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Insidious Corruption Destroys Trust

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Government officials and business operators have extracted millions from government coffers in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations. This money could have gone into roads, education and health care, but instead it went into private wallets of the privileged and well-connected.

According to a recent report, the re-election of reform-minded President Joyce Banda is in peril because she has been willing to clean up government corruption. Sixty-eight people, some officials in her own government, have been arrested in a scandal known as Cashgate.

Often it is argued that this money circulates through the economy, as if graft is merely another way of keeping an economy running, but it isn’t. A hospital administrator reports that medicines and medical supplies are in dangerously short supply.  She tells of a young woman who died for lack of supplies to administer a blood transfusion after childbirth.

In fact, corruption is not harmless, it’s lethal when it drains funds for health and welfare, education and infrastructure. It undercuts effective, efficient governance. It adds to the cost of doing business. 

Corruption is insidious. It works its way through a society and becomes so seamless that it can seem to be the oil that keeps the wheels of society turning. Too often, it’s accepted as the way things work.

It tarnishes the institutions of society, institutions that are designed to enhance quality of life–education, health, government, religion. When the leaders of these institutions accept corruption as inevitable, they work against their own mission of uplifting and empowering people, and they contribute to the on-going injustice and oppression that keeps people down.

Transparency International says “corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.”

Recently, traveling from Blantyre to Lilongwe our vehicle was stopped at an intersection by a smiling, friendly uniformed policeman who asked, “Do you have a small gift for me?” He was smooth as butter, his smile bright and toothy.

We resisted giving him money. After a few minutes, he agreed to another gift, a book. A prayerbook.

Our response was inadequate. It still pricks at my conscience. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been shaken down in Africa. I have more than 30 years of experience with it.

Perhaps that’s why I’m impatient and frustrated. Corruption seems intransigent. And corruption keeps people in poverty. It breeds the diseases of poverty and illiteracy.

The one institution I can influence to avoid corruption is the church. I’ve seen how the church working in partnership with other organizations committed to transparency and ethical behavior can make a difference.

It’s not easy. I know it’s a difficult challenge to confront corruption, sometimes it’s dangerous, especially when corruption has become embedded in the fabric of the society.

But so long as corruption is tolerated, Africa will struggle and people will die, and that should weigh heavily on every person who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus.

The Astounding Impact of Innovative Technology in the Developing World

Nathan Myhrvold’s TEDTalk,”Could this laser zap malaria?” is an eye-opening look at how computer science and technology can help address an ancient and persistent disease that is responsible for 655,000 deaths each year. To think that it’s possible for a laser to not only kill mosquitoes in mid-flight, but determine from their wing beat frequency whether they are females (which potentially carry malaria) or males (which do not bite) is downright astonishing.

Yet even technology that’s far more accessible than what Myhrvold describes is changing the game in Africa — not only aiding in the fight against malaria, but opening a whole new world. Mobile technologies make it possible to have access to information that is transformative, whether it’s tracking disease outbreaks or educating children.

Once I was in a remote village in northern Senegal where there were no telephones or even electricity, disconnected from the rest of the world. Back home in the U.S., my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife, Sharon, was purposefully trying to get a message to me.

It took her an entire day to find someone who would agree to go to the village to locate me. It took a another day for that person to reach me by car — then yet another day for the two of us to navigate the poor roads to the nearest town with a post office that had phone service. Once there, I had to make an appointment to come back to use the phone the following day. By the time I was finally able to speak to her, my son was already recuperating.

Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

That’s what life was like in rural Africa before cell phones and satellites. Today, cell phone usage in Africa is commonplace, with more than 10.7 million mobile phones in Senegal alone. Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

Improving – and saving – lives

Pierre Omadjela, director of Communications and Development for the Central Congo Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, is using FrontlineSMS to share health information and increase awareness about malaria prevention (a major focus for The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative). FrontlineSMS is free, open-source software that can be used to send text messages to groups of people without an Internet connection that is being used in a variety of ways to improve people’s lives.

Using automated messages to mobile phones, Omadjela says they have already realized a 5 percent decrease from the work they are doing teaching people in the Democratic Republic of Congo ways to prevent malaria.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Blantyre, Malawi, for a meeting of The United Methodist Church of Malawi. During a workshop on Transformative Communication, which included presentations from leaders at Inveneo and Medic Mobile, one workshop leader asked the group of 85 participants how many owned and use mobile phones. Virtually every hand in the place was raised.

