Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Plan now: UMCOM hosting ICT4D conference in September

As we stand on the precipice of 2014, I want to recommend a possible conference for those of you who are in local churches but interested in using technology to strengthen and expand your global connections.  It's the Game Changers Summit: "Dreamers and doers gather to harness the power of technology."  It's being hosted as part of the Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) project of United Methodist Communications.  You can read more about it in the press release or see the main points below.

What's the point of this conference?
The ICT4D movement is a larger movement extending beyond the UMC that looks to use new technologies like cell phone, solar batteries, e-readers, and other devices to help solve social, health, agricultural, and economic development issues.  Technology isn't seen as the sole solution; more traditional forms of development work are needed along side.  Nevertheless, technology is seen as an invaluable asset in finding creative solutions to problems.  Many UMC congregations are already in partnership with each other and other organizations to do the very type of development work (often in Africa or the Philippines) that could be aided by the strategic incorporation of appropriate technology.  This conference seeks to help them do that.

Who is this conference aimed at?
While the sort of international ministry partnerships that are necessary to do successful development work involve partners from the United States, Africa, the Philippines, and sometimes Europe or elsewhere, this conference seems geared toward the American partners in those relationships.  Moreover, the conference is focused specifically on local churches rather than conferences or boards and agencies.  Nevertheless, the conference will be most useful for local churches who already have international ministry partnerships on development issues, as technology is a way to advance those partnerships, not form them.

When and where will the conference be?
The conference will be September 3-5, 2014, in Nashville.

How can I sign up?
Registration is not yet available for the conference, so keep checking back at the conference website through the spring.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Doug Tzan on Grace Upon Grace: Our Missional Heritage

Today's post is the sixth in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Douglas D. Tzan, Visiting Professor of Church History at Wesley Theological Seminary and Assistant Pastor at St. Paul's UMC, Sykesville, MD.  Dr. Tzan is responding to the initial comment on the third section of the document, "Our Missional Heritage," written by Dr. Luther Oconer.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I am pleased to join with colleagues and friends in this exploration of the mission document of The United Methodist Church, “Grace Upon Grace,” and to build on Luther Oconer’s observations on the section entitled “Our Missional Heritage.” Oconor points out the potential for a greater emphasis on “the Wesleyan synergistic understanding of grace” in the document. What stands out most to me is the historiography implicit in this mission statement and its implications for mission.

Both the original document and Oconer highlight that early Methodists, the United Brethren in Christ, and the Evangelical Association were people with a strong missional identity. As Oconer notes, “They saw themselves as missionaries, and their respective denominations as missionary enterprises.” Oconer further notes that the inclusion of names such as Barbara Heck and Harry Hosier in the list of evangelistic pioneers does not fully illustrate the diversity of the United Methodist heritage.

This selection of names, however, does illustrate the guiding historical narrative of “Grace Upon Grace.” The Wesley brothers are mentioned first, for according to this story, “this revival began in eighteenth century England” under their leadership.[1] This English religious movement then flourished in a heroic era in North America at the time of the American Revolution and early Republic, as all the names listed lived during that period. After this golden age, little of interest in the U.S. occurred, as later history of the church is glossed over. From the U.S., however, this movement spread around the world, and this worldwide expansion is treated in subsequent paragraphs.

One need not be a postmodern critic of metanarratives to mark the problems with this story. It recounts a popular myth of United Methodist origins in which Wesley was possessed with a kind of “apostolic genius” that transformed religious life in England and early America.[2] Without denying Wesley’s importance to evangelical Christianity or the stunning growth of Methodism in early America, this narrative obscures, even as it illumines. In this story, the Moravians and Continental sources of Methodist piety disappear. The entire Evangelical United Brethren tradition is recast as a part of an English revival movement. The religious heritage and traditions of African-Americans before they were introduced to Methodism are also ignored, to say nothing of the religious traditions of countless other cultures that make up United Methodism today.

The other historiographic assumption employed by “Grace Upon Grace” is the way it characterizes United Methodist identity. The term most often employed to describe United Methodism is “revival.” Methodism is defined as a “major Christian revival” in England and a “spiritual awakening in North America.”[3] At times “revival” is used as a synonym for the denomination: “The revival spread with amazing speed” and “shook the land.”[4] Similarly, the United Brethren in Christ and Evangelical Association are described as “revival movements, increasingly important in American life.”[5] Even divisions and church unions are cast as dimensions of revivalism, as these events are described as “the revival movement…experiencing the pain and joy of its failures and its successes.”[6]

While participation in a widespread revival movement was an important part of early United Methodist history in England and United States, it was not the only feature. Looking at the entire United Methodist mission tradition, it is far from certain that revival best characterizes three centuries of United Methodist mission history. United Methodist practices of mission have taken on many shapes and have been nurtured by different spiritualties, emphases, and practices. At times those differences have been the source of conflict.[7] Other times different missional practices have complemented each other well. Itinerant circuit riders could only lead revivals in early America because they were served by the hospitality and spiritual nurture provided by many a Methodist “mother in Israel.”[8] Additional research is needed to illumine the many dimensions of the United Methodist missionary tradition and plumb ways that tradition can inform contemporary mission.

I see two problematic theological issues that emerge from historiography of United Methodism as articulated in “Grace Upon Grace.” First, it does not encourage contextualization of mission. In this vision, missions should seek only to rekindle Wesley’s charisma in a new context. Early American Methodists, however, certainly did not believe their mission was to recreate Wesley’s English Methodism. In fact, they grew even as they became less firmly tied to Wesley’s legacy. They drew on the resources of their young tradition, but also adapted and expanded it to a new context.[9]

Second, this narrative undermines the thesis of the mission statement, that mission emerges out of the fullness of God’s grace. A view of United Methodist history that embraces all dimensions of grace would be concerned with more than just moments of revival when the justifying message of redemption in Jesus Christ is received by a person or community. The work of God’s prevenient grace in the lives of people and communities is also relevant. As such, the religious and cultural factors that shape the reception of United Methodism become pertinent. Likewise, the sanctifying and outworking influence of the gospel in lives and cultures long after revival fires have cooled also matters.

The strength of “Grace Upon Grace” is its grounding of mission in an emphasis on God’s mission of grace in the world, not its historiography. God’s mission has taken different forms through United Methodist history and will continue to do so in the future. That mission will be better served by cultivating among United Methodists a renewed sense of missional identity rooted in an expansive understanding of God’s grace.



