The explosive growth of the United Methodist Church (UMC) in Africa may significantly change Methodism in the United States, which is currently torn by issues related to homosexuality (see p. 50).

"The church is becoming more and more international," said Mark Tooley, director of the UM Action renewal group. "[I hope] that trend will help us overcome and eventually set aside many of the current debates, including homosexuality."

There are now United Methodist churches in 13 African countries—with approximately 2.6 million members across the continent. That number is up 1.5 million from just five years ago.

During May's General Conference (the highest legislative meeting of global Methodism), conference delegates voted to receive the Côte d'Ivoire mission into full membership. That act alone added 1 million African Methodists to the global roster.

The growth of Methodism overseas has helped offset decades of decline within the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination. The UMC is currently losing 40,000 members each year in the United States, according to the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration. Since 1965 the denomination has lost more than 3 million members. In the last five years, however, African Methodist churches have added roughly 100,000 new members each year.

There are now approximately 11.2 million Methodists worldwide, with 8.3 million in the United States. There eventually could be more United Methodists overseas than in the United States, Tooley said. That transformation could have implications for the denomination's stance on theological and social issues—such as homosexuality.

During the debate over homosexuality at the General Conference, five of the six people who spoke publicly to persuade delegates to strengthen the prohibition against homosexual practice were from African nations.

African delegate Muland Aying Kambol, from southern Congo, argued that the church should not "waste so much time speaking about sin." Delegate Samuel Quire from Liberia said even more strongly, "The church must not license people to go to hell."

Other African delegates said the issue of homosexuality is primarily an American concern.

"Before Christians arrived, we practiced polygamy. The Christian teaching that we received taught that marriage should be between one man and one woman," said Kasap 'Owan Tshibang, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "We Africans accepted this teaching. Now we are hearing a different message from this conference."

"African culture forbids us to [talk] about sexuality," Tshibang continued. "We do not want to become drawn into this problem of homosexuality. We need to seek what will edify this church."

Caroline Njuki, a laywoman from Uganda who helps direct the denomination's development projects on the continent, said African Methodism will ultimately strengthen the church in the United States, "because the Spirit is catching."

"The Africans are receiving resources from the U.S.," Njuki said. "The U.S. is receiving nurturance—spiritual rebirth— from the example set by the Africans."

Related Elsewhere:

More on UM Action is available from its web site.

More Christianity Today coverage of homosexuality and the United Methodist Church includes:

Methodists Back Away from Breakup | Evangelicals shelve call for 'amicable separation.' (May 07, 2004)
Lesbian Is Eligible for Reappointment, Bishop Says | Differing interpretations of Methodist court ruling prolong denomination's fight. (May 06, 2004)
Methodists Strengthen Stand Against Homosexual Practice | Lesbian pastor may not be reappointed. (May 05, 2004)
Weblog: Methodist Council Says Homosexuality Is 'Incompatible' with Christian Teaching (May 03, 2004)
Flouting Church Law | Two gay controversies likely to dominate United Methodist General Conference this week. (May 2004)
A Methodist Mob Mugging | There are real victims in the farce that was the Methodist church trial of a lesbian minister. (March 25, 2004)
Weblog: Methodist Court Acquits Homosexual Minister (March 22, 2004)
Weblog: Methodist Trial Opens With Arrests, Comparison to Crucifixion (March 18, 2004)
Weblog: In the United Methodist Church, a Trial Comes After the Court's Decision (Dec. 18, 2001)

More on the United Methodist Church and other denominations is available on our Church life page.

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