Thursday, May 29, 2014

Understanding the church in the light of grace - Elaine Robinson on Grace Upon Grace: A Church Formed 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
Dr. Elaine Robinson, Academic Dean and Professor of Methodist Studies and Christian Theology at St. Paul School of Theology, Oklahoma City University. Dr. Robinson is commenting on the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
 
I pen these words during Holy Week,* the height of the church year, when we shift our focus from the brokenness of the human condition to the healing, life-giving power of Christ to restore and reconcile us to God, others, ourselves, and the whole of creation. It is a powerful reminder that God’s grace is the one thing that can pierce the brokenness of human existence and rise to render new and abundant life. The church can be a conduit for this grace or it can be a perpetuator of the world’s brokenness.

Ecclesiology has never been the strong suit of Methodists. Practical and experiential, reflecting on the nature of the church has seldom been a priority among the Methodist faithful. It comes as no surprise, then, that this section on “A Church Formed by Grace” is suggestive, but misses the mark from both an ecclesiological standpoint and a missional one.

Para. 47 serves as the overarching statement on the church. Claiming that, “to be shaped by God’s grace is to live in covenant as a community of worship and grace,” Christians are to be “self-giving” to God in worship and to others in service. This opening volley conceives of the church in terms of the actions of human beings, rather than focusing on the formative and prior dimension of God’s grace. A more grace-centered theological statement would begin with the suggestion that, by grace, God “ingathers” the church as the body of Christ where God is worshiped and the sacraments administered, in order that the people of God might be sent into the world to discover and participate in the Missio Dei. The church, by nature, is both a sociological or human reality and, potentially, a grace-filled representation of the new creation as a rightly related covenant community reaching out to the world with the healing and wholeness offered by the Triune God.

This understanding of community as self-giving leads into para. 48 on the means of grace; in Wesleyan terms, “the ordinary channels whereby [God] might convey to [us] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”[1] As Luther Oconor highlighted in a previous post, here the dimension of synergism, the response of the human community to the offer of grace is a needed emphasis. This synergism of the human and the divine is simply too important in the life of the church to pass without notice or clarification. We, the church, can resist God’s grace and exist merely, or largely, as a sociological organization. The means of grace are thus a lifeline, the light shining from a lighthouse across a dark and tumultuous sea, without which we are left to our own devices.

In para. 49, the turn to mission is a significant and noteworthy claim, which could be strengthened in at least two ways. First, for Wesleyans, the love of God poured into our hearts always and necessarily overflows into the world. If we are growing in sanctifying grace, social holiness will necessarily follow (and, in turn, deepen our personal holiness). Second is the ongoing work of prevenient grace, always and already going out into the world before us, inviting the church to respond and share in God’s mission, to be “stewards of a gift” as Hendrik Pieterse aptly suggested in the first post. While paragraph 49 rightly claims that mission “is the vocation of every [church],” it seems clear that sharpening the focus on “grace upon grace” as the impetus and reason for mission would strengthen this claim.

Paragraphs 50-54 might best be seen as a list of structural and relational commitments that are characteristically Methodist, though conditioned by a modernist perspective (as others have noted), which beg a more careful consideration and expression in the twenty-first century: Connectionalism (para. 50), Inclusiveness (para. 51), Ecumenical Affirmation (para. 52), Global Awareness (para. 53), and Diversity (para. 54). Others writers in this series have pointed to the importance of ecumenicity and global considerations, as well as the shortcomings of their interpretation when this document was created. Hence, I will limit my analysis to the structural commitment to “connectionalism” and the relational commitment to “inclusiveness.”

Connectionalism is appropriately included as a primary and distinctive vehicle for the United Methodist Church’s “missional life.” Yet, the description reads more as an apologia for connectionalism and, perhaps, the church’s general agencies, than as a rationale for the life of mission. No mention is made of the scale at which mission can unfold in a connectional system nor of the work of grace in creating the bond that enables the connection to “discover and support” mission. More importantly, in today’s United Methodist Church, there is a clarion call for the general church to support the local church as the most significant arena for disciple making and mission. This tension, which arises out of our connectional system, warrants consideration and ties directly to concerns for the global nature of the church.

