Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

The Church: Constantly Reformed for Mission

By Elliott Wright

ATLANTA, Oct. 20, 2016 — The church is constantly being reformed to do God’s work in the world, The United Methodist Church’s chief mission executive said in introducing a new organizational and operational plan to new directors of the denomination’s General Board of Global Ministries.

Thomas Kemper, Global Ministries’ general secretary, spoke a few days before the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation Oct. 31, 1517. He did not, like Martin Luther, post 95 theses to a church door, but he presented 38 slides that outlined the agency’s mission theology and form for the immediate future, as set by directors across the last several years.

The 37 new directors, 31 with vote and 6 with voice only, who will serve for four years, have the responsibility of making operational a new mission approach which, as Kemper explained, involves regional offices linked to Global Ministries’ headquarters in Atlanta. The plan more fully engages the various cultures, ethnicities, and language comprising United Methodists’ global mission.

In marking both Reformation Day and the launch of a renewed United Methodist mission era, Kemper quoted the late Swiss theologian Karl Barth dictum, ecclesia semper Reformanda est (the church is always reforming”).

A 200-Year Heritage

“That has been the case with the history of mission, too –- we have been and are reforming and changing how we understand and practice mission,” Kemper said, recalling that the oldest component of the General Board of Global Ministries was formed in 1819 as the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Its first missionary was an African American lay preacher, John Stewart, who worked among the Wyandotte people of Ohio. Kemper pointed to a mission bicentennial celebration projected over the next few years. Members of the staff leadership team (cabinet) read aloud the agency’s Mission Theology Statement, which closes with an affirmation of how God is always sweeping the church into a new mission age.

During the course of his report, Kemper paused twice to invite directors to individually and in small groups consider, first, issues they think should receive missional priority during their four-year terms and ideas for marking the agency’s 200th anniversary in 2019/20.

Global Ministries today has missionaries in 60 countries and projects and mission partners in another 60. The new regional approach includes offices in Argentina for Latin America, Seoul, Korea, for Asia and the Pacific, an African location to be determined, and Atlanta for the United States. There is also an office in Estonia that relates to United Methodist units in continental Eurasia.

Kemper also noted mission liaison offices at the United Nations headquarters in New York and in Jerusalem in collaboration with the British Methodist Church and the World Methodist Council and country offices of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, South Sudan, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. UMCOR, the church’s humanitarian disaster relief and development agency, is a unit of Global Ministries and has partners in many additional areas, including a highly developed annual conference network of disaster response in the United States.

Shifting Christian Demographics

The new operational pattern takes account of the fact that the center of Christian gravity has moved from Europe and North America to the Global South, a fact borne out by United Methodist membership trends. Forty percent of 12.5 million members are outside of the United States, primarily in Africa. Kemper cited statistics showing that one out of every four Christians today lives in Sub-Saharan Africa and that China has the third largest Christian population in the world.

Kemper reviewed the history of mission as it developed over the 20th century, moving from a white male controlled Euro-American enterprise to an emerging sense of global partnership in obedience to God, taking account of the gifts and mission enthusiasm of global areas once considered on the “margins.”

“Mission from the margins,” a phrase originating in a World Council of Church 2013 statement on mission and evangelism, is today a reality, Kemper said. He quoted the statement, “Together Toward Life”:

“Mission from the margins seeks to counteract injustice in life, church, and mission. It seeks to be an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the unprivileged.”

Kemper reviewed the expanding international nature of the missionary community, including a young adult component, Global Mission Fellows. In keeping with Christian demographics, United Methodist missionaries are today “from everywhere to everywhere."

Renewed Emphasis on Health

The mission leader, a layman originally from Germany and a former missionary in Brazil, described the agency’s operational units and introduced its executive directors. These units include administration and finance, missionary services, UMCOR, mission connections, communications and fundraising, a new Center on Mission Innovation, a project on global coaching, and global health.

Long included under UMCOR, global health is now a distinct unit, a result in part of the successful Imagine No Malaria campaign that raised millions of dollars for a collaborative effort against the mosquito-spread disease, especially deadly among children in Africa. Imagine No Malaria provided incentive for the development of a network of broad-based annual conference health boards in Africa.

Two new global health efforts include Abundant Health for Children, a United Methodist commitment to reach one million children with life-saving interventions by 2020, and The 10,000 Churches Challenge, a campaign to enlist that number of congregations in advancing support systems for health-care treatment, education, and prevention in their surrounding communities.

Sports Team Mascots

One challenge faced in relocating the mission offices to Atlanta concerned United Methodist opposition to the use of sports team mascots considered offensive to Native Americans, such as the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Kemper reflected on this issue in his report, noting that a recent meeting on racial and ethnic ministries was deliberately held beyond the Atlanta city limits in Decatur. He said that the agency is in consultation with the denomination’s Native American constituency on how to address the matter and is developing ways to advocate for changes in mascot language. A staff member is assigned to the challenge, he said.

The importance of diversity within the church and the mission community was an underlying theme of both Kemper’s report and the meeting of directors as a whole. The opening service of worship was entitled “A Place at the Table.”

Separation or Connection

Kemper expanded the imagery of inclusiveness in concluding his report with reference to his personal experience of being in the Istanbul airport July 28 when terrorists’ bombs killed more than 40 persons and injured scores. Along with a deep sense of fear, he reported an awareness of vulnerability of the oneness of humanity. “We all wanted to see our families and be safe,” he said.

The experience, Kemper said, made him realize that safety and a sense of future lie in connection, not in separation. He applied his observation to current tensions within The United Methodist Church, and he appealed to the mission directors and the mission community to contribute toward a spirit of living with differences within the church.