Today's post is the the first of two concluding posts 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 Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries. Mr. Kemper is commenting on the last section of the document, "Renewal." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
Begun last November, this series of blogs has explored the continuing relevance and value for mission of Grace Upon Grace, the last official and comprehensive United Methodist statement on mission theology adopted in 1988. We come now to the document’s final paragraph (66), 18 lines on the topic of “Renewal.” This short section presupposes everything that has come before on vision, mission heritage and reform, mission scope and agenda, and the transforming, supporting nature of grace itself. A range of deeply committed missiologists have looked at every section asking whether Grace Upon Grace provides foundation and/or vision for United Methodist engagement in God’s mission in the present century. My reflections here under the banner of “Renewal” must begin by acknowledging with appreciation all of the earlier blogs. They have significantly informed my mission understanding.
By and large, the contributors to the series find continuing value in the more than 25 year-old document, especially the emphasis on the inseparability of grace and mission. There is widespread agreement on mission as grace in action, and near unanimous appreciation for both the Wesleyan interplay of personal piety and social holiness, the Methodist capacity for missional contextualization, and reliance on the Holy Spirit. There are divergent views on Grace Upon Grace’s treatment of Christian mission history in general and Methodist mission history in particular and on whether sections heralding diversity point to realities or are merely oratory. I would agree with both these values and these questions.
The final lines on “Renewal” offer little new to the document. They are valedictory in much the same way as the ending of some of Paul’s epistles: confident, grateful, a bit flowery. The passage quotes the Great Commission, and actually concludes with the benediction from I Thessalonians 5:28: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Amen is about all that could be added to that.
I will use my space in this blog post to enumerate two themes from Grace Upon Grace that I find enormously valuable for the renewal of our understanding of and involvement in mission in the first quarter of the 21st century, and in a following post, I will identify two clusters of concerns I think were undeveloped in 1988 but must be satisfactorily addressed today if we are to be viable as a church engaged in the missio Dei. My reflections are those of a missional professional, a practitioner, a layman, not a formal theologian, having been a missionary in Brazil with my wife from 1986 to 1994, and now serving as a mission agency executive.
The two aspects of Grace Upon Grace that I find most profound, most useful, for mission today and in the future are:
1. “Missio Dei” as our starting point. The term has grown steadily more pervasive in the mission vocabulary since 1988. The phrase, borrowed, I understand, from Augustinian roots, surfaced in post-World War II international missionary conferences [notably at Willingen in 1952] but did not gain strong traction until the early 1980s, partly in the context of preparation of the 1982 World Council of Churches document on mission and evangelism. I have informally heard that the late David Bosch, a Roman Catholic from South Africa, strongly influenced that covenant; at least, Bosch became one of the most well-known advocates and interpreters of missio Dei. It has become commonly used in most communions and confessions. The recognition that mission is of God is a major corrective to thinking that we are as humans have a mission to which we invite God’s endorsement and seek divine approval in building the kingdom. Mission and grace comingle, are inseparable. This was powerfully emphasized in my missionary training. But the very commonality of the term and concept gives me pause, as I will explain in my next post.
2. That mission/grace is active is a point strongly underscored in Grace Upon Grace and an insight to which current missionaries, especially the younger one, strongly resonate. I find in our classes of new Global Mission Fellows—42 this year—an enthusiasm to follow an active God. Yet I do not think that we have yet honed or refined an adequate language for speaking of how we as people of faith link into the active, grace-filled missio Dei. What terms and images do we have to name the “how” of church and people becoming part of God’s mission? Very few. We say that God is at work in all places and we must discern the where and join in, but what is the process of discernment that leads to grace-filled affiliation with the divine intention? We cannot resort to a “what is to be will be” theology. How do we decide which mission opportunity to seize upon? I found it instructive in the series of posts that when confronted with the practicalities of discernment, as well as to illustrations of what we mean by “global,” missiologists tell stories of heroic missionaries or other servants of God and the church. Perhaps this is not only appropriate but necessary, that we incarnate the concept of missio Dei in specific disciples, real people whose lives illustrate the action component of mission/grace. Have we any other option? Was not the mission originally incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, a human being? We must pray that God continues to give us compelling examples of heroic mission.