Later, at another training conducted in Madisi, Malawi, on how to use FrontlineSMS to communicate with key groups of people, local church personnel and caseworkers who work for ZOE Ministry, a program that helps empower orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, were in attendance. As one woman sent her first FrontlineSMS text message, she shrieked with wonder. “It worked!” she marveled.

While 75 percent of the world has access to a mobile phone, smartphones make up only 15 percent of the global market. biNu is a platform that allows those with feature phones to have a smartphone-like experience through cloud-based apps and services, providing them with immediate access to email, news, books, health information and social features.

That means the world’s information library is available through not only smartphones, but also conventional mobile phones. Children are able to read books they could not afford and have access to educational information they otherwise would not.

‘All about potential’

Access to information is also giving people the means to have more control over their circumstances. In Kenya, I watched as two women used a teacup-sized satellite receiver plugged into a boom box get audio digital information that was then translated into text, allowing them to check the market price of beans so they could negotiate a fair price for their own crop. No longer must they rely solely on the price quoted by a distributor.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says, “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Remarkable new information technologies are unlocking the potential of developing countries in ways that are not only empowering, but revolutionary. As new innovations and new possibilities continue to be presented, the digital future is becoming the digital present. I can’t wait to see what’s next.


As World Malaria Day Approaches, HBO Movie Raises Needed Awareness

This weekend, I watched the HBO premiere of “Mary and Martha,” a compelling story of two women of different ages from different countries who are drawn  together by the common experience of having their sons die from a threat they never expected: malaria.

As the pair struggle to come to grips with the untimely loss of their sons, Mary (played by Hilary Swank) and Martha (Brenda Blethyn) forge a deep friendship and become advocates in the fight against a deadly disease that kills 655,000 people every year, most of them children.

As I watched the drama unfold, I couldn’t help but hope that the movie’s message reaches people who are currently unaware that children are dying from a preventable disease at an unconscionable rate. I hope that it moves them to action.

Hassan Sesay and his wife Amindalo Sesay sit with their children Falmota, Marianne and Alice, in front of the new mosquito net they received as part of the Imagine No Malaria campaign at their home in the Gbo Chiefdom outside Bo, Sierra Leone. Photo by Mike DuBose.

Hassan Sesay and his wife, Amindalo Sesay, sit with their children in front of the mosquito net they received through Imagine No Malaria at their home outside Bo, Sierra Leone, in 2011. Photo by Mike DuBose.

Like Mary and Martha, too many people are simply not cognizant of the impact of this killer illness.

My own connection to malaria runs deep. I’ve had it twice, first in the 1980s, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when I walked in ankle high grass around a killing field while doing work on a film about Cambodia shortly after Pol Pot. I had another bout with the disease in Gondar, Ethiopia, a year or two later.

In both cases, I was fortunate enough to be able to get to a doctor and receive medication as soon as I began to feel symptoms—chills, fever, and listlessness.

I’ve also seen dozens of children die from malaria, and I’ve seen the grief etched on the faces of parents who have lost their children.

I recall a young mother in Honduras who brought her semi-conscious infant to a clinic, after walking miles from a small village in the rural mountains. By the time she arrived, the baby – only a few months old – was in serious danger, and the clinic lacked the medicines for an infusion for the child. As the mother sat before the nurse who attempted to treat her child, the baby died.

In a tent clinic in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where dozens of people staggered in after a severe famine, I saw a grandmother carrying a comatose baby. Breathing heavily, the baby clearly was in desperate condition. A doctor started an infusion of medication through an IV, but it was too late.

These images are emblazoned in my memory. I cannot forget them.

Those were only two children, and those scenes are repeated in similar fashion every single day. In Africa, malaria takes the life of a child every 60 seconds.

Our children, our responsibility

In the movie, Martha stays to help for a while at the orphanage in Mozambique where her son, Ben, was a teacher. When she decides to leave, the children give her a collage that says, “We are all your children,” as a parting gift.

“We are all your children.” That’s a striking statement. The children of the world are our children. Imagine what we could accomplish if everyone made a commitment to take some responsibility toward providing a healthy life for all of God’s children.

