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Shifting paradigm: Global church hears Africa’s voice

Worshippers sing a hymn at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Macia, Mozambique. United Methodist membership is increasing in Africa while decreasing in the United States. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS Report
By Kelly C. Martini*

April 15, 2008

Women in an internally displaced persons camp in South Darfur receive blankets and tarps from the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
A UMNS file photo by Paul Jeffrey.

United Methodists are contemplating what being a global church means as membership and leadership numbers grow beyond the United States.

Traditionally, the denomination’s agency offices and the majority of its members and leadership have been based in the United States. The denomination often has viewed the rest of the world as a mission field ripe for evangelism, church growth and ministry. Such a mission appears to be a success as United Methodist numbers globally increase.

The impact of the shift will be reflected at the General Conference, which sets church policy and officially speaks for the denomination, when the assembly meets April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas. The delegates will see a stronger presence from the church’s regions in Africa, Europe and Asia, and they will hear about the emphasis of the general church’s agencies in those parts of the world.

U.S. jurisdictions and central conferences in Africa, Europe and Asia receive a certain number of voting delegates, based on their membership. The total number of delegates––half lay persons, half clergy––cannot total more than 1,000. Church growth globally over the past decade is shifting General Conference delegate votes from the jurisdictions to central conferences.

Africa is experiencing the largest effect, with 186 voting delegates this year, up 94 from 2004. These extra delegates are transferred from U.S. jurisdiction allotments. If, as expected, Côte d'Ivoire receives full membership into the denomination this year, another 40 African delegates will give the continent the largest voting block in the denomination in 2012.

The Rev. P.T. Chikafu, chaplain of United Methodist-related Africa University in Zimbabwe, believes the increase is a sign that "the African Church has come of age." More General Conference participation will re-introduce the voice of the African Church, "which has been silent or silenced for a long time," he said.

Another sign is the increased emphasis by the church’s general agencies on Africa in the past four years. At the 2004 General Conference, the former General Council on Ministries reported that the general agencies had committed $35 million for mission and ministry through the Holistic Strategy for Africa for 2005-2008. Now, as that period draws to an end, the actual amount is more than three times that projection, exceeding $116 million, according to the General Secretaries Table.

Reflects success

Bishop Joel Martinez, president of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, the denomination’s mission agency, sees the increased numbers as reflecting successes of mission and evangelism on the African continent.

Yet, how the church will change remains a mystery, in his opinion. "With so many new people, we just hope that everyone feels included, centers on mission, and participates as full members of the body of Christ," he said.

Martinez believes African church expansion could be one outgrowth of two successful mission programs approved at the 2004 General Conference and funded by his agency–– "Holistic Strategy on Africa" and "Holistic Strategy on Latin American and the Caribbean." Reports on these strategies will "challenge us to think in new ways about connecting more closely with other autonomous affiliated churches around the world," he added.

Over the past four years, health and relief have been an emphasis for the Board of Global Ministries. In sub-Saharan Africa, the board commissioned 11 doctors and nurses as "missionaries of global health." In South Africa, it focused on caring for refugees from Zimbabwe. Other concerns include the plight of the Sudan and continuing prevalence of malaria in Africa.

Karen Greenwaldt, chief executive, United Methodist Board of Discipleship––the agency responsible for resourcing, networking and training members and leaders of the church––affirmed that Africans need to be involved in their own mission and ministry. The agency is actively pursuing staff members from Africa to work in their homeland. Simultaneously, African Methodists are beginning to minister to Methodists in the United States.

Street people in Cape Town, South Africa, hold copies of a devotional distributed through Africa Upper Room Ministries.
A UMNS file photo by Kami L. Rice.

"We’ve been finding incredibly wonderful manuscripts written by people in Africa that can be published and distributed for people in Africa and across the U.S.," Greenwaldt said. "The church will gain a lot of knowledge from perspectives very different from the United States understanding."

Partnering with African churches to put Upper Room devotionals in indigenous languages, the Board of Discipleship delivers the resources broadly across the continent, while hosting daily radio broadcasts of the biblical reflections in local languages. Spiritual formation efforts, such as the Walk to Emmaus retreat, and creating networks of youth across Africa are other partnership endeavors.

