United Methodism

To Be United Methodist—Theology in Tension

12.5-million plus worldwide say,'We are United Methodist.'

Half a world apart, worshipping communities in rural Laos and suburban Columbus, Ohio, were singing a traditional Christian hymn together, joined electronically at that moment by the Internet, but more importantly, joined by their common faith in Jesus Christ through the worldwide United Methodist Church.

About 15 Laotians, crowded into someone's home, sang "Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty" in Lao as they watched and heard the congregation at Linworth United Methodist Church, singing in English and being Skyped from 12 time zones away onto a living-room wall. The scene was reversed in Columbus, where images of the United Methodists in Laos were projected on screens in the sanctuary.

"We could see them, and they could see us," said Joel Rabb, who was part of a small group from Linworth and other U.S. churches visiting in Laos when two joint worship services occurred last fall. "People who I talked to in our congregation after I got back said, 'Wow, it just felt like you were in the room with us.' The people there said essentially the same thing. It felt like they were in the room with us."

More than 12.5 million people professing membership in The United Methodist Church span the globe on four continents, making the church the world's largest Protestant denomination. Carrying out the church's mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, denominational membership has grown worldwide by more than 30 percent since 2000, with Africa and Asia leading the way.

In many locations worldwide, formally becoming a United Methodist Christian is as simple as walking to a church communion rail and professing one's faith. However, in some areas, living one's commitment to follow Christ remains as perilous as it was for first-century Christians.

For example, in Laos, one of the world's five remaining communist nations, about two-thirds of its 6.7 million people follow Buddha, and the government does not recognize Methodism as an approved religion. Followers have been threatened with having their children removed from school or being evicted from their homes. Some have been jailed.

Most United Methodist gatherings in Laos are in house churches, where lay pastors lead worship in their living rooms for 40 to 50 people, said Rabb, a layperson who coordinates the In Mission Together (IMT) program in Laos for the General Board of Global Ministries.

"They are spiritual, joyful, and (they) sing and praise the Lord in physically difficult circumstances," he said. "But when you understand they are repressed on top of it, you have a sense of Christian worship that's joyful, authentic and spiritual without any of the comforts that we (in the United States) think we need to have to worship."

The dramatic growth of The United Methodist Church in recent years, especially in Africa where more than 3.6 million people have become professing members since 2000, is often led by the laity, said the Rev. Patrick Friday, IMT director at Global Ministries. Malawi, for instance, has only three ordained clergy. However, 65 churches were planted and 81 cell groups or sections were formed during the last quadrennium as part of the mission initiative there.

"That indicates ... the church is really growing because of lay leadership and lay mobilization," Friday said. "And that's what we saw in the early Methodist movement here in the U.S., as well as in England, Korea and other places."

Worldwide by the end of 2012, The United Methodist Church started 3,175 new churches and places of worship during the previous four years. These included 1,917 churches, missional churches, circuits and preaching points in the central conferences, 574 churches and cell groups or sections primarily in Asia, Africa and the Philippines through the missions initiatives and 684 churches in the United States by New Church Starts (Path 1), a ministry of the General Board of Discipleship.

Being a worldwide church carries tensions. The struggle to define the relationship between United Methodist churches in the United States and the denomination's congregations in Europe, Asia and Africa has existed for decades.

Efforts to clarify these relationships have come before the quadrennial General Conference, the church's top legislative body. At the gathering in 2012, the Connectional Table, which is responsible for coordinating the denomination's ministry and resources across general agencies, was asked to propose clarifying legislation for the 2016 General Conference.

"Tensions – if they are not simply growing out of misunderstandings – arise either out of a difference in convictions or a difference in power. Both types of tension exist within the worldwide UMC," said Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area, who also chairs the denomination's Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters.

Streiff continued, "Every family knows that they have sometimes to live through tensions. That's normal. And every healthy family tries to listen to each other, stay together and find good solutions. As a worldwide UMC, we also need to learn what really connects us together in our Methodist identity and discipline, and what may and must be different because life situations and ministry settings are not the same everywhere."

The Rev. Forbes Matonga of Zimbabwe, who has been a member of the Connectional Table's Worldwide Nature of the Church Study Committee, said he feels the church in the United States "becomes the dominating 'big brother'" when decisions are made about the worldwide church.

"The U.S. part of the church does not seem to think they can learn anything from others. They must be the consultants in all things, despite the fact that the church is faster losing members there than in other parts of the world. This makes Africans in particular feel the missionary hangover in the current U.S. church."

In fact, despite the worldwide growth, church membership in the United States from 2000 to 2013 decreased by 10.5 percent, to about 7.4 million, according to the most recent numbers.

Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Area chaired the Worldwide Nature of the Church Study Committee. He believes there is "a place in the worldwide Christian movement for a Protestant church that is a single church operating worldwide.

"I think that's our calling as United Methodists," Jones said. "We have an opportunity as Protestants to link together in this global village a movement and a body of people united by doctrine, discipline and mission that can embody the will of God for the whole people of earth."

At the heart of the church's global growth is the question: How do we function in the connection? "It's more, than just paying your apportionment. You have to collaborate," according to Friday.

"There's a movement out there of the Methodist Church, and it's growing like wildfire. And we need their help," Friday said. "We (in the United States) tend to think the other way around. We're the mother church. We're the institution. All these poor churches around the world need our resources.

"But it's just the reverse. They are the ones who are on fire and are growing and dynamic, and we need their help. How can we learn from them?" he said.

Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brentwood, Tenn.