As for the relational commitment to “inclusiveness,” paragraph 51 defines it as “characteristic of the missional church [which] embraces those whose appearance, behavior, mental or physical conditions mark them as different.” This concept of inclusiveness calls for a hermeneutic of suspicion to reveal the U.S.-centric nature of this claim and the normativity of “whiteness” in the church in the United States. To speak of “inclusion” is to suggest inclusion of others into a normative – and often unexamined – center of power from which mission, money, and ministry flow. Until the United Methodist Church in the United States not only recognizes that our church membership (which is 90% white) does not resemble the demographics of this nation (which is 64% white), but is also willing and able to allow that the “transformation of the world” includes the transformation of the church, itself, by virtue of the mutuality of mission, we shall not be the church as the Body of Christ. A commitment to inclusion must be reframed as a relational commitment to mutuality.

No doubt paragraph 55 does allow for just such a self-critical reexamination and transformation. This transformation of the world and, simultaneously, the church itself requires, of course, the work and leading of grace. Indeed, this is the hope and possibility placed before us by the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ.

* Editor's note: Posts in the Grace Upon Grace series are not published immediately after they are written.

[1] John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” in John Wesley’s Sermons, edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), p. 160.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Would a flat UMC be a more global UMC?

Bishop Mike Coyner recently wrote this interesting article, which suggests that the way forward past divisive debates and into better ministry might be for the UMC to give annual conferences greater latitude rather than relying upon the General Conference to set all policies for the entire denomination.  Coyner's basic question is "What if we allowed each AC around the world to make its own decisions on all matters other than those restricted by the Constitution? What if we allowed each AC to be innovative and flexible on all matters other than our basic doctrine and theological task (as outlined elsewhere in the current Book of Discipline)?"  As a flip side to that question, Coyner adds, "What if we allowed General Conference to focus upon its primary task of adopting policies, mission goals, and budgets for the whole of our UMC—without asking the General Conference to micromanage every aspect of the UMC around the world?"

While Coyner is responding in large part to the controversy over LGBT issues and the threat of schism originating in the United States, he recognizes that his proposal could have a number of (potentially positive) consequences beyond providing a way forward on this issue.  I thought it worth commenting about several aspects of his proposal, as they seem to have important implications for how the UMC functions as a global denomination.

1. Coyner also asks, "What if we allowed each AC to modify its own Social Principles and approve its own Resolutions applied to the unique cultural and political settings of its geography and people?"  Such an approach could resolve the current tensions about the US-centric nature of the current social principles, as previously discussed on this blog.

2. Coyner further wonders, "What if we allowed each AC to establish its own standards and processes to train clergy and laity to serve their churches and their unique mission field?"  While this approach would reduce (though certainly not eliminate) conflict in the United States about the ordination of LGBT persons, it would also highlight (and potentially lead to a resolution of) missiological questions about whether the proper educational or other standards for ordination worldwide should be based on Western standards or could be adapted to local circumstances.

3. Coyner suggests a change in relationship between the annual conferences and the general boards in which annual conferences would have more freedom to choose which general boards to partner with on what projects or issues, with support for general boards coming in part through these partnerships rather than primarily through funding from General Conference.  While such a proposal might run the risk of defunding important global ministries, it may also build upon a positive trend initiated by such boards as GBGM, GBHEM, and GBOD in developing close partnerships with annual conferences around the world that lead to productive new ministries in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as the United States.

