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

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