Archive - May, 2012

From a Baby Boomer Culture to a Global, Multiethnic, Hyperconnected Society

It’s happened. More babies born in the past 12 months in the United States have parents who are Asian, African-American, Central or South American or of ethnic origins other than “non-Hispanic” whites. We’ve reached a hinge-point in U.S. history.

Children participate in a multicultural vacation Bible school in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

In the lead article in the New York Times, demographer William Frey said this represents “a transformation from a mostly white baby-boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country that we are becoming.”

Viewed in a global context, it’s even more than that. The global population is shifting in a similarly dramatic fashion. A surging youth population in the industrializing nations, declining birth rates in Europe and the rise of a globalized, multicultural and hyperconnected youth and young adult population are changing the world.

This rising tide of demographic change has been occurring over the past 40 years. It’s more than an unexpected tsunami, according to a paper released in 2007 by the British Council, a nonprofit educational and cultural organization.

And the changes are not benign. Demographic shifts will create cleavages across societies. Policymakers and social institutions, including the church–perhaps especially the church–must address them. We need public discourse that is deeper and more substantial than the polarized point-counterpoint posturing that passes for political dialogue in the United States today.

What the British report says of Europe applies to the U.S. in this regard: “At least equally as important is a societal discourse on how we in Europe want to live (with one another) in the future, since the presently perceived roles of the state, civil society, and economy will function only conditionally under the new demographic circumstances. Regional disparities will be more visible than before, since demographic processes will have increasingly heterogeneous effects.”

In the church, we need to look at our theology with deeper consideration for how we speak to these different groups with their unique life concerns, fears, hopes and aspirations. We will need to speak to the desire for inclusion as we speak to the fear of being left out, the demand for equity in contrast to the fear of losing influence, the desire for opportunity as the young and their seniors fear an uncertain future.

“In the church, we need to look at our theology with deeper consideration for how we speak to these different groups …” 

These and a host of other matters are not only about social policies; they are also theological. They will require the church, if it is to remain relevant to this new age, to offer more than pietistic bromides as surely as it will require politicians to go beyond their current level of simplistic, divisive posturing.

They will require us to look at:

  • how we are connected as a global church,
  • how we fund and carry out mission and ministry,
  • how we communicate effectively with various groups as we share the good news of God’s love for all, and
  • how we create communities of faith that offer hope, support, growth and compassion.

Within this global reality we will need to

  • find our voice for justice,
  • assess how we reach out to others as a servant people, and then do it,
  • find new ways to express the faith to new people in new circumstances,
  • demonstrate through our actions that even in this unsettling change, we continue to believe it is God’s world after all,
  • affirm that it is a world of goodness, and
  • live out the biblical teaching that it is God’s intent for all of us to flourish.

I’ll be posting about how I think these dynamics will affect my own religious community, and I welcome your reactions and reflections. Please feel free to contribute to this important conversation.


The Rising Global Middle Class: How Will It Affect The United Methodist Church?

A few years ago at a worship conference in Seoul, I watched a group of young Koreans perform street dances more typical of the South Bronx than South Korea. Ball caps sat crosswise on young men’s heads and their pants precariously hugged their hips. Young women wore brand-name jeans and designer tops known the world over. They might have been from any urban neighborhood in the United States or China, Brazil or the Philippines.

Mfundo Zonke, a delegate from the South African Provisional Conference, speaks at General Conference. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.

A rising global middle class is emerging, not only in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries but in parts of Africa as well. I’ve been thinking about this as I reflect on the recent General Conference of The United Methodist Church. United Methodists are members of this global middle class, and I’m wondering how this will affect the church in the future.

According to Brink Lindsay of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the rising global middle class is shifting the economic and political center of gravity eastward and southward, from North America and Europe toward Africa, Latin America and Asia. It’s also leading sweeping cultural change. The 2012 General Conference saw a similar shift with increasing numbers from outside the United States.

Formal education levels are rising around the world in response to a growing need for knowledge workers. Billions of people are moving from meeting basic survival needs to a more affluent lifestyle. It’s estimated that by 2022 those living in poverty will be a minority.

A new generation of leaders

Most delegates to General Conference are white-collar professionals, fulltime church workers and clergy. They have the wherewithal to devote 10 days to the work of the church in an international setting. Assuredly, many make sacrifices–using vacation time, for example, as well as supplementing their allowances for lodging and food. But the ability to do this speaks of a level of autonomy and position worth noting.

Lindsay writes that “the explosive growth of choices and capabilities is ushering in a fundamental reorientation of culture: away from subservience to age-old tradition and established authority, and toward a new ethos of autonomy and self-realization.”

In addition, a generation of young, educated and technically savvy leaders is rising. These young leaders will reshape the church and take it in new directions. They reside in the North and the South; they are more globally aware, multicultural and diverse than previous generations.

“These young leaders will reshape the church and take it in new directions.”