Ultimately, whatever the other implications of Coyner's suggestions, I think his idea is based on a solid missiological insight: that the ways in which we live out the gospel through effective ministry must be shaped by context.  Annual conferences, which meet more frequently and are more closely identified with particular contexts, may be better able to live out that insight than General Conference.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Claiming Expanded - Bishop Linda Lee on Grace Upon Grace: A Life Changed 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
Bishop Linda Lee, Bishop-in-Residence at Garrett-Evangelical Theological SeminaryBishop Lee is responding to Dr. Glen Messer's comments on the eighth section of the document, "A Life Changed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The importance of reclaiming both our theological and our ecclesiastic roots was described in Messer’s commentary on “A Life Changed by Grace,” (Paras. 42-46 of Grace Upon Grace).  He discusses the importance of both these aspects of our United Methodist roots in the formation our Christian identity.  As United Methodists we are changed by the grace of God’s forgiveness (justification) and given new life through the process and practice of sanctification.  Reclaiming both our Evangelical and our Pietistic religious roots offers the perfect mixture for the Divine love of God to be expressed through our mission, both within our denomination and ecumenically.   This theological and historical reflection assists us to reclaim both the inward practices of personal piety and the outward response of social holiness and action.   John Wesley and our predecessor movements provide United Methodists with a sacred blend of the inner and outer expression of our faith as a response to God’s grace.  Messer says it beautifully:

“The emphasis upon justification was the driving force behind the Evangelical Movement.  The emphasis upon the Christian life was the driving force behind Pietism.  Methodism mixed the two like rocket fuel and oxygen – the spiritual power of love Divine, all loves excelling.”

As we consider these aspects of how United Methodist identity has been shaped, it seems good, in this 21st Century global world we live in, to also be intentional about claiming, celebrating and expanding and incorporating the diverse cultural and racial roots of our DNA as well.  Silently and sometimes unnoticed, since its inception, Methodism has been shaped by the theological and evangelical witness of people of color who bring fresh understandings of God’s movement in our midst.  Understandings of forgiveness  and new life from the perspective of those who have been the mission field, open new possibilities for what it means to be changed by God, and even of to whom it is we are to be in mission.  God has given us to one another and we long for that human confirmation described by Martin Buber in I and Thou:

“{Hu}Man wishes to be confirmed in his{her} being by {hu}man and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. Secretly and bashfully {s}he watches for a YES which allows him{her} to be and which can come to him{her} only from one human person to another.”

Through this authentic human encounter we become open to the work of God within us that compels us to live out our identity as those who have been changed by God and by one another.  Our mission requires us to reach out to the world.

Our world is shifting.  Our identity as United Methodists is shifting.  Our mission and mission fields are shifting. The needs in the communities and cities, towns and villages where our congregations are located or are near, make it a day to make the shift into the living out of Christ’s perfection in love not quite mentioned in this section of “Grace Upon Grace” as Messer notes.  Claiming the base of our heritage historically, ecclesiastically and culturally can give us the kind of foundation needed to be in mission in the 21st century with the personal piety and social holiness which are the roots of our Wesleyan legacy.  Our mission will indeed ‘bear new fruit in our time,’ and perhaps even yet see John Wesley’s dream realized:

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God’s creational intentions.” (How to Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer)

To reclaim our roots and to claim the fullness of our historical, ecclesiastical and cultural diversity is another way to experience and to share the ‘grace upon grace’ that continues to be poured out through Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Money, ministry, and the global UMC

Two weeks ago, a story broke within the UMC about questions arising over the use of $100,000 for theological education given by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) to the West Angola Annual Conference.  This money was part of the African Theological Education Initiative.  The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) has asked West Angola bishop Gaspar João Domingos for a fuller accounting of how the money was spent.  They are not alleging that it has been misspent, just asking for confirmation and greater clarification.  An update last week indicated that progress is being made between West Angola and GCFA on providing the required documentation.  More updates should be available by the end of the month.

I mention this story not only as an important but perhaps overlooked piece of news from around the global connection, but because I think it is also an example of a potential trend as the membership and ministries of the UMC continue to shift outside the United States but monetary control still resides in the US.  Indeed, this story is not the only one in the last couple of years about disputes between a US portion of the church and an African portion of the church about the handling of money.  As previously mentioned on this blog, Western Pennsylvania and East Africa Annual Conferences had a long-standing dispute over the use of American money for African ministries.

