Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Mission initiatives: standing up for Christ everyday

By Christie R. House*

Joel Rabb, of Linworth United Methodist Church in Linworth, Ohio, has served as the In Mission Together coordinator for the Laos Mission Initiative since 2010. He describes Laos as a place where churches and partnerships make an investment that has produced big results. He said in Laos, the faith of people is tested daily—and he feels US Christians need to be part of a Christian, Methodist community that stands up every day in the face of adversity. “Like first century Christians,” Rabb said, “who could hang onto their faith.”

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Joel Rabb, the In Mission Together Coordinator for the Laos Mission Initiative, pauses for a photo with some Laotian children on a 2015 mission trip. PHOTO: COURTESY JOEL RABB

In Laos, the Book of Acts seems less like an old book or a distant connection to a centuries-old faith. Partners visiting the Methodist communities in Laos see the dynamics described in Acts in the lives of the people. Hearing their stories of challenge and difficulty make the Acts of the Apostles come alive in the 21st century.

“Going to a place like Laos helps you understand that faith is not about the stuff that we have,” said Rabb in an interview. “Having less makes you more appreciate the spiritual. In Laos, we would be in small, warm rooms with hard floors—and we would spend an hour and a half listening without realizing it, such was the spirituality and depth of the religious faith experience in that moment.

“We feel like we can be a partner along the journey with these folks but not in the sense of always being the ones who are giving. We receive much as well. Our own faith is deepened and enriched in a way that is far more valuable than material things. That is why we keep going. That’s why I keep going back.”

Linworth UMC has sent both adult and youth teams to Laos. Last year the church sent a youth team for two weeks. One young woman returned and said: “I’ve always been tentative about my faith, fearing I was not making an adequate witness. But being with people who are fearless in their profession of faith—I can be more honest and direct about my own faith.”

The Rev. Edgar Avitia of Global Ministries offers first communion to children in Iglesia Metodista Unida en El Negrito de Yoro in Agua de la Roca, Honduras. Honduras is a UMC Mission Initiative through Global Ministries. PHOTO: CYNTHIA MACK

Rabb concluded, “When you see the transformation people experience as a result of going and seeing and forming relationships—it is inspiring.”

The first mission initiative

Since 1992, the General Board of Global Ministries has sought partners to develop new mission initiatives, planting new faith communities and cultivating new disciples in places where Methodism is either unknown or long forgotten. The first of these was the Russia Initiative, which emerged soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. While Methodism first gained a foothold in St. Petersburg in the late 19th century, the Soviet government confiscated Methodist properties and harassed and arrested Methodist pastors. But a Methodist remnant remained.

A fact-finding trip made in 1991 by Bishop J. Woodrow Hearn, Global Ministries’ board president at that time, and the Rev. Dr. Randolph Nugent, Global Ministries’ general secretary, discovered a few pastors, some returned properties in dire shape, some possible community partners, and an atmosphere that seemed ripe for the Holy Spirit to renew and invigorate Methodism in the country.

Over the first couple decades of this work, Global Ministries refined its methods, theology, and goals of sustainability and self-determination. In time, the Russian congregations developed a roadmap to self-sustainability. Today, the Eurasia Central Conference includes four annual or provisional conferences in Russia and a Ukraine-Moldova Provisional Conference, all under the guidance of Bishop Eduard Khegay, a pastor who was educated and ordained in the mission initiative. The Eurasia Central Conference has reached out in mission to develop the Central Asia Mission Initiative, which includes developing churches in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Other mission initiatives have developed in the last quarter century—some have become provisional annual conferences, others have become districts of established conferences. Some may work toward becoming autonomous Methodist communities. Today, nine mission initiatives are active.

Relationships last a lifetime

In 2004, the Rev. Rae Lynn Schleif went to Cambodia and Vietnam, and in 2005, Cambodia and Laos. She was serving as a district superintendent for the West Ohio Conference.

“The more I went, the broader my experience became,” she said, “and that involvement broadened me. I got hooked!”

“As a DS, I was amazed by the pastors in Vietnam and Laos. In Laos, a couple pastors jumped on the van with our group as we were going out to visit sites—and they hopped off to talk to people about Jesus in one of the villages. We picked one of them up later in the day. In that day, he had had conversations with three people, two of whom he had brought into a relationship with Christ—that day! We are not comfortable with that in our country. We don’t know how to do that; we need to be taught. Christianity is so vibrant and new in the mission initiatives—it is a gift to experience and helps us recapture that amazing, authentic faith.”

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Missionary pastor, Quynh-Hoa Nguyen, delivers a backpack to a student at Go Vap UMC, part of the Vietnam Mission Initiative. PHOTO: COURTESY QUYNH-HOA NGUYEN

Schleif described “relational evangelism” as finding out what the needs of the initiative partners are by listening to them, building friendship, and helping them understand a God who loves, brings grace, and heals brokenness.

“Today, we want to go into places and ‘glean the field,’ and then take baskets of food back to people who have need,” Schleif continued. “We are into hand-outs and what we can do to give financially.” She referred to Deuteronomy 24: 21, the instruction to leave the gleanings for the widows and poor to gather.

“We aren’t very good at spending time in authentic relationship,” said Schleif. “When we invite someone to glean with us what is remaining in a field, to be a part of life together, and work side-by-side addressing the need together, then we talk, share, listen, and offer a mutual relationship. This takes time, but is much more valuable and honoring of one another than doing something for someone else or replacing relationship with offerings. The best offering we can give is ourselves, which is inclusive of all gifts we have. And the best offering we can receive is the relationship others give to us. Everyone has gifts and assets to give. Everyone.”

*Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine.

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Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Spring 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.