Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Response from the Intersection of Theory and Praxis: Tom Barlow 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 Rev. Thomas Barlow, adjunct faculty in Methodist studies at the Iliff School of Theology, teaching in the areas of History, Doctrine, and Mission & Evangelism. From 2011-2013, Rev. Barlow served as a researcher for the General Board of Discipleship’s Toward Vitality Research Project.  Rev. Barlow is commenting on the fifth section of the document, "Mission: Global."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

This section begins with a bold statement: “Our founders understood mission as essential to the being of the church” (emphasis mine). This reality, which echoes throughout Grace Upon Grace, provides a key to understanding the ways in which the being of the church is to be lived out – to be enacted, if you will, or, perhaps, incarnated. Just a few paragraphs prior to this one, we are told that “Grace creates mission; grace corrects mission” (paragraph 17). Indeed, the Wesley brothers understood divine grace as active rather than passive – an ongoing, and profoundly transformative, work of the Holy Spirit both within us and around us. Further, we are called to serve as agents (individually and corporately) of the grace that we receive (addressed later, in paragraph 29). Correctly understood, then, grace should propel us into lives of mission – again, both individually and corporately.

Grace Upon Grace notes the particular role of women in responding to the missional call of grace, shaping the outreach of the church in remarkable ways (paragraph 25). Today, this reality continues to be lived out in and through a specific organization within the United Methodist Church, United Methodist Women. In many local churches, the UMW continues to be a primary locus for missional outreach; in other congregations, UMW has become a shadow of its former self, with missional work either falling by the wayside, or being coordinated by another group within the church. Both of these situations may offer us a sense of caution, as well as an opportunity to think in new and different ways.

In recent conversations with thriving UM churches across the nation, it became clear that many of these churches – regardless of where their mission efforts were organized internally – understood mission in ‘new’ ways which provided space to re-enact the rich heritage of Methodism. These churches conceptualized the task of mission as, truly, both local and global. What did this mean for them? To begin with, it meant that they stopped viewing mission as something that is done ‘way over there’ (most often in another country, although sometimes in another region of the United States), and started understanding mission as something that is lived out ‘here and there,’ intentionally fostering opportunities for encounters with the world in ways that are truly global – operating locally, regionally, and nationally, as well as internationally.

It also meant that mission work became something more than a task which was done by a core group of mission-minded people within the church, and came to be understood as a task that was – very intentionally – shared by everyone in the church. Often, there was still a small group which had a particular passion for some specific international mission need; overall, though, the church itself re-cast its own self-understanding as a church which was propelled into the world in multiple directions, and at multiple levels. Individuals within the church rediscovered the reality that their call to mission could not be abdicated to others, but needed to be part of their own lived experience within the Body.

Finally, in most cases, it meant that, although the local church still collected funds for specific mission projects, the emphasis moved from financial support to the more deeply personal, individually transformational work of face-to-face encounters. Often, this also involved the realization that serving others in a missional sense should not be done with the expectation that they become like us; instead, the goal was to serve them in ways which honor their unique cultures, traditions, and identities.

In Grace Upon Grace, we read of the need to “see the world as one, to live in the world as the Body of Christ, to be bearers of grace,” and we are told that these are not only part of our heritage as well as the “privileges of every Christian community,” but that “they are also a part of our ultimate hope” (paragraph 26). Indeed, churches which encounter the world with the sort of active, incarnational, grace-driven ways which I have described discover a new sense of hope and vibrancy. They move from a fear- and scarcity-based understanding of ministry to one of optimism and abundance. These movements and discoveries impact individuals as well as congregations and provide space new understandings of what transformation looks like – and the realizations that, most often, those who are transformed the most are those who are sent to serve.

Paragraph 27 speaks to the fundamental shifts that are occurring in the world church: “Christians on every continent will be receiving as well as sending missionaries and will be renewed by the strength of partnership and mutuality.” I am not sure that many of us have witnessed this as yet, but I am hopeful that we will. To be sent into mission – to encounter others directly, to serve humbly, and to do so as an active and intentional response to divine grace – is to discover mutual transformation. What might Christianity look like if this constantly occurred in a grace-focused way, comprised of mutual sending-and-receiving and giving-and-accepting? What might the world look like? What might the individual Christian look like?

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