Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The impact of Imagine No Malaria

Last Friday was World Malaria Day for those of you who missed it, though I doubt many of you did.  The day dedicated to the fight against malaria, undertaken in the UMC by our Imagine No Malaria campaign, received a lot of press.  In fact, in my informal observations of the Methodist Twitterverse, World Malaria Day was one of the most tweeted-about topics ever outside the liturgical year.  While Easter, which came the Sunday before, received more attention, the comparison was closer than I had expected.  Not only did the general agencies promote it on a daily basis for two weeks ahead of time, but most of the Annual Conferences with active Twitter feeds were strongly promoting it as well.  Individual United Methodists added their digital voices too.

That's a good thing.  It's a good thing because it puts The United Methodist Church's focus where it should be: on mission.  When we are in the season of celebrating Jesus' resurrection and triumph over death, it makes sense for us to live out our discipleship by defeating death and promoting life for those in malaria-stricken areas.  Moreover, the Imagine No Malaria campaign has been a great example of international cooperation by the denomination as a whole.  The campaign has depended not only on Western finances or expertise, but African expertise and connections on the ground as well.  Moreover, Imagine No Malaria has taken the church out into the world to collaborate with a wide range of government, non-profit, and business partners.  Finally, the campaign has been a success thus far and will likely continue being a success.

If you'd like a glimpse at some of the success stories of Imagine No Malaria, the church has put out a series of great articles and videos about how the campaign has played out in Sierra Leone.  I highly recommend you check them out if you haven't already:

Imagine No Malaria to Distribute Nets in Sierra Leone: http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/imagine-no-malaria-to-distribute-nets-in-sierra-leone
Seeing Beauty in Sierra Leone: http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/seeing-beauty-in-sierra-leone
Villagers Testify to Imagine No Malaria's Impact on Lives: http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/villagers-testify-to-imagine-no-malarias-impact-on-lives
Thanks to You, We Can Imagine No Malaria: http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/thanks-to-you-we-can-imagine-no-malaria

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Robert Hunt on Grace Upon Grace: United Methodism in Mission Today

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. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology. Dr. Hunt is commenting on the seventh section of the document, "United Methodism in Mission Today."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I suppose the thing that jumps out about the statement "Grace Upon Grace," first published in 1990, is the incredible churchiness of its language. That is probably to be expected of a document created by the United Methodist church to stimulate United Methodist churches, yet also indicates some limits to its usefulness some 24 years on in a post-Christian world.

Sections 1 to 10 focus on the scriptural precedents for a contemporary understanding of mission, stating clearly that "Scripture provides our decisive vision of mission" before elaborating on the life of Jesus Christ as the embodiment of God's mission.

Then in a fascinating move the document jumps from Jesus to the era of the Wesleys to capture the distinctive heritage of Methodism. The two thirds of the New Testament most directly related to the mission of the apostles and 1600 years of Christian history receive no mention!

If only from a hermeneutic standpoint this is strange. Fidelity to the Christian canon demands that we understand the actual mission of the apostles as the clearest and most direct interpretation of fidelity to Jesus' command and the church as the continued embodiment of God's mission through the indwelling Spirit of Christ. The gospels are themselves the apostolic witness to Jesus. Neither he nor these accounts of his life and ministry come in any other guise. Can we really know Jesus without knowing Peter and Paul, Corinth and Galatia? It seems doubtful.

It is characteristic of us as Methodists that sections 10 through 28, a quarter of the document, recount our mission history. The mission of the church for most of its existence apparently provides neither examples or precedents of value. Unfortunately a focus on Wesley, Otterbein, or Albright obscures the reality that Christian mission has not been, and will not be, a unidirectional move from Christendom to the so-called rest of the world. A global church cannot form itself around an identity rooted only in these particular historical narratives.

That is not to say that sections 29 to 39 are irrelevant. Quite to the contrary, since we have here a clear theological rational for mission and clear theological critique of church structures that hinder mission. Which brings us to sections 40 to 41, seeking to reclaim our heritage in mission.

Unfortunately that heritage, just as it excludes most of global Christian history, is apparently a heritage that deeply excludes any insights into the human experience other than its own.