[1] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 10
[2] See, for example, Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 103.
[3] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 10
[4] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 14
[5] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 15
[6] Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church 1990, par. 15
[7] Robert J. Harman, From Missions to Mission: The History of Mission of The United Methodist Church, 1968-2000 (New York: General Board of Global Ministries, 2005), 178-183; H. T. Maclin, "Historical Perspectives of the Mission Society," in World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit, edited by Darrell L. Whiteman, & Gerald H. Anderson (Franklin, TN: Providence House, 2009), 213-221
[8] John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists (New York: Oxford Universiry Press, 2009), 98-99, 271
[9] See, for example, Russell E. Richey, "Early American Methodism," in The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism, edited by Jason E. Vickers, 44-62 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 44

Friday, December 20, 2013

Find-A-Church, Advent, and the global-local tension

Contemporary Americans often like to pretend that the Internet has ushered in some sort of utopic, post-geographic future.  While technology does substantially reshape how we connect across distance (this blog being just one example), it is far from erasing the relevance of geography.  Location still matters, sometimes despite technology and sometimes because it shapes how we can access technology.  That's why it's interesting to reflect on a recent news story about efforts to expand the UMC's Find-A-Church online directory beyond the United States.

On the one hand, the expansion of Find-A-Church beyond US borders seems to be a triumph of technology over geography.  By incorporating all of the United Methodist world into this online portal, the website seems to be erasing the geographic distinctions that so often plague our denominations.  Find-A-Church will no longer will be limited to the US center and marginalize the rest of the world.  That's a good development and represents an appropriate extension of church resources to serve the entire connection and not just the US.

Yet a global Find-A-Church does not end geography within the UMC.  Beyond issues of access or participation, even a perfectly comprehensive and universally accessible list of UMC churches would not end geography.  That's because the entire point of Find-A-Church is to find local congregations, which are what make up the UMC.  The connection may be a global thing that transcends geography, but we experience in most in local ways.  Efforts to institute online communion or other forms of internet church aside, there is no "global church" in the sense of a corporate worshiping fellowship.  The global church only exists in and through its local congregations.

Perhaps that's a good thing to reflect on in this Advent seasons when we remember the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  God does exist beyond any local instance, but God still recognized the importance of taking on a local body in the form of a baby born in a manager.  Moreover, God becoming local was not a problem for our view of God; it solved the problem of our sin and alienation from God.  Local churches can sometimes be frustrating places because they're where we come face to face with other pressing-on-to-perfection-but-by-no-means-there-yet Christians.  It can be tempting to retreat to platitudes about the world-wide fellowship of believers as an alternative to doing the hard work of getting along with fellow congregants.  Yet Advent and Find-A-Church both remind us that the local is where we meet God.  May you meet God anew in your local church this Christmas time.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jesus is every race

Today's post is by guest blogger William P. Payne, the Harlan and Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions at Ashland Theological Seminary.

In reference to the misguided “Jesus was White” comment, I affirm that God is always culture-specific when God interacts with humans. The incarnation illustrates this truth. Historically, Jesus came as a Jew, a tangible human with a real body that contained DNA. By American standards, Semites are classified as White because the term refers to "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa." Granted, such categories diminish ethnic diversity and build upon a false premise. For instance, how much does a Romani (Gypsy) have in common with an Afrikaner or an Albanian with an Arab? Still, the social construction of race persists and must be acknowledge as an unfortunate fact.

Fortuitously, the church proclaims that Christ is not limited by social constraints or bound by race categories. That is why he takes on the likeness of a variety of peoples when the gospel is properly incarnated in their midst. In the same way that Paul adopted a missionary strategy to become all things to all people (I Cor 9:19-23), Jesus enters into the cultural reality of all peoples when the church adopts culture-specific methods of witnessing to him. He is not foreign to any people! Furthermore, no one should have to cross cultural boundaries to encounter him. He is Asian & African, Latino & mulatto.

Since Jesus is a personal Savior, it is OK for people to think of him in culture-specific ways as long as they do not attempt to restrict Christ to their culture or require others to convert to their enculturated Christ in order to have a relationship with him. At the same time, because the UMC attempts to make disciples of all people groups (Matt 28:19), we want people of every ethnic, national, and racial category to have an authentic, culture specific encounter with the risen Lord.

In sum, since God is culture specific in his dealings with humanity, the UMC needs to take the concept of culture seriously without falling into the sin of ethnocentrism. Regardless, UM clergy can never be satisfied with a monocultural Christ because we are in the business of giving Christ away as we actively seek to translate him into other cultural categories in word and deed.

Merry Christmas to all who wonder after the incarnation.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Luther Oconer on Grace Upon Grace: Our Missional Heritage

Today's post is the fifth in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990) Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Luther J. Oconer, Assistant Professor of United Methodist Studies and Director of the Center for Evangelical United Brethren Heritage at United Theological Seminary.  Dr. Oconer is writing the initial comment on the third section of the document, "Our Missional Heritage."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section “Our Missional Heritage” traces the development of United Methodism on its journey as “Grace Upon Grace” through significant periods in its early history beginning from 1784 to a century afterwards.  It begins by highlighting the actions of the “God of grace” in mission, and the early Methodist people as recipients of God’s grace through mission as illustrated in the opening statement: “We, as United Methodists, were born in mission.” The statement highlights the important place of mission in early United Methodist history. As suggested in Paragraphs 11 and 12, early Methodists, and their United Brethren and Evangelical Association associates, were a missionary people. They saw themselves as missionaries, and their respective denominations as missionary enterprises, as implied in the mission statements of the Methodist Episcopal Church (in 1784) and the United Brethren in Christ (in 1812) noted in the same paragraphs and in Langford’s commentary.[1] For example, in the case of the Methodist Episcopal Church, nineteenth century Methodist historian Abel Stevens wrote:

"Though American Methodism was many years without a distinct missionary organization, it was owing to the fact that its whole Church organization was essentially a missionary scheme. It was, in fine, the great Home Mission enterprise of the north American continent, and its domestic work demanded all its resources of men and money."[2]

Early United Methodists were not mere recipients of God’s mission, they were also active co-participants in God’s mission. This is more faithful to the Wesleyan synergistic understanding of grace, of divine and human cooperation, which, unfortunately, was not pointed out in the section, even though it is supposed to be a narrative about “grace upon grace.” The beginning paragraphs overlooked the implication of God’s prevenient grace, that God’s grace enables human response. This oversight has adversely affected the framing of other of paragraphs in this section, which I will point out later.

