Thursday, February 20, 2014

Modern mission mindsets and the need for ecumenism: Sathianathan Clarke 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 Dr. Sathianathan "Sathi" Clarke, Bishop Sundo Kim Chair for World Christianity and Professor of Theology, Culture, and Mission at Wesley Theological Seminary.  Dr. Clarke is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

“Grace upon Grace” is a robust, reflective, and instructive mission statement approved by the General Conference of United Methodist Church in 1988. As a vision statement for Christian mission, it is still remarkably pertinent. It diligently collects and integrates many threads of Wesleyan history (“identity”) to offer pathways for the Church to responsibly respond to “God’s saving activity” for the world (“relevance”). There can be little doubt, as pointed out by other competent historians and missiologists in this blog, that this reclaiming of Wesleyan heritage disregards many small but weighty voices and several invisible but effective bodies. This exclusion, however, gives us more focused and resolute work for the future.  This mission pronouncement awaits the re-assembling and re-appropriation of clouds of mission witnesses that have not been accounted for sufficiently.

As a 1980s theological statement, “Grace upon Grace” is also a mission affirmation that exhibits the ethos of modernity.  At the other end of the twentieth century, it aspires to continue the goal of the 1910 World Missionary Conference “to develop the whole church for the whole world.” Thus, it lifts high a modern meta- vision for the church in the world, even if responding in grace to the Gospel. To that end, the UMC statement aims to establish “the norm of mission,” which in turn can “mold the form of mission,” as the Church offers itself anew to “the Gospel of grace.” It is this “Gospel of Grace” that impels Christians “to evangelize and serve the world, which God in Christ ‘so loved’.” (Introduction) Here too one can submit that it is our responsibility in the twentieth-first century, which lives within the hybridity of the modern and post-modern world, to purge the overconfidence of the former and absorb the modesty of the latter in construing norms and shaping forms of Christian mission.

Before opening up one avenue for critical discussion within the “Mission: Global” section, let me say what struck me. First, there is a celebration of the role that African American ex-slaves (para 25) and “women of the Church” (para 26) played in mission to the world. Yet this is in tension with the more passive representation of Native Americans. The mission theology of this UMC statement can surely take on an interpretive framework that focuses on “mission from the margins.” This shift in focus for considering the agency of God’s mission on earth is propagated in the document produced by the Council for World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) and accepted as the new Affirmation of WCC at it General Assembly in 2013. The UMC statement may contain elements of “an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalized.” (Paragraph 38 from this document entitled “Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.”) Second, there is a realistic acknowledgment of the achievements and failures of global mission when “survey[ing] the past and look[ing] to God’s future.” (Para 26) This nicely dovetails with a new relational paradigm that will accompany the international church in mission. The dynamic relationship of mutual listening and teaching will thrive within the spirit of humility and gratitude. (Para 27) Third, the ecumenical spirit of mission in its move from the local to the global is affirmed in the past even as it continues to be respected for future mission (Para 28). Such collaboration envisions cooperation among members in the body of Christ as the Church serves the world.

From my own experience of writing and reflecting on mission from an Asian, more specifically Indian, context, there is one major global shift that needs to be reckoned with as we discuss how we can extend the relevance of “Grace upon Grace” in our twenty-first century. If the twentieth century represented the spirit of Christian ecumenism, I submit that our twenty-first century is an age of wider, fuller, and knottier interreligious ecumenism. The same grace that was generously shared with other Christians may need to be stretched graciously to embrace other children of God. Mission not only needs to be founded upon “grace upon grace,” where the body of Christ is united in love, but mission also needs to be funded by “grace alongside grace” where the entire body of God is incorporated into love. I believe that the multi-religious convergence of the twenty-first century calls for a bolder step of acknowledging common grace that we have with all other faith traditions, even as we respectfully share the received grace that Christians have been gifted in Jesus Christ.  Such an acceptance of common grace hidden within the surplus of Divine Trinitarian grace (I suggest we think of this as “grace alongside grace upon grace”) takes nothing away from the grace that embraces us in Jesus Christ. Instead such a dynamic and free circulation of common grace honors the surplus of divinity captured by the inexhaustible riches within the Triune God, even as it accounts for the cloud of strange and different witnesses to grace scattered all over the human family. I believe that “humility” before the capaciousness of God’s grace and “gratitude” for the specificity of Christ’s grace will ‘reshape our sense of mission responsibility” (Para 27) in new and fruitful ways.

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