Many things have changed regarding the United Methodist understanding of missions since Good News launched the Evangelical Missions Council (EMC) in 1974. During those years, the Rev. Paul Morell, senior pastor of the Tyler Street United Methodist Church in Dallas, gave strong leadership to Good News’ EMC ministry, serving many years as the chair of the EMC board. His commitment to missions was evident in Tyler Street’s “We Go” missions program, which helped scores of persons serve as missionaries in the field. Good News recognized Morell’s extraordinary commitment by establishing the Paul L. Morell United Methodist Missions Award in his honor shortly after his death. The inaugural award was presented posthumously to his wife, Ann.
In 1976, Good News invited the Rev. Virgil Maybray to become the Executive Secretary of the EMC. For nearly ten years, he travelled around the nation holding missions conferences in nearly 350 local United Methodist churches and raising more than $3 million in second-mile missions giving. This was the passion of EMC and Good News.
At the same time, EMC faithfully held dialogues to discuss ministry and theology with United Methodism’s missions bureaucracy. The talks proved to be fruitless, but the call to missions message was being spread.
In those dire times, The Mission Society for United Methodists was independently formed and christened in 1984. There was a definite need for a supplemental mission-sending agency in that era. The Mission Society began because of a widely perceived movement of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) away from ministry that had a specific objective of helping people come to faith in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of missionaries being sent by the UM Church around the world.
In 1968, there were 1,650 missionaries serving outside the United States at the time of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) merger. Unfortunately, by the early 1980s, the GBGM slashed its missionary ranks to slightly over 500. Those numbers eventually dropped even further.
Looking back several decades later, the politically-charged era of the times and the inflexible progressivism of the GBGM are different today. Nevertheless, the pain that took place many years ago over missions within our denomination is indisputable and authentic. As Good News celebrates 50 years of ministry within The United Methodist Church, we share the following adapted report on the debate over missions within our denomination by Dr. Riley B. Case, author of Evangelical & Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon). – Good News
By Riley Case-
At the time of the emergence of Good News, Methodist seminaries were caught up in the radicalism of the age and began redefining words such as “salvation,” “commitment,” and “evangelism.” Professors began stressing that the kingdom of God was this-worldly and was related to political and economic justice. There was cynicism and sometimes outright hostility toward local churches rooted in the thinking of the past. The seminaries became centers of criticism for those who stressed a “personal” rather than a “social” gospel. In the ensuing controversies, traditional evangelism was often pitted against social justice. These controversies carried over to the missionary outreach of the Church. The Church, it was maintained, needed to send out new and different kinds of missionaries, if it sent out missionaries at all.
Good News’s major concerns about missions in the early days of the movement were directed primarily to the lack of fervor in the local church.
As the chair of the Good News board, Dr. Philip Hinerman, senior pastor of Park Avenue Church in Minneapolis, attended the annual Board of Missions meeting. “I heard or read not one word about the need to reach men who are forever lost without Jesus Christ,” wrote an astonished Hinerman in a 1972 Good News magazine article entitled “Missions Without Salvation.”
In the following issue, Dr. David Seamands, senior pastor of the Wilmore United Methodist Church in Kentucky, wrote “Missions Without Salvation, Part II.” Seamands, part of a well-known missionary family, had spent sixteen years in India, was a member of the Good News board, and had been noting with alarm the seismic ideological shifts in mainline mission philosophy. He wrote, “A new concept of mission which, as far as we evangelicals are concerned, violates the very premises of the Gospel as found in the Scriptures.” Seamands delineated the ideology that accompanied the new concept of “mission”:
• The new concept of mission sees no relevance in reaching the unevangelized. God is most active in the sociopolitical revolutionary movements of our time.
• Salvation no longer means God reconciling sinners to himself, but in the overcoming of economic and political evil powers.
• Christ is not the atoning Son of God, but the one who started the whole process of secularizing and humanizing world history.
What Hinerman and Seamands articulated helped make sense out of the uneasy feelings evangelicals were having about the missions direction of the denomination. Of special concern was the claim that it was specifically evangelicals who were not being accepted as missionaries and evangelicals on the field who were not being returned.