Now something needs to be said about the names meant to represent the major pioneers of early United Methodism, which are listed in the beginning paragraph. While this is obviously a commendable attempt at inclusivity, the addition of Barbara Heck and Harry Hosier, unfortunately, not only do little to represent the diversity in early United Methodism, but also raises questions about other pioneers who were left out of the list. Probably, it would have been better if the framers of the document simply added to the commonly acknowledged pioneers Asbury, Otterbein, and Albright the words, “including a number of pioneering women, men, freed African-American slaves, and immigrants from the British Isles and Europe, helped evoke spiritual awakening in North America.”

Paragraph 13 then moves to discuss the theological content of early United Methodist participation in God’s mission. It is correct to highlight free grace since the emphasis on the universality of the Gospel has easily been a distinguishing mark of early Methodist preaching in the British Isles and North America.[3] Nonetheless, the way it is summarized here as “God’s grace free in all, free to all, free for all” is an unnecessary attempt to update Wesley’s language on the subject. It would have been much appropriate had the framers did not add “free to all,” and simply followed Wesley’s description in his sermon on “Free Grace”:  “the grace or love of God… free in all, and free for all.”[4]

After this, the statement proceeds to highlight the different manifestations of the same free grace through the mention of prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. However, I think the focus given to these three manifestations does not faithfully account for the theological content of early United Methodist preaching. While preachers did presuppose the different manifestations of grace in their preaching, they were much more interested on the end results brought about by these manifestations, namely: awakening, repentance, justification, new birth and entire sanctification. They preached the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ, who awakens us to repentance, justifies us, gives us new birth, and enables us to be perfected in love. Representing the theological content in this manner brings to the fore the God’s action-human response dynamic in Wesleyan soteriology, which is connected to the point I previously made above regarding the synergistic nature of God’s grace.[5]

After theological content, the section continues with Paragraph 14, which succinctly summarizes the phenomenal advance of early United Methodism and acknowledging its role as a revival movement, thereby making it the largest Christian denomination in the 1840s. Schisms and divisions, nevertheless, marred this growth, as shown in Paragraph 15. Paragraph 16 then moves with thanksgiving to God, joining Charles Wesley and a thousand tongues in singing, “The triumphs of his grace” for the victories and even setbacks noted in the narrative. The paragraph further adds another twist by mentioning the shift among early United Methodists in their “dependence upon God” to “human independence” by capitulating to “dubious cultural values.” This then reinforces my point about the need for the document to have made clear in its earlier paragraphs the human response element in grace since that can help the reader make more sense of this very important twist in the narrative. It is our “human independence” moments or times of resistance to God grace that led us to failures in our history.

These moments of “human independence,” furthermore, do not connect well with the conclusion in Paragraph 17, which closes the entire section with the beginning statement: “Grace creates mission; grace corrects mission.” Indeed, mission originates from God’s grace since mission is missio Dei. Accordingly, if we allow that mission is mission Dei or the mission of God, therefore it should not be subject to correction. What is really subject to correction is us.  When we yield to episodes of “human independence” as we participate in God’s mission, God’s grace moves to convict or correct us. Probably, the sentence would have been enhanced if it were worded differently: “Grace creates mission; we participate in this grace through mission; grace corrects us.”  Again, as I have suggested previously, this narrative would have been much faithful to our early United Methodist missional heritage had it explicitly highlighted this Wesleyan synergistic understanding of grace.

[1] For Langford’s commentary, See Thomas A. Langford “Study Companion,” Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of the United Methodist Church, John O. Gooch, ed. (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990), 12.
[2] Abel Stevens, The Centenary of American Methodism: A Sketch of its History, Theology, Practical System, and Success (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1866), 187; also quoted in Russell E. Richey, “Organizing for Missions: A Methodist Case Study,” in Daniel H. Bays and Grant Wacker, eds., Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 75.
[3] See, for example, Jason Vickers, “American Methodism: A Theological Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism, ed. Jason Vickers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 15.
[4] See John Wesley, Sermon 110, “Free Grace,” § 2, in Sermons III, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 3 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, CD-ROM edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976–).
[5] For an extensive treatment on Wesley’s soteriology, see, for example, Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 49-307.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The UMC and global health work

I'd like to pass along two recent news stories about global health partnerships that The United Methodist Church supports.  The first is a report by Donald E. Messer on the recent International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.  Messer is executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS and attended the conference. The second is a story about recent pledges to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.  The United Methodist Church was one of a number of partners pledging financial support of the fund.  Both of these stories demonstrate the UMC's important work on "improving health globally," one of the denomination's Four Areas of Focus for ministry.

These stories are not only important because they fit with this ministry focus.  They are also important for two things they teach us about the nature of ministry partnerships that seek to tackle global issues.  First, they teach us that such work really does involve international ministry partnerships.  It might be possible to read the story about the financial pledges to the Global Fund and think it was just a story about Western generosity to solve problems "over there."  But that's not how the fight to end AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria works.  It's not just a process of Westerners giving money.  It's a process of Westerners, Southerners, Easterners, people from all around the globe coming together and pooling their resources, knowledge, and expertise to create comprehensive, systemic solutions to these global health problems.  The necessary cooperation of and contribution by partners in many countries is especially well highlighted in the story about the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.  The congress was not a bunch of Westerners out to fix someone else's problems for them.  It was a collaborative approach by people from many backgrounds to fix a common problem.

Second, these stories teach us that, as important as international ministry partnerships within the UMC are, international ministry partnerships that reach beyond the UMC are important too.  Neither the Global Fund nor the International Congress are instances of United Methodists going it alone.  Instead, they are both stories about United Methodists working with others - other Christians, people from governments, business, and other secular backgrounds, and even people from other religions - to achieve shared goals.  Moreover, rather than weaken the Christian witness in The United Methodist Church's anti-disease efforts, these sorts of collaborations strengthen that Christian witness.  They make the church's efforts more effective and therefore a better witness, and they also make the church's efforts known to those outside of the church and therefore a wider witness.