This is already occurring. In hallway conversations, I heard criticism of authoritarian leadership styles, patronage appointments to committees, frustration about not being included in decisions and other expressions of autonomy, as well as desire for participation that reveal change is at hand.

Entering new territory

While there were many dynamics at work, the inability of the church to pass a restructure plan was informative. Restructure ran headlong into the rising expectations and voting strength of the global middle class in The United Methodist Church, expectations that include participation and influence in decision-making.

When debate in plenary focused ever so briefly on the economic participation of jurisdictional conferences and central conferences in supporting the general church budget, it was a sign of things to come. The central conferences (the regions of the church in Africa, Asia and Europe) will be asked to contribute more to the general church budget. And we will likely take a second (or third) look at the Worldwide Nature of the Church study, which calls for more regional autonomy.

Other issues are being discussed, sometimes in subdued voices, sometimes not. These include the role of the episcopacy, lay leadership, equitable representation, unresolved theological matters about human sexuality and other concerns, how we fund the general church budget and what we mean by the phrase “global church.”

How we deal with these questions will affect how different regions of the world church relate to each other and redefine partnerships and missional efforts.

In the near term, these issues are likely to become more acute and require greater attention than we’ve given them thus far. Unlike cultural affectations–the donning of brand-name jeans and rap music–they go to the heart of who we are as a church, and they will require us to have a serious, long-term conversation about how we want to move forward together in a shifting landscape for which there are few roadsigns and the territory is new to all of us.


Finding a Way Forward in a New Global Reality

With the close of a deadlocked United Methodist General Conference, it’s now time to look forward and begin the work the church agrees is before us – revitalizing congregations in the United States, concentrating on recruiting young clergy for the 21st century and developing the church in growing areas of the world.

Elizabeth Soard is commissioned as a United Methodist missionary. The April 29 commissioning took place at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla., site of the 2012 General Conference. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.

A framework for this challenge already exists. The 2008 United Methodist General Conference affirmed Four Areas of Focus that are not only serviceable but are directly relevant to the challenges. While some are saying these are dead, I would suggest that, in fact, they are the means for us to move forward with actionable steps to implement outcomes that we agree are priorities.

We did not reject these priorities. We lost focus due to the emphasis on restructuring, which, as General Conference proved, was of debatable significance to achieve the outcomes of renewal and missional vision.

In real practice, the four areas intersect with remarkable compatibility, if we work with them as I’ve seen them implemented in various parts of the world. They provide a powerful means for engaging youth and young adults in the life of the church and for helping us live into being a denomination that is truly global in focus.

A new reality

We are seeing progress in every one of the Four Areas of Focus, and much of the discussion and action at General Conference reinforced — directly or indirectly – their importance.  For example, General Conference appropriated funds to move the leadership focus forward.

In Africa, the focus on global health has resulted in the engagement of local congregations in community outreach, evangelism, leadership development, and addressing the conditions of poverty and disease that compromise quality of life.

In the United States, engagement of local congregations in outreach efforts leads to internal renewal as well as involvement with new people, youth and young adults.

These efforts must fit the context of local communities yet also operate with the understanding that, no matter where we live, we live in a pluralistic, hyper-connected world.  It is a new reality. We will be influenced by a variety of cultural ideas and values, more than we may realize because of his hyper-connected pluralistic reality.

One model doesn’t fit all

This also means that multiple models of local faith communities are necessary. Those who advance a single, simple model should be met with healthy skepticism. With the fragmenting of social structures, the creation of communities of interest, a heightened emphasis on individual fulfillment in the North and the challenge of tribalism in Africa and ethnic and religious  differences in Asia, contextual models of how to be the church are more essential than ever.

Unfortunately, this General Conference did not focus on theological or missional vision. It was about organizational structure. But the vision we inherit from the previous General Conference offers us a comprehensive, future-oriented framework for carrying out mission and ministry. I believe this makes the Four Areas of Focus even more relevant because the context to which I refer is changing rapidly around the globe.

For example, youth and young adults the world over live with different economic challenges than previous generations. This is creating a fundamentally different perspective about hope for the future, meaningful employment and the value of education, all of which inform how they view themselves and their place in the world – in connection with others and as they stand before God.

Creeping secularism, the reshaping of life into consumerism, and pervasive skepticism that results from false promises and manipulation by marketers create a worldview among many youth and young adults that is unlike the worldviews of their elders.

They are skeptical in a way unlike those of previous generations. They demand honest dialogue, truth telling, inclusion, transparency and flexibility. Many see the church as an institution that is inflexible, hypocritical, exclusive in attitude and rife with hypocrisy. They connect differently, using media as a tool for face-to-face community. They are empowered by new media in a way that allows them to voice their feelings of marginalization and organize around them unknown in earlier periods of history.