"With our predecessors, we return to the gospel to recognize the world for what it is; powers organized in opposition to God. Ours is a world filled with unbelief, a world whose social systems often express structured evil, and a world populated with people who need God. To recognize that this world is subject to principalities and powers (Romans 8:38, Colossians 1:16) is a work of grace. Grace enlightens and grace enlivens. By grace, hiddenness brought to sight allows sight to envision mission."

Apparently this section means that United Methodists (and one supposes other Christians) can clearly see and analyze what the world needs while the world sits ignorant of its own condition awaiting enlightened Christians to enlighten it.

This will not do in the 21st century. It is the ultimate imperialism at the end of an imperialistic age to say that we as Christians have a special knowledge of the chains that clasp the world in their embrace; to say that our mission begins with a lecture to the world on the character of its lostness so that it can experience the fullness of God's grace.

"The church’s presence in the world, its existence in mission, is defined by God’s way of being in the world." (para 41) "So we look to Jesus." What follows is a notably thin account of Jesus' ministry. "Jesus proclaimed the kingdom."(para 41) Even the earlier account in paragraph 4 says only "Jesus Christ offers redemption to all people and invites them to become disciples and go forth as ministers or reconciliation." 

Yet the astounding thing about Jesus is that the apostolic witness tells us of Jesus' enormous openness to approaching others with God's grace as it addresses their self-understanding. Jesus observes and listens. His offer of redemption doesn't appear to assume in advance that he knows better than others what they need. Even the instance in which he offers forgiveness of sin without a request for forgiveness is intended to show the breadth of God's grace, not to restrict it to a single form. Listening and observing typify his approach to humans in need, not a lecture on theological anthropology.

God in Christ is in the world not telling people who they are, but learning who they are, giving them agency in self-understanding. The fullness of grace isn't making every human a nail for our gospel hammer. It is knowing that out of God's plenitude in Christ is the answer to every human need.

It is unfortunate that paragraph 63 ("God is preveniently present to all people.") cannot really undo the problematic nature of this limiting vision of Jesus' ministry. And the problem may be the word "integrity," which appears to imply that the religions of the world in interaction are somehow wholly enclosed units. The reality, historical and present, is that the religion called Christianity is always emerging out of the engagement of the gospel narrative with widely varying human self-understandings. That gospel is not a closed world of a particular grace meeting a particular definition of sin, or even freedom meeting oppression. It is the Trinity reaching out in Jesus Christ to embrace the world with its love. And that grace; grace upon grace, calls us to graciously allow the world to determine where that invitation touches its self-understanding, and how it should respond.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

This is what the marriage debate looks like in Kenya

You've heard about the marriage debate, right?  The one that pits traditional marriage against more modern notions?  The one that's about whether marriage should be defined as one man and one women?  The one that involves complicated religious and cultural forces?  The one that's being played out in legislative chambers and on blogs?

If you're an American, you would identify that debate as the debate about gay marriage.  But if you are a Kenyan, you would identify that debate differently.  As this story reports, Kenya's parliament recently passed a bill legitimizing polygamy in the form of allowing men to take more than one wife, even without consulting existing their spouse(s).

This bill has sparked a lot of debate about the nature of marriage, but debate that's very different from the marriage debates in the US.  "Traditional marriage" is the term used not for the one man-one woman setup, but in defense of polygamy, seen as rooted in African cultures.  Monogamous marriage is sometimes seen as a modern, Western imposition.  Muslims often support polygamy, but there are those who make the argument that this should be the Christian view as well and cite biblical justifications.  Women are largely opposed to the bill, especially the provision that allows for the husband to not consult his wife about subsequent marriages, though not all women are necessarily opposed to polygamy, and one female blogger has even gone so far as to call for women to be allowed to marry multiple men (though perhaps with a bit of tongue-in-cheek).

What does this have to do with The United Methodist Church?  A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post suggesting that United Methodists from outside the United States might have other agendas (including evangelism, education, poverty and disease reduction, etc.) that get drowned out when the church focuses only on the American marriage debate.  This news from Kenya reminds us that, even if the UMC were to focus on defining marriage, there is more than one marriage debate we would need to engage.  The status of gay marriage in the church is an important debate for Americans, but we are victims of cultural blinders if we assume it has the same urgency for United Methodists everywhere.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hendrik Pieterse on UMC Conflict and Grace Upon Grace: Mission: An Expanding Agenda

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. Hendrik Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Dr. Pieterse is commenting on the sixth section of the document, "Mission: An Expanding Agenda."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

As both Dr. Carlos-Orlandi and Rev. Lisa-Beth White point out in their reflections, the section “Mission: An Expanding Agenda” interprets grace as a form of “seeing.” And both point to the increased complexity of such “grace-ful” seeing for United Methodist mission today—a complexity, as they both note, that now challenges the adequacy of the expansiveness of that original agenda. And both, rightly, suggest important ways in which United Methodism’s missionary agenda today needs fresh interpretation, correction, and expansion.

