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.


3 Responses to “The Rising Global Middle Class: How Will It Affect The United Methodist Church?”

  1. Melvin Talbert May 15, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    I agree with your findings. Now is the time for us to put our slogan “Open hearts, Open Minds, Open doors” into practice. Young people will believe us when this happens for them.

  2. Holly Boardman May 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    I believe that the primary problem with the restructuring proposal of the Council of Bishops was the way it consolidated power in the hands of a few people and in “vital” churches. I think we have made a mistake in trying to model ourselves after megachurches. We are aspiring to be something that is not in our DNA as Wesleyans.

    I honestly think that aspiring to be a middle class church is a good thing. Here is a post I wrote on the topic. Although the legislation I proposed for consideration at General Conference did NOT make it to the plenary floor this time, I think the idea will resurface in 2016. The Nigerian delegation tells me that they will work at presenting a similar idea then.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could reclaim our neighborhood churches as centers of local ministry? I’m tired of driving 8 miles to church.

    Here is a blog post I wrote on this topic.

    I’d be interested in your comments.

  3. Rev. Russ Young June 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

    I thank God for the growing church in Africa and other places around the world, I am also thankful that they are standing for what is taught in the scriptures and attempting to return our church to a position of holy living, following the scriptures and living out our faith in a holy manner. Thank God our brothers and sisters in other countries have remembered what it means to stand for what is right.

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