Structure inhibits

Forbes Matonga, a member of the denomination’s Connectional Table from Zimbabwe, believes the missionary structure of the church often inhibits it from being truly global in nature.

Increased numbers mean a visible presence at the legislative event, but that doesn’t necessarily change the focus on the United States. "Over the years, I have noticed that it is not the very best of the African representatives that get the opportunity to come to such crucial gatherings," he said.

When delegates are chosen, other factors "take precedence" over merit and ability to articulate issues as delegates, according to Matonga, who added that the format and politics of General Conference leave central conference delegates at a disadvantage because it is "just American and too legalistic for a deeply religious African." The idea of formulating petitions, the agenda and debates become almost secondary as African delegates have to focus on getting visas to get to Texas, he pointed out.

"We need a new structure, one that makes our denomination one church found across the globe," he said. He hopes such a structure can be found through the proposal coming from the Connectional Table and Council of Bishops.

The Rev. Ilunga Kasolwa Kandolo of the North Katanga Conference, Democratic Republic of Congo, said the challenge often lies in the variety of definitions people use when referring to the global church. "The global nature of the church is biblically founded: 'The Church is One,'" he explained. The challenge is to be able to worship anywhere as a United Methodist and feel at home.

The Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, chief executive, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, considers the worldwide shift as a paradigm shift and a "very natural occurrence that is good for the church."

He pointed to Africa University in Zimbabwe as a prominent example of that shift. As private and state institutions throughout Zimbabwe virtually shut down because of political unrest, the university schedule continued uninterrupted. Its strength, he added, is the hybrid of education models of Africa and the West.

"The university believes it’s under a different mandate to educate women and men, that its resources are not limitless, and that its mission is rooted in a commitment to the future of Africa, which many believe is a future God calls them to create," Del Pino said.

Spreading across continent

As United Methodist Communications and Africa University partner to develop distance education, they form an "anchor institution" to foster new institutions across the continent. In the meantime, Africa sends back to the West its graduates, who now minister on every continent.

United Methodist-related Africa University is located in Mutare, Zimbabwe. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

The Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive for United Methodist Communications, said the Central Conference Communications Initiative in Africa has helped Africans connect, through digital communication technologies, across national and cultural lines. "They learned they could share information and skills with each other and with the wider church," he explained. "The result will be a global network that helps the whole church to better tell its stories."

The goal for this global network is to bridge the technological divide. "As the world becomes connected through digital technology, those left out are disempowered," Hollon said. "The Central Conference Communications Initiative is about empowering people through communications."

Racial and economic issues, health disparities, poverty, and HIV/AIDS are not just African issues, and the global denomination needs to address these pressing concerns.

"For years, the Board of Church and Society has been working closely with annual conferences and churches in Africa to help them prepare leaders who understand their call to ministry in both a worldwide and local context," said Jim Winkler, the board’s chief executive. "Such rapid growth is inspiring, and it creates a demand for the denomination to provide support that will ensure its long-term viability."

In November, the agency funded people from Africa and other central conferences to attend the board’s "Living Faith, Seeking Justice" conference in Texas. Grants for African young people provide internships in Washington D.C. The new Social Creed to be considered by General Conference had input from Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

Issues of equity

Equity issues remain a question both inside and outside the United States, according to Erin Hawkins, chief executive of the denomination’s Commission on Religion and Race. "When there is exponential growth within the central conferences, and only two delegates are assigned, it raises an equity question for the church," she pointed out.

African voices in the church cannot just be male voices, stressed M. Garlinda Burton, chief executive, United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

"Church media has pursued men as spokespersons about what the reality is and what Africa needs. I’m concerned that we’re not hearing from women as much," she said. "I hope we remember that there are parts of the world where women are not represented in leadership. Wherever we are, the church needs to stand for equality and equal access––valuing women and giving them equal access to power and voice.

"Culture in the U.S., culture in region, culture in nationality does not trump God’s call for women and men to be participants equally at God’s table," Burton added. "So, I look forward to being challenged and challenging my brothers and sisters when it comes to gender justice, racial justice and community justice."

COSROW plans a women’s congress this year to help women explore mission and ministry, with the goal of attracting a quarter of the participants from central conferences.

*Martini is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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