Rev. White points to an important dynamic at the heart of Methodist mission—a kind of hermeneutical dance of vision and confession, imagination and repentance. It is just the interplay of these two modalities that enables us to see the world rightly—the world as grace sees it (para. 37)—and precisely so to experience the world’s summons for our concrete response. And, for United Methodists, authentic response to the world’s need has always demanded that we give grace a concrete shape—a form attuned to this place, this time, this context. Hence the ever-recurring question “[W]hat is grace . . . for us?” (para. 29, emphasis added) As United Methodist historian Russell Richey has pointed out, at its best, Methodism has thrived when it held in dynamic tension a missionary imagination fired by a “confidence to go with the Spirit, to experiment, to try new things, to change”[1] and an obligation to give that imagination concrete form in discipleship contoured in discipline, structure, precept, polity. Yet, the all-too-familiar litany of lament in paragraphs 30-39 is testimony to our struggle to dwell in this tension for long. Abandoning the “creative tension”[2] of this space, we opt either for the comfort of a connectional covenant turned predictable bureaucracy or for an iconoclastic frenzy in which denominational “restructuring” stands proxy for missional vitality (as the 2012 General Conference illustrates all too well). Either way, as para. 38 reminds us, the church loses the “prophetic dimension” by which faithfulness to the missio Dei “brings it in conflict with culture” and, in so doing, sets it at odds with its own complacency.

That Methodist mission at its best invites us to expect, even to embrace, conflict may be less than welcome news for a conflict-ridden and conflict-weary United Methodist denomination today—in the midst once more of a contentious battle over human sexuality, episcopal authority, the propriety of church trials, and on. Yet para. 38 might hold a reminder for us precisely at this point. For I think the state of our current churchly bickering reveals a denomination that has made its peace with conflict, so to speak, by thoroughly domesticating it. Our present ecclesial Sturm und Drang, after all, exists in a predictable (if fragile) equilibrium of opposing forces holding each other at bay—“progressive” versus “conservative,” “liberal” versus “orthodox,” and the like. Have we not in the process, ironically, become the “comfortable church” that para. 38 indicts as a “questionable church”?

Paragraph 38 powerfully reminds us just at this point that conflict in fact signals a church alive to God’s mission on behalf of the world. But here is the crucial difference: This conflict is the work of “clear-eyed,” piercing grace (para. 37), exposing, making visible, the world and the church “as they are.” It is conflict that strips the world and especially the church of pretense and self-deception. It is the kind of conflict that sets a comfortable church at odds with its taken-for-granted internecine stalemates and stand-offs. And it is kind of conflict that allows United Methodists to embrace “crisis” not as a problem to solve but as a sign of missional faithfulness. As the great Dutch missiologist Hendrik Kraemer once remarked: “Strictly speaking, one ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it.” Crisis, says Kraemer, is a sign of the church’s faithfulness because of “the abiding tension between (the church’s) essential nature and its empirical condition.”[3] Comments David Bosch, “Like its Lord, the church—if it is faithful to its being—will, however, always be controversial, a ‘sign that will be spoken against’ (Lk 2:34).”[4] It is on these terms, I think, that this section in Grace Upon Grace invites United Methodists to make our peace with conflict, to welcome crisis as a state of being. We can do so, however, only in once more indwelling that tensive space between confession and vision, repentance and imagination of which Rev. White has reminded us in her post—a space that is the lifeblood of a United Methodist Church enabled to be “challenged by Christ and, with Christ, [to] challenge[] the world and offer[] its life for that world.” (para. 38)


[1] Russell E. Richey, with Dennis M. Campbell and William B. Lawrence, Marks of Methodism: Theology In Ecclesial Practice (Abingdon, 2005), 25.
[2] The phrase belongs to David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991), 11.
[3] Quoted in Bosch, Transforming Mission, 2.
[4] Ibid.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Learning to receive from the margins in the UMC

