Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

A Future of Connection, Not Separation
Thomas Kemper*

The Wesleyan expectation of “perfection in love” draws redeemed individuals into appropriate, active, transforming relationships of wholeness and unity with God, all people, and creation.

—Theology of Mission: Grace at Work Everywhere section

The General Board of Global Ministries enters 2017 with an expanding presence worldwide through regional offices and a new operational headquarters in Atlanta, part of a reassessment of how the United Methodist mission agency can be most effective today and into the immediate future.

Our directors and staff leaders have relied heavily on scripture, prayer, the Wesleyan tradition, the wisdom of 200 years of mission experience, and our Theology of Mission statement in projecting our unfolding mission engagement, entrusting the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us.

The articles in the Winter 2017 issue of New World Outlook magazine are written by our cabinet members, who introduce themselves to you by sharing something from their life stories. In addition, they have each chosen a quote from the Theology of Mission that grounds the work of their units. We also include a bit of history about our new home with Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

For my part, you have heard much of my story throughout these pages since I’ve served Global Ministries as its general secretary. In the last issue, for instance, I shared some of the stories of my youth. So I’ll begin with a more recent story about an event that continues to shape me, through which I felt God’s assurance, yet also a strong conviction about the kind of faith community Christ calls us to be.

It was in the Istanbul international airport last summer that I realized with profound certainty that people of different nationalities, races, cultures, and faith have more in common than we usually dare to admit. We share the capacity for fear and hope, a sense of vulnerability, a desire for safety and surety, and the love of family. In short, we share God’s gift of life and a desire to perpetuate it, and in that we share the possibilities of companionship, mutual concern and care, and peaceful coexistence.

Thomas Kemper participates in the opening worship during the October 2016 United Methodist Board of Global
              Ministries’ board of director’s meeting held at Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Photo by Kathleen Barry/
             United Methodist Communications

That day in July, I was napping on a couch in the Turkish Airlines lounge, waiting between flights in the course of my work, when I was jerked awake by loud blasts. Fellow travelers and I, riddled with fear, ran first one way, then another without guidance, unsure of what had happened, looking for hiding places. I found space in a storage closet off the lounge kitchen, a niche shared with an Asian man with whom I could only communicate through the horror in our eyes, if not in words. Eventually, we emerged to learn that terrorists had detonated bombs, killing, as I would later learn, 43 people and wounding 239 others.

In the ensuing hours of building evacuation and in a bus to a hotel, I interacted with a range of individuals and families drawn together by the randomness of the tragedy: a Somali family who had been living in Europe to escape violence in their homeland, an Egyptian student just finishing his studies in Italy, a young Turkish woman at the airport to see off a friend and trapped without her passport in the chaos. We were linked in fear and in hope and in a strong desire to live, to see our loved ones. I have never felt such a strong impulse to embrace my wife and children.
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This episode of fear shared with others made me think of the people of Aleppo, Mogadishu, and so many other places, who encounter terrorism every night and day. There arose in me a sense that in shared vulnerability there is hope that people who differ can build a new, even peaceful world. I thought about how we have attempted to find safety from those who are different from us through separation, when we might find it more productive to make connections across cultural, racial, national, and religious boundaries. So much of the terrorism in the world—today and in the past—reflects claims of special status in the human family, assertions of a privileged standing, or ego trips.

Through the use of social media, I was able to begin the process of sharing my newfound hope. I was fortunate to be asked to discuss my airport experience and my emerging dream in major electronic and print media—to speak in the public forum about the value of connection versus the harm of separation as a possible common agenda. I have made this hope part of my personal ministry, proposed it as a theme to explore in Global Ministries’ work, especially through our United Nations and Jerusalem offices, and dared to suggest that it has implications for the internal debates and disagreements within The United Methodist Church. In all of these venues, religious and secular, our current policies and practices, often built on separate silo models, are not producing conditions of safety or atmospheres of collaboration. We need to find better ways than we now have to harness our shared human vulnerability and hitch it to hope rooted in respect for the dignity of human existence.

Christian mission at its best involves crossing cultural boundaries of all kinds in recognition of the grace and love of God for the whole human family and the whole of creation.

