December 16, 2016

United Methodist Church-Planting in the Middle East

As the United Methodist Church becomes an increasingly global denomination, there has been some grumbling about United Methodists in the Global South paying less money into our denominational system than those of us in the richer nations of the West.

Interestingly, liberal Westerners who defend the systematic marginalization of United Methodists from the Global South, on this basis, do not apply this logic to the over-representation of the liberal U.S. Western Jurisdiction.

General Conference has recently taken steps to require greater payments into the denominational pot from non-American “central conferences” of the UMC, although the long-term details and implications of this are not settled.

But such arguments can distract us into missing some of the amazing work God is already doing among central-conference United Methodists with zero financial support and virtually no attention from the United States.

Our denomination has long had established annual conferences in the United States, Africa, the Philippines, and Western as well as Eastern Europe.

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of witnessing firsthand how He is working through non-American United Methodists to build His church in an entirely new region: the Middle East.

Before sharing what I witnessed, it is important to explain a few matters of context.

Throughout the much of the Islamic Middle East, one finds not only people whose families have been native to their land of residence for generations, but very large numbers of foreign workers, representing a variety of non-Arab nationalities. In some parts of the Middle East, such workers make up a rather sizable portion of the overall population.

Overseas workers employed in a variety of service and blue-collar professions not only face the challenges inherent from moving into to a new environment away from their families, who in many cases are financially dependent on the remittances sent back home from abroad. These non-native workers are also often especially vulnerable to exploitation, mistreatment, violent abuse, and overt ethnic discrimination. And if they protest even severe mistreatment, they can very quickly lose their jobs and get deported back to their much poorer home countries, where they will face much more limited economic opportunities.

This large percentage of the populations of many Middle Eastern countries is mainly absent from the radar screens of American Christians when we think of ministry among people in the region. But such ignorance effectively amounts to thinking of the scope of Christian ministry in a way that  disregards a great many of the more marginalized, vulnerable, and mistreated members of society. And individuals of any one sub-demographic are ultimately no less in need of the saving blood of Jesus than any other.

The Middle East is a region that presents particular challenges to Christian missions and ministry that are hard for Western Christians to appreciate. To avoid putting anyone in danger, in writing this article I have needed to very deliberately avoid specifying such details as the name of the country I visited or the actual name of anyone I met there.

Conversion from Islam to any other religion is officially illegal throughout the bulk of the region. According to major, mainstream schools of Islamic law (Sharia), the proper penalty for someone unrepentantly leaving Islam is execution. Killing Muslims who become Christian (or Hindu, or atheist, or anything else, for that matter) enjoys high levels of popular support in the region and other majority-Muslim nations. Actual practice varies widely based on the various details that may attend any specific situation. But the bottom line is that even in Middle Eastern nations generally regarded as relatively “moderate Muslim countries,” Muslims cannot convert without putting their own life at risk.

Even Christian ministry among foreign workers who do not come from Muslim families faces a number of severe legal and de facto restrictions on evangelism, Christian worship services held outside of church buildings, constructing new church buildings, and more.

Yet despite such daunting challenges, Filipino United Methodists have launched rather ambitious, impressive efforts of planting several new United Methodist congregations in the Middle East in recent years. And this work continues to expand.

One of the key leaders of this effort made sure to tell me that they have been able to do all of this without asking for or receiving one dime of American money!

This work has been going on for several years entirely through the initiative, leadership, and funding of non-American United Methodists, without any direct support from our denomination’s general-agency structure. Most United Methodists remain completely unaware that any United Methodist congregations exist in the Middle East.

I was able to meet directly with several leaders and members of one such congregation earlier this year.

We shared about our common hopes and prayers for our beloved, troubled denomination. It is very difficult to adequately describe the joy of meeting with a members of a bona fide United Methodist congregation in a part of the world that is generally excluded from “United Methodists Around the World” maps (for security and other reasons) and hearing about how they had been praying some of the same things I had been praying for our denomination’s then-upcoming General Conference, in terms of maintaining biblical teaching on marriage and sex. I saw how this congregation was providing desperately needed community for people economically displaced many thousands of miles from all that had been familiar to them.

Given the harsh external legal, economic, and religious pressures overseas workers so often face in the region, and how the members of this demographic are already at enough risk of being deported (or worse) without sticking their necks out even further by doing Christian ministry work, one may expect such a United Methodist community to hunker down with an inward-looking mentality, focused simply on the goal of basic survival.

But that’s not what I saw on my trip.

In visiting at length with the head pastor of the congregation, who I will call “Pastor Otto,” I heard about the great personal sacrifices he had made in leaving his homeland to build and lead this congregation. He recounted to me his tearful disappointments in his early efforts at planting the congregation, and about how God had subsequently grown the congregation at a rather impressive rate in a few short years. I also had the privilege of seeing Pastor Otto in action while riding in a form of mass transit together. In running into another Filipino (a complete stranger to both of us), Otto struck up a conversation. Within just a couple of minutes, he had obtained this woman’s contact information, learned of her basic family situation, and made an agreement that he would follow up with her about inviting her to his church.

I visited one of the multiple small groups that have mushroomed from within the congregation.

I heard about the congregation beginning to reaching beyond the Filipino demographic to draw people of other nationalities, including, to a very limited extent, Muslim-background individuals native to the region. I learned of one such individual who converted from Islam and has become a key leader in this community, with all the ominous personal dangers involved.

I heard about how this congregation regularly invites people into new lives of Christian discipleship.

And I discussed with several leaders about how they have been ambitiously reaching outward to plant new United Methodist congregations elsewhere in the region.

In American United Methodism, there is no shortage of rhetoric excusing or explaining away church decline as an expected result of the present realities of our surrounding American culture, economic pressures, and other external societal factors.

But over there, I caught a small glimpse of the fruit of God’s work through United Methodists who have dramatically grown their congregation in a rather short period of time, who continue reaching out and making new disciples in their local community, and who are eagerly reaching far beyond to plant new congregations—all while facing external societal challenges that are much, much worse than anything faced by U.S. churches.

Such dramatic, ongoing stories of what God is doing even in “closed” countries through missions entirely initiated, funded, and led by United Methodists from outside the United States certainly upend misconceptions of central conferences being a “burden” on U.S. United Methodism. They also undermine notions that United Methodist missions across major national and cultural borders need to happen only under the centralized direction of American and European denominational overseers.

Rather, those of us living in the wealth and comfort of the West have so much to learn from these brothers and sisters about what it really means, in more than just a theoretical way, to live boldly for Christ and take risks for the spread of the Gospel. I am grateful to be in denominational connection with them.

If your congregation is interested in exploring possible partnership opportunities, you email me (serious inquiries only, please):

One Response to United Methodist Church-Planting in the Middle East

  1. DannyBoyJr says:

    Mabuhay kayo, mga kapatid!

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