Toward a Regional Methodist Mission Approach in Southeast Asia
By Thomas Kemper
Exciting new opportunities for Methodist church growth and service ministries in Southeast Asia are on the horizon through a collaborative regional approach. This was the clear message from the first meeting of the Asian Methodist Mission Platform, held earlier in the summer at the Methodist Retreat Center in Hong Kong.
Representatives from all over Asia gather for a group photo, showing excitement for promising partnerships in the region. PHOTO: THOMAS KEMPER
Twenty-three representatives of seven groups shared their current mission outreach in the area and discussed ways they could work together in the future. Experience already shows the value of partnerships. Examples include shared missionary placements and the near completion of the formation of a new Methodist Church in Cambodia through the efforts of five groups.
Pray for a Mission Movement
The enthusiasm that permeated the gathering was summed up by Bishop Hwai Teik Ong of the Methodist Church of Malaysia. “We pray that the Asian Methodist Mission Platform will become an Asian Methodist mission movement,” said the leader of the strongly missional Methodist Church of Malaysia that has a constituency of more than 200,000.
The Rev. Sung-Che Lam, president of the Methodist Church of Hong Kong, the host for the platform meeting, was excited both by the prospects of identifying new places to start Methodist work and the possibility of building and unifying efforts around recently launched ministries.
VIDEO: THOMAS KEMPER
In addition to Malaysia and Hong Kong, the churches or mission groups represented include the Korean Methodist Church, the Methodist Church of Singapore, United Methodist Global Ministries, The United Methodist Philippines Central Conference and the non-geographical World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches.
The origins of most of these churches are in American mission outreach. The present-day Hong Kong church is a union of American and British mission efforts. Most American-founded Asian Methodist conferences elected national autonomy rather than becoming parts of what is today The United Methodist Church. The Philippines represents a notable exception. It became a United Methodist central conference, an organic part of the denomination.
The Philippines has a dual role in the platform. The United Methodist Church there – three episcopal areas with multiple annual conferences form the central conference – receives and sends missionaries through Global Ministries. The United Methodist Church Philippines also engages in mission in many locations, especially among Filipino migrant workers in Asia and the Middle East. Global Ministries, the church in the Philippines and the Methodist Church in Taiwan jointly sponsor missionaries among Filipino workers in Taipei. More partnerships of this kind are likely to emerge from the Asia mission platform.
Overcoming a Miscommunication
Interestingly, the origins of the platform are in a miscommunication that began at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Through the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, Global Ministries proposed and the General Conference approved the creation of a Provisional Central Conference for Southeast Asia and Mongolia, a measure required to allow Global Ministries’ missions in those areas to move toward annual conference status. Several fraternal delegates from affiliated autonomous Asian Methodist churches saw this action as a move by the United Methodists to “take over” the future of regional Methodism, a kind of reasserted “American colonialism.”
I rejected on the floor of the General Conference any “takeover” motives and admitted our failure to explain clearly the purpose of the new provisional central conference. Despite denials of such intent at Portland, Asian Methodist reservations continued. And discontent grew when, in 2017, word circulated that Global Ministries planned a regional office in Seoul, South Korea.
We invited leaders of Asian Methodism to the office opening and to sit down with me and our regional staff – all Asians, who are focused on strengthening the whole of the Methodist presence in Asia. Our sincerity as a mission partner, not a colonist, was accepted and led to the idea for a regional mission platform. Our regional office is located in space provided by the Korean Methodist Church in downtown Seoul. This office makes our staff more easily available to Asian personnel, projects and partners than they would be if located at our Atlanta headquarters.
The Korean Methodist Church, founded by American missionaries in the late 19th century and autonomous since 1930, has 1.5 million members in South Korea and by far the largest Methodist mission presence in Asia. Hundreds of Korean Methodist missionaries serve across the region, most of them sent and funded by local churches – so many, in fact, that it is difficult for the church’s General Board of Missions to keep up with and coordinate the placements. Some, like Filipino missionaries, serve diaspora communities; others are cross-cultural. Many engage primarily in evangelism and new church development. Some are in education, such as staff for three schools in Pakistan; some in social or health ministries, such as two orphanages and a clinic in Nepal, where Malaysia, Singapore and Global Ministries also have work.
Each agency participating in the mission platform provided detailed reports on its regional presence. These documents showed that both Hong Kong and the Philippines have ministries in Macau; Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Global Ministries are represented in Japan, where Global Ministries and Hong Kong share a missionary. Most of the Korean missionaries in Japan relate to the Korean population there.
Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Global Ministries work in Myanmar. And examples of opportunities for collaboration could go on and on, providing ample evidence for the need for data sharing and coordination.
Building Trust, Joining Hands
While discussed, no decisions were reached in Hong Kong about new locations to start mission activities. Our first platform meeting was mainly for joining in prayer and worship, getting better acquainted and strengthening trust.
I think everyone was aware that collaboration is beneficial, possible and necessary. One shining proof is the shared initiative in Cambodia, a partnership that is bringing about an autonomous Methodist Church there. Since 2004, five mission organizations have worked together in this adventure in faith. The new church has more than 150 congregations and about the same number of pastors. The participating sponsors include Global Ministries, the Korean Methodist Church, the Methodist Church of Singapore, the mission agency of the United Methodist Church in France/Switzerland, and the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches.
VIDEO: THOMAS KEMPER
Bishop Ong of Malaysia said the hope he takes from the conference is for Methodists in Asia to move together in mission synergy. “We want to find where God’s work is being done and to join hands to make it even greater work,” he asserted.