There are several important issues at play here.  One is a difference between American and African concepts of accounting and accountability.  I am NOT saying here that African annual conferences are unreliable or try to avoid accountability.  I am saying that itemized expense reports filled out in triplicate are a Western innovation and easier to produce when you have a more developed bureaucracy and greater resources to carry out such tasks.  Moreoever, differences in the culture of leadership between America, which tends to be distrustful of authority, and Africa, which tends to take a more affirmative stance towards its leaders, can in some cases exacerbate these dissimilarities in bureaucratic procedures.  Such differences are likely to continue to lead conflicts between American United Methodists and African United Methodists over the handling of money, as in these stories about the West Angola and East Africa annual conferences.

At a deeper level, the pattern of American funding for African (or other global) ministries raises a more fundamental question: Whose ministry ideas are funded in the first place?  Are they the ideas of the Africans doing and benefiting from the ministry or the ideas of the Americans funding the ministry?  Despite the increasing popularity of resources such as Corbett, Fikkert, and Platt's book When Helping Hurts within UMC circles, economic inequalities between American and African annual conferences open the door for international ministry partnerships that fund destructive ministries, undermine African self-sufficiency, or in other ways create unintended negative consequences.  I am not saying that American United Methodists should not give money to United Methodist ministries elsewhere around the world.  I am saying that we need to recognize the complexity of the relationships thus created, acknowledge that money does not equal right, and think carefully and mutually through the issues raised.

There are many ecclesiological, missiological, and cultural issues to be worked out in coming to a fuller, more reciprocal concept of the UMC as a global denomination.  While we are answering these other questions, we must be sure to keep money and its connection to ministry in mind.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Historical and Ecumenical Look at Methodist Identity - Glen Messer on Grace Upon Grace: "A Life Changed 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
Dr. Glen Alton Messer, II, the Associate Ecumenical Staff Officer of the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. Dr. Messer also teaches Christian History and Methodist Studies and is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Yale Divinity School. Dr. Messer is commenting on the eighth section of the document, "A Life Changed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section of Grace Upon Grace entitled, “A Life Changed by Grace,” (Paras. 42-46) focuses upon reformation of our lives by God’s grace experienced in both justification and sanctification. Reclaiming these dual Wesleyan doctrinal emphases the document points to the importance of Methodist identity as a carrier of theological content for mission. It states, “God is calling us to reclaim the roots of our heritage and produce new fruit in our time.” (Para. 44) Indeed, these paragraphs make the claim that it is the goal of our Christian existence to perfect our love and actions through conforming lives to the example of Christ (Para. 46) — hinting at, but never naming, the doctrine of Christian perfection.

These paragraphs make a number of useful statements that demonstrate the United Methodist commitment to action as well as sentiment. Salvation and growth in discipleship (Para. 43) are living witness that drives mission. To be saved in Christ Jesus is to be inspired to respond to God by learning to love as God loves — reaching out to others as God ceaselessly reaches out to us (“prevenient grace,” as we now term Wesley’s “preventing grace”). As God in Christ pursues us, so we are inspired by love to pursue others, to give aid, to seek the salvation and reformation of God’s Creation and all who inhabit it. There could be nothing more Methodist than this.

The text contains a couple of key challenges for those of us looking to it for reflection upon our understanding of mission, though. Namely, it gropes — without finding a firm hold — to be able to articulate the place of United Methodists in terms of identity and it is a bit soft in owning up to the peculiarity of our historic (and present day?) doctrinal emphases upon justification and sanctification.

As has already been noted in a previous post by Doug Tzan, this 1988 document proceeds from an understanding of Methodism that has its origins in England. This is not a mere historiographic claim. It has ecclesiological and theological implications that strongly shape the logically consequent understanding of mission.

Grace Upon Grace came into being only two decades following the creation of The United Methodist Church by the union of 1968. It also followed shortly after the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church (the first Methodist denomination to exist openly outside of the frame of a European Established — government sponsored — Church). At that time it was understood that Methodism carried within it “DNA strands” drawn from the Evangelical and Pietistic Movements active on the European Continent and in England; but further reflection raises good questions about what is more important to Methodist DNA — the Evangelical and Pietistic elements brought together or the Anglican container in which they were cultured and transformed into Wesleyan Methodism. British Historian, W. R. Ward, contributed important works during the 1990s relating to Methodism’s connections to these traditions that should give us pause to reconsider the roles of the Wesleys and the place of the religious tradition(s) they are credited with having launched.