When we read such stories of the church's work on global health or other global issues, we should do more than just pause to feel good about our generosity or stop to wonder why we're involved in "secular" efforts.  Instead, we should reflect on how carrying out God's mission in the world involves calling forth the gifts that God has given to all of God's people.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Elizabeth Tapia on Grace Upon Grace: Our Unifying Vision

Today's post is the fourth in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990) Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Elizabeth Tapia, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries.  Dr. Tapia is responding to a previous piece by Daniel Shin on the second section of the document, "Our Unifying Vision."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I am pondering this Advent season the meaning of God’s grace. Grace is grace, the unconditional love of God gracefully revealed in humble, tender, immigrant Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, a simple Palestinian woman named Mary received the grace-filled word that she would become the mother of the holy child to be named Jesus, the Son of God. Out of God’s abundant love for human kind and creation, God reveals, God graces, God loves. Like Mary, our souls magnify and rejoice in God our Savior. Like Joseph, we stand in awe and ready to savor God’s grace in the midst of uncertainty and fear.

Upon reading the section on “Our Unifying Vision” in the 1988 UMC mission statement, I pondered on what it means to be grasped by God’s abundant grace, what it means to be embraced by God’s self-giving,  what it means for the church to be “transformed by grace”, and what this “unifying vision” implies.  Who constitutes the “Our” in this phrase? How will a single vision unify a multi-diverse group of people called the United Methodists?  How does this unifying vision find multiple dimensions in the global nature of the church?  I have no ready answers.

The statement emphasizes the biblical rootedness that our unifying vision of mission is proclaiming and witnessing to the God of Grace in Christ, and that to “be in covenant with God is to be called in mission.” 

“We need a dual vision that focuses on Christ and our specific context,” writes Daniel Shin. I agree with his thought.  I like his emphasis on the universal scope of God’s mission and the varied manifestations of God’s mission depending on one’s specific and historical contexts. 

What I take away from this “Our Unifying Vision” section of a twenty-five year old mission document are the following:
1)    “The New Testament churches are communities in mission”.  (Grace upon Grace, Para. 4)
2)    “The people of God are wholly dependent upon the grace of God.”  (Grace upon Grace, Para. 3)
3)    “Jesus Christ defines grace: Immanuel, God with us as a person…grace is God’s way of being in the world, the expression of God’s own self.”  (Grace upon Grace, Para. 5).

Daniel Shin’s comment on the widening gap between the rich and the poor, ongoing slavery and “global colonization that adversely affect[s] women, children and the nonpersons of the world” is a strong call for reexamination of the motive, message, manner and process of churches’ participation in God’s mission. How are our present day church communities in mission? Are our churches like “field hospitals for broken souls,” to use the phrase of Pope Francis? Are all Spirit-led, singing and worshipping together in multiple languages, preaching the gospel in word and deed? Are all included, are all genuinely welcomed, with resources shared and no one in want?

And if we are God’s people wholly dependent upon the grace of God, why do we worry too much about who gets the credit, where the resources will come, what petitions will be calendared, whether one breaks or follow the Book of the Discipline in its entirety?  We follow Jesus, and the Jesus Vision is tied in with the Kindom Vision.

Our typhoon-devastated sisters and brothers in the Philippines, my homeland, lost everything. Those who survived this tragic disaster are spiritually, literally and wholly dependent on the grace of God. Many of them had not read this document, but I believe that through the praying-loving-sharing-giving acts of kindness of people around the world, including the United Methodist world-wide connection, they are embraced by God’s grace. Emmanuel, God-with-us, is not a noun, it is a verb.

Part of the message of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches that met recently in Busan Korea reads, “God our Creator is the source of all life. In the love of Jesus Christ and by the mercy of the Holy Spirit we, as a communion of the children of God, move together towards the fulfillment of the Kingdom. Seeking grace from God we are called, in our diversity, to be just stewards of God’s creation.  This is the vision of the New Heaven and Earth, where Christ will ‘fill all in all’ (Eph 1:23)”.  From my Filipina Christian perspective, such an ecumenical and ecological move can unify believers in  envisioning, by God’s grace, a world filled with justice and peace.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

United Methodist colleges and the global connection

The United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) reported yesterday on the results of a survey sent to United Methodist-affiliated colleges and universities in the United States.  The survey asked about their interest in partnering with the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM).  Encouragingly, the survey found a good deal of interest on the part of United Methodist colleges and universities to be more involved in promoting and partnering in the global work of GBGM.

The survey asked about several forms of potential college/GBGM collaboration: alternative break trips, promoting missionary programs, student exchanges with Africa, and jointly developing courses about cross-cultural learning.  While I think all of these forms of collaboration are potentially exciting, I want to praise the last two in particular.  (Incidentally, while the majority of survey respondents were in favor of all of these options, the last two received the fewest positive responses.)

I think student exchanges with Africa and courses about cross-cultural learning have the potential to greatly benefit both students at United Methodists institutions of higher education and The United Methodist Church's efforts to become a coherent and equitable global denomination.  Earlier today, in my job as a professor, I listened to a presentation by the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College.  The presentation summarized what components of a college education the Center had found had the greatest impact on student learning during college.  One of those components was "Interactional Diversity" - interacting with people whose economic, social, racial, ethnic, political, religious, or personal backgrounds were different from one's own.  Giving students at American United Methodist colleges and universities opportunities to interact with others of different backgrounds through student exchanges with African colleges and universities and through coursework focused on cross-cultural learning seems like it would directly provide students with the types of experiences that research has shown promote student learning.

At the same time, these experiences can also benefit the UMC as a whole, not just individual students.  Certainly, not all students at UMC-related schools are themselves United Methodists, nor would all of the students who might participate in these programs be United Methodist.  Nevertheless, by providing at least some United Methodist students the skills to learn from others of different cultures or, even better, the opportunity to travel from the United States to Africa or vice versa and study with United Methodists from other cultures, we would be developing members of the UMC that have the cross-cultural skills necessary to negotiate the tricky terrain of crafting a global denomination.

Certainly, building a global UMC requires many partners collaborating on many projects.  I am encouraged, though, that American and perhaps African UMC-related colleges and universities are exploring more ways to partner with the GBGM.  Such partnerships can only bring good results for students, for the church, and ultimately for the world.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Global UMC structure and the run-up to 2016

It has become a common trope in American politics to bewail how soon in advance people's attention turns to upcoming presidential elections.  Though the 2016 presidential election is nearly three years away, speculation has already begun about the prospects of Hilary Clinton, Chris Christie, and others.  The United Methodist Church may be displaying an equivalent focus on future events, as the amount of attention to General Conference 2016 increases, even though that event is over two and a half years away.  Hardly done with one presidential election or General Conference, we rush on to begin thinking about the next.

