The Church in the Four Corners

By Mariellyn Dunlap Grace

The West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church has entered into Covenant Relationships with four areas of the world: Congo, Mexico, Russia, and Southeast Asia. These strategic partnerships include prayer support, financial giving, training and discipleship, and relationship-building across oceans, boundaries, and cultures.

 


In the days of the early Christian Church, many followers of the Way were convinced that Jesus’ message of love and grace was available only to God’s chosen people, the Jews. Yet in Acts chapter 10, Peter, one of Jesus’ original disciples, receives a vision from God that convinces him to spread the Gospel to the rest of the world. “Then Peter replied, ‘I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right. This is the message of Good News for the people of Israel—that there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. …And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name’” (Acts 10: 34-36, 42-43).

Though the United Methodist Church in the United States continues to decline in numbers, growth is occurring at an astounding rate in the ‘Global South’ – Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. From 1998 to 2008 in the United States, membership in the United Methodist Church declined by almost 600,000 people, a seven percent decrease. In that same period of time in the Congo, membership grew by nearly half a million people, a 73 percent increase.* United Methodists from other countries have much to teach their brothers and sisters around the world regarding worship, prayer, stewardship, and outreach.

Congo: North Katanga Conference

Joy radiates from Congolese congregations when they worship. In the African tradition, worshiping God employs the spirit, body, and mind. Sanctuaries fill and spill over with people of all backgrounds, ages, and professions. Worshipers do not sit idly during sermons, but encourage the preacher with shouts and acclamations. At offering time, people sing and dance their way to the front of the church, gladly giving what little they have.

Once the singing, tithing, preaching, and praying come to a close, it is hard to know when church really ends. Worship spreads into daily living where these disciples’ excitement, commitment, and personalities bind the life of the church to the life of the whole community; for the Congolese, faith in Christ is consistently linked to faithful discipleship.

Many communities in the Congo benefit greatly from the work of the United Methodist Church. In some towns, you can stand in one place and see a clinic, church, parsonage, and sometimes, a school, all of which were built by The United Methodist Church. The church will also provide clean water, health care, and education to the village, where none of these existed before. Joseph Kabila, President of the Congo, has credited the North Katanga Conference with saving the lives of many Congolese. Even during the war (1998-2003), the United Methodist Church maintained its witness, presence, and ministry in the Congo.

Mexico: Oriental Conference

The sound of tambourines fills the air, keeping rhythm to the upbeat tempo of a familiar praise song. Voices rise with the music, and several congregants dance to the lively tune, uninhibited by their surroundings. All who attend are invited to embrace God not only with their hearts, but also with their hands, feet, and voices.

Sunday worship is just the beginning at Templo Aleluya Methodist Church in Piedras Negras, Mexico, where God’s love spills over from Sunday mornings into the rest of the week. Children’s devotions are held daily, along with a much-needed feeding program. On weekends, adult literacy classes are offered to men and women from the surrounding Colonia – the poorest community in Piedras Negras. A new school building stands off to the side, ready to provide local children with a free education – once the funding for teacher’s salaries has been raised.

Step into Jehovah Sama Methodist Church in a different part of Piedras Negras, and most Americans would feel right at home. A praise band with multiple instruments and singers splits the stage, with song lyrics projected onto the front wall. Congregants dressed in their Sunday best fill the room to capacity. At first glance, the scene seems all too familiar…until the joyous sound of a Spanish praise song fills the air. As song after song echoes themes of God’s love, faithfulness, and mercy, children sing, twirl, and dance to the beat.

For Jehovah Sama’s Pastor, Miguel de Leon, ‘church’ does not begin and end in a building; real church is lived out among the people who most need God’s love. His greatest hope for the Methodist Church in Mexico is to both preach the Gospel and meet the physical needs of the people of Piedras Negras: “We want to keep our hopes in heaven and our feet on the ground,” he says.

Catholicism is by far the dominant religion in Mexico, and Protestant denominations are often looked down upon. By reaching out to those scarred by poverty and a rising tide of violence, the Methodist Church in Mexico has begun to gain acceptance. “Most people who are poor don’t feel deserving of love or know anything about God,” Pastor Miguel remarks. “The church has to go where they are. Jesus died for everyone, and we need to take God’s love to them.”

Russia: Volga District

After 60 years of state-declared atheism, the Soviet Union crumbled in the early 1990s, leaving a legacy of spiritual emptiness in its wake. Churches that had been turned into storage facilities began holding services once again. A new generation wondered what might fill the aching void they saw in their parents and grandparents. Into this context the United Methodist Church emerged in Russia, offering a personal faith rarely found within the traditional Orthodox Church. As a result, the Russian United Methodist Church today is viewed as a sect or cult, as are most Protestant denominations.

