Thursday, September 18, 2014

Servants among the Nations: John Nuessle on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

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. Dr. John Nuessle, retired from the leadership staff at the General Board of Global Ministries. Dr. Nuessle is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Servants defined as agents of God’s liberating and reconciling grace among the nations.  What a fantastic statement of Christian calling!  I could say quite a bit about what it means to be agents of liberation and reconciliation. I think, however, that the real essential genius of this passage, if not of the whole of Grace Upon Grace, is the recognition that transformed people in a transformed world are not simply a collection of nicely converted individuals, but rather our goal is to transform whole “people groups,” or in the Biblical term, “the nations.”  We are called to serve as agents of God’s liberating and reconciling grace among the nations, meaning that our call is to whole ethnic communities and affinity groups of God’s people.  All our efforts and focus as Christians should be toward offering grace to both whole people and whole nations – to all the persons in a self-identified cultural context, who thus see themselves as a unique whole.

So often our well intentioned efforts and strategies in mission and evangelism are focused on the old…and very theologically incorrect…idea of “winning them one by one.”  This style of Christian mission results either in total failure (very often), or in the creation of a strange type of Christian church in which everyone is out to get to heaven on their own good behavior, a perverse style of faith expression that is all too common in the United States.  Heaven help us if we continue to promote individualistic believers who only worship a God who is like themselves.

The call of this section of Grace Upon Grace is the same call to our mission and evangelism work that is found throughout the Scriptures.  That is, to call groups of humans into Christian community this is interconnected with all other Christian communities.  This is the New Creation Paul preaches.  This is how we relate people to their contexts and with interconnected contexts globally, a real witness to the whole Body of Christ, not a collection of body parts.

The work of the General Board of Global Ministries, in cooperation and collaboration with mission-supporting annual conferences and congregations globally, is toward development of  new faith communities – church growth if you will – and is always an effort to establish the church in a whole nation or among an entire ethnic-based contextual setting.  We have not gone forth seeking “individual converts” that would make “individualistic Christians,” a clearly un-Biblical notion.  We sought to call groups – families, villages, affinity groups, etc – into gathered Christian worshipping and serving communities of faith.  These localized communities would always be quickly interconnected with other similar bodies in nearly areas, as much as possible.  As the call of Christ in Acts 1:8, witnessing to the whole Word of God for the whole people of God, in Jerusalem (local), Judea and Samaria (nation), and to the ends of the Earth.

In all this we are servants of the community of God, known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whose grace is unreservedly shared with all who would be open to receive this new life.  Transformed; reconciled; leaving behind the old ways and old life of personal gain, individual seeking, and privatized faith.  We move into a bright new world of servants seeking to serve God and one another with justice, mercy, and forgiveness.

Is this an easy process?  Not on your life, new or otherwise!  It is likely the most difficult series of tasks and responsibilities we can encounter.  And this is partly because the cultural ground – the contexts of living – for all of us keeps moving and changing.  Just when we think we are on solid footing with our church plans and programs, with our strategies and methodologies, we discover that none of these any longer work.  We live in a dynamic world which requires our constant reassessment and evaluation of our life of faith and engagement in God’s Mission.

That’s why we have grace.  God loves us unconditionally, and then calls us to keep at it.  What a Mighty God We Serve!  What powerful Grace is ours, heaped Upon Grace.


  1. John! Thanks very much for this comment, and the ways in which it suggests new models of understanding humanity and ministry. It is too easy to forget that between the essentially modern terms "individual" and "society" there are people groups, "nations" (as well as families) in the sense meant by the Bible. The transformation of these groups has been critical to the formation of Christian communities that possess their own distinctive integrity and make their own distinctive contribution to God's Reign and Glory.

  2. True . . . and yet it is interesting to see how notions of "group" and "nation" are constantly being reconfigured by globalizing forces in ways that scholars of mission and world Christianity are scrambling to understand and articulate. As Dale Irvin has argued, we desperately need new models for interpreting and framing this constantly changing Christian movement taking shape before us. An interesting twist on the notion of "groups" as a vehicle for mission is the reality of diaspora communities. Jehu Hanciles has argued steadily over the past number of years that African diaspora groups in the U.S. (and perhaps elsewhere), given their overwhelming Christian makeup, amount to a veritable new missionary movement into the host countries. Arguable in some of its claims, yes, but still a valuable angle of vision of how mission patterns are constantly taking new forms in our day.