That rush to focus on the next General Conference has not earned the same amount of condemnation by pundits that our early fascination with the presidential election has.  Indeed, there may be reasons why this early focus on the next General Conference may be productive, unlike speculations about the 2016 presidential race.  If that early focus helps the UMC continue to dialogue about important issues affecting the connection and allows consensus to develop for solutions to those issues, it may well be a good thing.  Last year's General Conference shows that last-minute negotiations are not a successful way to arrive at large-scale church reform.  If major reform proposals had insufficient support after a year of prior discussion, perhaps three years worth of conversation and negotiation is a better way to go.

One of the issues that's sure to be up for debate when General Conference does meet again in 2016 is the world-wide nature of the church and how that nature is embodied in concrete structural and organizational forms.  That issue has been one of debate for the past couple of General Conferences, without major reforms having yet been approved.  Some minor changes were approved at General Conference 2012, and if you need a reminder of what those are, you can read about them here.  The Connectional Table has already begun discussing a variety of issues related to the global church in advance of General Conference 2016, as reported by UMNS.

If, though, the point of beginning discussions about GC2016 years in advance is to allow for fuller conversation around and greater support of proposals, these conversations about the global nature of the church cannot be confined to the Connectional Table.  We as United Methodists must all be praying, thinking, and talking about how the Spirit is leading us to structure our global common life together for the sake of ministry and justice.  One of the goals of this blog is to provide a forum to do just that, but I hope that you will seek out and find other means for conversation as well.  Our ability to answer the Spirit's calling in 2016 may depend on it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Our Unifying Vision" - Daniel Shin on Grace Upon Grace: Our Unifying Vision

Today's post is the third in a series of weekly posts that will re-examine the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990) Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius & Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair in Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.  Dr. Shin is commenting on the second section of the document.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section “Our Unifying Vision” immediately follows the “Introduction” in Grace Upon Grace, the theological statement of the mission of The United Methodist Church. It is appropriate that the statement begins with theological reflections on our church’s unifying vision as we are one in Christ, but also different in many ways. What is of interest concerning unity-in-diversity in the title “Our Unifying Vision” is it can be interpreted at least in two different ways: one, it suggests a collectively defined and accepted vision that is at work and exerting influence to move the church toward a common goal; two, it intimates a vision still in the process of coming together toward a common horizon. Whereas the former suggests a united vision already out there waiting to be implemented, the latter implies a vision becoming unified right before our eyes—perhaps, a fusion of horizons—far more attentive to the church as a hermeneutical community in conversation, debate, and mutual enrichment. Which interpretation best reflects the spirit in which the document was written?

It seems the authors of Grace Upon Grace had in mind the former. Consider Paragraph 3 which begins with the following words: “Scripture provides our decisive vision of mission.” In Paragraph 9, it also says, “We, as United Methodists, pursue a unifying vision by ‘looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ This is our vision, a vision which sets our vocation.”[1] Our vision already has been provided to us, rather than standing in need of being articulated and adopted. Moving beyond the surface reading of the document to its depth, we cannot help but notice the implied sensitivity and alertness to diverse theologies and practices of mission present in the United Methodist Church. After all, we are the heirs of a rich heritage of different traditions such as Anglican (Wesley), Reformed (Otterbein), evangelical, and pietist churches.[2] Moreover, it is only proper and necessary we recognize diverse missional responsibilities in the church if we understand our distinct missions to be participation in the missio Dei in contexts other than our own. The scope of God’s mission is indeed universal, and different missions around the globe are the many and varied manifestations of the mission Dei. Others are also summoned and faithful in God’s mission just as we, too, seek God’s reign of justice and peace. Hence, affirmation of the polyphonic character of missions is the result of coming to terms with the missio Dei. It is a deep recognition of the complexity of human conditions we encounter in the world as well as the universal character of God’s offer of grace in all facets of human experiences.

However, we do not remain in isolated enclosures of our own choosing where we dwell on our differences, because we have a uniting vision of grace that is bringing us together as one in the triune God. Mission is first and foremost the action of God who creates out of love, redeems in Christ, and empowers the church in mission through the power of the Holy Spirit.[3] The church has a common missional vision of God’s grace which it does not create as it is given by God’s saving activity in and on behalf of the world.[4] It is a vision of God’s continuous self-giving that comes again and again like the waves of the sea. This image of God’s grace is particularly fitting for the United Methodists as Wesley understood God as “the great ocean of love” which is inexhaustible.[5]

We, as recipients of God’s superabundant love, are invited to participate in God’s mission guided by the following reasons, means, and ends: one, God’s continual self-giving evokes our way of being; two, we are to give our lives in sacrificial love by offering our lives in service of others; three, both the Old and New Testaments definitively provide our vision of mission, and most decisively in Jesus Christ who as both Lord and Servant embodies the generosity of God’s self-emptying love; four, grace is not merely a gift but essentially the giver, and this being the case we need to give our very selves; five, Jesus’ ministry sets the ground for us; six, the church is to be a sign of the kingdom of God and to embody God’s grace in mission in specific human form and in specific historical contexts; and lastly, “we envision lives changed by grace, a church formed by grace, and a world transformed by grace.”[6]

As is generally true of ecclesial statements of faith, the section “Our Unifying Vision” is compact and full of theological and ethical significance, and needs to be unpacked. While its emphasis lies on a unifying vision toward the common end of participating in God’s mission in the world, there is sufficient attention to the diverse human conditions and contexts of missions. More specifically, in paragraph 8, it refers to “specific human form” and “specific historical context” where we are to be “a sign” of God’s reign and “embody God’s grace.”The statement is mindful of the condition of human finitude and the impingements specific historical contexts make on different Christian missions. In other words, the question “What would Jesus do?”, or commonly known as WWJD, is an important one, but equally important is the question “What shall I do as a follower of Christ given my human finitude and specific historical context?” We need a dual vision that focuses on Christ and our specific context. This is why the document from the outset recognizes the need for a vision “to discern both the graceful actions of God and the everchanging conditions of the world.”[7] The issue of human form and specific historical context is of particular importance given the increasingly widening gap between the rich and the poor, the unfortunate history and effects of chattel slavery in the Americas, and the ongoing practices of global colonization that adversely affect women, children, and the non-persons of the world. Invitation to follow God’s way of being as continually giving by offering not merely our gift, but our very own lives in sacrificial love in service to others need to be revisited in order that it does not inadvertently commit the mistake of pushing the marginalized further in their downward spiral.

