From the Worldwide Faith News archives

First webcast on church's future covers wide range of issues

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Fri, 28 Feb 2003 13:39:51 -0600

Feb. 28, 2003  News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn. 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Giving new meaning to the word "connection," United
Methodists from around the U.S. and as far away as Finland met online to
discuss the church's future with denominational leaders and scholars.

During the course of two hours, the Feb. 26 webcast addressed a wide range of
issues facing the church - globalization, a need for renewal, interfaith
relations, identity questions, the role of young people, the challenges and
opportunities of diversity.

The webcast was the first of two events designed to start United Methodists
on a dialogue about the church and its changing world. Participants had a
chance to offer comments and questions to a small but diverse group of church
leaders, working with a broad theme: "What in the World Are We Talking About?
Strengthening Our Global Connection and Ecumenical Relationships."

The church's General Council on Ministries, in cooperation with the
Inter-Agency Research Task Force, hosted the webcast from United Methodist
Communications in Nashville. It was the first event of its kind in the
church, and Clare Chapman, chairperson of the council's Forum on the Future
committee, was pleased with the results.

"We're hoping that this just really takes off and becomes a phenomenon," she
said "The hope is that we can start a long-term, ongoing dialogue that is not
legislative, that is not 'General Conference,'" she said, referring to the
church's lawmaking assembly. "We're hoping that we can have just honest
conversation and find some ways to move forward." 

The second webcast, at 8 p.m. Eastern time, March 25, will originate from
Manila, the Philippines. It will cover some of the same topics as the first,
but Chapman said it will focus more on the denomination's non-U.S. regional
units, relationships with affiliated and autonomous Methodist churches, and
global-nature issues facing the church.

People who want to participate either by phone or e-mail can do so by going
to online. The first webcast will be archived on the
site, and a growing body of resource materials is already available there.

Nearly 500 people listened to part or all of the Feb. 26 webcast. About 20
sent in e-mail messages from more than a dozen states as well as Helsinki,
Finland, and the panel also fielded a phone call. Bryan Cottingham of
Nashville moderated the discussion, which included six on-site panelists and
two others connected by phone. 

Questions that weren't used during the webcast will be posted on the Web site
for people to comment on, said Craig This, the general council's director of
research and planning in Dayton, Ohio. "We want people to continue talking
and keep asking questions," he said. Future webcasts are in development, he

Bishop Edward Paup, president of the general council and leader of the
church's Portland (Ore.) Area, opened the conversation, noting that the
church has "some incredible learnings" from around the world about "doing
faith" and being in ministry. He sees a need for addressing questions
regarding the church's identity and how faith communities worldwide relate to
one another as Christians. As the United States receives more immigrants from
the Pacific Rim and Latin America, he said the church must be engaged with
their cultures.

He added that the denomination is continuing to find ways to expand the
Council of Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty, and he asked how the
church could change its posture, attitude and behavior in relation to
children around the world.

Issues of diversity and relationships surfaced throughout the webcast. Jan
Love, religious studies professor at the University of South Carolina, asked
how the church could be in community among people of different faiths now
that the United States is so religiously diverse. The influx of faiths such
as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam has created opportunities for building
community, she said.

Love also raised concerns about how U.S. Christians understand their role as
citizens of a country that has an increasingly dominant role in the world.
Along with economic power, shared with a handful of other countries, the
United States has become the dominant military power, making for what
analysts are calling a "new American empire," she said. "I think for
Christians in the United States, this brings up the issue (of) how can people
of conscience, who believe in the fullness of the witness of Christ, think
about themselves as participants in the new empire of sorts?" 

Later in the discussion, panelist Jay Williams commented that the United
Methodist Church needs to be about the collaborative process of defining its
global identity. It has projected an American identity onto the world and the
church, and that has brought a backlash from outside the United States, he
said. Williams, a Harvard student, is on the General Council on Ministries.