INM_WebBanner_300x2501Programs like The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative and its partner organizations are making a difference, producing life-saving results. Malaria’s impact has been cut in half in just a few short years, but the battle is still far from over.

Millions of nets have been distributed, but millions more are needed before we are able to cover every child in every village at the end of every road.  And nets are not enough. More lasting solutions are required. More health workers must be trained to recognize and treat symptoms at the outset of the disease. More health clinics are needed. More mothers and fathers need to know what they can do to prevent it.

This week on April 25, we will observe World Malaria Day. There’s no better time to join a movement that is saving lives. My prayer is that one day, there will be no malaria. My hope is that day will come soon.

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An Overlooked Issue in the Boy Scouts Debate

Boy Scouts LogoThe debate about allowing gay leaders and scouts in the Boy Scouts has under-played a critical issue. I’ve been told that in some troops upwards of half the scouts are from single parent families, the vast majority of those headed by mothers. And these young people are from the neighborhoods in which local churches exist. They often walk to the building for troop meetings.

My colleague, Gil Hanke, General Secretary of United Methodist Men, which relates to Boy Scouts of America on behalf of The United Methodist Church, tells me “in a typical scouting program, 25% are from the sponsoring church, 25% are from other churches, 50% are from un-churched families.”

Scouting offers these boys interaction with a male figure, provides them with opportunities for learning and for skills that they likely would not have otherwise. Scouting is about values education, the development of a sense of personal responsibility and service to others. And, it brings young people inside the church building on a regular basis.

In my experience as a scout, this range of activities, contacts and values are exactly what I needed growing up in a family that was, at best, dysfunctional. As we moved about following oilrig locations in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming one of the constants in my life was Scouting. Scout troops were always located in a Methodist church in the small, dusty towns where we temporarily settled.

We moved every six months until I was thirteen and chose to go another way. This nomadic existence was simply a way of life for itinerant oilfield workers and their families, and for me, Scouting was part of the glue that held this transient life together.

It was also a window on the world through which I could peer and see a wider field of opportunities and a future beyond the hard labor of the oilfields. I went on camping trips, floated down rivers, worked on merit badges, and even went to the state capitol and met the governor. These activities expanded my life in significant ways.

Without Scouting it would have been a more difficult, less hopeful existence. I interacted with adults in a different way than in my family setting, which was not altogether positive and certainly not constructive.

A place of haven

When I hear local church leaders, especially pastors, say they will drop Scouting for the modest change that is proposed to allow gay men and scouts to participate at the will of the congregation, I’m perplexed. The church should be a place of haven for youth who are struggling with their identities. They should have the opportunity to come to know they are loved by God and by others. They should be provided the support necessary to see new horizons, have meaningful experiences and envision a newer, brighter future. Scouting provided this support for me.

Moreover, given the fact that Mainline denominations are in decline, it’s ironic that congregations would turn away from a program that serves needs of families within walking distance of their buildings; families experiencing hardship; families with young people in need of positive interactions with adults. Scouting is not designed to be a tool for evangelism, but it introduces young persons to values-oriented civic responsibility that is complementary to the teachings of the church, and it invites young people into the church building. Referring to Gil Hanke’s data begs the question: What church would not want to host a meeting each week in which half the folks present do not have a church home?

While attention is focused on churches that might leave Scouting if the ban is lifted, it’s also possible that churches that have not sponsored troops because of the ban might reconsider and make Scouting even more inclusive.

A modest move

There are ways to monitor adult interactions, conduct due diligence when selecting adult leaders and safeguard children. These are issues for all congregations regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of adult leaders. They’re pertinent for Sunday School, youth groups, choirs and other activities involving youth. So it’s difficult to understand why a congregation would consider banishing children in scouting from the building when it’s the mission of the church to reach out to them, especially when it’s so explicit in the teachings of Jesus that we are called to bring the little children to him.

The decision the leaders of Boy Scouts of America are considering is not a radical leap forward. It’s a modest half-step toward inclusion. But it’s one that should be supported and affirmed, for the sake of the children, boys and young men for whom Scouting is a helpful guide to a better adulthood.