In case you missed them, there were two great articles/blogs recently about reversals in how white American United Methodists often think about mission.  The first of these is an article by Heather Hahn entitled "What can ethnic caucuses teach the church?"  In the article, Hahn reports and comments on the first-ever joint meeting of the denominations five ethnic caucuses from the United States.  Central to the opening sermon by Bishop Linda Lee and repeated in Hahn's article is the important notion that the church as a whole can learn from the ethnic caucuses, that they have unique gifts and insights not present in the rest of the church but from which the church can benefit.  Especially when race is combined with socio-economic standing, even well-intentioned white Americans can see racial minorities as people to be helped, not people to learn from.  That's one of the challenges of being the dominant culture: remembering that just because you have the power does not mean you have all of the answers.

The other article is about a group of Costa Rican Methodist pastors and spouses that went on a mission trip to help a Lumbee Native American community in North Carolina by doing some building and repair work.  Normally, when Americans think about international mission trips, they are extremely more likely to think about trips from the US to Costa Rica than the other way around.  Yet this is actually the second time that Costa Rican Methodists have come on a mission trip to the US, having previously traveled to Kansas City.  Perhaps it's not surprising that a Native American community would host the Costa Ricans, since many Native Americans know, as indicated in the first paragraph, that those on the margins still have something to offer.  Yet many white UM churches in the US would do well to consider too what they could receive from a mission trip from elsewhere.

There are at least three important reasons for white American United Methodists to be more open to learning and receiving from others, especially others who are often on the margins in the church, whether than be domestic minorities or Methodists from elsewhere around the world.  The first reason is that it helps create a more equitable United Methodist Church, where the gifts God has given all of God's people can be offered up for the building of the kingdom.  The second is that in receiving, white American UMs affirm the worth and value of those from whom they receive, affirm that they are graced by God with gifts.  That can be an important message for the spiritual well-being of fellow United Methodists around the world.  Third, it is essential for white American UMs to receive for their own spiritual health.  As we approach Easter, we are reminded of the gracious sacrificial gift of Jesus Christ to his church.  Wesleyan theology teaches us that we must receive this gift.  If we cannot receive from each other, how then will we receive from Christ?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: An Expanding Agenda

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. Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, Professor of Global Christianities and Mission Studies at Perkins School of Theology.  Dr. Cardoza-Orlandi is commenting on the sixth section of the document, "Mission: An Expanding Agenda."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Owning My Own Missiological Location of Interpretation…
No scholar critically engages the work of others or a church document from a neutral viewpoint. I am a Puerto Rican, born and raised in my birthplace, but having spent half my life in the United States. I belong to the last colony of the U.S. in the Caribbean, benefitting from the many opportunities and privileges the U.S. Empire has provided me.

Secondly, culturally, I claim to be a Latin American and caribeño (Caribbean), yet I am identified simply as “Hispanic/Latino” in the U.S. My vocational and religious identity, hence, intersects between geo-political and cultural-religious contexts. I am a hybrid.

In terms of my ecclesial status and religious identity, I am an ordained minister. I actively participate in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian communities, yet I have religious roots in Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition, Methodism, Pentecostalism, and Spiritist traditions. I am an evangélico carismático. My vocation as a theological educator in world Christianity and mission studies emerged and continues to be nurtured by the Christian communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the immigrant communities in the US and Canada. My Christian vocation is embedded to these Christian communities in the global south.

Thirdly, I am a theological educator who experiences the colonial legacy and politics of the US empire, global capitalism and the predominantly US missionary enterprise. Many ask me why I teach Christian mission. My answer is succinct: the gospel is hope, and I critically and humbly engage in God’s activity of hope for all creation.

A Brief Comment on Grace Upon Grace
Allow me to emphasize two themes of Grace Upon Grace. First, the document focuses Christian mission on the acting grace of God. The three levels of grace that Wesleyan and Methodist traditions treasure—the grace that goes before us, the grace that saves us through Jesus Christ, and the grace that continuously restores our lives in God[1]—give a framework to understand and participate in God’s mission in creation and to be part of the body of Christ. This grace-filled missionary activity keeps the Christian community under scrutiny in its co-participation in God’s missionary activity. Consequently, Christian communities engaged in Christian mission are both participants and receptors of God’s sustaining, saving, and restoring grace. Under this theological rubric, Christian communities—the churches—have no privilege, yet much responsibility!