After a period of prayer and searching, Seamands invited 70 pastors and laypersons to meet for a missions consortium. The February 1974 retreat brought together a large, diverse group that agreed the historic Methodist missions legacy should not be given over to alien ideology. Those in attendance formed themselves into the Evangelical Missions Council (EMC), pledged themselves to the cause of missions, and agreed to seek conversations with the newly formed General Board of Global Ministries.
Unfortunately, the first meeting was not a hopeful start for those who believed dialogue would aid understanding and working together by an alienated constituency. EMC representatives were disturbed at what appeared to be either deliberate obfuscation to avoid having to answer the issues or total ignorance of the issues being raised by evangelicals, all in a climate of hostility and condescension. It seemed as if the board had shifted to the view that “evangelism,” at least as traditionally understood as winning persons to Jesus Christ, was, in fact, a hindrance to the real work of the Church.
For evangelicals, “dialogues” with the board served as a reality check. GBGM leaders did not see Good News or the Evangelical Missions Council or evangelicals as having any legitimate contribution to make to the task that GBGM had outlined for itself in the world.
A June 27, 1975, editorial in The United Methodist Reporter, entitled “EMC Agency Is Dangerous Precedent,” commented with some dismay about what it saw as a possible independent missions-sending agency sponsored by EMC. The issue, according to the editorial, was not evangelism versus social action, but constructive versus destructive methods of making a group’s voice heard in the Church.
Numbers of moderate United Methodists including several bishops, were alarmed at the actions of the GBGM but were more alarmed at the possibility of an independent agency. EMC itself, while seeking publicly to say positive things about the “dialogues,” was growing impatient.
In 1976, Virgil E. Maybray, pastor of First Church, Irwin, Pennsylvania, was invited to become EMC’s first full-time staff person. Virgil would spend the next eight years in a job he dearly loved, traveling through the country to speak of reaching the lost for Christ. Virgil’s task was not to be embroiled in the ideological controversies related to missions but to build positive support for evangelical missionaries and evangelical causes that were functioning within the board.
Castro or Wesley
United Methodist evangelicals were frustrated at this time that the UM mission agency had abandoned the traditionally understood view of evangelism and missions. Instead, it seemed to be enthralled with politics and revolution. This focus was illustrated by the article by Dow Kirkpatrick in the July 22, 1977, issue of The United Methodist Reporter, “Castro and Wesley.” Kirkpatrick had been a friend of the GBGM for years and was given missionary status with the board and traveled mostly to Latin America with the responsibility of “interpreting issues” to North American churches. Speaking out of his exhilarating experience of being in Cuba on May Day, Kirkpatrick commented:
“Fidel and his people celebrate the revolution they caused; we (Wesleyans) commemorate the ones we prevent. Cubans believe their lives are vastly better because of their revolution. Hunger, poverty, unemployment, racial discrimination and illiteracy have been eliminated. Quality health care is universal. Slums are being replaced by new housing. Dignity has been given to every human being.”
Kirkpatrick continued: “Wesley’s movement improved the lot of depressed 18th century England. Cuban Christian Marxists say, however, it failed because it was not radical. Like all gradualist proposals it left the roots of injustice untouched.
“We can learn what evangelism is from Cuba,” Kirkpatrick concluded. “Why is Marx believed more adequate than Wesley by millions of people today? … The Cuban Revolution – in contrast to the Christian Church, [Castro] believes – is one ‘that is with the poor’ and ‘he who condemns a revolution like this one betrays Christ.’”
Kirkpatrick went on to argue that the clearest statement of evangelism in Cuba had been by Sergio Arce, rector of the Evangelical Seminary in Matanzas, who was quoted as saying: “The first task of evangelism is to confront Christians who are not atheists of the head, but are atheists of the heart. Marx was an atheist of the head, but not of the heart.”
The September 9, 1977, issue of The United Methodist Reporter quoted Arce again as he elaborated on evangelism: “It is more important today to be a Marxist than a Christian.” Arce argued that Christianity and Marxism are interchangeable and he had no interest in converting Marxists to Christianity.
While the Marxist critique of Wesleyan revival went over well in some quarters, there were many United Methodists that believed their tithes and offerings were supporting wrongheaded political radicalism, rather than biblical revival.
