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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

United Methodist unity and the WCC assembly

In case you've missed it, the World Council of Churches (WCC) is meeting last week and this week in Busan, Korea.  The meeting, billed as the most diverse assemblage of Christians ever, involves 1,000 delegates from 345 member denominations all around the world.  There are ten United Methodist delegates including six from the US, two from Africa, one from the Philippines, and one from Europe.  UMC Communications has been writing a series of articles about the assembly, including the following: "WCC assembly hopes to break barriers in divided Korea," "WCC 10th Assembly opens in Busan, Korea," and "WCC assembly includes 21 ecumenical conversations."

The WCC assembly is an important event in world Christianity, but it also highlights one of the difficulties in the conversation about global Methodism.  United Methodism's internal conversation about global UMC connections does not happen in a vacuum.  Rather, it is occurring simultaneously with United Methodist participation in an external conversation about global Christian connections.  It can prove a difficult balancing act to attempt internal self-definition and strategy setting within a larger system that's in flux at the same time.

Yet such juggling of internal and external debates about communal identities are an extremely common feature of human group life.  In particular, minority groups must often handle internal debates about identity while simultaneously navigating the challenges of existing as a minority within a larger society. Such balancing of internal and external concerns about group identity and activity can impose some serious burdens on a minority group, especially if that group is oppressed in some way.  Yet, that's not really the case with United Methodism - we are certainly not oppressed within the global Christian community, nor are we within most national communities where United Methodism exists.

Indeed, it may be possible that the two discussions (the internal and the external) about global identity and connection in which United Methodists are participating may be able to inform one another in helpful ways.  It may be difficult for United Methodism to finesse the intricacies of global interdenominational cooperation when there are a diversity of understandings of what it means to be United Methodists or how that cooperation should proceed.  Yet, conversations about the nature of global Christian unity may be a fertile source of ideas about the nature of global United Methodist unity.

I'm sure there will be a variety of views within United Methodism about the takeaway moments of the WCC gathering and what they mean for the UMC.  Hopefully, though, some of what United Methodists will take away from the WCC will be what it means to seek for Christian unity, even in the midst of our disagreements, differences, and diversity, and thus what it can mean to seek for Methodist unity as well.