We call the UMC ‘global,’ but we aren’t there yet

By Michael Ratliff, Special Contributor…

Even before I took responsibility for Young People’s Ministries at our denomination’s General Board of Discipleship, I recognized what seemed to be inequities between the United Methodist Church in the U.S. and the UMC in other parts of the world. Navigating those challenges became unavoidable as we began forming networks of young people and their leaders across our denominational connection. A sense that we are a U.S. church with mission churches beyond America’s borders still seems to be the prevalent way of understanding ourselves.

Michael Ratliff

The United Methodist Church is striving to be global. Our churches are located in Europe, Africa, the Philippines and the United States. The challenge: Threads of colonialism and paternalism have been woven into the tapestry of the global church from the very first missionary movements and across the history of the Christian Church. In recent times, this has created a stress in our relationships that disrupts the very fabric of the biblical vision for a healthy global understanding of what the church is.

These patterns are not restricted to the UMC, but extend to all cases in which the adoption of the Christian faith was fostered and often foisted upon indigenous populations. Repeated throughout Christian history, the patterns are a recurring motif in the church’s global tapestry.

To initiate a new pattern into the tapestry will require the spinning of new thread whose fibers abound with the Spirit’s influence, in an evolution of design that incorporates historic faith and creative expression of contemporary faith. A new framework for the loom and transformation of the weaver will be necessary to reshape the image of Jesus’ intention for the church as described by Paul:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:12-13, NRSV)

If this biblical image is to become reality, Christians must share the gospel in ways that make sense to people in a particular socio-cultural setting. With notable exceptions like Bartolome de Las Casas in the Americas and Bruno Gutmann in east Africa, the missionaries seeking to establish faithful followers of Jesus Christ during the colonial expansion period did not understand or practice this. They shared Christianity as a new faith generally disconnected from any indigenous faith practices.

Have we as United Methodists altered our current approach in sharing our faith and church across the globe? Are we following our predecessors in mission?  Do good intentions and our cultural background overshadow our ability to develop relationships with those we seek to include in a global church? Are there power issues present in our relationships that keep us from forming them deeply? Is the relational equity depicted in Paul’s Scripture above present in every place in our church?

If the current Christian growth rate and patterns continue, by the end of this century, three-fourths of the world’s population who are Christian will live in the global South. Our work today is to create a church that is global and equally accessible to all. There is a need for a shift in thinking and actions, moving from a church-in-mission approach to that of being a global and missional church.

As we move into the future as a global church, a cadre of young leaders from a new generation will be necessary. Their leadership must be derived from their own cultural context and expressed in a positive paradigm of inclusive leadership. The church needs to identify young leaders globally, assist them in developing contextual leadership, provide a framework for them to work across diverse contexts, and assure the resources and the structural “room” for this work to progress.

Our current leaders will need to provide the space, resources and freedom for this to happen. It will be messy and the results will not always be in keeping with current thinking about what it means to be the global United Methodist Church. This will make many of us uncomfortable, and rightly so. Moving into God’s future, giving up our own power, and watching young people establish new forms of leadership will require a new depth of relationship with God and with each other.

The tapestry is not complete. There is still much weaving to do, and we must find the right threads, colors and patterns for a vibrant future that reflects God’s call for us as a global church.

The Rev. Ratliff is associate general secretary of young people’s ministries at the UMC’s General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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