Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hendrik Pieterse: Make Disciples, Transform the World: Reflections on United Methodist Mission (Pt. 1)

Today's post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  Dr. Pieterse contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.

In reading Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes (TTL) alongside Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission (the mission statement of the United Methodist mission agency), it is heartening to note the resonance of major themes in mission theology and practice over the past several decades: mission as initiative of the triune God; the church as missionary by nature and so servant of the missio Dei; mission as holistic (i.e., embracing “dynamism, justice, diversity, and transformation” within the divine aim of “abundant life” for all creation [TTL, 6, 7]), and more.

One difference is striking, though—the absence of the so-called Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) in the ecumenical statement. This passage seems to play no interpretive role in TTL; in fact, it appears nowhere in the document. Instead, Lucan and Johannine commission themes predominate. Now, arguments from silence are notoriously shaky; and so I will resist the temptation to divine the document’s motives for the omission. Yet, given that the Matthean commission serves as the basis for United Methodism’s mission statement (Book of Discipline, ¶¶120-21), its absence in TTL should at least prompt United Methodists to ponder the implications of the emerging ecumenical consensus about church and mission for our continued appeal to the Great Commission as an aspiring global denomination.

Most readers of this blog are well aware of the checkered, and often deeply troubling, career of the Great Commission in the history of Western mission, especially in its heyday during the late 1880s and into the first third of the twentieth century. Interpreted as a command to be obeyed (“Go!”), and riding the tide of Western social, economic, and political power in league with a taken-for-granted inferiority of the receiving cultures, Matt. 28:19-20 was often pressed in the service of Western Christian expansionism. At least in part bolstering this Western missionary chauvinism and its resultant cultural tone-deafness, as David Bosch has pointed out, was a gradual foregrounding of human autonomy and agency, reflecting the contest with divine providence and power in some quarters of Enlightenment thought. Tellingly for us Methodists, Bosch calls this foregrounding of human agency “the gradual ‘Arminianization’ of Protestantism, evidenced . . . by the rapid growth of (Arminian) Methodist and Baptist churches in the United States . . .”[1]

Now, we would surely want to debate Bosch’s claim. Yet it is worth noting that a significant cadre of United Methodist scholars have detected a similar dynamic at work in our current employment of the Matthean commission. The foregrounding of “making” language in the Discipline’s description of our mission (¶¶ 120-122), they complain, obscures the priority of grace in mission, focusing on “what ‘we’ do, rather than the primacy of God’s grace and power.” In so doing, and perhaps inevitably, disciple-making becomes a “system,” with disciples as “output” or “product.”[2]

Should it surprise, then, given the deep anxiety in the U.S. church, fuelled by decades-long rhetoric of decline, that the already tenuous depiction of the grace-faith dynamic noted above should deteriorate into a full-blown obsession with “fixing”—with rightsizing church structures, with membership metrics and “dashboards”?

Buried in this frenzy is our deep-seated Methodist commitment to an accountable faith—a discipleship that is actively guided and shaped in all its dimensions, from individual devotion to denominational structures, by the rhythms of the means of grace. As Randy Maddox and others have reminded us, at our best, “making disciples” is always the function of that delicate synergy of divine initiative and human response.[3]

[1] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts In Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991), 343. See also David J. Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16-20,” in Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, eds., The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church (Eerdmans, 2008), 84, 87-91.
[2] Thomas Frank, Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the UMC (Abingdon, 2006), 163. See also Sarah Heaner Lancaster, “Our Mission Reconsidered: Do We Really ‘Make’ Disciples?”, Quarterly Review 23/2 (Summer 2003): 117-30.
[3] See Randy Maddox, “Wesley’s Prescription for “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ”: Insights for the TwentyFirst-Century Church,” Quarterly Review 23/1 (Spring 2003): 7-14.


  1. Hendrick, thank you for this "grace filled" reflection on the place of the Great Commission in the UMC as it relates to the mission of the church. All of what your say is correct. Yet, to the extent that the Great Commission actually reflects what Jesus and the NT church did, it could still serve as a model for our own mission. Making disciples is working through the grace of God to expand God’s kingdom as the church (the outpost of the kingdom) invites people to live under God's reign as transformed individuals who are growing into the image of God in the context of a living community of faithful people that is assimilating new believers and helping them become what God wants them to be. In the end, the discussion will include the definition of disciple and how the church is intentional about making disciples. Yes, to the extent that disciple-making churches assimilate and transform unaffiliated people, they will show both qualitative and quantitative growth. That type of growth may reflect kingdom expectations (cf. Mt 13:31-32). Certainly, the numerically diminishing demographics of the American connection and the mainline tradition are problematic when viewed from the perspective of the example of the NT church.

    1. Bill, you are quite right, of course. And in "Part 2" of the post (next week), I urge precisely that United Methodists not jettison our appeal to Matt. 28:19-20 too quickly. Indeed, I suggest that what we need is not a new mission statement, but a coherent ecclesiology within which to interpret the meaning, shape, and practice of discipleship for a global church. Exegetically, I find Bosch's interpretive work on Matt. 28:16-20 an excellent starting point for a biblical framing of Matthew's commission.

    2. I look forward to reading Part II. Considering the content, you may profit from reading my article on the missional ecclesiology of John Wesley in the current edition of the Wesleyan Theological Journal. Of course, the Great Commission was not on Wesley's radar in the same way that it is on ours. In and of itself, that is an important observation. Considering his movement and practical theology, I wonder what he would think about our use of Matt 28?