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28.06.2021

An epochal change of perspective

The change of perspective in the volunteers program of UEM. (Photo: Jule Schaller/UEM)

25 years of "United Evangelical Mission" - that may not sound so exciting at first, especially since the origins of the UEM go back to 1799 with the founding of the "Elberfelder Missionsgesellschaft". In 1828, the Rhenish Mission Society was founded. So why not wait another seven years and celebrate a bicentennial? In the history of the UEM, after 1799, there have been repeated mergers, including one in 1971 between the Rhenish Mission and the Bethel Mission. But all these mergers took place within Germany between different mission societies.

Partners became equal member churches

1996 can be seen as an epochal event in the history of missions in that it was the first time in almost 200 years that a mission society in Germany gave itself a fundamentally new international form, through which the former partner churches in Africa and Asia became equal members of a previously German organization.

Today, we see how the consequences of colonialism are being discussed not only in Germany in the face of racism, xenophobia and "white supremacy". These questions have been raised more and more urgently since the seventies of the last century in the context of the then United Evangelical Mission by its partners in Africa and Asia.

Under the title "On the way to a mature partnership", representatives of churches from Germany and Indonesia had been exploring possibilities since 1973 to shape the cooperation of churches in Asia and Germany in such a way that old dependency relationships, paternalism, supremacy, arrogance of the givers towards the receivers - the supposedly "underage", as the title of the conference expresses - could be overcome.

In 1988, a committee was formed, one-third of which was made up of people from Germany, one-third from Asia, and one-third from Africa, with the task of developing a proposal for how "mature partnership" could be represented not only in words and visions, but also in concrete structures. "United in Mission" - this slogan still describes what it is all about today: everyone in the UEM communion is both a receiver and a giver. Everyone speaks and decides on an equal footing when it comes to making signs of God's love visible in this world and enabling people to "live life to the full". All are aware that they are dependent on each other as members of the body of Christ and that God gifts each and every one of them equally with his love.

When the members of the UEM decided on the new form of equal cooperation in 1996, they were well aware that with the new structure a long process of growing together and living together had begun, which continues to this day. "In a world torn apart," as the 1996 constitution puts it, even structures that ensure equal participation cannot guarantee absolute justice. Some people today may also no longer imagine how controversial the plan was, which was decided in 1993 at the assembly in Ramatea / Botswana, and in 1996 in Bethel / Bielefeld with the so-called "internationalization" legally binding on the way. Some wanted to prevent representatives from Africa and Asia from having a majority of votes in the new council. But they could not prevail. Delegates from Africa, Asia and Germany each have one third of the votes in the UEM General Assembly and the Council. Observers from other German mission agencies (which continue as German organizations to this day) predicted that the new UEM would fail after only a few years. German members of the UEM in Africa considered it impossible that an African head of the Africa department in Wuppertal would be able to understand and represent their concerns as a ministry leader.

Mission as a holistic mandate

In addition to the structures, there was another decisive factor for the founding of the new international UEM in 1996. For many years, there was a struggle about the goal and content of the common work in the mission. Even though the 1996 constitution provides an answer to this question, it is not a settled issue and is still being discussed again and again today in view of current challenges in the UEM communion. Characteristic and still significant today is the word "holistic", which describes the work and program priorities of the UEM. In 2008, at the General Assembly, the members of UEM identified five areas in which the the communion of churches is engaged: 1. advocacy (advocacy for justice, peace and the integrity of creation), 2. diakonia, 3. development, 4. evangelism, 5. partnership.

The way in which the 32 (currently 38) UEM churches and the v. Bodelschwingh Foundations Bethel have grown together in these areas over the 25 years up to the present day to form a lively mission based on solidarity is unfolded in the current edition of our "UEM Journal" - this is an ongoing process of learning and sharing, of believing and standing up for one another, of participating and supporting, of trusting and acting together.

It is true that "United in Mission" did not become the name of the new UEM in 1996, although this was seriously discussed. "United Evangelical Mission" was retained, and only the letters "ig" were deleted from "Vereinigte" to emphasize continuity. Nevertheless, an essential part of the name was added, which characterizes the self-understanding of the new UEM and its members until today: "Communion of churches in three continents". The word Gemeinschaft - Communion in English - was still questioned by some Germans in 2008, since formally a church fellowship between the member churches of the UEM - Baptists, Reformed, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Uniate, Methodists, Disciples of Christ - was never negotiated and decided. From the perspective of the African and Asian churches in particular, however, church fellowship was established and given by practice through the jointly responsible cooperation decided in 1996, the subsequent programs such as the exchange of pastors, joint worship services and communion celebrations. "Lived church fellowship" is thus also a consequence of the change of perspective in 1996, a change of perspective that is also becoming increasingly important for the German regional churches within Germany in view of many congregations of foreign language and origin.

Churches from Africa and Asia appear self-confident today

Today, the UEM communion is a very different one than it was 25 years ago. The churches in Africa and Asia, which until then often had little contact with each other as partners of UEM, have developed their own UEM self-confidence through regional assemblies, UEM offices in all regions, staff exchange and training programs and much more. Through intercession, financial aid, and joint action, the members of the UEM show solidarity with those in the community who are particularly affected by war, oppression, natural disasters, environmental degradation, and climate change.

Special attention and support has been given to members affected by genocide and its aftermath, by ongoing war, and by violence and racism, restrictions on religious freedom, or political violence. Likewise, during this period, the UEM communion has stood with churches in places affected by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods, as in the 2004 tsunami disaster. Solidarity in the UEM communion has also proven itself anew in the ongoing global Covid 19 pandemic (as it did previously with Ebola and HIV/AIDS), the consequences of which particularly affect the poor.

The Germans in UEM relinquished power in 1996. In doing so, they have created space for new encounters and exchanges among the churches in Africa and Asia. But members in Germany have also received many new impulses for their work from the new UEM, among other things through numerous staff and volunteers from Africa and Asia, through ecumenical international networking on questions of mission and ecumenism, and through cooperation in diaconal training and educational programs.

People from Africa and Asia have been employed in leadership positions in Wuppertal since 1996 (since 2008 in the Management Team - the Board of Directors). This interculturality also makes a difference in the UEM and for its members. While the large German Protestant and Catholic aid agencies continue to operate essentially as German agencies in the traditional donor-recipient scheme, the UEM has a 25-year process of learning and experience behind it in intercultural equal cooperation in its decision-making structures and programs. This takes place on the basis of the joint financing of the UEM budget, to which all members make financial contributions. Also decisive for the success of the 25-year learning process in the new UEM was that the participation of women and young adults in programs and in the committees was demanded and mapped from the beginning. Youth consultations, the Young Adult Network and volunteer work in all three continents, but also the scholarship program of the UEM are indispensable for the future of the UEM community.

What can German churches learn from their sisters and brothers in Africa and Asia?

"United in Mission" - what began in 1988, then since 1996 has involved sometimes radical processes of change and learning as a result of the decisions made in Bethel, has visibly taken shape over the 25 years. While the members of the UEM in Africa and Asia have developed their own UEM self-awareness, the question remains for the German churches in the UEM whether, in view of progressive shrinkage and the accompanying structural and savings discussions with still considerable income and resources, they cannot make greater use of the experiences of the churches in Africa and Asia for themselves. In doing so, impulses and impulses could be taken up by churches which often and in part have always existed as Christian minorities under precarious economic, social and political conditions.

"United in Mission" - what was launched in 1996 is still today an opportunity for the German churches, for Christians in Germany - if the change of perspective succeeds.

Dr. Jochen Motte, member of the Executive Board of the UEM and Head of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Department.

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