I am grateful for the following statement: “[This statement] also seeks to be relevant to present and coming generations of the church. Identity and relevance are not easily reconciled, but an adequate mission statement should endeavor to join these two dimensions.”[2] The task of joining these two dimensions seems to present a challenge to the writers of Grace Upon Grace. Yet, the document is not clear about why such a task is challenging. Perhaps the challenge is found in our understanding of identity. Consider the following possibility: Christian identity is as fluid as the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. If Christian identity is understood as a continuous re-discovery of the gospel, relevance is integrated with identity. Christian identity is an eschatological unfolding and embodiment of who God wants us to be in a particular place and time. Hence, identity and relevance are woven into the tapestry of Christian mission, rather than separated threads in need of connection.

Grace Upon Grace: Mission: An Expanding Agenda
I find this section too flat. The expanding agenda of Christian mission is much more complex and nuanced. The growth and vitality of the Christian religion in Africa, Asia, Latin America & the Caribbean (these last two excluded from the document)[3] offer challenging and promising dynamics of Christian mission that are “out of the radar” for many Christian communities affiliated or connected to mainline historical Protestant denominations and traditions. For example, the main protagonist of grass-roots Christian missionary activity is a poor traditional woman of color. In Cuba, for example, during the very difficult period after the fall of the USSR, a group a poor Cuban women and female seminary spouses created the “Weavers of Hope” group at the Seminario Teológico de Matanzas. Through their weaving, this group of women evangelized each other, generated funds for their own financial support, created a fund to help seminary families with basic needs, and established scholarships and spiritual support programs for women who embraced God’s calling to ministry in these difficult times.

This is one example of what I call Christian mission-from-the-poor-to-the poor. Many of my students who come from affluent Christian communities in the United States discover at least three important missiological lessons from their experiences with “Weavers of Hope.” First, they discover the sacramental mystery of human solidarity; second, their missional and economic assumptions about distribution of wealth and “giving” to the poor are not only challenged, but also re-examined in light of the solidarity among the poor; and third, what they see in the global south[4] is unexpected, yet redeeming for their our vocation as Christian leaders.

In conclusion, an expanding agenda of mission requires a new way of “seeing.” Paragraph 37 states that “God makes the invisible become visible…” What I would like to highlight is a new way of seeing and acting. Is it possible for us to “see” the solidarity of the poor as a gift of God for our own transformation and “act” in our own Christian communities with such solidarity?


[1] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction, second paragraph.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Paragraph 27.
[4] Paragraph 34 and other parts of this document put too much emphasis on the “need” in the global south with little or none co-protagonism of these communities in God’s missionary activity.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A global perspective on the possibility of a #UMCschism

The American United Methodist blogosphere has been abuzz the last several days with conversations about the possibility of a split in the UMC over the issue of homosexuality and in particular the performance of same-sex weddings by UMC clergy and the ordination of LGBT UMC clergy.  The most recent spate of conversation has been set off by a group of conservative pastors unhappy with the trend toward more open performances of same-sex weddings, though there have been calls for schism by both conservatives and liberals over the past several years.

Where calls for schism are not coming from, however, is the UMC outside the United States.  The debate about homosexuality in the UMC and the resulting calls for separation are an American phenomenon, and it is important to note this.  United Methodists in other countries have views on homosexuality, and most of those views (though not all) are more traditional/conservative, but that does not mean that homosexuality is at the top of the agenda for United Methodists in Africa, Europe, or Asia.  Other issues, ranging from evangelism and church extension to fighting malaria to faith development to typhoon recovery to interfaith relations as a religious minority, are much more pressing issues.  What constitutes the most pressing issue facing the UMC varies from country to country, from church to church, and from individual to individual, but for very few United Methodists outside of the United States is it homosexuality.

There are a number of reasons for this differing sense of priorities. One important reason is that the drive for LGBT rights is much more limited in many areas where the UMC operates, and fewer rights mean less debate in society as a whole.  Yet there are other reasons as well.  In some places, the UMC is facing real challenges to its growth or survival from other political, religious, and cultural forces, and these have nothing to do with homosexuality.  In still other places, the plight of the poor, sick, and economically disadvantaged is a much more pressing concern.