Then, how shall we proceed? It makes a great deal of difference to remind ourselves that the church is called upon to follow Christ, but not to preempt the role of the Christ as the savior of the world. The church is situated in its own historical contexts different from the web of human relations and historical realities in which Jesus Christ was situated. Hence, the church cannot repeat or preempt what Christ already has achieved, but only refract in part—not from too close but only at a distance—in the figure of a disciple than in the cosmic, miraculous and unsubstitutable destiny of Jesus Christ.[8] We follow Christ with a recognition that there is a limit set due to the impassable difference between Jesus and his followers. It may very well be that God’s providential ordering of the world in Jesus transcends the intramural activities of the church. Yet we continue to hammer out a common life patterned after Jesus Christ in order be a sign of God’s reign in the world and, shall we even dare to say, embody God’s grace and be the people of God for the world in hopes that by God’s grace all events will find their place in the eschatological summation of history.[9]

Until then, as a pledge and token of that eschatological hope, we proclaim God’s grace in word and life following Christ as the common horizon.[10] Focusing on Christ does not make the church myopic in its horizon and succumb to the temptation of sectarian withdrawal from the world because, as Paragraph 6 nicely suggests, in following Christ we engage the world, especially the poor, weak, and marginalized. God in Christ was incognito among the downtrodden of our world and, therefore, we must remain vigilant and alert to discern God’s hidden-revealed presence and activity in the world. Until we see face to face, we see dimly, so with the center of theological gravity secure in Christ, the church must practice synoptics, the art of seeing together, involving ecumenical conversations, interfaith dialogues, and forging ad hoc correlations with our public interlocutors.  In a post 9/11 world in which different religious constellations collide with one another, our future may depend on seeing rightly, using central vision as well as peripheral vision.


[1] Grace Upon Grace, Paragraph 9.
[2] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction.
[3] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction.
[4] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction.
[5] John Wesley, “The Law Established Through Faith: Discourse II,” in  John Wesley’s Sermons, eds. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), 282. John Calvin also describes the inexhaustible grace of God that keeps on giving using the image of the fountain of goodness, the fons benorum.  See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1536 Edition (ed. and trans. F. L. Battles; London: Collins, 1986), 57.
[6] Grace Upon Grace, Paragraph 9. 
[7] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction.
[8] Hans Frei, “Theological Reflections on the Accounts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection,” in Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays, eds. George Hunsinger and William Placher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 56.  See also Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997).
[9] Grace Upon Grace, Paragraph 8.
[10] Grace Upon Grace, Paragraph 8-9.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Global and the Local: A Mutuality of Exchange

Today's post is written by guest blogger Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj.  Glory is Executive Secretary for Justice Education for the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.  She is also the Administrator of the United Methodist Seminar Program on National and International Affairs at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.

In his famous epic, Odyssey, Homer captures two key instincts, homing and roaming, and molds them into two timeless characters.  One, Penelope, and the other, Odysseus. The former stays at home weaving her masterpieces, while her husband Odysseus, undertakes long and arduous travels, and plays a heroic role in the Trojan War. The rootedness of Penelope and the roaming of Odysseus form a key dialectic in this epic. One has no existence without the other. In fact, Penelope even sets up a game plan to ward off her suitors saying that she has to complete weaving a shroud before she marries again. She weaves by day and unravels her woven piece by night, and repeats it until Odysseus comes home.

In light of today’s patterns of travel and migration, Penelope and Odysseus are no longer singular monolithic subjects representing changeless principles of rootedness and roaming. Today travel and migration constitute complex, multi-directional, and unprecedented patterns in history. This impacts our traditional notions of global and local and how we negotiate them.

Christian mission as journey
In this context, it is imperative to conceptualize Christian mission as a journey, and not a place where we arrive one day. Mission is neither a destination nor a program strategy but a pilgrimage. This journey allows us to “tap parts” of the self that are generally obscured by chatter and routine, and also to realize how subjective our certainties can be. Certainties such as the world, the self, and the other can at best be subjective, and no longer be universal. Negotiating the global and the local constantly is a key dialectics in this journey. This dialectic is more pronounced in Christian mission than ever before.

The encounter between the global and the local
Global realities such as the flow of capital, information, and technology have resulted in lop-sided power relations in a fast-paced world. The homogenizing instinct of globalization and the resisting instinct of the local cultures no longer fall under neat and absolute categories. Within the occurrences of globalization and localization, which Roland Robertson calls “glocalization,” global migration emerges as a force, in unprecedented scope and scale, to reckon with.

Diasporas situate multiple identities, not based on the mere local or the totalizing global. The eruption of African, Asian, and Latin American diasporas into the U.S. and Europe is a response to the push and pull factors of migration. War, famine, economic globalization, terrorism, natural disasters etc., push peoples away from their local habitats. Cheap labor and the opportunities available for the gifted people are pull factors into the developed countries.

Living in more than one world, the locality of their country of origin and the country of their residence, has become an everyday reality for most of these diasporas. Peggy Levitt, author of God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing Religious Landscape, says, “People who live transnationally are the face of the future.” Hyphenated, bifurcated, bi-local, and multi-local diasporic persons happen to be Christians, also. Their new congregations, worship settings, and spiritual practices span more than one locality metaphorically and otherwise. Their remittances to their countries of origin and the support of the Christian communities back home are often hidden from the mainstream denominational landscape. Immigrant, migrant, and refugee churches have networks and linkages often not visible to the majority eye view. When the hopes and fears of migration have met in the diasporic Christian communities in the midst of us, it is imperative to recall the words of a scholar in migration and mission that every migrant Christian is a potential missionary.

The pilgrim
I submit that as a church we undertake efforts to receive the flow of mission insights from those who are on the move. We incorporate the global-local insights as bottom-up approach, that the immigrants and migrants bring as agents of mission at a time such as this, and cultivate tools to engage in this mission.

We also realize that in this journey theology is complexly context-specific, and hence it is not transferrable.

We engage ourselves in mission in obedience to the gospel and the promptings of the Holy Spirit in a given context.

Christian mission and ministry is in the context of difference and diversity. It is biblical, global, contextual, multi-lateral, multi-structural, cross-cultural, polyphonic, and ecumenical.

There is no normative Christian mission. It constantly and continually cross-pollinates with that of our sisters and brothers from the global south. No denomination can afford to lose what the global Christian community can bring to our local church’s mission, ministry and worship.

That engagement in mission is a journey and a movement together, as the recent World Council of Churches Assembly has themed it: God of Life, Lead us to Justice and Peace.

