Today's post is the seventh 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 Rev. Jorge Domingues, Deputy General Secretary for Mission Theology and Evaluation at the General Board of Global Ministries. Rev. Domingues is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
Almost 200 years after the creation of the first Methodist Mission Society in the United States, we are revisiting “Grace Upon Grace,” the United Methodist mission statement approved by the General Conference in 1988. This section of the document, "Mission: Global," starts with paragraph 24, where the authors recognize that mission was understood “as essential to the being of the church" since the creation of The Methodist Episcopal Church at the Christmas Conference and even before in the Wesleyan origins of our tradition. It is impressive that some 35 years after its foundation, the denomination had already an organized home mission board and soon later was embarking on overseas missionary work. By the middle of the 19th century, the church was supporting mission efforts in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe. This effort, identified as a “global vision enlarged to include all continents” (Paragraph 24), was parallel to the diplomatic and foreign relations history of the United States in its first half century. Christian mission throughout the history has many times accompanied and even intertwined with political interests of expanding nations and the Methodist missionary movement of the early 19th century could be analyzed in that same perspective, unless we take a more in-depth look at what were the “continual discovery of new challenges” (Paragraph 24) experienced in the mission work of a church torn by the issue of slavery.
The women of the church provide a window for this expanded “vision of mission” by making the social ministry and the promotion of women’s and children’s conditions a central tenet of their home and foreign missionary societies. Paragraph 25 of the document makes clear that the missionary impetus of the new denomination had shifted towards the women who were, by the last third of the 19th century, “more than one-half of all missionaries.” The mission statement hints to the combination of “study programs, institution building, generous giving, and innovative service projects” (Paragraph 25) as an explanation for the strong leadership the women provided. Mission was also a channel for women’s organization at a time that women were also taking a much more assertive role in the society. In response to a male dominated institution, the women engaged in practical mission work as a way towards full participation, empowerment and commitment. This energy has continued to challenge the church establishment throughout the history, despite ongoing efforts to control the successful women’s organizations. And the legacy of the women’s involvement in mission can still be seen in the strong and almost stubborn women’s denominational and ecumenical organizations that continue to make God’s mission their own by means of learning, sharing and acting.
The newly born denomination’s understanding of mission and the boldness of the women who followed set the tone for a church that has not been contained by borders, wars or even division. And sometimes it was from its failures that the church took courage to continue responding to the call to be in God’s mission. Paragraph 26 reminds us that both achievements and failures have to be acknowledged as full of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The “intermixing of mission activities with national ambition, economic gains, and cultural values” was not the only external motivation for mission efforts to sprout. Humbling experiences such as the defeat of the Confederation also provided for mission expansion and outreach. Significant numbers of families who had lost their living after the Civil War migrated to Brazil, and even before the American church recognized and answered their request for a missionary assignment, they were accompanied by a clergyperson, Junius Newman, who responded to the mission challenge. Not surprisingly, the women followed and soon the first Methodist school in the country was inaugurated by Miss Martha Watts. The early experience of the Methodists in dealing with the challenges of their time is still an inspiration for a United Methodist Church that is struggling with this generation’s cultural values.
These contemporary challenges come both from inside and outside the church and are unique to our generation. At the same time that the center of Christianity has moved to the global South, there has been a “shift of the mission concept from ‘mission to the margins’ to ‘mission from the margins’” as stated by the World Council of Churches on its new affirmation on mission and evangelism, Together Toward Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, approved by the Central Committee in 2012. Paragraph 27 of Grace Upon Grace is prophetic in recognizing some 25 years ago that “we live in a time of basic reordering of international Christianity” and that Christians all over the world would “be receiving as well as sending missionaries.” The General Board of Global Ministries has also embraced this new concept in affirming that “mission is from everywhere to everywhere” and making it concrete in the fact that we have the most international missionary work force in the history of Methodism. The idea of empowering the margins of our world is not new to the understanding of mission by The United Methodist Church, as we referred earlier to the mission societies of the young denomination and the early women’s mission organizations. Nonetheless, this concept also doesn’t cease to evolve. The margins are not only in the distant mission fields in Africa or Asia, and the center is not only in the rich metropolises of the Global North. Poverty, greed, injustice, exclusion cut across all nations and challenge the church to find God’s mission at our doorsteps. So, beyond being listeners and teachers in a new “dynamic relationship,” we are called, with even more urgency in the 21st century, to “reshape our sense of mission responsibility” with “humility and gratitude” (Paragraph 27). This is a call and a vocation for a church that has not shied away from difficult debates in the past and that continues to be called into God’s mission.
Finally, this section of the mission statement concludes with a profession of faith on ecumenism and cooperation as essential for God’s mission and the church’s involvement in it. It is true that many of the leaders that created the modern ecumenical movement come from our tradition. Even in the life of the World Council of Churches we can see that 3 of the 7 general secretaries that have led that organization were Methodists from three different continents, fruit of the missionary work of our predecessors. But paragraph 28 was not able to foresee the weakening of the institutional ecumenism due to the weakening of the traditional churches that sustained it. It also didn’t recognize the push for more denominational evangelistic efforts than in previous decades. Soon after the 1988 General Conference approved this statement the United Methodist Global Ministries was starting or supporting the start of United Methodist Missions in places where we had not been before or not for many decades, sometimes with little cooperation with other Christian churches. And even though many have labeled this new missionary fervor as a resurgence of denominationalism, I believe that a true ecumenical community can only be complete with the beauty of all of our traditions being valued and respected. By responding to today’s mission call, The United Methodist Church is reaffirming “our mission intention … to be global and ecumenical” (Paragraph 28).