My own work as ecumenical staff to the Moravian Church (Northern & Southern Provinces) - United Methodist Church Dialogue aimed at entering into a full communion relationship has further underscored for me how closely knit Methodism is into the fabric of the Pietistic Movement of the 18th century and following. It has helped sharpen my own sense that the history (and the identity) of Methodism has deep roots (not mere passing associations) with both Continental and English Pietism. Likewise, Methodism’s origins as one of the many expressions of the Evangelical Movement compel us to refocus our understanding of when we begin to talk about “ecumenism” in relationship to United Methodists and their predecessor denominations.

If we step back from the inherited stories about Methodists as a distinct religious group and instead begin to look at it as one of the expressions of religious communities formed in the contexts of the Pietistic and Evangelical Movements of the 18th century and forward we can also see that Methodism was born as a mission-driven “connexion” (sharing in the zeal found in both of the movements named) and that, at least at the grass roots level, Methodists have been in mission from everywhere to everywhere for all of their history. Institutional policies and historiographic understandings may not have recognized this fact — but this does not mean it has not been real.

As a test of this idea, let us observe that Methodisms in many parts of the world are mutually recognizable — and yet almost always contextually distinct. There has been colonial-style mission among Methodists. But the tradition(s) have been robust in their natural ability to become contextualized. This in defiance of the claims that Methodism is an “English” or an “American” phenomenon.

A common feature of Methodism the world over is that dual doctrinal emphasis discussed at the beginning of this post. And here is the proof of the identity and the purpose to be reclaimed: The emphasis upon justification was the driving force behind the Evangelical Movement. The emphasis upon the Christian life was the driving force behind Pietism. Methodism mixed the two like rocket fuel and oxygen — the spiritual power of love Divine all loves excelling.

There is much promise in rediscovering our identity — and perhaps understanding it better than we ever have before. We are diverse in our United Methodist tradition(s). This is true in the accounting of the churches that have come together in ecumenical union to form our denomination. It is also true in the long history of Methodism as a tradition from everywhere to everywhere — from England, America, Brazil, Korea, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, etc, and back. We are a Christian people born of mission and born to mission.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

UM & Global launches online paper

In addition to curating this blog as a place for discussion and conversation about the global nature of The United Methodist Church, I also tend the related Twitter feed, @globalumc.  The Twitter feed is a way not only of announcing new blog posts but also a means by which I can retweet news about stories happening in the church around the world.  If you haven't checked it out yet, I encourage you to.

In a positive trend, there seems to be more such stories now than there was a year ago when I first started.  Indeed, we've gotten to the point where I've been interested in finding new ways to assemble such stories to make them more accessible.  Therefore, I'm pleased to announce the launch of a new online paper, the United Methodist Globe.  The Globe will compile the types of articles that I've been retweeting in one, convenient to access location.  You can check the Globe daily for new updates, which will be posted at noon US Central time.

The Globe is currently an experiment.  Over the next several weeks, I'll be trying to determine a few things: First, whether there is actually enough content out there to justify a daily paper.  Second, whether the mix of stories is informative about what's happening in the UMC not just in the US, but around the world.  Please use the comment section of this blog post to let me know your thoughts on the content.  Third, whether the Globe is attracting adequate traffic.  If you think this is a useful resource, please share it with your friends.

Already in this experiment, I have learned a couple of things about the limitations of the internet and technology as a means of promoting global awareness.  We think of the internet as a means of connecting people across distance, but the internet can surprisingly be another way of reinforcing existing divisions.  (For a great explanation of how this works, even through social media, see this TED Talk by Ethan Zuckerman.)  My first go-around in creating the paper, it mostly contained stories about the UMC in the US.  I actually had to de-emphasize the #UMC hashtag in my news collection to avoid being overwhelmed by US stories.

