Monday, May 28, 2007

Thinking about General Conference ... and Packing!

While we are in the process of packing and making arrangements for our absence, I have been thinking a great deal about the 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Why? Because at this moment, as Annual Conferences around the world gather, the delicate issue of electing delegates to General Conference has begun.

I would love to be at General Conference myself, but doubt that I will get to go – Cameroon is still just a Mission and won’t have a legally recognized delegation.

However, I just want to put in my two cents as to what the burning issue at General Conference will be – or ought to be. And it has nothing to do with homosexuality.

No, the question is, “Is the United Methodist Church a global church, and if so, what does that mean?” Here are the related concerns which logically flow from such a question:

  1. Do American United Methodists really want to be a part of a global church? Let’s face the facts – at the moment, America dominates the life, polity, thought and politics of the United Methodist Church. But the demographics are changing. Before this point in history, the UMC was largely an American institution. As the New Mission Initiatives (of which I am a part!) continue to grow and expand in other countries, and as entire churches merge into the denomination (such as the Cote d’Ivoire Methodists), the balance is quickly shifting away from an English-language, American-centered church into something that is … well, more global. And if we are going to be more global, then the way we make decisions must also become more global. This is why the decision to restrict the Cote d’Ivoire delegation to General Conference is disturbing – it smacks of American imperialism, even if the Judicial Council can prove its decision was legal and proper. Again, if we are a global church, then we must open the decision-making process to Methodists from around the world.

  2. Do American United Methodists really want to be a part of the theology of the global church? This is where the issue of homosexuality gets raised. To be sure, Methodists in other parts of the world are adamantly anti-gay. In Cameroon, for example, homosexuality is still illegal according to state law. You can only imagine the attitudes in the church … But it doesn’t stop there. Methodists in Africa also have a lively and vibrant belief in the spirit world, eagerly await the second coming of Jesus Christ (which they believe to be imminent), and tend to be patriarchal. These things make us Americans and Europeans a little nervous, because they are theological ideas that are not currently in vogue. But this is the voice of the church, and we certainly have to listen and dialogue.

  3. What is the role of money in the global church? Perhaps this is the real question – the question behind the question. At this moment in time, the money of the UMC flows from America to the rest of the world. This is a good thing; I’m not complaining about it. Methodists are a notoriously generous people. However, there are problems with this fact – those who have the money, generally hold the power. Furthermore, it creates a giver-receiver mentality, which can be debilitating in the future. I have witnessed the effects of such a mentality first-hand in Cameroon.

  4. To what extent is the growth of the global church tied to the promise of wealth and prosperity, rather than Christian discipleship? Again, this is a real question. We must not hide the fact that this happens all over the world. United Methodists need to face the possibility that the rapid growth in developing countries is not so much a sign of religious vitality, as of desperate hope for a payoff. The UMC is seen as a powerful institution, and the fact that the President of the United States is a member of such a church does not go unnoticed on the mission field. The challenge around the world – just as it is for the declining American church – is to spark and maintain a movement of holiness and discipleship for the transformation of the world.