Continuing the Fight Against Malaria

Training Community Health Workers to install bed nets. UMNS photo by Mike DuboseA World Health Organization report raises concern that lack of money will weaken efforts to combat malaria. This is disheartening news. Great progress has been made against this disease and it has produced life-saving results.

Last year more than one million children were saved as increased funding made it possible to provide more bednets, diagnostic kits and medicines. However, distribution of nets dropped sharply according to the WHO from 145 million two years ago to 66 million last year. As more children are born and existing bednets wear out, this drop will result in an increasing number of children left unprotected. The result will be more deaths and debilitating illness.

This is bad enough, but a hidden result concerns me even more. In the past, when the world cut back on funding malaria treatment and prevention, the malaria parasite spread rapidly and developed greater resistance to existing drugs. An even stronger parasite evolved making it more difficult to contain and control.

A particularly strong parasite has been identified in parts of southeast Asia in the past decade and some malaria specialists believe it could spread to Africa with devastating results.

The WHO estimates the disease could be contained with an expenditure of $5 billion per year globally. The cost of the war in Afghanistan to the U.S. is $3.6 billion a month. Tackling malaria is not beyond the capacity of the world’s governments and non-governmental organizations.

The fight against the diseases of poverty–HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and polio among the many–is a longterm fight. They all deserve funding and a comprehensive approach to global health is within the world’s capacity.

The tendency of politicians and others to focus on a disease for a season, or with a short-term view is inadequate and dangerous. It provides opportunistic diseases the time to develop into more virulent strains which makes the task of combatting them more difficult. The result in the loss of life and debilitating, costly health problems for more people. NPR is providing a comprehensive overview of malaria in a series called Malaria: Pushing Back.

The effort to contain and significantly reduce malaria is a longterm struggle. If the world reduces the funding to support this struggle, the result will a stronger foe in the future, and a more costly one.

Our short attention span can be deadly. Over 100 global health advocates from The United Methodist Church last month delivered the message to their representatives that we want to continue funding the fight against malaria, for the sake of children who deserve the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

In addition,United Methodists and members of the ELCA continue to raise funds to combat malaria. The United Methodist effort is Imagine No Malaria. It’s necessary to take a long view toward this life-saving struggle as the Rotary Club International has done in its fight to end polio. Today, the disease is limited to regions of India and Pakistan. It has taken twenty five years, and Rotarians have been consistent and committed for the long haul, an admirable commitment in light of the difficulty the effort faces as it approaches its successful end. Let’s hope this commitment under hardship inspires governments and non-governmental organizations as well.

The risk of failure is too great. And too many lives are at stake to pull back now.

Faithful Discipleship and Thinking Big

I like big thinking. I don’t mean big for the sake of bigness. I mean thinking about how to transform the world for the better–at scope and scale so that the billions whose lives are a daily struggle can see a better future, and live healthier, more comfortably and safely. Now.

I’m not opposed to small groups and individual action. Early in my pastoral ministry, I helped organize a small support group for parents of terminally ill children and I found it enormously helpful personally.

Our Problems are Intertwined

But as I travel, I see that the problems we face as a global community are intertwined. We’re all affected by climate change, water management, infectious diseases, interrelated economic ups and downs and galloping technological changes. While small groups can tackle some of the effects of these wide-ranging issues, in many instances they are bigger and more complex and we need to tackle them at a level of scope and scale that can truly affect global transformation. We need to work on them together.

Traveling through the mountains of the Philippines last week, a local man riding with me pointed out mountaintops left bare by clear cutting. He told me when he was a child, they were forested with old growth trees as wide as six feet. The global market for exotic wood led to their decimation.

Local groups mounted a protest and the cutting was eventually halted. This complex interweaving of global and local binds us in ways that we sometimes don’t appreciate because the connections are nearly impossible to perceive at each end of the chain.

Making Connections and Confronting Complexity

Therefore, I’m really glad for the likes of Bread for the World  and Sojourners who help connect disparate parts of the complexity. They seek to inform and affect policies and perceptions at a level that achieves scope and scale. When Bread for the World provided an analysis last week of President Obama’s approach to the U.S. budget compared to that of Rep. John Boehner, it was a helpful guide with useful information for a constituent group who can act collectively to influence policy. David Beckman, the head of Bread for the World, said in a meeting recently it’s essential that the faith communities in the U.S. advocate for a “circle of protection for the poor,” a phrase I’m told was suggested by my colleague James Winkler, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church. That’s scope and scale. And it’s transformational.