When Americans talk about splitting the UMC, they place their theological and cultural issues at the top of the agenda for the church.  More than that, they are stating that their theological and cultural issues, and not those of United Methodists elsewhere, should determine the future of the connection.  Both American conservatives, who claim the support of many international United Methodists on issues of sexuality, and American liberals, who disagree with the views of many international United Methodists on issues of sexuality, are guilty of this cultural arrogance in which they demand that other United Methodists around the world pay attention to their issues while simultaneously ignoring what those other United Methodists see as the most important issues facing the church.

The inability to see the debate through international eyes extends to institutional as well as theological / cultural matters.  One of the points raised about the results of a schism is the institutional problems that would be involved in separating out two separate but overlapping churches within the United States.  Congregations, institutions, and individuals would be forced to choose, whether or not they wanted to.  Yet that choosing would not stop at the borders of the US.  If Americans split the UMC, they will be forcing people all over the world to choose sides.

Moreover, that will often be a hard choice to make with significant potential negative consequences for international United Methodists.  If Americans force international United Methodists to choose sides in a church split, they may be forcing them to choose between partnerships with different American churches or to choose between different funding relationships with Americans in a way that will limit the support for the good mission going on in other parts of the UMC around the world.  If the split between United Methodisms extends to other countries, that will fracture what in some cases are already small bodies into even smaller bodies in ways that could threaten the mission and even the viability of United Methodism in some other countries.  It could impose foreign theological labels on United Methodists elsewhere and force them to choose between labels that may better suit their context and relationships with Methodists in the US that have chosen the other label.

In short, the call for schism in the United States shows a total preoccupation with American issues that disregards the priorities of United Methodists elsewhere and the impact of American debates on the rest of the church worldwide.  Both conservatives and liberals have charged each other with endangering the covenant that is at the heart of the connectional system, but they are both guilty of ignoring their covenant with United Methodists of all theological stripes in other countries.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lisa Beth White on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: An Expanding Agenda

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 Lisa Beth White, doctoral student at Boston University School of Theology.  Rev. White is commenting on the sixth section of the document, "Mission: An Expanding Agenda."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section of “Grace Upon Grace” before us today titled “Mission: an expanding agenda”, asks what is grace in the twentieth century? When this was written in the 1980s, the question of grace in the twentieth century was timely, but we have turned the corner into a new century and are several years into that new century. The question before us now is: what is grace in the twenty-first century?

In an earlier post, Dr. Sathianathan Clarke wrote that the church lives today in the “hybridity of the modern and post-modern world”. Dr. Clarke argued that it is the responsibility of the United Methodist Church in response to God’s grace to purge ourselves of overconfidence in mission to the world. In this modern/postmodern hybrid, the extremes of absolutism and relativism are giving way to a chastened optimism in which “the Christian church and the Christian mission may once again, humbly yet resolutely, present the vision of the reign of God” (Bosch, 1991, p 361). The title “Mission: an expanding agenda” might suggest an outward look alone, but this section provides us with two movements for mission grounded in twenty-first century grace. These movements are an honest confession and looking at the world with a new vision.

The first movement is confession. Paragraph 31 states that to respond faithfully to God’s grace in Christ “it is necessary to confront our own unfaithfulness: unfaithfulness generated by bland, sentimental, comfortable, and blurred relating of the gospel to the world.” Our missionary response to the grace of God begins with a call to pause and reflect on ourselves and our own unfaithfulness, as individuals and as a church. These are boundary crossings – the boundaries of our own hearts and the boundaries we have within our denomination. God’s grace is a “strong love, a judging and transforming love” (paragraph 29). This grace calls the church to begin with the judgment and transformation of individuals and the church, and calls the church to stand with God against injustice and oppression.

We confess that we have not seen our own spiritual poverty. A bland or comfortable gospel does not challenge us. God’s judging and transforming grace confronts us. The boundaries we have around our heart keep us from close self-examination, and blind us to seeing God’s vision for a transformed world. In the United States, our consumer culture makes it easy to hear a bland gospel, easy for us to be rich in things and poor in spirit. God’s 21st century grace calls us to confess our spiritual poverty.

