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 Shiny Black Cushman Eagle at Red Rutherford’s Skelly Station

A Cushman Eagle similar to the one I received as a Christmas gift.

When I was a child I would pore over Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs. I turned the pages until the ink smudged and the paper became soft with wear. I also savored magazine ads for Daisy and Red Rider BB guns, Schwinn and Huffy bicycles, Lionel and American Flyer model trains. I lost myself in anticipatory pleasure.

But sometimes when I got one of my wished-for toys and played with it for a while, it seemed less pleasurable than the anticipation beforehand. Once I became accustomed to to the toy, the pleasure diminished. This wasn’t always the case, but it happened often enough to detect a pattern. Things, in and of themselves, don’t make us happy. Desire and happiness are more complicated.

Sometimes, the pleasure we experience is worth the asking price. One day as I walked past Red Rutherford’s Skelly service station after school I spotted a used, shiney, black Cushman Eagle motor scooter with a chrome gearshift, and day after day it became an object of desire. I knew I’d have to mow a lot of lawns to buy it, and it wasn’t lawn mowing season so I was depressed in equal measure with my desire for this lovely machine.

Shortly before Christmas it was gone. I was heartbroken. My fantasies of tearing around town, shifting that two-speed transmission with its characteristic sound of grinding gears were deflated, and it was hard to bear. I went into a funk.

On Christmas morning, however, I was led into the front yard at my grandparent’s house and there sat the Cushman Eagle. It seemed the best Christmas ever. And truth to tell, I got a lot of pleasure from that motor scooter for quite a long time.

A page from a 1957 Sears catalogue.

How my single parent mother, caring for three children on a nurse’s salary in our small town, managed to put the money aside to buy it still mystifies me. But she did, and I was ever grateful.

These memories are called to mind because United Methodist Communications is asking us to Rethink Advent and give the gift of ourselves rather than become engulfed in the material commercialism that so infects Christmas these days. It’s a worthy suggestion. Uncritical indulgence can lead us into financial problems, emotional letdown and buyer’s remorse. These don’t make us happy, they make us feel worse and leave us economically and emotionally bereft.

We do feel happier when we give of ourselves, and the feeling seems to affect us in multiple ways. We feel contentment and inner warmth. And we don’t experience buyer’s remorse.

Our relationship to things is directly connected to our sense of self-worth, our relationships with others and our beliefs about what things can or cannot do for our well-being. Things don’t replace, or even enhance, our relationships if those are not in good repair. They don’t buttress our flagging esteem if we’re depressed, fearful, or emotionally damaged.

To Rethink Advent is a good thing if we think critically about why we’re giving, how giving will enhance wellbeing, how it will affect us emotionally and financially. And perhaps it will help us discover that the best gift we can give is serving others and attending to those we love and those less advantaged.

I suspect the pleasure that comes as a result will rival any that I used to find in those mail order catalogs and last a lot longer.

I Am With You Always

Photo by Art McClanahan

We struggle to make sense of the senseless. Our hearts are broken. We ask why. We’re confused, frustrated, angry. We weep. We plead. We curse. We pray.

We do what we can to express our concern, to comfort the grieving, and we wonder.

The tragic death of innocents, whether in Newtown or Kabul, challenges us because we desperately want answers. And order. But there is no explanation.

On television this afternoon Dr. Drew repeated what many people say; that God needed more angels and he called the children and adults of Newtown home. It’s a well-meaning thought and one that seems to help many people through times like these.

What comforts me is the biblical teaching that God is available to us to hear our pain and absorb our anger. God’s availability provides us with comfort and strength. It does not comfort me to think that God is the cause of the pain, nor that God wills the death of innocents.

In a post a few months ago, I wrote about this.

God Did Not Create It a Chaos

In biblical teaching, God does not bring chaos upon us, the whole story of creation is about God bringing order out of chaos for our own good. Chaos, as Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us in his classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is evil. It prevents us from believing in God’s goodness. God brought order and precision to the chaos so that we could enjoy the fruitfulness and goodness of creation.

In the earthy give and take, up and down relationship between God and the people Israel, Isaiah speaks a timeless message:

“For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!)” (Isaiah 45:18-19 NRSV)

Without a predictable, reliable creation, life would be unbearable, utterly beyond meaning. We would literally live in the vortex of on-going chaos. Thus, when random events occur that interrupt the orderliness of our lives, as when a troubled individual causes the carnage that we mourn in Newtown our response is to ask why God did not step in to prevent it. Or we call upon God to reverse the terrible hurt that breaks our hearts and spirits. But to do this would be to deny the fundamental structure of the creation that gives us reliability. It would introduce yet more unpredictability and imperil its goodness.

