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.