Thursday, February 13, 2014

A European view on UMC mission - Hans Växby on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: Global

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 Hans Växby, retired bishop of the Eurasia Episcopal Area.  Bishop Växby is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

As a theological reflection, Grace Upon Grace, is an excellent document for the head. It is a good summary of central Christian thinking, United Methodist history of mission, and reminder of Wesleyan emphasis. As such it also challenges the heart to be moved by God’s grace in past times and evokes passion for mission and ambition to live up to the standards set by our foreparents. Its real value, however, is measured by what it makes our hand practice. Our Doctrinal Heritage[1] concludes, “These distinctive emphases of United Methodists provide the basis for ‘practical divinity,’ the experiential realization of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the lives of Christian people. These emphases have been preserved not so much through formal doctrinal declarations as through the vital movement of faith and practice as seen in converted lives and within the disciplined life of the church.” It is true that we too often are so occupied by our doing that we forget our being, but being cannot be understood if it is separated from doing – even in a theological and reflective document. “A grace-formed church is one which responsibly participates in God’s action in and for the world,” (italics added) as it says in the Introduction of Grace Upon Grace.

The weakness of Grace Upon Grace is that it not clearly enough points to the implementation of the Gospel, the practical divinity it gives the basis for. This is especially evident when it comes to paragraphs 24-28, “Mission: Global.”

Paragraphs 24 and 25 give an historic summary, on which one could find reason only to make minor comments in the margin.

Paragraphs 26 and 27 give a strong and inescapable picture of being written from an American standpoint. It is unfortunately not a document of a worldwide church. Hence my following comments:

Paragraph 26 opens with the statement, “A comprehensive world view has characterized our church’s outreach,” expanded with “To see the world as one.” Here is an underlying challenge, mostly overlooked. When we say “to see the world as one,” where do we stand when we look at the world? Subconsciously, we see the one world from the standpoint of the privileged and resourceful Western world. Needless to say, the same one world may look very different seen from another regional, political, financial, or cultural situation. The document recognizes both “the intermixing of mission activities with national ambition, economic gains, and cultural values,” and our “failures,” but it fails to say that we are a United Methodist Church also in Angola, Manila, and Bulgaria, etc. We are one United Methodist Church all over the world. And the annual conferences, local churches, and missions we meet abroad are not a number of mission objects, but mission allies.[2]

As long as we talk about mission on the national and regional level, we are functioning as a connectional church. But as soon as we turn to mission in another part of the world, we too easily slip into becoming a mission agency. We talk about partnership and friendship, and the blessings of this are real and rewarding. But the framework is mostly time-limited projects. Also when we support indigenous mission workers, it is more often in the form of a project. And if we are not mindful, and often we are not, we fail to talk about stewardship and helping the indigenous church to build up self-support and an economy of its own. We are not only called to give help where needed, but also to develop a sound and mature church on the global level.

All this is not only about our doing; this is highly a matter of being. Actually we can’t do very much more than we are doing – I’m deeply impressed and thankful for all that the General Board of Global Ministry, Mission Society, annual conference mission agencies in USA and Europe, local churches around the world, and individual Christians are doing. No, we probably can’t do much more, but we can be much more. And the weakness of our Mission Statement becomes evident when it fails to address this when it goes on with the challenges ahead in Paragraph 27.

Paragraph 27. Being is about values and attitudes, because the values we teach become attitudes among individuals, and attitudes create action. There is an obvious interrelation between attitudes and actions.

The global mission awakening in the 19th century didn’t come from nowhere; it came from the already established urge to share the faith and from the growing awareness that the world was much bigger than perceived in daily life, and it was enhanced by the passion of individuals and the rise of multiple forms of organizations (Para. 24). Two centuries later, when the one world has become as close and accessible as the next village down the road, the mission statement of the church would have been stronger with an addition to Paragraph 27: Moving towards a new century we need to be prepared to implement the connectional thinking in the whole worldwide United Methodist church.

Paragraph 28 would improve with an additional sentence: In the century ahead we want to further develop the cooperation with Ecumenical Partners worldwide as we do in our local churches and annual conferences.

[1]Disciple ¶ 102
[2] A distinction made by the Hungarian-Swedish missiologist, Hanna Hodacs in her "Converging World Views: The European Expansion and Early-Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Swedish Contacts"

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