The Challenge of a Global Church ©

Thursday morning, May 4th, the Council of Bishops held its usual opening worship service.  Often during our worship we are led by newly elected bishops.  This is one way of getting to know them.  Thursday morning five newly elected bishops (four from Africa and one from Europe) led us in worship.  It was a wonderful, truly holy experience.

As they shared their personal witnesses, I heard God speaking to us.  Many of the theological assumptions and personal experiences of the Holy Spirt differ remarkably from the common fare in the United States.  One bishop shared a near death healing experience and his genuine fear of hell.  We North Americans laugh politely but he wasn’t being polite.  He was sharing what for him was a true story of being rescued from the jaws of hell and death.  Another bishop spoke of the church bells in his village ringing when he was born.  He and his family heard a call and claim from the Lord in the peel of the bells.  Americans saw a mere coincidence.  Still yet a third told of God speaking to him while he was playing in a rock band.  We laughed.  (In our defense it was humorously told.)  He gently chided us.  The hand of the Lord was on him in a tangible way according to his witness.

Where we tended to see coincidence, they saw the Lord God powerfully in action.  More than one spoke of being led by God to their spouse.  Some shared tales of visions of Christ.  Collectively they offered narratives of God powerfully in action through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Their profound, even thrilling, witnesses were consistently stories of a powerfully active God were flung in the face of a polite semi-Unitarianism that haunts the hallways of some American churches I visit. We need their witness.  They have much to offer us.

There are a number of other places of crucial differences.  In the current struggle involving human sexuality including same-gender marriage and ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals,” members of the global church differ among themselves.  Different parts of Europe are on different sides of the divide.  Most of Africa is overwhelmingly in favor of retaining current language with regard to issues of human sexuality. The contextual cultural settings differs not only from the United States but from other places in the world as well.

As a part of the challenge of a Global Church, we have been wrestling over support for theological education.  I have the privilege of serving on the United Theological Seminary board (and have previously served on the Executive Board of Perkins School of Theology).  In the U.S. a critical issue is the large amount of debt new pastors have upon graduation from seminary and moving into their first full-time appointment.  The financial crises in some parts of the world is dramatically different.  There, the challenge is around providing theological education at all.  It engages issues of governance, finances, faculty, etc.

I could continue with other examples but these three issues (theology, human sexuality, and ministerial education & training) highlight the challenge of being a global church.  With the best of intentions, it is easy when living in North America and Northern Europe to make assumptions about the nature of the church that are foreign and even strange to our fellow United Methodists around the world.  Even more, the center of Christianity is in the southern hemisphere.  Africa is the strongest growing region of The United Methodist Church.

We really don’t know how to be a global church.  Good people, committed Christian lay and clergy alike, are struggling to learn.  In the delightful language of systems theory, “we are building the bridge while we walk on it.”  The challenge of a global church is a wonderful gift from the Lord God!

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