It was at this era that David Jessup, a United Methodist layman working for the AFL-CIO, was astonished when his children brought home appeals for wheat shipments to the Marxist government of Vietnam. His dogged research unearthed a 27-page paper identifying grants and involvements by United Methodist agencies to far-left organizations, fronts, and political groups with communist links and revolutionary intentions.
Jessup’s explosive report was published in the September/October 1980 issue of Good News. Instead of investigating the misappropriation of church funds to Marxist causes, church leaders questioned Jessup’s motives and spoke darkly of a “McCarthyite witch hunt.” The denominational condescending response included: “As change swirls around us, some persons cling to an understanding of history and the role of our nation that seems to be fading. Such persons are deeply troubled by the shifting of power they see in the world and are fearful….”
The irony, of course, is that the Jessup family had been active in the Peace Corps in Peru, as well as involved in the civil rights and farm worker movements in California. Jessup’s research had further discovered a denomination with an off-kilter political barometer: church pronouncements in support of Ayatollah Khomeini and the “students” holding hostages in Iran; further discussion on the Cuba Resource Center, the Nicaraguan Literacy Program, and the North American Congress on Latin America (and their monthly newsletter devoted to Che Guevarra), groups that had been monitored closely by the State Department of a Democratic administration.
“Because my report has been publicly attacked as a ‘McCarthyite witch hunt’ by several Church officials, it is necessary to repeat that I am not questioning the right of any group or individual to speak out and organize for any cause, no matter how offensive it may be,” said Jessup. “The only question is whether the majority of churchgoers wish to foot the bill for such causes.… After many years of past and continuing involvement in pro-labor, liberal and civil rights causes, I am more than ever convinced that there is nothing ‘reactionary’ about trying to redirect Church resources toward a more consistent support of democracy in all societies, left and right.”
In December 1982, Reader’s Digest carried the article, “Do You Know Where Your Church Offerings Go?” On January 23, 1983, the CBS program 60 Minutes aired the segment, “The Gospel According to Whom?” Both the article and the TV program were sparked by David Jessup’s research into how church funds were being spent. Time magazine reported on controversy in its March 28, 1983, issue under the heading “Warring Over Where Donations Go.”
In the May/June 1983 issue of Good News, associate editor James S. Robb published a 20-page cover story expose entitled “Missions Derailed,” a special exposé on the UM General Board of Global Ministries. “If anything appeared sure during six months of study, it was that the board’s program seems badly, even dangerously out of balance. It has become obvious that the board has diverted its resources on a massive scale away from traditional missions projects located ‘on all six continents’ and toward political programs centered at 475 Riverside Drive in New York – GBGM’s headquarters,” wrote Robb.
At this same time, the Rev. Dr. Ira Gallaway’s book, Drifted Astray, served as an additional insight into evangelical unease about the direction of United Methodist missions. As pastor of First United Methodist Church Peoria, Illinois, the largest church in the North Central Jurisdiction, the book was a call to be faithful to Methodism’s orthodox heritage. It was only after a hundred pages of affirming that which was good in the Church that Gallaway finally approached the issue of “covenant trust” and the “credibility gap” between the grassroots church and the leadership and programs of the national boards and agencies.
Gallaway continually reminded the reader that the gospel should not be identified with any one form of government or economic order. As the former head of the Board of Evangelism of The Methodist Church, he charged the mission agency with an unbalanced ideology, in which the evangelistic call to make disciples of Jesus Christ had been eclipsed by leftist political advocacy.
In that same year, 1983, Bishop Ole Borgen from Norway, who had been one of the bishops participating in the dialogue between the EMC and GBGM, gave an address at the Good News Convocation at Anderson, Indiana, entitled “One Mission – One Missional Purpose.” “‘Salvation’ no longer indicates the new relationship with God, but just as much any kind of ‘salvation’ within the socio-political realm,” he said. “We have almost imperceptibly moved to a position which, drawn to its uttermost consequence, will end up in a socially defined humanism where faith concepts are used, but where man himself is the acting and redeeming agent.”
