Today's post is the latest 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 mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. W. Harrison Daniel, Associate Professor in the Practice of History and Mission at Candler School of Theology. Dr. Daniel is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
Lord Acton once wrote, “Practically all great men were bad men and that hardly any public reputation survived the exposure of private archives.”
Mission historiography has made its business to test this thesis, by visits to many archives to see if any great missionary leaders and their reputations could survive critical exposure. I wonder if the document “Grace Upon Grace” would survive the archival exposure of the United Methodist missionaries trained under it?
I trained General Board of Global Mission missionary candidates at the pioneering Mission Resource Center in Atlanta, Georgia, in
connection with Emory University and the Candler School of Theology over the period from 1996-1999. According to the curriculum there at the time, “Grace Upon Grace” functioned as a type of foundational canonical text. Its role was largely to “rehabilitate” missionary candidates—both the mostly mildly theological conservative candidates, along with the more numerous strongly motivated Western liberal do-gooders. “Grace Upon Grace” presented a well-crafted Wesleyan vision with themes capable to retard the hubris and naiveté of missionary candidates across the entire
mainstream Protestant theological spectrum.
My memories are that almost all of the type A and highly motivated “missionary candidates” had already pretty much made up their mind about which part of the world needed transformation. And they would be able to spot what transformation God through the Grace in the form of Jesus of Christ wanted to birth, once they got out to
their chosen field of service. “Grace Upon Grace” appeared to most missionary candidates to represent just another required read to check off on their “To Do List,” in order to get out into the worldwide Methodist connection so they could change the world with their particular vision. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written by educator Paulo Freire was much more generative in the preparation and execution of our global ministries within the Wesleyan world connexion in 90s and at least through the first decade of the New Millennium.
That pedagogy and its attending specific oppressions were not specifically what “Grace Upon Grace” invited United Methodist missionaries to envision. But it seemed our highly motivated overachieving candidates too often missed transformational opportunities for pairing those documents together – which the Mission Resource Center intentionally wrote into the training curriculum. In historical retrospect, it seemed most candidates just looked through the document to their own illusions about the world. Were any flawed or even bad men and women, transformed into great, or even effective, missionaries because they read “Grace Upon Grace”? I would suspect Pedagogy of the Oppressed bore the greater fruit.
I wonder if the mission historiography of those many hundreds of missionaries sent out into the worldwide connexion of the UMC – mostly since 1988 trained under the rubrics of “Grace Upon Grace” – would survive Lord Acton’s measure of history and historiography? That is not to ask, how does “Grace Upon Grace” stand up to the ever-changing canons of theology and even missiology as practiced (or not) in the academy? That approach relegates Methodist mission to just another expression of our institutional capacities to project and exercise our evolving sense of power across geographies and cultures. Such a project is probably soon moribund, due to our current divided cultural sensitivities and economic constraints – manifest at every level and scale of the United Methodist Connection locally, nationally, and internationally.
Let me suggest another way to analyze the statement: only the opening of the historical personnel files of the missionaries of the General Board of Global Ministries, mapped out against the theological, cultural and humanistic values implicit and explicit in “Grace Upon Grace,” could fully answer the question of how effective that missiological statement was since 1988. The opening of those files and an examination of the motives that moved the missionaries in their application papers would provide a useful baseline for the analysis of the document. Then a thorough examination that tracked the changes in their writings to GBGM (corrected against what they communicated to their supporting churches and conferences) would tell us a great deal about the effect of “Grace Upon Grace.” In the process, it would demonstrate much about the effects of the contexts upon the missionaries and to what degree they acted upon the best of Western intentions within that nuanced mission statement coming in the old age of the “modern” Missionary movement.
The personnel files of the GBGM are understandably protected and unlikely to see the light of responsible historiographical analysis for, say, another 75 years. Another historiographical attempt will be needed by then to supplement the recent GBGM institutional history. So we will not have the data for another two generations to measure “Grace Upon Grace” in either denominational historical terms or the historiographical standards of the academy (deconstruction of any “mission narrative” often through a hermeneutic of suspicion and deep Western post-colonial guilt). Until the institutional files are opened of missionary men and women who read and ingested “Grace Upon Grace” from the view of their own missionary motives, who attempted bravely to be purveyors of a more culturally sensitive connectionalism with our “inviting” indigenous partners, and who tried their best to attract the attention of increasingly bored UM churches in the late 80s, 90s, and early decade of the 21st century – only measured against such factors can we assess if the General Conference statement “Grace Upon Grace” had any enduring impact in the world parish across that period. If Wesleyans still believe we are preveniently called to work with God through Jesus Christ to reconcile the world back to God, we must do some hard “Lord Acton archival” and historiographical work. One way to interrogate those archives is to subject them the document’s own theology: how was God’s mission embodied in the Grace that is Jesus Christ, expressed through United Methodist structures and translated into the lives of its representative missionaries around the globe?
Many of the connectional and institutional stake holders that control our denomination’s ever changing contested concept of mission and its accompanying ministry orders would do well to revisit “Grace Upon Grace” and ask Actonian questions. Does our Church and its Mission in historical terms show any evidence upon archival analysis that flawed missionaries and the church that formed them pointed with any more clarity towards God reconciling the world through Christ back to God?