Moreover, in assembling my list of sources for the paper, I was struck by how much more likely American Annual Conferences are to have a(n active) Twitter feed than Annual Conferences elsewhere around the world.  There are a few active United Methodist Twitter sources in France, Liberia, and the Philippines, but most news stories about the global UMC still come through traditional news agencies like UM New Service and denominational boards like GBGM and GBHEM as well as American Annual Conference.  Technologies like paper.li and Twitter do allow us to connect to United Methodists elsewhere, but we really have to work at it.  I hope this effort that goes into this paper will prove a success.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Daniel Shin on Why History Matters: The Methodist Heritage in the History of Christian Mission (Part III)

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. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center. This post is the second of a three-part response by Dr. Shin to Robert Hunt's comments on the seventh section of the document, "United Methodism in Mission Today."  The first post can be found here, and the second post here.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

In my first two posts, I responded to and expanded upon Hunt’s observation that there is in the Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church: Grace Upon Grace a problematic jump from Jesus to Wesley and the distinctive heritage of Methodism without due attention to the history of mission in the intervening years.  Having addressed this concern, I will conclude with some of my own thoughts on the section “United Methodism in Mission Today.” 

Clearly Hunt is on to something important and I find his suggestion to observe and listen also to bear enormous potential in reconceiving the mission of our church. Simple but profound practices of observing and listening can be enlightening and liberating. I think when he alerts us to the questionable leap from Jesus to the rise of Methodism he is in fact inviting us to observe and listen. It is by observing and listening, we assist the invisible and hidden persons to become visible (Paragraph 35). I would add one more, the need for repentance, which I define as rightly understanding ourselves before God and other.[1] When repentance is understood as related to our self-understanding, we can return to Hunt’s emphasis on self-understanding with a greater sense of what that means for today’s mission.

Speaking of repentance, the Statement recognizes the church’s past temptation to intermix “mission activities with national ambition, economic gains, and cultural values” (Paragraph 26) and racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression (Paragraphs 16 and 55). It continues, “When we yield to temptations, repentance is in order. The church prays for forgiving grace, for renewing grace, and for empowering grace” (Paragraph 55). This is good but is this enough? Before we become advocates of the hidden, invisible, and forgotten among us (Paragraph 35), perhaps the first order of business is to observe, listen, and rightly understand ourselves in light of the realities we cannot ignore: our sin of extermination of the Native Americans (Paragraph 24), dehumanizing African-Americans through chattel slavery (Paragraph 18 and 19), and other acts of violence around the world. It is in this context we must 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” (Paragraph 40). If I am not mistaken, Hunt expresses deep reservations about this passage in light of the church’s imperialistic practices of mission in non-Christian contexts perpetuating false binary oppositions, such as saved vs. lost, hammer vs. nail, and enlightened vs. ignorant. If so, I agree with his reservations and also suggest that we interpret Paragraph 40 to be about standing within the prophetic tradition of our mission (Paragraph 38) that reminds us of the importance of the doctrine of sin in dealing with the human condition at both individual and macro levels, especially when it comes to the liberation of the oppressed.

And, if it is true that “Christianity is always emerging out of the engagement of the gospel narrative with widely varying human self-understanding,” as Hunt suggests, then the practices of observation, listening, and repentance holds enormous potentials for mission not only among the non-Christians and “non-persons” but also for emerging Christianity at home as we grapple with who we are before God and others. But to dwell there would be an inordinate absorption in self-analysis that smacks of omphaloskepsis. Given how human self-understanding is not confined to a self-enclosed vacuum of inward consciousness but deeply shaped by its relations to the public world, and given the section under discussion “United Methodism in Mission Today,”[2] I think it is appropriate to reflect on W. E. B. Dubois’ call to action in the world: “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”


[1] I am following here Wesley’s understanding of repentance, which includes the following: self-knowledge as a sinner, remorse for sin, and a desire to turn to God. See John Wesley’s sermons, “The Way to the Kingdom,” “On working out our own salvation,” and “The Repentance of Believers.”

