By Linda Bloom
When the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries started work in Russia 20 years ago, the primary goal was to deliver food to the Moscow area.
But a changing political climate also led to the opportunity to re-establish Methodism in the former Soviet Union, and the agency wasn’t the only denominational entity interested in church growth in the region.
Under the board’s sponsorship, the Russia Initiative, which also includes the Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, has created a thriving partnership among the denomination’s annual conferences, congregations, and institutions.
Now, as the Board of Global Ministries continues to redefine its role as the denomination’s mission leader and a 21st century missionary-sending agency, the Russia Initiative provides one possible “roadmap” to change, says Thomas Kemper, the board’s top executive.
The initiative’s model of retaining cultural identification and fostering financial self-reliance should be studied, Mr. Kemper told directors during his report at the board’s October 10-12 annual meeting.
How to engage effectively in global mission work is a constant topic of discussion by both the Board of Global Ministries and the denomination at large. Most of the 10 new missionaries commissioned during the meeting will engage in new or expanding mission activities, Mr. Kemper said.
The Mission Society
A new strategic plan for mission focuses on everything from streamlining the agency’s operations to tailoring missionary placements to reflect new global realities and expanding mission partnerships.
Such partnerships even include other mission agencies that might have been considered competitors in the past. To illustrate that point, Mr. Kemper invited the Rev. Dick McClain, president of The Mission Society, to preach during the board’s October 11 worship service.
Founded in 1984 as the Mission Society for United Methodists, the organization set itself up as a secondary agency to send missionaries outside U.S. Mr. Kemper acknowledged the tense relations between the two organizations in the past.
“We are trying to lay aside animosities from 20, 30 years ago, recognizing that The Society…proceeds in its work as a general missionary-sending organization, but not one constituted or operated in opposition to the General Board of Global Ministries,” Mr. Kemper told directors.
In fact, both Mr. Kemper, a member of the Germany Annual Conference with extensive mission experience, and Mr. McClain, who joined The Mission Society in 1986 as its first Director of Missionary Personnel, spoke of the friendship that has developed between them over the last 18 months.
Cooperation can benefit both agencies, Mr. Kemper said. “We know that openness between the two agencies helps both to deal with real issues that arise in mission areas where we each have personnel or may plan to have personnel,” he explained.
In his sermon, Mr. McClain offered board directors and staff a welcome from the society’s 200 missionaries in 37 countries and 33 staff in its Norcross, Georgia, offices. “Every member of our community rejoices that I’m here today,” he added.
The new realities of the mission field are not just global but also local, Mr. McClain pointed out. For example, 35 percent of the residents in a community near the society offices are recent immigrants and 85 percent are Muslims.
Such diverse communities offer “amazing opportunities and significant challenges to churches all over America,” Mr. McClain said. “While the content of the gospel has not changed, the context in which we proclaim it has changed dramatically, almost overnight.”
Dana Robert, a Boston University School of Theology professor, and David Scott, a doctoral student there, offered a taste of their research into that new context during an October 10 presentation to board directors.
As it was a century ago, Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, but the population it encompasses has changed. “We are a truly multicultural faith today, with roughly one-fourth to one-fifth of Christianity represented on different continents,” Dr. Robert said.
The configuration of Christianity also has shifted. In 1900, one-third of all Christians were Protestants, but today, she reported, “that percentage is less than one-fourth.” Instead, indigenous churches and new denominations are experiencing rapid growth that “may not have any relationship to something like the Methodist Church.”
United Methodist membership has declined in the West and experienced growth in Africa and Asia. However, the global growth rate isn’t as strong as some independent or related churches. “Worldwide, UMC growth is lagging behind sister denominations,” Mr. Scott said.
Directors were invited to ponder possible explanations for such trends, including the idea that United Methodists are stuck in a North American, mid-20th century denominational model.
Dr. Robert had just attended a meeting of what she called “a 21st-century effort at ecumenism,” the Global Christian Forum in Indonesia, where religious groups that don’t usually connect listen to each other’s stories. “There’s a tremendous sense of hope welling up from recognizing what we have in common with Christians from other communions,” she said.
Mr. Kemper said the Board of Global Ministries is indebted to the insights of scholars such as Dr. Robert and Mr. Scott as it continues to organize the church’s global witness—in new mission arenas, such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Mongolia—and in established ventures, such as the Russia Initiative.
Missionaries themselves are more diverse than ever, representing a variety of cultures and nations and fulfilling assignments virtually across the globe. Those commissioned this month include a missionary pilot and air-safety administrator from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Korean-American couple assigned to the United Methodist mission center in Kazakhstan, an Oklahoma pastor headed to Jerusalem, and an attorney working with immigrants in Iowa.
One of the board’s strategic goals is to increase young adult participation in mission. Twenty-five new young adult missionaries were commissioned August 18 for two- to three-year terms.
Another 17 summer interns served at mission sites in the United States. Eleven young people served as Global Justice Volunteers this year in Kenya, and 15 are scheduled to serve in the Philippines.
But mission awareness must start at a much earlier age, Mr. Kemper acknowledged, so the board is “developing educational resources to help children understand and appreciate mission.”
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.