Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reflecting on Together towards Life

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in a consultation organized by the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) two weeks ago in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  The consultation was focused on discussing ways to develop curricula to help teach the WCC's new affirmation on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  The affirmation was adopted by the WCC Central Committee in Crete in 2012 and presented to the entire WCC at their assembly last year in Busan, Korea.

Not only was the experience of being in South Africa with mission scholars and practitioners from around the world an exciting experience for me, I found Together towards Life itself to be an exciting and challenging document.  The document shows real theological and spiritual depth in its focus on the missio Dei, the self-giving love of the Trinity, and the role of the Holy Spirit in mission.  It reflects contemporary mission thinking in affirming the value of a diversity of cultures, noting the impact of migration, and highlighting the important place the poor and those on the margins have as agents of, and not just recipients of, mission.  The document challenges its readers in its call to think of mission and being from the whole creation to the whole creation, in its strong criticism of the system of global capitalism, and in the questions it raises about God's activities in other religions.

There is much to praise, critique, and dissect in this document, a process that has already begun in other forums.  This blog, as a project of the United Methodist Professors of Mission, will be looking at Together towards Life over the next couple of months as well.  We will not be giving it a thorough read as we did with Grace Upon Grace.  Our examination of that document reflected our identities as United Methodists.  Our treatment of Together towards Life will instead reflect our identities as professors of mission.  We will be continuing the discussion begun in Pietermaritzburg and elsewhere of how this document can be used to train clergy, missionaries, and laity.  Although the document is an ecumenical document with wide appeal, we will focus primarily on its applications within United Methodist contexts.  I hope you will join us as we see what the Spirit may be seeking to teach us through this document.  Look for the Together towards Life tag to follow posts in this new series.


  1. As I read this document through for the second time I had a familiar sinking feeling. First because the document is couched entirely in the in-group language of the international Christian ecumenical movement, a sub-dialect of Christian language, and that Christian language one that has a diminishing number of native speakers. Aside from pastors I know few modern Christians, not even my students in seminary, who would ever express themselves this way. The WCC needs to speak the Christian vernacular if it wants to be heard. . . . And it needs to say something new. Not surprisingly there is nothing here that hasn't been a matter of common observation and agreement among missiologists and even United Methodist Women's groups for a couple of decades. I will grant that many of the closing affirmations are not put into practice in our congregations. But would you be able to seriously find someone who hadn't heard them all before - over and over again? . . . . And finally, the document is intended to incite "study." But how? It doesn't invite either inquiry or disagreement. It is a series of propositional statements backed by scriptural citations and references to other WCC documents and ideas. Where there are two or more possible Christian approaches it affirms both. One could, I suppose, inquire as to the proper interpretation of the document itself, but why? It isn't an authoritative source for behavior or action for any Christian person or body except the WCC itself. . . . .Which takes us to the main question - what is the institutional ecumenical movement to Christianity world-wide today? Certainly a forum for many good things. But it is incapable of unifying us in any way that is substantive or essential to our Christian vocation. It hasn't succeed in creating a unifying sacramental life, a unified priestly vocation, or a unified mission. It remains aspirational, but I think most of us are no longer aware of its aspirations. .. .

  2. One other note: If there is anything that needs to be challenged in this report it is the excessive reliance on the center-margin metaphore. This privileges economic or political constructs of global relationships in ways that ignore other forms of power. It is better to understand global Christianity as consisting of a number of different centers and margins, some distinct but located within the same country or even social class. For example, the WCC represents western mainline churches that remain economic and political centers of global Christianity, but which are spiritually marginal. And, within the US at least, they are on the margins of those theological and spiritual movements in US Christianity that are shaping both US and global Christian futures. Almost any independent pentecostal or evangelical mega-church pastor in the US is likely to be a more powerful influencer of congregational life across denominations than most denominational headquarters. And of course the WCC is increasingly on the margins of a global Christian movement that has long sense found other structures for affiliation and cooperation.