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.

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