You Are My People

Instead, we are told we are never separated from the love of God. That if we call upon God for strength and courage, God will be with us. “I am he who comforts you,” writes Isaiah (Isaiah 51:12) after calling the people Israel to task when they feared their oppressor. We are reminded that we are to reach out to each other in community to lend each other strength. And we pray to remember the goodness that remains in our lives, even as we ache for that which has been lost, and in prayer we are reassured.

“I have put my words in your mouth, and hidden you in the shadow of my hand, stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.'” (Isaiah 51:16)

I Am With You to the End of the Age

Christians believe that in Jesus, God entered into our sorrow and grief, taking upon God’s own self our brokenness and pain, as well as our hopes and joys. “I am with you always, to end of the age,” Jesus said. (Matthew 28:18) The belief that God is with us is the heart of Christian faith.

The Apostle Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38,39)

In these affirmations, we find the strength to overcome the pain of unbearable loss when it seems beyond our human capacity. We find ourselves and our place in the universe. We form the community that helps us get through the struggle. We glimpse the hope for a brighter future in the midst of this disordered time, the vision to see life as purposeful and overflowing with possibilities, and the nurturing that gives us stability when we are brought so low that we cry to God, “Where are you? Why, O God, why?”

“But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:14,16)

Philippines Central Conference Connects Globally

Communicators streamed the Philippines Central Conference using four cameras, switcher and realtime social media

I’m told it wasn’t the first time the Philippines Central Conference has been streamed live on the web, but it was the first time a full crew of communicators used four camera and a switcher to produce the conference for the web. In any case, the Philippines, one of the most active nations in social media, was able to view the full plenary sessions of the conference that was slated to elect three bishops.

When I turned on my iPad in the church sanctuary where the conference was held, forty bluetooth devices appeared in my settings. It should come as no surprise. Filipinos send a billion text messages a day and according to one website it could be even more. More than 75% of Filipinos are active in social media with 28 million registered users on Facebook.

Among Facebook users, 52% are females from age 18-24 followed closely by users 25-34. Three of the top four cities for The United Methodist Church Facebook page are in the Philippines.

What this will mean for the faith communities in the Philippines is only not yet clear. But these media, and this media engagement will likely have similar effects upon Filipinos that it has had on other peoples around the world: buffeted by a flood of commercial messages delivered through digital media, phone calls replaced by text messages, better informed, empowered individuals.

As I watched the young volunteers running webcast, I was impressed by their skills and energy. They were learning on the fly, but they were producing a professional product. Despite some technical difficulties (the roof of the church sanctuary was metal and it interfered with the walkie talkies they used to communicate remotely), they adapted and managed the live feed with great skill.

The story is very similar around the world. The church exists in a new media landscape that gives us the ability to tell our story globally, communicate instantaneously and reach more people than ever before. If we recognize this and utilize these media strategically and with theological care, it is a time of unprecedented opportunity to bring the values of the Christian faith to a hurting and broken world.

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 www.umc.org/military and you can learn more about how to get involved.

Security of Appointment Conversation

As I wrote a few days ago, I am taking down the post on the security of appointments because the legislative action on secure appointments has been reported more completely on umc.org. In addition, The Rev. Fitzgerald Reist has commented here about the conversation that was initiated by his note:

 

“The message was intended for the Council of Bishops as an alert to the information. It was a statement about the language that remained in The Book of Discipline 2012 and not a statement of law. Decisions of law are made by Bishops and ultimately by the Judicial Council, not by the secretary of the General Conference. I fully expect that the Judicial Council will decide on the degree to which security of appointment has changed.” 

As he writes here his note was intended as an alert for the Council of Bishops. However, when it was released via email it became a public document and the widespread interest in the topic resulted in the posting of the letter on Facebook within minutes of its release. This is to be expected in this horizontal communications environment.

Once released, a story gains its own momentum in this environment. This story illustrates that reality.

Security of Appointment in Effect Says Fitzgerald Reist

Update: United Methodist News Service has posted a more complete article reporting on this situation here:   http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5259669&ct=11798635

For readers of this blog who are not United Methodist, this will seem a puzzling post. For United Methodist Clergy it will raise great interest.

Apparently, it is the judgment of The Rev. Fitzgerald Reist, Secretary of General Conference, the governing body of The United Methodist Church, that an action eliminating security of appointment for clergy did not receive the appropriate support through plenary vote at the 2012 General Conference.

This letter from Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of Greater New Jersey is circulating on the Internet advising of this opinion. United Methodist News Service is pursuing the story and will be posting as soon as accurate information can be confirmed.

My posting does not indicate that I am qualified to interpret the legislation as it was presumed to have been voted at General Conference nor that I am in a position to interpret the Book of Disciplne. I am making the information available as it was made available to me.

 

 

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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