Unwriting the monolithic constructs of Penelope and Odysseus, moving beyond the oppositional paradigm of stasis and movement, and reconstructing mission from the margins in this multi-directional journey is a fearful and exciting engagement.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The LGBT debate and the global UMC: Recommended readings

Up until now, I have not included any posts or commentary on the LGBT debates within The United Methodist Church, partly because I have seen them as primarily an American rather than a global preoccupation and partly because they have been adequately rehearsed elsewhere.  To be sure, United Methodists from elsewhere have been dragged into our denominational fights, especially every four years at General Conference.  Nevertheless, most of the conversations (or mutual shouting matches) have occurred in the United States, and all of the judicial questions have involved American annual conferences, though sometimes ultimately arbitrated by the denomination-wide Judicial Council. 

Yet in light of the recent protest acts in performing same-sex weddings and subsequent condemnations and judicial recriminations, it is important to acknowledge that, no matter where the debate may have begun, it has become an issue that affects all of us United Methodists, wherever we live.  This debate is of interest to United Methodists around the world, and how it plays out will affect United Methodists around the world.  Moreover, while there has been a flood of writing on what this means for the UMC in the United States, there has been little attention thus far to the global implications of this issue. Thus, in order to provide some commentary and context for the LGBT debate and how it connects with the issue of the global UMC, let me provide three pieces of recommended reading:

"At the Crossroads of Covenant and Compassion" by our friend Cynthia B. Astle at United Methodist Insight
While Cynthia does not devote much time to the global church per se, her article eloquently frames the debate and its potential consequences.

"Africa, Reconciling Ministries, and The United Methodist Church" by Taylor Walters Denyer at Taylor in Africa
Taylor, a UMC missionary to Africa, provides some much-needed information and perspective for a US-audience on the complexity of the LGBT debate in Africa.

"A Missiologist on the UMC, LGBT, and the Africa Question" by Jeremy Smith at Hacking Christianity
Jeremy, one of the leading American United Methodist bloggers, adds a few of his own comments to Taylor's piece.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"A grace-formed church" - David Scott on Grace Upon Grace: Introduction

Today's post is the second in a series of weekly posts that will re-examine the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990).  Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.  Dr. Scott is responding to Dr. Hendrik Pieterse's piece from last week commenting on the Introduction to Grace Upon Grace.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I want to thank Dr. Hendrik Pieterse for beginning our conversation about Grace Upon Grace in his post last week.  Like Dr. Pieterse, I too hope for productive conversations to come out of the re-examination of this document, conversations that will continue The United Methodist Church's openness to the work that God would do through it.

I want to affirm the three themes that Dr. Pieterse identified last week in the Introduction to Grace Upon Grace.  Dr. Pieterse highlighted three affirmations about mission: 1) Mission is missio Dei, the work of God. 2) Mission enacts God's triune life of grace. 3) Mission is a response to and stewardship of God's gift of the world.  By looking at these themes and other statements that the Introduction makes about the document itself, we can see another important aspect about the document: it is a statement of mission theology, not a plan for a mission program.

The Introduction tells us this in no unclear terms.  It states, with original emphasis, "The purpose of this mission statement is, therefore, not to offer a specific program but to set forth as clearly as possible the gospel of grace as it impels us to evangelize and serve the world which God in Christ 'so loved.'" (Introduction, 3rd paragraph)   I think it is important for United Methodists, especially those in the United States, to heed these words.  Grace Upon Grace is not another organizational plan or turn-around strategy or business scheme to reverse the numerical decline of our church.  The point of the document is not denominational "success," as defined in worldly terms.  The point of the document is that we may better know and love God, that we may therefore share God with the world.

Grace Upon Grace does not just present a mission theology, it presents a devotional or formational theology.  That should not be too surprising.  Wesleyans have never been about theologies of the head only; they are about theologies of the head and heart together.  What is perhaps surprising is that the process of formation is not individual but corporate.  Once again, the document itself explicitly indicates the formational nature of its theology: "Mission is the action of the God of grace who creates out of love, who calls a covenant community, who graciously redeems and reconciles a broken people in Jesus Christ, and who through the Holy Spirit calls the church into being as the instrument of the good news of grace to all people." (Introduction, 1st paragraph)  God forms us not just as individuals, but as a covenant community, a people.  Grace Upon Grace seeks to produce what it calls "a grace-formed church." (Introduction, 1st paragraph)

This attention to corporate spiritual formation and not some 10-point plan can be see in each of the three themes identified by Dr. Pieterse.  If mission is the work of God, then ultimately, the planning must be God's as well, and to be effective in our planning, we must be conformed to God's will.  If mission is about enacting God's triune life of grace, then it as much about who we are as what we do.  If mission is a response to God's gift of grace to the world, then we must be transformed by that gift.  As we (re-)read Grace Upon Grace together, let us pay attention not only to what God would have us do, but who God would have us be as a corporate body, that is, "a grace-formed church."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Body of Christ IS Connectional

Today's guest post is by John Edward Nuessle, retired missiologist/mission executive and author of Faithful Witnesses: United Methodist Theology of Mission.

Does the global nature of the UMC connection reflect a biblical expression of the body of Christ?

I suppose I would rather state this as “should” the global nature of the UMC connection reflect a biblical expression of the body of Christ? Or perhaps…. “how can…”? Either way, let me suggest the more basic question of “is the biblical expression of the body of Christ necessarily connectional?” To which I would state an overwhelming YES!! Let me be more clear…the only ecclesial expression of the biblical theology of the body of Christ is inherently connectional. All independent and separatist expressions of the Church are not biblical but rather are misguided cultural phenomena, particularly in our US cultural situation. That is, congregationalism is not biblical Christianity.

Connectionalism is not merely a form of ecclesial polity that is optional for the church. It IS the Biblically appropriate way for the Church of Jesus Christ to be organized for the task of witnessing in all the world (Acts 1:8). The Church is, of necessity, connectional - that is, we are people structurally connected to one another by faith and grace. When Jesus, in John 15, stated the nature of his mission and presence in the world in relation to God the Creator, he used the image of a vine and branches. Branches are of necessity connected to the vine, and therefore also to each other. To be disconnected is literally to be useless. The nourishment of the whole plant moves through each branch from the roots and trunk of the vine. All of this is how we are connected. Our church structures and relationships can be no less than this, globally not just locally.

