Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hendrik Pieterse on UMC Conflict and Grace Upon Grace: Mission: An Expanding Agenda

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. Hendrik Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Dr. Pieterse is commenting on the sixth section of the document, "Mission: An Expanding Agenda."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

As both Dr. Carlos-Orlandi and Rev. Lisa-Beth White point out in their reflections, the section “Mission: An Expanding Agenda” interprets grace as a form of “seeing.” And both point to the increased complexity of such “grace-ful” seeing for United Methodist mission today—a complexity, as they both note, that now challenges the adequacy of the expansiveness of that original agenda. And both, rightly, suggest important ways in which United Methodism’s missionary agenda today needs fresh interpretation, correction, and expansion.

Rev. White points to an important dynamic at the heart of Methodist mission—a kind of hermeneutical dance of vision and confession, imagination and repentance. It is just the interplay of these two modalities that enables us to see the world rightly—the world as grace sees it (para. 37)—and precisely so to experience the world’s summons for our concrete response. And, for United Methodists, authentic response to the world’s need has always demanded that we give grace a concrete shape—a form attuned to this place, this time, this context. Hence the ever-recurring question “[W]hat is grace . . . for us?” (para. 29, emphasis added) As United Methodist historian Russell Richey has pointed out, at its best, Methodism has thrived when it held in dynamic tension a missionary imagination fired by a “confidence to go with the Spirit, to experiment, to try new things, to change”[1] and an obligation to give that imagination concrete form in discipleship contoured in discipline, structure, precept, polity. Yet, the all-too-familiar litany of lament in paragraphs 30-39 is testimony to our struggle to dwell in this tension for long. Abandoning the “creative tension”[2] of this space, we opt either for the comfort of a connectional covenant turned predictable bureaucracy or for an iconoclastic frenzy in which denominational “restructuring” stands proxy for missional vitality (as the 2012 General Conference illustrates all too well). Either way, as para. 38 reminds us, the church loses the “prophetic dimension” by which faithfulness to the missio Dei “brings it in conflict with culture” and, in so doing, sets it at odds with its own complacency.

That Methodist mission at its best invites us to expect, even to embrace, conflict may be less than welcome news for a conflict-ridden and conflict-weary United Methodist denomination today—in the midst once more of a contentious battle over human sexuality, episcopal authority, the propriety of church trials, and on. Yet para. 38 might hold a reminder for us precisely at this point. For I think the state of our current churchly bickering reveals a denomination that has made its peace with conflict, so to speak, by thoroughly domesticating it. Our present ecclesial Sturm und Drang, after all, exists in a predictable (if fragile) equilibrium of opposing forces holding each other at bay—“progressive” versus “conservative,” “liberal” versus “orthodox,” and the like. Have we not in the process, ironically, become the “comfortable church” that para. 38 indicts as a “questionable church”?

Paragraph 38 powerfully reminds us just at this point that conflict in fact signals a church alive to God’s mission on behalf of the world. But here is the crucial difference: This conflict is the work of “clear-eyed,” piercing grace (para. 37), exposing, making visible, the world and the church “as they are.” It is conflict that strips the world and especially the church of pretense and self-deception. It is the kind of conflict that sets a comfortable church at odds with its taken-for-granted internecine stalemates and stand-offs. And it is kind of conflict that allows United Methodists to embrace “crisis” not as a problem to solve but as a sign of missional faithfulness. As the great Dutch missiologist Hendrik Kraemer once remarked: “Strictly speaking, one ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it.” Crisis, says Kraemer, is a sign of the church’s faithfulness because of “the abiding tension between (the church’s) essential nature and its empirical condition.”[3] Comments David Bosch, “Like its Lord, the church—if it is faithful to its being—will, however, always be controversial, a ‘sign that will be spoken against’ (Lk 2:34).”[4] It is on these terms, I think, that this section in Grace Upon Grace invites United Methodists to make our peace with conflict, to welcome crisis as a state of being. We can do so, however, only in once more indwelling that tensive space between confession and vision, repentance and imagination of which Rev. White has reminded us in her post—a space that is the lifeblood of a United Methodist Church enabled to be “challenged by Christ and, with Christ, [to] challenge[] the world and offer[] its life for that world.” (para. 38)

[1] Russell E. Richey, with Dennis M. Campbell and William B. Lawrence, Marks of Methodism: Theology In Ecclesial Practice (Abingdon, 2005), 25.
[2] The phrase belongs to David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991), 11.
[3] Quoted in Bosch, Transforming Mission, 2.
[4] Ibid.

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