Erin Hawkins, a staff executive with the United Methodist Commission on
Religion and Race in Washington, noted that U.S. demographics are changing
rapidly and that future generations will consist increasingly of people of
color. The term "minority" is no longer appropriate, she said. Those changes
are a microcosm of what's happening across the globe, she said. Worldwide,
white people of European background are in the minority, but it's a minority
that exercises great control - and that control has led to inequities. 

She tied those imbalances to the problems posed by globalization. "The
connection of globalization and the violation of human rights in these
circumstances become increasingly apparent to us," she said. In developing
countries, workers are trapped in situations of low pay and poor benefits,
while children are dying of preventable illnesses.

The Rev. William Abraham, professor of Wesley studies at Perkins School of
Theology in Dallas, identified the need for a "robust renewal" in the church.
"Critical to the future of Methodism is whether we actually have something to
say" to the culture, he said. While Methodists love to change the world, "the
fact of the matter is we are declining." Inside their own communities,
Methodists seem to be "having enormous difficulty finding common voice on

Methodism needs a fresh dose of immersion in the Christ of the Scriptures, a
"recovery of spiritual formation with a vengeance," Abraham said later. He
also said he would like a conversation across the church about effective ways
of making disciples of Christ. 

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, top staff executive of the United Methodist
Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, raised issues
related to the ecumenical and interfaith work of the church. Are United
Methodist churches alive and vital? he asked.

Robbins cited GCOM data that showed 39 percent of United Methodists surveyed
described their congregations as being spiritually vital and alive. "What
does that mean for the other 61 percent?" he asked. "That, to me, is deeply
unnerving." Love said it presented a "remarkable opportunity" for evangelism.

Bishop Thomas Hoyt, of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, emphasized
the need for dialogue and working together across barriers of religion, race
and place, as well as "a sense of working together without naming where we
are." In the civil rights movement, people of different faith traditions
focused on the goal of "humanizing humanity," he recalled. "Let's see if we
can't humanize humanity." He suggested ways to begin breaking down barriers:
deliberately reaching out to Muslims, poor people, prisoners and young
"unchurched" people on the street.

A listener from Birmingham, Ala., asked the panelists to address the
divisions between liberals and conservatives in the church. Abraham said that
both conservatives and liberals need to see the visions of renewal around
them, and he cited the charismatic Pentecostal movement and other traditions
as examples. "The Holy Spirit is not owned by anybody in the church," he
said. The church needs a "deep, penetrating conversation" about where the
Holy Spirit is at work, he said.

Added Hoyt: "We need each other, and to name each other conservative and
liberal and radical ... misses the point of the church. The church needs the
gifts of all of us." 

That includes young people. Williams emphasized the importance of bringing
young people into partnership with the rest of the church, realizing that the
church's future depends very much on their involvement. "It's not about
segmenting ourselves off and allowing the youth to have their own worship
service while the adults have theirs," he said. The key is "to embrace a
partnership," he said.

The Rev. Brandon Cho, executive director of the United Methodist Council on
Korean American Ministries, challenged listeners to think about church in a
new way. "We need to believe and think and do and relate in a very fresh
way," Cho said. That means having a nonjudgmental, inclusive spirit, and
investing resources in young people, he said.

United Methodists must be "effective crossing-the-border people," bridging
chasms between different world cultures, Cho said. In the United States, "we
need to turn to other expressions of faith that will keep us more enriched in
our understanding of Christ," he said. That means listening to others, he
said. "And guess what folks? I think God has a tremendous sense of humor and
great wisdom (because) God created us with two ears and one mouth."

A message from a listener prompted Cottingham to ask Robbins about
opportunities for an inclusive, sustained ecumenical conversation.

"We've got absolutely no choice," Robbins replied. "This is a very broken
world we're living in. ... As we approach this world, we need to find ways to
transform it so it is healed and reconciled, and that is at the heart of the
Christian mission, and we are not going to do it by ourselves." 
# # #

United Methodist News Service
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