Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Methodist Mission and Social Reform - Walter Klaiber on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Reform

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 Bishop Walter Klaiber, Retired Bishop of the Germany Episcopal Area.  Bishop Klaiber is commenting on the fourth section of the document, "Mission: Reform" and responding, in part, to Dr. Ben Hartley's earlier comments on that section.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

It is true that for the Methodist Movement social holiness was from the beginning an indispensable dimension of what Wesley called scriptural holiness. Already in the preface to his collection of “Hymns and Sacred Poems” from 1739 John Wesley wrote the famous sentence: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” Now, it may well be that for Wesley the word social meant not only public welfare but had a much broader meaning embracing everything that has to do with life in the community. But as Professor Hartley rightly emphasizes: Social reform was not a later addendum to the agenda of Methodism but belongs to its roots from the beginning. That “the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5; cf. Lk 4:18) meant always not only to preach the Gospel to them, but also to share temporal goods as well as to strive together with them for better conditions.

We all know Methodism did not always live up to this ideal. And telling the stories of mission may also mean telling some stories of short comings and failure. For example, we have to realize that in continental Europe, and especially in Germany, the Methodist movement was for most of its history not aware of this dimension of its mission. Methodism in continental Europe started as a revival movement and happened to become a kind of pietistic free church which was eager to save souls and to lead people to personal holiness in congregations where brothers and sisters lovingly (and sometimes also warily) were watching over one another. I hope I will not be misunderstood: Of course these people cared for one another and for their neighbors; their preaching and the way they lived together attracted poor and simple people, and their new lifestyle had the effect that at least the next generation climbed up the social ladder. But they were not involved in a struggle for social reform and more social justice – as almost none of the churches in Europe were. To support trade unions, for example, was not in the horizon of pastors or of most members of the church. The only real involvement in social work beyond the local church was the creation of hospitals where even poor people could get medical help by the Methodist Deaconess Orders, a type of ministry that started in Germany. The reasons for this are manifold: one of them may be that Methodists or Baptists were denounced as foreign intruders; therefore they felt they should be especially well-aligned to the governing standards of the society in order to get freedom for their religious message.

This has changed – at least when it comes to the theological awareness for the task of a holistic mission. Most people in the United Methodist Church in Germany will know that we have Social Principles and regard as one of the special marks of our church that the grace of God we share aims as at the shalom in society as well at personal salvation. Methodists took part in the peace movement of the eighties of the last century and were leading figures in the movement for justice, peace and integrity of creation. Our local churches are looking for a ministry which is meaningful for people in need: Noon meals for the poor and the lonely which offer not only food but also community and counsel, support for refugees and asylum seekers which not only cares for clothing and other goods, but also helps them to learn the language and to get access to medical treatment and legal counsel and tries to improve the legislation regarding the acceptance and the legal and social situation of these people. There is a renewed awareness of the problem of addiction, and church-related institutions provide medical care for addicted people, and local churches support self-help groups which work on the problem.

But there are still challenges:

1. When it comes to the struggle for social reform and for real change in the society we will have to work ecumenically. For Methodist Churches in Europe this is a must if only because they themselves are so small that they will only be heard when they speak together with other churches. In the secularized societies of the so called West the Christian Churches will only be taken seriously – if at all – when they speak with one voice. But in a time when even the life of the churches seems to be governed by the rules of the market society (what is your USP?) it is difficult to forge stable coalitions. “We [as United Methodists] need a victory”, said a bishop in view of the success of a major social program. No wonder that there was not much talk about ecumenical cooperation.

2. In principle and in theory we are aware of our holistic mission: Evangelism and social work, including lobbying for the poor, belong together. When it comes to the detail on the local level or in our Conferences there is still some debate: What is our main task? Not everybody can do everything, but in small churches or conferences it may even be difficult to tolerate or to accept that some do different things. And in those regions where membership is shrinking, the pressure is great to do those things first which seem to promise a numerical growth. As a bishop I used to say: I would like to have three groups in each church: One who tries to share the message with others, one who cares for people in need, and one who prays for both ministries.

3. Whereas in former times it may have been difficult to be holistic regarding the social dimension of our mission, today it sometimes seems to be difficult and even unacceptable regarding the evangelistic dimension. Should we share our faith e.g. with asylum seekers or refugees who are Muslims, or is it wise to try to integrate people from other Christian traditions into the communion of our congregations? Or are there other ways to share the love of God which we encounter in Christ with people of other religions or traditions without proselytizing them but also not withholding from them what is most precious for us?

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