Monday, May 5, 2014

Daniel Shin on Why History Matters: The Methodist Heritage in the History of Christian Mission (Part II)

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. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center. This post is the second of a three-part response by Dr. Shin to Robert Hunt's comments on the seventh section of the document, "United Methodism in Mission Today."  The first post can be found here.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Dr. Robert Hunt's comments on the section “United Methodism in Mission Today” (paragraphs 40 and 41) of the Mission Statement of the United Church: Grace Upon Grace are deeply beneficial in understanding the mission of the United Methodist Church. In particular, Hunt’s observation that there is a problematic jump from Jesus to Wesley and the distinctive heritage of Methodism without due attention to the history of mission in the intervening years calls us to further reflection.  Having addressed the dangers of jumping over the rest of the New Testament after Jesus in my last post, I turn now to the dangers of jumping over the rest of Christian history before Wesley.

What difference does it make to pay attention to the intervening years between the early church after the New Testament and the rise of the Methodist movement? Stated differently, how is our understanding of mission either impoverished when we bypass this wide expanse of time and missional activity, or enriched when we critically as well as constructively evaluate it? What it means to have to come to terms with this stretch of time in the first section “Our Missional Heritage” (paragraphs 10-17), where it logically belongs, is to peer into a vast expanse of space populated by people of different cultures and societies. Surely, the long and winding roads of Christian journeys spanning over two millennium in all seven continents, including every major metropolitan centers and remote rural towns and hamlets, have something to teach us about mission. Christianity went global before the recent flowering of the field “World Christianity.” The academy has some catching up to do with the church. A cartography of the contours of the past and current missional expeditions can inform the present and future mission of the United Methodist Church.

Historians of Christianity of different persuasions have surveyed the history of Christian mission and retrieved for us invaluable insights.[1] The church has a rich and long legacy of ministry among the poor, orphans, and widows, advancement of learning and education through monasteries and educational institutions, development of hospitals and the care of the sick, promotion of art, music, literature, and the vast array of human expressions in cultures and civilizations. To say that there is much to reclaim in the history of Christian mission is a gross understatement (See Paragraph 23 on human care and social responsibility). We celebrate them and pursue them further to promote justice and peace in the world. However, notwithstsanding our achievements, the good old days of mission are interlaced with our shortcomings, sins of complicity in and even active promotion of imperialism, which we are liable to pass from generation to generation the sins our ancestors unless we remain vigilant. We cannot sweep under the rug our dirty laundry of belligerent attempts to force conversions, inquisitions, religious wars, crusades, colonization, and fraudulent TV preachers. As Santanyana reminds us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This is what is at stake—learning from our past successes and failures—in not jumping from Jesus to the rise of the Methodist movement, but patiently and thoughtfully following the biblical, historical and theological detour necessary to understand the mission of the United Methodist Church. I am not sure what exactly Hunt has in mind in his criticism of the jump from Jesus to the rise of the Methodist movement, because he does not explain it, but given his criticism of unidirectional and imperialistic practices of mission, I take it that this approximates what he has in mind. To be fair, the general tenor of the Statement is reflective of the biblical, historical, and theological perspectives that signal to us both the positive and problematic practices of mission, so if it were to be revised later it would be important to make explicit those perspectives by engaging the history of mission.

[1] Again, there is no need to start from scratch here as there is a profusion of resources that inform us about the history of Christian mission leading up to and beyond the rise of the Methodist movement. See Bosch, Transforming Mission.

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