By Dr. David W. Scott, Guest Blogger
My recent book, Mission as Globalization: Methodists in Southeast Asia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, examines the beginning of Methodism in Malaysia. While reading a recent article in New World Outlook by United Methodist missionary Josh Van about his current work in Malaysia, I was struck by similarities between the beginning of the mission 130 years ago and mission today.
- Transnational collaboration – Methodism in Malaysia started through the American Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), but it also had missionaries and members from the MEC in India, China, Germany, and Sweden; the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Great Britain, India, and Australia; and others. Today, Van, a Vietnamese-American who has lived in Vietnam serves through cooperation between the Methodist Church in Malaysia and The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries.
- Mission to migrants – Early Methodism in Malaysia grew among the Chinese, Indian, and European migrants to the area, aided by the hard work of indigenous evangelists. Today, Van is working with a new migrant group – the Vietnamese – but mission with migrants continues, as does the importance of ethnic and linguistic connections between missionary and migrant. Furthermore, most migrants then and now are short-term migrants who work in Malaysia for a set period and then return home, further extending the transnational nature of mission.
- Effects of global capitalism – Many early followers of Methodism in Malaysia worked as physical laborers in exploitative businesses tied to the burgeoning international capitalism in the area and longed for a better life. Van does work among a similar group – people who work hard for businesses tied to international capitalist enterprises but hope for something more.
- English language education as empowerment – Early Methodist missionaries in Malaysia were known for their educational system, which provided an important form of empowerment through training in English and business skills such as typing. Today, Van mentions his desire to start English as a Second Language and computer classes so that the migrants with whom he works will have skills to advance socially and economically.
These parallels between early Methodist mission in Malaysia and Van’s work nowadays are not just interesting coincidences, though; they demonstrate a larger point.
Much of the historiography on turn of the century Christian missions has used an interpretive lens based on colonialism. In my book, I instead use concepts associated with facets of contemporary globalization – such as transnational organizations, migration, global capitalism, and English as a lingua franca – as an interpretive lens for understanding mission during the earlier wave of globalization at the turn of the twentieth century. Colonialism is an important part of that era, but political and cultural colonialism is not the whole of globalization.
These comparisons between early Methodist mission and Van’s work show the benefits of using such a lens: By so doing, we can discover the ways in which current Christian mission is not only a new paradigm – a shift from colonial missions to World Christianity, perhaps – but also in very important ways represents the continuation of long-standing patterns.