Removing our blinders

Here’s the stunner. The adaptive challenge, which provided the foundation for the recent effort at restructuring the church, speaks to a global reality, but it was presented as addressing a U.S.-centric reality.

Exploding populations of youth in the South are creating huge paradoxes. On the one hand, young adults are more connected and aware, and some have greater opportunities than previous generations. On the other hand, they are also more aware of the effects of corruption, authoritarian rule, lack of educational opportunities and limited employment opportunities, and many are disaffected and economically marginalized.

In many parts of the industrialized world, young people are coming to an awareness that the opportunities open to previous generations are not as accessible to them. The need for astute clergy leaders from this generation has never been greater globally. The adaptive challenge is not just a U.S. problem.

The church must see this global challenge and remove the blinders that led us to a deadlocked General Conference and set the stage for an even more divided house in four years.

I contend that discussing the decline of the church in the United States and the growth of the church in Africa and Asia is too simplistic and reduces our options to narrow, dare I say, myopic responses. At issue is the relevance of the gospel to changing cultures and social realities in a globally, hyper-connected world of digitally informed young persons. They live in a world that is fundamentally different from the world their elders inherited. And they are faced with problems their elders never had to face.

This is a challenge to our theological understandings of hope, the sacred value of human personality, community, justice and the fruitful life that God intends for all. We need fresh thinking, global thinking that assimilates local context with actions that fit in a more expansive understanding of the role of the church in a global society as complex and multifaceted as the world evolving today.

I also contend that the Four Areas of Focus offer us the most readily accessible pathways to wrestle with this complex global reality and our local contexts. We need to develop principled Christian leaders for the church and world; create new places for new people; engage in ministry with the poor; and tackle the diseases of poverty.

In doing so, we will be challenged to think theologically with missional vision – to think globally and act locally. Let us begin.


Welcome to the 21st century

The 20th century United Methodist Church ran headlong into the 21st century United Methodist Church at General Conference 2012 in Tampa last week.

Irene Innis , spouse of Bishop John Innis from Liberia, checks her cell phone during a plenary break at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

The new world of pluralism and hyper-connection met the old world of authority and Robert’s Rules of Order, and the two didn’t mix well. The Rev. Jay Voorhees remarked in his blog that this was the first Twitter General Conference. And so it was.

The discussion about proportional representation was about more than political posturing. It was about the desire of many concerned, faithful United Methodist people to have a voice in decisions about the future of the church. Time after time, delegates from Africa, Asia and Europe, women, young adults, LGBT and ethnic delegates spoke of their desire to be included, to be recognized and to participate in the decisions that were before the church.

They were pleading for inclusion. They want to participate in the decisions that affect them. They want to be heard. They care about the church and its future course.

This desire for voice comes as the world is undergoing breath-taking change. New media empower individuals and give them the ability to project their ideas to people the world over. They allow those with similar interests to coalesce around common concerns and speak in a unified voice. They enable protests to be organized and conducted with an immediacy that was unknown in the past.

This desire to be included is as much about the positioning and procedural processes that frustrated so many General Conference delegates as outright political machination. The ability to use media for self-expression, to build awareness and to advocate for one’s ideas has created new, stronger expectations that all the voices will be heard.

The new transparency

At a time when the world yearns for transparency and participation, the willingness of the church to open its proceedings to the world through digital media is a sign of strength and maturity. The General Conference was willing to allow itself to be on display, warts and all. That deserves respect.

These media carry other implications as well. Twitter, Facebook, SMS texting, email, Google Plus and live streaming made it possible to monitor what was happening from a distance, report and comment on it, and to some degree, influence it.

When Bishop Mike Coyner announced a rule that would allow the May 3 afternoon plenary to be closed due to an ongoing protest that was disrupting the proceedings, the feeling of shock and dismay inside the hall was palpable. In the digital world, Twitter lit up like the Fourth of July.

“The General Conference was willing to allow itself to be on display, warts and all. That deserves respect.”

I began to receive text messages and direct messages on Twitter instantly. It was clear that in light of the transparency made possible through live streaming, the threat to close the proceedings to the public was, to put it mildly, not a popular alternative.

A last gasp

Inside the hall, protests were immediately lodged with the secretary of the General Conference. One delegate threatened to organize a walkout if the plenary was closed. Members of the Council of Bishops huddled at the center of the main stage to confer.

After several minutes of deliberation, Bishop Scott Jones told journalists assembled at the foot of the stage that the afternoon session would be open, and calm returned.

He asked journalists to get the word out through social media as quickly as possible. It was clear in that moment that the conference that had been accessible to the world through live streaming could not afford the devastating possibility of going into a closed session. The cost in public perception was too great. The realities of the digital age superseded the rulebook that allowed those in command to exercise control by shutting people out, even if they were justified in doing so to establish order.

Social media and the Internet had played a role in shaping a crucial decision about the nature of the deliberations. It felt as if we had heard the last gasp of the 20th century and said welcome to the 21st.