Paul speaks of the various gifts for service and the unity of the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12). This describes the essential connections of the whole Church which celebrate our individual vocations. Mission and ministry are only possible for each of us and all of us as we are structured in such a way that we are ALL connected. In historic United Methodist polity, it is through our system of conferences (i.e. local, district, annual, jurisdictional and central, and General) that we are connected, and connectional, each conference having basic responsibilities yet intricately connected with the other conference levels as well as laterally with collegial conferences.
Paul also states this connectional understanding of the work that is before us in Ephesians 4, calling the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The Church is essentially one unit, one whole, with persons having a variety of functions or gifts lived out in various localities. The purpose of these are not self-aggrandizement or self-reward, but “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” The Connection is this unity, with a unified purpose of growing the Church into a mature visible witness to the reality of Christ in the world.

These Biblical principles are the essential nature of The Connection for the people called United Methodist, and in fact for all Christians of any historic tradition. They enable all of us to engage in our vital and life-giving work on behalf of the missio Dei. Thus…to answer the question…the global nature of our UM Connection is of necessity an expression of the biblical body of Christ theology, for this theological concept is necessarily connectional. How to insure this connectionalism is a larger question that I hope this blog and related conversations will attempt to answer!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Starting a conversation - Hendrik Pieterse on Grace Upon Grace: Introduction


Today's post begins a series of weekly posts that will re-examine the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990).  Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  The first piece in this series is written by Dr. Hendrik Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

From the start, in 1968, it seems United Methodists have been preoccupied with getting the denomination’s mission right. In recent years, as the church outside the U.S. has taken a larger share of total membership, the debate has morphed into studies of our “global” or “worldwide” mission. Ostensibly providing the theological lodestar for these conversations has been the mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Book of Discipline, ¶120). Yet, research conducted last quadrennium in preparation for the Council of Bishops-sponsored Call to Action report records widespread confusion and lack of clarity among the United Methodist faithful about what “mission” and “making disciples” should mean and look like today. So it should probably not surprise that our mission statement functioned less as a lodestar and more as a mantra pressed into divergent, often contradictory, purposes in the debacle over denominational restructuring at the 2012 General Conference. Ought such missional confusion and institutional dysfunction not at the very least prompt a fresh look at the theological convictions that we think should guide our discipleship and decision making? After all, some kind of theological perspective—overt or tacit, explicit or implicit—is always already in play in our thinking and doing of mission, both as individual believers and as a corporate body. So the question is not whether we will do this necessary theological work, only whether we will do it well or badly. The vexing challenges of mission and ministry so apparent in our corporate life today should leave no doubt about the urgency of engaging this task well.

We United Methodist professors of mission believe that, in taking up this theological task of thinking through a coherent theological framework for the church’s mission in the years ahead, United Methodists would do well to revisit Grace Upon Grace, the theological statement of the mission of The United Methodist Church approved by the 1988 General Conference. Much neglected and rarely if ever referenced in denominational debates, this document, we believe, offers theological wisdom well worth attending to in our discernment of the church’s future. And so to that end we invite you to join us over the next few months in a critical conversation with this important text. I begin this conversation with a brief comment on three crucial theological themes found in the opening paragraphs of the document—themes that will guide its argument throughout.

The first theological theme is also, appropriately, the first line of the document: “Mission is the action of the God of grace.” This statement affirms a revolutionary shift in theology of mission over the past half century: Mission begins and ends with God, not with the church. God is the first missionary—always. God’s mission (missio Dei) forever and always precedes the church’s mission; it is never at our disposal or under our control. United Methodists would do well to recall this (also deeply Wesleyan) affirmation about the absolute priority of God’s grace. Indeed, several scholars in recent years have noted the relative absence of just this theme of grace in the paragraphs on the church’s mission in the Book of Discipline. What is at stake here is not doctrinal orthodoxy as such. Rather, what is at stake is the way this foundational conviction can “rightsize” our debates about the church’s mission. For it is precisely in times of anxiety, uncertainty, and turmoil that we are tempted to neglect God’s gracious priority and take matters into our own hands. And we do so not deliberately or brazenly but inadvertently—through the necessary labor of analyzing, forecasting, planning, and legislating the church’s mission and ministry. Subtlely, in the very doing of them, the familiarity, stability, and predictability of these churchly processes can reinforce a tacit assumption: we have it within ourselves to figure out what the church needs and how to get it there. Lost is just the unfamiliarity and the unpredictability of the missio Dei: the divine Spirit blows its redemptive winds where it wills, forever unsettling our plans and outpacing our predictions. How might a reminder that the church’s mission is finally in God’s hands because mission is finally “the action of God’s grace” instill greater humility in our churchly deliberations, more openness to listen for God’s word, especially in those with whom we most disagree, and increased forbearance as we struggle together to discern our place in the mystery of God’s way with the world?

Lest talk of missio Dei evaporate into pious generalities with little real impact, Grace Upon Grace clarifies, secondly, the content of God’s mission. As anchored in God’s own being, God’s mission in the world enacts God’s triune life: “The triune God is grace who in Christ and through the Holy Spirit prepares, saves, and makes a new people.” Significantly, in the next section on our church’s “unifying vision” (and then throughout the document), the text spells out the radical implications of this triune mission for the church’s identity and mission. In imitating the divine love made manifest in Christ, we are told, the church’s mission too will take the form of self-giving, sacrificial love, emptying itself in uncalculating service to the world. How might sustained and prayerful reflection on this content of the divine mission help address our self-professed perplexity about mission and discipleship today? Might it not enable United Methodists to rediscover the radical nature of “making disciples” in the Wesleyan way—a Christ-shaped form of missional living peculiarly fit for challenges of our times?

The third theological theme flows directly from the first two: If, in the words of Grace Upon Grace, the church’s mission “is given to the church by God’s saving activity in and on behalf of the world,” then the church’s mission always proceeds as “grateful response to what God has done, is doing, and will do” (emphasis added). In other words, mission is forever stewardship of a gift. As the document makes clear, acknowledging the “giftedness” of the church’s identity is no counsel for passivity. On the contrary, and perhaps counterintuitively, freed of the anxiety of having to devise its reason for being, the church can explore the “form” of its mission—its “relevance”—with fresh eyes, now attuned to the ever-surprising creativity of God’s redemptive ways among us. How might such grace-bestowed freedom embolden United Methodists to stray beyond the taken-for-granted and the customary in our corporate discernment of mission and ministry, beyond our near-instinctive predilection for innovation through legislation, beyond our predictable resort to polity and precept?

I trust these brief reflections are sufficient to persuade you that Grace Upon Grace still has much to offer United Methodists now twenty-five years later. If so, we United Methodist professors of mission invite you to join our exploration of this provocative document over the next several months.