Life in Russia has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Young people today have little memory or concept of life before Perestroika and the fall of Communism. Many of them long for a piece of the ‘American Dream’ they’ve seen on television or in the movies.  Fancy cars, big bank accounts, the latest fashions…yet like their American counterparts, some young people are becoming disenchanted by a life based on material possessions. In the Russian United Methodist Church, young adults have discovered a place where it’s safe to ask questions …and where life’s difficulties may be shared with others. Though many are mocked for their faith, these courageous young people are not only the future of the United Methodist Church in Russia, but also provide vital leadership today.

Music is one way in which young people are encouraged to participate in the life of the Russian United Methodist Church. Music plays a key role in the Church – as in all Russian society – not only in Sunday morning worship, but also as a form of outreach. Several churches within the Russia Volga District have cultivated excellent choirs and praise bands. In some cases, these music ministries attract congregants who might otherwise never step through the doors of the church.

Outreach is a powerful tool for reaching the lost and broken in Russian society. United Methodist churches often start as ministries to drug addicts or nursing home residents. Other churches reach out to hospitals and orphanages, taking God’s word to places where people are in need. Stereotypes are broken down; love is lavished on former enemies. And all the while, faith is strengthened in a place where spirituality was suppressed for more than half a century. Today, a vibrant, missional Church lives out Christ’s charge ‘to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness’ (Isaiah 42:7).

Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Laos, & Vietnam

In 2004, five branches of Methodism joined together to form the Methodist Mission in Cambodia. Today, this mission has grown to include 5,000 church members, 143 congregations, and 140 pastors. Sisters and brothers in Christ gather together to worship in sanctuaries, homes, or even barns. Praises are sung to all manner of instruments, old and new. Sunday school courses teach biblical lessons as well as practical skills. In a country where 70% of the population is under 30 years of age, laity and clergy are frequently young, creating hope for long-term mission alongside the need for immediate training.

The leaders of the Methodist Mission in Cambodia are working to become their own self-governing Methodist Church by 2016. Missionaries from other cultures seek to empower young Cambodians to set the course of their mission for themselves. To be vital, that direction must resonate with the people of a land long dominated by Buddhism. With time and conviction, the church in Cambodia has the potential to realize an unfolding vision, to accomplish things the people there are yet to see.

In Laos, more than half of the population is Buddhist, and some groups still practice ancient forms of animal worship. In the year 2000, the United Methodist Church began to reach out to the people of Laos. As a new, minority religion, United Methodism is regulated by public officials. In some locations the Church is more accepted than others, depending on the relationship with local authorities. Pastors continue to be imprisoned for preaching and teaching the Gospel. In spite of this, the Church keeps growing. Pastors are being trained in nearby Thailand, including the first group of female Laotian seminary students.

Because foreign evangelism is not always welcome in Laos, missionaries are sent to the country to be teachers rather than pastors. A decade of mission work has led to the creation of 74 congregations stretching across seven provinces, with between 10 and 70 people in each Christian community. Worshipers gather in homes where they study scriptures, pray, and sing. Indigenous praise music is being created by United Methodist members and clergy. Congregations grow as friends and family members come around one or two at a time. Still, the United Methodist Church persists…offering hope and healing to a people in need.

Buddhism claims some 85% of the Vietnamese population, Protestant Christianity only 2%. Two decades ago, as an incoming religion, United Methodism started the long process of becoming fully legalized by the government. Today, after years of effort by countless witnesses, the end of that journey is near. The recent completion of the United Methodist Center in Ho Chi Minh City brought the denomination one step closer to total recognition by creating a physical headquarters within the country. While United Methodism gains disciples and approaches official state recognition, congregations who draw attention to themselves can still be targeted or harassed by public officials. 

But the United Methodist Church in Vietnam has continued ministering in spite of this. Already United Methodism has spread to 12,000 members in roughly 200 congregations. The speed of growth, most of which takes place in rural communities, surpasses the Church’s ability to train pastors. Because clergy are to be ordained before they baptize, and baptism is a step toward congregational membership, large numbers of people who attend worship regularly must wait to become full members. The Church in Vietnam has learned to heed the Psalmist’s words: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 31:24).

Lessons Learned

Worldwide, the depth and breadth of ministry being done in the name of Christ by the United Methodist Church has the power to change multitudes of lives for the better. Inspired by the persistent, faithful witness of the United Methodist Church in Congo, Mexico, Russia, and Southeast Asia, may we in the ‘Global North’ take to heart these simple lessons…

  • The Church is made of people, not bricks and mortar.
  • True faith is not confined to Sunday morning worship.
  • Worship can look different while honoring the same God.
  • Outreach ministries are inseparable from true faith and worship.

In his first epistle to the church at Corinth, Paul stated, “The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. …This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it” (I Corinthians 12:12-13, 25-27).

Will you be part of God’s global mission?

For more information on The Four Corners of the World: West Ohio's Global Mission, contact Dee Stickley-Miner at dstickley [at] wocumc.org, Mariellyn Dunlap Grace at mgrace [at] wocumc.org, or call 614-844-6200.


* Source: “Growth in Africa Outpaces Decline in U.S.” – a UMNS Report by Linda Bloom (URL: http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5259669...).