[2] The Statement speaks of our mission as that of an “ism” which suggests a system of thought, principle, practice, or ideology, rather than a social and religious entity in movement and action. There is indeed a dimension of the United Methodist movement that is theoretical and rational in character but it would be appropriate to highlight the social and ecclesial aspect of the movement in mission, that is, The United Methodist Church.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Daniel Shin on Why History Matters: The Methodist Heritage in the History of Christian Mission (Part II)

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. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center. This post is the second of a three-part response by Dr. Shin to Robert Hunt's comments on the seventh section of the document, "United Methodism in Mission Today."  The first post can be found here.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Dr. Robert Hunt's comments on the section “United Methodism in Mission Today” (paragraphs 40 and 41) of the Mission Statement of the United Church: Grace Upon Grace are deeply beneficial in understanding the mission of the United Methodist Church. In particular, Hunt’s observation that there is a problematic jump from Jesus to Wesley and the distinctive heritage of Methodism without due attention to the history of mission in the intervening years calls us to further reflection.  Having addressed the dangers of jumping over the rest of the New Testament after Jesus in my last post, I turn now to the dangers of jumping over the rest of Christian history before Wesley.

What difference does it make to pay attention to the intervening years between the early church after the New Testament and the rise of the Methodist movement? Stated differently, how is our understanding of mission either impoverished when we bypass this wide expanse of time and missional activity, or enriched when we critically as well as constructively evaluate it? What it means to have to come to terms with this stretch of time in the first section “Our Missional Heritage” (paragraphs 10-17), where it logically belongs, is to peer into a vast expanse of space populated by people of different cultures and societies. Surely, the long and winding roads of Christian journeys spanning over two millennium in all seven continents, including every major metropolitan centers and remote rural towns and hamlets, have something to teach us about mission. Christianity went global before the recent flowering of the field “World Christianity.” The academy has some catching up to do with the church. A cartography of the contours of the past and current missional expeditions can inform the present and future mission of the United Methodist Church.

Historians of Christianity of different persuasions have surveyed the history of Christian mission and retrieved for us invaluable insights.[1] The church has a rich and long legacy of ministry among the poor, orphans, and widows, advancement of learning and education through monasteries and educational institutions, development of hospitals and the care of the sick, promotion of art, music, literature, and the vast array of human expressions in cultures and civilizations. To say that there is much to reclaim in the history of Christian mission is a gross understatement (See Paragraph 23 on human care and social responsibility). We celebrate them and pursue them further to promote justice and peace in the world. However, notwithstsanding our achievements, the good old days of mission are interlaced with our shortcomings, sins of complicity in and even active promotion of imperialism, which we are liable to pass from generation to generation the sins our ancestors unless we remain vigilant. We cannot sweep under the rug our dirty laundry of belligerent attempts to force conversions, inquisitions, religious wars, crusades, colonization, and fraudulent TV preachers. As Santanyana reminds us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This is what is at stake—learning from our past successes and failures—in not jumping from Jesus to the rise of the Methodist movement, but patiently and thoughtfully following the biblical, historical and theological detour necessary to understand the mission of the United Methodist Church. I am not sure what exactly Hunt has in mind in his criticism of the jump from Jesus to the rise of the Methodist movement, because he does not explain it, but given his criticism of unidirectional and imperialistic practices of mission, I take it that this approximates what he has in mind. To be fair, the general tenor of the Statement is reflective of the biblical, historical, and theological perspectives that signal to us both the positive and problematic practices of mission, so if it were to be revised later it would be important to make explicit those perspectives by engaging the history of mission.


[1] Again, there is no need to start from scratch here as there is a profusion of resources that inform us about the history of Christian mission leading up to and beyond the rise of the Methodist movement. See Bosch, Transforming Mission.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Daniel Shin on Why History Matters: The Methodist Heritage in the History of Christian Mission

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. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center. This post is the first of a three-part response by Dr. Shin to Robert Hunt's comments 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 would like to thank Dr. Robert Hunt for his perceptive and constructive comments on the section “United Methodism in Mission Today” (paragraphs 40 and 41) of the Mission Statement of the United Church: Grace Upon Grace. His response is deeply beneficial in understanding the mission of the United Methodist Church. I will primarily respond to Hunt’s observation that there is a problematic jump from Jesus to Wesley and the distinctive heritage of Methodism without due attention to the history of mission in the intervening years. Upon addressing this concern, I will conclude with some of my own thoughts on the section “United Methodism in Mission Today.”