Bishop Borgen’s presentation lifted up a number of concerns that had already been expressed in the EMC and GBGM dialogue. The purpose of “dialogue” supposedly was to increase understanding, resolve differences, and find common ground for mission. Members of the evangelical dialogue team after ten years of sessions were not experiencing understanding, resolution, or common ground. The GBGM team was still challenging the use of the term “evangelical,” questioning whether EMC really spoke for any legitimate constituency, and defending board policies and actions as a faithful fulfillment of the Discipline. To make matters worse, there was no way of discussing the issues outside the dialogue meetings since there was an agreement of confidentiality about the substance of the talks.
On November 28, 1983, thirty-four persons gathered in St. Louis at the invitation of Gallaway and Dr. Bill Thomas, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Tulsa, and covenanted to form a supplemental mission-sending agency within The United Methodist Church. Among those present was Dr. Gerald Anderson, director of the Overseas Ministry Study Center, editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, and perhaps the foremost missiologist in the denomination. Dr. Anderson, just a month before, had presented a paper to a number of pastors in Dallas, Texas, entitled “Why We Need a Second Mission Agency.”
At the meeting in St. Louis, he commented: “[It is] difficult to discern that those who are now responsible really believe that it makes any difference whether or not one believes in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Further, that their programs do not reflect this belief.”
The main precipitating factor that led the group to believe that evangelical concerns were being ignored was the selection of Peggy Billings as a mission agency leader. The selection had been made just prior to the November 1983 meeting. Evangelicals considered Billings’s appointment as an in-your-face put-down of everything that had been discussed in the dialogues. Billings was an assistant general secretary with the Women’s Division, responsible for Social Concerns, and an outspoken critic of traditional United Methodist doctrine and of traditional missionary efforts.
Billings, a former missionary to Korea, had published mission study material on Korea entitled Fire Beneath the Frost, to which the Korean Church (which it supposedly covered) reacted to with dismay and anger. The study promoted “Minjung theology” – a kind of liberation theology so obscure that most Korean Christians had never heard of it – made almost no mention of the explosive growth and evangelism of the Korean Methodists, and was highly critical of the Korean government and the Korean churches. She was also highly critical of the EMC, labeled it divisive, and used her influence to cut off support to overseas churches that sought help from EMC.
With the Billings appointment it was apparent that GBGM was not intending to take the evangelical concerns seriously. Thus, a new supplemental agency – The Mission Society for United Methodists – would be formed. Those present at the first meeting covenanted to raise the $130,000 that would be needed to launch the agency. Support and encouragement came from a number of quarters. H. T. Maclin, field representative for Mission Development in the Southeast jurisdiction, resigned his job with the Board of Global Ministries and became the first executive secretary.
The Mission Society was very careful in its organizing literature to affirm most of the work the GBGM was doing. It would seek to act not in competition with, but alongside the official mission board. It would in no way seek to divert apportionment money or advance money from the GBGM. It would enter no area without a specific invitation of the bishop and the national church.
The Good News board rejoiced at the news of the new society. It voted immediately to disband the Evangelical Missions Council so that the Council could integrate itself fully with the new society. It released Virgil Maybray from his staff responsibilities with Good News so that he could work with H. T. Maclin in the Mission Society.
Not all in the UM Church, however, were pleased. Within a few months, the 1984 General Conference would be meeting in Baltimore, and the Mission Society would be an issue. Some wished to make the Mission Society “official.” Key leaders of the Mission Society were cool to the idea. “Official” would carry with it restrictions, political compromise, and bureaucratic entanglements, the very thing the society wished to avoid. Others at the General Conference desired an expression of condemnation. The conference finally passed a statement affirming the general board as the only “official” sending agency in the UM Church but also adding this statement: “In fairness to the concerns of those who feel the necessity for a second agency, we urge that measures be taken to assure our people that evangelization and evangelism are a vital part of the philosophy and practice by the Board and its staff is committed to Wesleyan theology.”
The General Conference also directed that directors and staff persons of the GBGM confer with directors and staff persons of the Mission Society to enhance the witness of Jesus Christ. Bishops were asked to serve as mediators in the discussion of mission philosophy. The “dialogue” that had begun between the General Board of Global Ministries and the Evangelical Missions Council would continue.
