meet them.
At the same time, in this context it is even more apparent how U.S.-centric the United Methodist Church actually is, despite our geography and our talk about being “worldwide.” Facts confirm that we are a worldwide church. The largest delegation coming to Tampa is from Africa. 40% of all delegates come from outside the U.S. We have also learned to talk like a worldwide church – there are interpreters to translate into the various languages; there are petitions related to “the worldwide nature of the church;” there is even a “Litany for the Covenant of the Worldwide United Methodist Church” being proposed to highlight the importance of the “vital web of interactive relationships.” All of this is wonderful to witness; but the U.S. perspective remains firmly in the center.
It is understandable that this would be so. We are still “growing into” this idea of being a worldwide church. There are many things we need to explore in greater detail, how we deal with MEF funds for instance. But what seems to be missing from the discussion is what it means theologically and missionally to be a worldwide church. For instance, what do we mean when we talk about committing ourselves to “interdependent worldwide partnerships in prayer, mission and worship?” What does it mean in real practice for us to enter into “a covenant of mutual commitment based on shared mission, equity, and hospitality?” How would such a covenant change the way we live together as a global body of Christ? If “we participate in God’s mission as partners in ministry, recognizing that our God-given gifts, experiences, and resources are of equal value, whether spiritual, financial, or missional” (as the Petition from the Study Committee on the Worldwide Nature of the Church suggests), how might our life together be different?
Further, although our discussions rightly center on the United Methodist Church, they seem to be taking place in an environment disturbingly silent regarding the larger Wesleyan family. What does it mean to begin new mission work in areas of the world where other members of the Wesleyan family are already present? How do we relate to Wesleyan bodies that were present in areas before we arrived?
I am reminded of a story about a dear family friend, Bishop Lawi Imatheiu of the Methodist Church of Kenya. The Methodist Church of Kenya is an autonomous church that grew out of the British Methodist Church. Lawi was their first indigenous bishop. When he was elected, the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church (which had never had any connection to the Methodist Church of Kenya) sent a letter informing Lawi that they would be sending a representative to assess his leadership and ministry.
We are indeed a worldwide church. But “growing into” that involves moving away from a view of the church as a U.S. body with outposts in other parts of the world; away from a view that sees the U.S. as in control and the outposts as in orbit around us. This is not an easy task. Moving toward a truly global understanding of the Body of Christ goes against the enculturation that affects all U.S. Americans – a force that makes it very difficult to not see the U.S. as in control of the world economically, militarily and technologically.
Let me return to my favorite part of the story of Lawi Imathieu. When Lawi received the letter from the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, he responded with a letter of his own. He said that he was always happy to receive American visitors, and when he was next in New York, he would be stopping by the General Board of Global Ministires offices to assess their leadership and ministry as well.
I praise God that the United Methodist Church is growing around the world and I recognize that growth can often be painful. The pruning that appears to be occurring in the North American contingent of our church is also painful. My prayer is that we would face the challenges of growth and pruning with wisdom, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, so that we might truly “enter afresh into a relationship of mutuality, creating a new sense of community and joyously living out our worldwide connection in mission for the transformation of the world.”
Quotations taken from Petition #20406 – Covenant for Worldwide UMC (ADCA, Volume 2, Section 2, p885)