Hunt points out that there is a rather peculiar leap in the Statement from Jesus to Wesley and the Methodist missional heritage which sidelines the two-thirds of the New Testament related to the mission of the apostles and sixteen hundred years of Christian missionary history. With regards to the former, I presume here he specifically has in mind the section “Our Unifying Vision” (paragraphs 1-9) where it would make most sense to include it. This is a keen and astute observation worth exploring. To better appreciate his observation here, it is necessary to return to the previous parts of the Statement and see the progression of thought in the document. The first section “Introduction” is followed by the paragraph “Our Unifying Vision,” which offers an overarching picture of the UMC’s mission informed by scriptural and theological reflections, in particular its Christological commitments. Then the Statement moves from the section “Our Unifying Vision” to the section “Our Missional Heritage” (paragraphs 10-17). This next section begins by stating “We, as United Methodists, were born in mission,” and then goes on to recount the foundational work of John and Charles Wesley during the revival movements in eighteenth-century England and the subsequent evangelical work of Barbara Heck, William Otterbein, Francis Asbury, Martin Boehm, Harry Hosier, and Jacob Albright in North America. As such, on Hunt’s account, the Statement leaves out two-thirds of the New Testament following the gospels.

He regards them important because in order to fully come to terms with the person and mission of Jesus and what that means for our mission today, we need to take the necessary detour through the mission of the apostles as recorded in the scripture through which we come to appreciate the work of Jesus Christ. In other words, Hunt is suggesting, in agreement with modern biblical scholarship, that since the New Testament writings are as much about the person and work of Jesus as the embodiment or interpretation of his mission in the early churches, we need to wrestle with it in its entirety. Since it is the case that “Jesus sets the ground for and the course of mission” (See paragraphs 6 and 7), and it is the case that Scripture is authoritative for us, then it is by examining all of the New Testament writings we gain important clues about how Jesus did so for the early church. For instance, through Paul’s writings to the church at Corinth or Galatia, we see something about their personal and collective lives informed by Jesus’ teachings and this would make a difference in our understanding and practice of mission today.

Hence, Hunt’s criticism that the move from Jesus to the era of the rise and development of the Methodist movement is problematic needs to be taken seriously and followed up with fully adequate explorations of what it might mean for the mission of the United Methodist Church attend to the intervening years. To be sure, the Statement does in fact mention the mission of the New Testament churches in paragraph 4. It states, “The New Testament churches are communities in mission. The book of Acts describes the work of the Holy Spirit extending the movement. Paul becomes an apostle to the Gentiles. Other Christians travel to spread the good news.” Is that enough? Some might argue that the Statement as a mission statement adopted by the 1988 General Conference, rather than an academic treatise, and, as such, it may be enough. But given the Statement’s Christological commitments, which is given in no uncertain terms, such as “To this end we look nowhere else but to Christ…” (Introduction), it would be worthwhile to explore the early church’s embodiment of the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ and what it means for us today.

Pursing further Hunt’s observation towards a constructive end, we raise the question “what difference does it make to attend to the two-thirds of the New Testament or even the New Testament period?”[1] When we attend to them we will not only hear their words and envision their practices, but more importantly the depth grammar of their linguistic world or the norms and patterns that governed their life together as missional communities. Here I have in mind the rule of faith that guided the early Christians to engage in practices of radical inclusion of love so that the hazardous and risky border crossings involving race, class, gender, and so forth were undertaken with theological conviction and commitment. This may speak to our own border crossings today in a global world where, as Donald Davidson suggests, charity is forced upon us.


[1] The difference can be made explicit by those with expertise in biblical studies, especially social scientific approaches to excavate the missional significance of the New Testament communities and their writings. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here because of the plethora of research already available on the New Testament and its churches as they relate to mission. They are helpful as guides in understanding the early church’s embodiment of the Spirit of Christ in their Christian beliefs and practices in the world. For introductory texts on this topic, see David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011); Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983).