Dealing with Differences
Differences, of course, matter—enormously. The diversity of races, nations, cultures (languages, the arts, ideologies), and faiths provide context, form, and specificity to life; they enrich the tapestry of history past, present, and future, and of daily life. Differences tell us who we are. But as the eons of time clearly indicate, differences have a way of glossing over the shared aspects of human experience, so that we have religious wars, ideological battles, and cultural conflicts of many kinds. For example, we are this year marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther in Germany. As valuable as the Reformation was to theological, political, and economic thought and practice, it set off hundreds of years of social and nationalistic hostilities and repeated episodes of splintering and separation—not that the Christian world had enjoyed endless peace and harmony prior to Luther. Unfortunately, Christian history from the outset has been marred by separate, competing schools—silos—of theology and polity. It’s a shameful narrative in many respects, although the ecumenical movement of the last century has gone a long way toward lowering and breaching some of the barriers of Christian separation.
               Wrapped in a blanket against the cold, a refugee girl approaches the border into Croatia near the Serbian village of
               Berkasovo. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, and other countries—including many
               children— flowed through Serbia in 2016 on their way to western Europe. Photo by Paul Jeffrey

We facilitate separation—create tensions and conflicts—when we fail to recognize and honor diversity, and also when we exclude others because of their distinctions. I suspect that is the result of sin and temptation. Even the Christian community has a great proclivity to set up scales of inclusion and exclusion based on criteria other than the grace and love of God. St. Paul turned the spotlight on this human inclination in both Romans and 1 Corinthians in his essays on the marks of a true Christian and the quality of body parts.

Diversity Within Connection
Connection does not imply total agreement. Many kinds and shades of difference persist even in the best of societies and systems. But how much better to communicate with integrity and respect where differences exist than to stand apart in angry separation, letting distrust infect and hurt fester. We are all vulnerable; surety exists only in God, and for Christians, only in faith in Jesus Christ. Yet we can find common cause as people through an awareness of vulnerability that, to cite Brené Brown (a research professor at the University of Houston who studies vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame), becomes “the path to the feeling of worthiness.” A feeling of worthiness is surely close to a sense of living in God’s grace.

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What matters is learning to live with and appreciate the diversity, to affirm shared vulnerability and shared hope. These days I find myself applying the connection/separation options to The United Methodist Church with respect to denominational positions on human sexuality, notably homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I wonder whether the church has become captive to the American culture of divisiveness where walls of separation often seem easier to maintain than streams of connectivity. Could a Christ-centered church, willing to admit its sin and vulnerability, not be able to live with differences?

We in the mission community certainly have learned many lessons over the decades about the need to live with both vulnerability and diversity among styles of worship, training of leaders, hymnody, organization of congregations, spiritual apprehension, capacity to live with markedly different political and economic systems, and, at times, diverse ethical propositions. Yet we continue remarkable mission cohesion in The United Methodist Church.

Can We Be One People?
Early Methodists certainly experienced episodes of connection and separation. John Wesley, the founder in England, and Francis Asbury, the great evangelist on the American scene, disagreed strongly on organizational issues. The two branches of Methodism, British and American, would go separate ways in many respects following the American Christmas Conference of 1784. The two men would disagree over the necessity of the American Revolution and the two branches varied in the intensity with which they opposed slavery.

Shortly before his death, in his last letter to an American preacher named Ezekiel Cooper, Wesley prayed that European and American Methodists would never separate. He wrote in February 1791:
Lose no opportunity of declaring to all men,
that the Methodists are one people in all the world;
and that it is their full determination so to continue,
Though mountains rise, and oceans roll,
To sever us in vain.
               Global Mission Fellow visitors peruse a map of global mission connections at the United Methodist Global Ministries
              exhibit for the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/UMNS

Can we make that true in our church today? Can we United Methodists show the world that as vulnerable, hopeful people we can maintain connection while living with differences? Can we project this hope into the larger human reality of life, making vital and active this confession from our statement of mission theology? “The Church experiences and engages in God’s mission as it pours itself out for others, ready to cross every boundary to call for true human dignity among all peoples, especially among those regarded as the least of God’s children.”

*Thomas G. Kemper serves as the general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries.