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To The Ends of The Earth

by Sam Dixon

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The United Methodist Church is active in mission around the world today with an energy that had not been seen for many decades prior to the1990s. The witness is in conscious response tothe “Great Commission,” that passage in Matthew 28 that includes the charge from Jesus, “Go…make disciples of all nations… and I am with you always, to the end of the age.” God is also with us to the ends of the earth through global evangelism and service, reaching into new places and doubling back into familiar places—like our own backyards—where the gospel is not being heard or heeded.

The energy, the commitment, does not arise from one place but can be seen in the international scope of the denomination and among many mission partners in the Methodist and ecumenical family. At the General Board of Global Ministries we approach the mission opportunities that God is giving us through careful deliberation and confidence. Bishop Benjamin A. Justo of the Davao Episcopal Area of the Philippines Central Conference summed up these hallmarks in October 2007, when, in a sermon to directors of the agency, he spoke of the “Christian prudence”and “full confidence in God” necessary in mission service. His immediate context was the commissioning of missionaries but his sound advice has broad implications. By “prudence” he meant careful deliberation, weighing the cost in terms of a wide range of implications, including personal and familial realities and theological understandings. The other consideration—full confidencein God—leads to a determination to “follow the mandate of the Lord for mission whatever will be the cost.” Said Bishop Justo:

Certainty of calling to the cause of the church’smission, readiness in accepting the responsibilities and their possible consequences, and wholehearted obedience in fulfilling the missionary function are the stuff that makes trueand effective missionaries for today.

Careful deliberation and full confidence in God also make for true and effective mission agencies, annual conferences, congregations, and church members who would—and who must—take up the Great Commission. We as Christians face the realities imposed by fiscal and social realities; at the same time, we are so confident in faith that we
dare to be bold—to take mission leaps in faith.

International Mission Initiatives

Confidence and careful action—in that order—are evident in a series of geographically defined current mission initiatives that extend the good news of Jesus Christ beyond historical mission territories; a few of these resume evangelistic and social ministries interrupted by political upheavals in the first half of the 20th century.

All the initiatives represent pioneer evangelism—the preaching of the Christian gospel and the extension of the church through word and deed.They also incorporate response to the physical and emotional needs of people. The initiatives are spiritual and social because that is the combination of experiences and goals that makes Methodists
Methodist.

For most of the past century, the international mission work of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations focused primarily on western and central Africa, the Philippines and a few other Asian regions, and Latin America. Considerable energy and resources were required to sustain this extensive mission network. New, or “pioneer,”mission work was limited following World War I, and even more occasional in the decades immediately following World War II. The extension that took place, such as in the Caribbean, was usually in collaboration with already established mission outreach of other branches of the Christian family tree.

Political, ideological, and demographical changes on the international level opened new mission possibilities during the last dozen years of the 20th century. Among these were the fall of Communismin the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the relaxation of restrictions on Christianity in parts of Asia and Africa, and a shift in the concentration of the Christian population from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. The latter was a result in part of the maturing of mission churches founded earlier, and also by the growth of indigenous Christian communities.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the General Board of Global Ministries began with confidence and careful deliberation to renew or to start completely new mission initiatives that would establish some 400 new United Methodist congregations within a decade—the most active evangelism in the denomination for years. At the same time, older churches and conferences, notably in Africa and the Philippines, continued to grow, so that in late 2007 the General Council of Finance and Administration reported a global United Methodist membership of 13.5 million, of which somewhat less than 8 million were in the United States. (These figures do not include the memberships of autonomous partner Methodist Churches in Latin America andthe Caribbean and parts of Asia and Africa.)

Varieties and Commonalities

A variety of organizational patterns exists among the "mission initiatives" but there are several common characteristics. The latter include global fellowship and support networks and an emphasis on the development of indigenous leadership. The term "mission initiative" is descriptive rather than technical and was first used in relation to work in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. United Methodist mission in Russia was a matter of renewal since both the former Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South had missions in Russia, the first in the west and the latter in the east, prior tothe revolution of 1917. Revivals were also possible in Latvia and Lithuania where the church survived many years of suppression.

The other initiatives today are, in Asia: Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan); Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam); Mongolia; and in Nepal. Initiativesin Africa are in Cameroon and Senegal. In Europe, initiatives are: South Central (Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia, and Serbia). The initiative in Latin America is in Honduras.

Some of these initiatives are annual conference, or episcopal areas, or formal Missions (a disciplinary designation that carries with it episcopal oversight and the right to prepare clergy for ordination). Others are less formal in an organizational sense, and some are moving toward autonomous status. The strong United Methodist Cambodia
Initiative is now related to an autonomous Methodist Church in Cambodia, formally launched during the last quadrennium. The initiatives have different capacities and are at different stages in their development. Additional information on each initiative is contained in the quadrennial report of the General Board of Global Ministries to the
2008 General Conference and may be seen on the website of the agency (http://new.gbgm-umc.org/work/initiatives).

Building Connections

Significant in the success of the initiatives are the networks of fellowship and support that nourish all who are involved. These networks, most of which meet in periodic consultations, go far beyond financial contributions from well-off individuals and congregations to the initiative sites. Yes, monetary support is important, but the more lasting value comes in the relationships of persons from diverse cultures that form and flourish as people work together in mission. The initiatives are connectional in the strong United Methodist heritage of unity in faith that promotes both spiritual and social cohesion within the church. John Wesley called this “holiness.”

The “consultations” bring together representatives from the support networks and indigenous pastors and lay leaders. These are truly international occasions of high mission energy, and can involve participants from a variety of countries and cultures. Plans are underway to more closely link the various initiatives and their networks in order to highlight the global dimensions of the mission connection.

Priority is given to the initiatives in the assignment of missionaries, taking regional and localneeds into account and selecting personnel whocan help the emerging Christian communities prepare indigenous clergy and lay leaders, a United Methodist mission emphasis that spans the entire 20th century. Professional needs vary from place to place. In Mongolia, missionaryskills in health services and church development are needed. In Southeast Asia, educators who can help to equip pastors are high on the priority list. Persons who can work with the very poor are essential in Honduras, Senegal, Cameroon, Nepal, South Central Europe, and most other areas.

Into All the World

The mission initiatives are dramatic examples of United Methodist attentiveness to the biblical message, of hearing the Great Commission of Jesus, and of realizing that Jesus still expects us to go into all the world with the gospel message of hope, love, forgiveness, and redemption.“The area for Christian mission, contrary to what some people think, is still very large,”Bishop Justo said in his October 2007 sermon to the Global Ministries’ directors. He stated that 3.5 billion people in Asia alone still need to hear the gospel, and, he asked, “how about those teeming millions in Europe, Africa, the United States, and other parts of the world?”

Fulfilling the Great Commission takes the strong commitment of every Christian, of every United Methodistof every continent and culture, of every man and woman of all ages. The responsibility is huge; the opportunity is thrilling. The reward is peace on earth and love among all people now and forever.

Portable Document FormatDownload this paper in print-friendly PDF format (4 pp, 186K)