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Bouncing forward as African United Methodists (UM News)

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July 5, 2023

The writer of 1 Peter 1:17-23 (NIV) focuses on the role of apostles whom God chose to share the gospel. “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God,” the passage reads.

Dr. Reggie Nel of Stellenbosch University in South Africa addressed the Global Ministries Africa mission consultation in Maputo, Mozambique, in April. He challenged us to reflect on how colonialism, racism, grief and trauma continue to impact the church in Africa. Speaking words of hope, he noted that we cannot simply “bounce back” but must also “bounce forward.” 

His words reminded me of the need to end the legacy of “mission” serving the colonial aspirations of the sending countries; the need for grief work, especially prioritizing the mental health of our leadership; and the need to harness the emotions of the African people’s collective trauma and hardships and move on.

The Africa Agenda 2063, devised by the African Union, envisions where we can be in just a couple of generations. As a blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future, Africa Agenda 2063 asserts that our historical challenges can help us move toward being a holistically healthy, missional, decolonized and United Methodist Church.

Most episcopal leaders in Africa have vowed that The United Methodist Church will continue in Africa, even after our next General Conference, which was postponed to 2024. Most African bishops have resolved not to support any proposed legislation that calls for dividing or dissolving The United Methodist Church, a denomination that continues to engage in evangelism, health care, education, food security, leadership, peace and justice, as well as environmental issues. 

“We uphold our values as a connectional and worldwide church,” they said, “committed to ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.’”

During a September 2019 retreat, the Africa College of Bishops engaged in conversations with several groups that proposed new plans for the denomination’s future. The bishops were disturbed to hear that dozens of conversations on The United Methodist Church’s future were occurring in the United States without central conference or African representatives. They encouraged central conference delegates to step forward and craft legislation that addressed this matter. 

The fruit of their work was the Christmas Covenant legislation. I especially appreciate the Christmas Covenant group for attempting to deconstruct the structures of our church through the proposed creation of regional conferences. In my humble opinion, the creation of regional annual conferences will allow Africa to be a region where the traditional stand on marriage and ordination will be upheld. 

In two public statements to the general church in September 2015 and September 2018, the African bishops agreed on the following:

  • As an African United Methodist Church, we do not support the practice of homosexuality because it is incompatible with most African cultural values and contextual realities.
  • We do not accept any plan that calls for the dissolution of the church and, by default, the closure of general agencies.
  • Even if The United Methodist Church splits, Africa will continue to be a United Methodist Church.
  • We will continue to be an evangelical, missional and Bible-focused church that is both global and connectional.

The bishops insisted that they would not let talks or plans for a breach in the denomination determine their identity. While the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was a result of the efforts of a few central conference bishops in its inception, African bishops were appalled by the direction that this process took and, therefore, could no longer support the legislation.

“We cannot allow a split in the worldwide United Methodist Church to split up the African church again,” they said. “We cannot allow a split in the church to further reduce us to second-class citizens in a church that only needs us when they want our votes. We have been second class for too long. We believe that as Africans, we have the right of self-determination, and … the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be.”

The leadership of the Wesleyan Covenant Association/Good News and the Global Methodist Church have been attempting to divide our church in Africa. African United Methodists must resist being used as proxies of the Global Methodist Church and other U.S. breakaway groups. I invite you to exercise self-determination and speak for yourselves based on your own experience and that of your church community.

While we all share our Wesleyan identity, major differences remain as far as human sexuality is concerned. All of us are God’s children, created in God’s image. It is critical that we focus on building relationships.

Our Christian life should be both about our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships with other people, especially those who do not think like us or look like us. Christ ushered in this new way of being as he interacted with the Samaritan woman at the well and with Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Mission should first be about building relationships with one another.

In Hebrews 10:23-25 (NASB), we read, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

We have not fully lived the experience of the Lord’s Supper as our founder John Wesley understood it. The concept of bouncing forward must lead us to seek healing in our relationships and fellowship in order to move forward God’s mission on the continent of Africa and in the world. 

Many current conversations talk of the danger of promoting unity in diversity in regard to the understanding of sin. What does Scripture say about sin? We are all sinners, and the Lord has mercy on us, forgives us, saves us and sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts. No one deserves it. We are saved by God’s grace. We share this common bond. 

Looking toward the next General Conference, the African bishops urged “the entire denomination to exercise restraint and work toward an approach to the human sexuality debate in ways that are humane and respectful.” General Conference 2024 must not be about redefining the definition of marriage but rather stress the importance of mission and ministries adapted to all contextual realities. Regional conferences will be avenues where each region can seek to adapt its contextual realities in order to maximize mission and ministries and make more disciples for Jesus Christ.

Let us explore possibilities that allow us to strengthen our relationships and remain missionally connected. This may also mean encouraging one another in love. Several issues and events affect the whole of humanity. War, poverty, natural disasters, racism, colonialism, gun violence and other forms of oppression are already putting us in a state of collective trauma. 

What if there were a revival of encouragement in our United Methodist Church? What if the African United Methodist church took the lead in stimulating our worldwide United Methodist Church by highlighting the wonderful things happening in our respective communities around evangelism and church growth, health, food security, leadership development, baptism and worship? 

The church community must be a place of peace, healing, recovery and encouragement.

Many people are seeking shelter, and our church community can be that shelter for them.

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