When the date was set, May 7, 1985, at Highland Park Church, Dallas, for the commissioning of the first missionaries from the Mission Society, Bishop James Thomas, president of the Council of Bishops, made arrangement with three other bishops to be present and participate in the commissioning service. It was customary to participate in such commissioning when United Methodist missionaries were being sent to do United Methodist work.
However, strong voices in the Council of Bishops, who wished to use the power of the institution against the society, prevailed against Thomas and made him renege on his promise.
This action of withholding the blessing of the bishops was followed by the bishops’ resolve not to give extension appointments to any clergy who would seek service with the Mission Society. In light of the practice of giving extension appointments to almost everyone who asked, even to agencies that had no contact with the Church, the action could only be seen as punitive and was a reminder of other actions taken by bishops and the Church against those who sought to serve Christ apart from “official” structures. The message of GBGM and the bishops to churches was plain: Do not support United Methodist efforts to win persons to Jesus Christ unless properly authorized by the “official” agencies.
In early 1988, the “dialogue sessions” between the Board of Global Ministries and the Mission Society mandated by the 1984 General Conference broke down and ended. The board had insisted that the meetings be closed and secret. When members of the United Methodist press pointed out that this was in violation of the Discipline, and members of the Mission Society refused to continue banning the press, the bishops simply canceled the meeting and the whole dialogue. It appeared to a number of observers that the bishops thought it more expedient to violate the General Conference mandate than to make public the discussions.
Ten years of efforts to find common ground had brought more alienation rather than reconciliation among the board and the EMC and then the Mission Society. However, the dire predictions of those who prophesied divisiveness, lack of support for the General Board, conflict on the mission field, and a loss of connectedness if the Mission Society were allowed to exist, never came to pass.
The Mission Society for United Methodists served as a good outlet for those who wished to support United Methodist missions work (rather than other independent agencies) that they could trust would operate with evangelical integrity.
Riley B. Case is the author of Evangelical & Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon). He is a retired United Methodist clergy person from the Indiana Annual Conference, the associate director of the Confessing Movement, and a lifetime member of the Good News Board of Directors. This essay is adapted with permission from Evangelical & Methodist.
Editor’s postscript: Over a long and strenuous period of time, the UM Church has been able to accept the ministry of The Mission Society (now known as TMS Global). The 2008 General Conference actually passed a resolution affirming the work of The Mission Society and encouraging the GBGM to “develop new conversations and liaisons with the Mission Society for new and ongoing partnerships in areas of mutual concern.” In 2009, for the first time, GBGM and The Mission Society jointly sponsored a missions conference (with other organizations).
In 2012, the Rev. Dick McClain led a Bible study at a GBGM meeting. That incident was newsworthy because McClain was President of the Mission Society, a clergy person who for eight years had to go on Leave of Absence because his bishop would not give him an extension appointment to the Mission Society. (That, too, has changed.)
McClain’s presence at the GBGM followed the presence of Dr. Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of GBGM, at the Mission Society’s board meeting in preceding year. “It might seem like mission impossible bringing together two long-estranged mission organizations,” wrote Sam Hodges for The United Methodist Reporter. “But in the last few weeks, there’s been dramatic evidence of improved relations between the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries and the Mission Society….”
“The Kingdom is much more than one organization and one understanding of the Kingdom,” Kemper told the Mission Society board. “Missions don’t rely on our means, and not even on our gifts, or even on our wealth. We think it’s all about money, but it’s about people, giving of ourselves,” Kemper said. As Christ sends his people into the harvest, which Jesus describes as “plentiful,” he said, “Let us work together so that the Kingdom of God is right at the doorsteps of people we meet and serve.”
In 2016, GBGM completed the move of its headquarters and staff to Atlanta, just a few miles from the home offices of TMS Global. The Rev. Max Wilkins, current President and CEO of TMS Global, says, “We welcome GBGM to Atlanta. The close proximity of our offices affords ever greater opportunities for honest conversation and cooperation in the multiple areas of Kingdom ministry that our two distinct missions have in common. It is a new day, and Dr. Kemper and I continue to meet together regularly and collegially as we seek to join Jesus in His mission around the world in the Wesleyan spirit.” Ω