Sojourners is perhaps the most effective ecumenical voice in the faith community today bringing biblical teaching to bear on economic policies and how they affect poverty and human wellbeing.

The Common Good is Global

Such efforts lift our thinking from how taxes and budget cuts will affect me and put the question into a larger context. How will these cuts affect us, all of us, particularly those of us who do not have the same influence, strength of voice and access to policy-makers that the rich and powerful have?

For people of faith, it’s important to recall that Jesus was steeped in Jewish teaching about justice and mercy, community and individual responsibility. Jesus instructs us how to treat each other individually and how we treat each other in the wider community. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are clear about our responsibility to each other at a level that rises to the whole community. There is a common good, and today it is global.

I am grateful that Bread for the World and Sojourners remind me frequently that a fundamental part of being faithful is seeing the wholeness of God’s creation, beyond the reductionist definitions of life: it’s about me, my house and neighborhood and my tribe and my people.

And more importantly, I’m grateful that they understand that individual transformation and collective transformation are not polar opposites. They are interwoven parts of a whole cloth called faithful discipleship.

The Act of Listening as a Means of Healing

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, troops came home not to the accolades and war heroes’ welcome of days past, but to personal attacks on character based on the condemnation of the war itself.

Today, we face an unprecedented number of troops coming home from what has become the United States’ longest war – Afghanistan – in addition to the thousands having already come home from Iraq. While this class of veterans may not always face the verbal attacks as did those from the Vietnam era, many face a pervasive communal silence in their transition home from war. The silence may not come from an aversion to these wars, but an apathy about them. Returning troops face a nation sublimely oblivious to the intense pain of war, loss of life and disruption of global community.

Contrast the last decade with the era of the Second World War. During “The Good War,” ration books adjusted everyday home front living with staples like coffee, sugar, fuel and more all coming under government regulation. No such costs have been exacted upon us during America’s longest war. War bonds are a thing of the past … grocery lists remain the same … the American automotive industry has survived recession and is coming back in spite of ongoing war.

In addition, while today’s returning troops suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury) are added to safety-net programs, many of the same people who herald patriotism call for budget cuts to these very programs. And, unless we live near a military base, we’ve seen little press coverage of the lives lost.

Tobias Wolff, Vietnam Veteran and professor at Stanford University has said,

“The sign of a really decadent civilization is one that sends young people out to do and to suffer the things that soldiers do and suffer in war and not to care about what those things are … not to have any costs laid on them [civilization] even of knowing … we seem to have avoided every other cost … but to avoid even the cost of knowing is an unforgiveable decadence.” (Operation Homecoming)

As a society, we can learn from a past that has resulted in over one-third of our homeless population consisting of veterans. Caring for returning troops is an act of responsibility taken by a civilization that recognizes their participation in sending them into harm’s way. Caring involves not only providing government programs that care for the mental and physical health of veterans, but participation in communal acts that envelop the whole person and empower them to fully return home.

A very powerful communal act is storytelling. In listening to the stories of those who’ve participated in war, healing can eventually come to those individuals and the cost of war can be understood so new ways of resolving global conflict can arise. Unless they speak, veterans may remain captives of war’s demons. Unless we listen, we fail to comprehend the horrors in which we collectively participate. Storytelling is a powerful, ancient ritual that moves people beyond language itself – shaping not only perceptions but also the ways in which we live together in the future. Storytelling provides a means of sharing the cost of war among all people, so we develop an aversion to war, and seek true and just alternatives for resolving conflict.

In January, many United Methodist congregations will participate in America’s Sunday Supper with Points of Light Institute – engaging communities in dialog about the issues that most impact returning troops and working together to address them. Some of our faith communities will provide free screenings of Operation Homecoming, or The Invisible Ones followed by dialog to raise awareness and assist in telling the story. Some congregations may provide job fairs, financial literacy programs, or initiate Habitat for Humanity builds for and with veterans. As important as the concrete results of these acts of service are, they offer more than the help itself. They offer a means of coming home.

Print and video stories that show the many ways United Methodists are involved can be found at and you can learn more about how to get involved.

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.


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