We are challenged by God’s strong love to confess that we have not seen the physical poverty, injustice and oppression that surrounds us. Too often the church in the United States searches for mission projects beyond its own zip code, failing to see our neighbors who struggle. God’s 21st century grace calls us to confess where we have failed our neighbors.

God’s grace in the twenty-first century requires confession of our failures as a church. Today in the UMC in the United States there is a great deal of attention paid to LGBT rights and inclusion. Clergy engage in passionate debate online, and national news coverage highlights the controversies and church trials within our beloved UMC. Paragraph 33 in “Grace Upon Grace” states that “the body of Christ is a reality which must be made incarnate in our living”. When Paul writes to the Corinthian church regarding their divisions, he tells them they are part of the body of Christ which God has put together. Although there are divisions due to their human failings, Paul describes God’s more excellent way to live together as this body of Christ – the way of humble love. God’s strong and transforming grace calls the UMC in the U.S. to confess the sin of disunity and to live instead with patient, humble love for each other.

This movement of confession is not easy. David Bosch says that “we hate to expose ourselves, to take off our masks, for we do not want [the other] to peep into our own struggles and weaknesses, into our own processes of spiritual development. We present ourselves to them as those who already have all the answers, who are finished products, and who have now come to tell them what to do to become like us” (2001, p 68). Twenty-first century grace gives us the confidence to confess our missionary failings. God’s strong and judging love is also a transforming love which makes the next movement possible.

The second movement of 21st century grace is new vision. Paragraph 37 states that God makes the invisible visible. Sin clouds our vision and makes it difficult to see injustice and oppression; God’s grace is clear-eyed. When we have confessed our sin, God’s grace enables us to see the world as it really is. This is the chastened optimism Bosch spoke of – our hearts, humbled by confession, have renewed vision to see where our neighbors suffer and are oppressed. We have hope because we see our neighbor through the lenses of grace, the lenses of God’s love for all people.

Twenty-first century grace calls us through confession to a clear vision of our need for each other. Once we recognize our need for God’s grace and our place in the whole body of Christ, our mission is transformed by God’s love into a relationship with those whom we serve. This is the love Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians, God’s true love expressed in the body of Christ. For mission, this true love means “accepting that you are dependent and expecting something from the other” (Bosch 2001, p 71).

Paragraph 37 states that God’s clear-eyed grace mandates action. Once we accept God’s grace, we see the world as God sees, and we must act. God’s mission to the world is not passive. God’s 21st century grace requires our participation. Further, paragraph 38 emphasizes the prophetic dimension of mission. The United Methodist Church must face difficult questions and speak prophetically about our complicity with systems of power and oppression such as globalism, consumerism, immigration, economic disparity and the criminal justice system. The mission of God’s transforming love calls us to critique ourselves in these systems and to look for ways to be in solidarity with the powerless.

Twenty-first century grace is challenging. Through it the United Methodist Church can be transformed to be in every aspect of our life and work, the people of God, the people for God in the world.


Works cited:
Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991.
Bosch, David J. A Spirituality of the Road. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, and Universities 2014 Conference on Peace

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, education is an important way in which United Methodists (and other Methodists) collaborate around the globe.  One important venue for collaboration around issues of higher education for United Methodists and other Methodists is the International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, and Universities (IAMSCU).  IAMSCU was established during a meeting of the World Methodist Council in Singapore in 1991 and had its first conference five years later in Brazil.  Since then, IAMSCU has hosted international conferences approximately every three years. These conferences seek to bring the 775 Methodist institutions of education in the world together "to develop a dynamic, worldwide network of member institutions, resulting in effective inter-institutional cooperation and collaboration to prepare a new generation of Christian leaders."

This year is the next scheduled IAMSCU conference, which will be held in  Hiroshima, Japan, will take place this May 24-28.  The theme of the conference is Peace, Reconciliation, and Human Rights.  You can read more about the conference through the conference announcement.

While the period for people to submit proposals in response to the call for papers has closed, it is not too late to register for the conference.  Interested parties can still register up through April 24.  Undoubtedly, only a minority of readers of this blog will even be able to think about attending this conference due to financial and time restraints.  That is an unfortunate fact, but should remind us of something important: even in an age of increased digital and other global connections, bodies still matter, and bodies are subject to the limitations of time, space, and resources.  Nevertheless, for those who are able to attend this conference, it should be a rich time of fellowship, learning, and blessing.