Thursday, December 8, 2016

Misunderstanding Our Mission, Part 2

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Last week, I suggested that United Methodists, especially American United Methodists, frequently misunderstand the denominational mission statement in problematic ways. When many United Methodists hear "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," what they really hear is "recruiting church members to continue church programming." Last week, I looked at the first part of this misunderstanding. This week, I will look at the second.

The equation of transforming the world with continuing church programming may not have quite the same disastrous spiritual consequences as misunderstanding the nature of discipleship, but nonetheless it prevents us from being effective in loving the world as God would have us do.

United Methodist churches run a wide array of programming that varies depending on the context. Across the world, United Methodists run schools, operate health clinics, host addiction recovery groups, welcome migrants, feed and clothe those without adequate sustenance, visit the imprisoned, and provide clean water. We also hold church dinners (in the US, Methodists are known for potlucks), Sunday school pageants, committee meetings, holiday celebrations, craft fairs, and the like. Not all of these activities are bad, and some of these activities are quite good.

We make a couple of mistakes, however, when we confuse church programming with the transformation of the world.

First, we easily overlook the distinction between inward-focused programming and outward-focused programming. It has been my experience that, at least in the US, church suppers and many similar programs are usually for those who are already members of the church, no matter how many flyers are posted around town. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As noted last week, discipleship is a vitally important part of the life of the church, and discipleship is an inward-focused activity of the church.

Nevertheless, when we have an event for our members that is not discipleship-related and then call it outreach, we’re deluding ourselves and misunderstanding outreach. Ham and turkey dinners for the membership generally do not transform the world. Moreover, when we’re honest about when a program is inward-focused, then it’s easier to assess the disciple-making impact of the program.

Second, in equating church programs and the transformation of the world, we confuse cultural activities and mission. Churches, and not just those in the US, often serve as a space for organizing activities that reflect and perpetuate local cultures, often not just for their members but for the wider community. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The church needs to be able to dress itself in the clothes of the culture where it lives.

What is bad is when we mistake these cultural activities for the transformation of the world. It is great to hold a holiday sale if that is part of the culture of your town and lots of people from the outside of the church come to it. That does not mean, however, that you have transformed the world by selling tchotchkes to non-church members. To be world transforming, activities need to be not only outward focused but related more to the work of the gospel than to cultural activities.

Third, we make a mistake in equating church programming with world transforming if we continue to do the same programs we have always done. There are many church programs out there that had worthwhile, world-transforming impacts when they were started. Yet the context shifts, personnel running the program shift, the focus of the program drifts, and eventually, it is not having the same impact as it used to.

The question to ask about church programming is not, “Was this program originally set up to be outward-focused, gospel-related, and world transforming?” The question to ask is, “Is the program currently having a demonstrable impact on the world?” Asking such tough questions is especially important in an era when budgets are reduced and we must do “better with less,” not “more with less.”

Fourth and finally, when we equate church programming with the transformation of the world, we assume that the transformation of the world must happen in particular, structured ways. Methodism is a testament to the positive effects of a good organizational scheme, so I am not knocking organization in general. Moreover, within the modern world, many good, outward-focused, gospel-related, world-transforming endeavors are indeed formally organized, whether those are tutoring programs, evangelistic campaigns, or health clinics.

Still, if we assume that God only transforms the world through our organized activities, we restrict (or overlook) the work of the Holy Spirit. Much of the transformation of the world happens not through carefully organized and run programming, but through relationships. Such a misunderstanding is a particular danger for Americans, who are often so focused on getting things done that they neglect relationships, which can be the real conduits through which the Holy Spirit works to transform the world.

Thus, let us continue to do church programming. Yet let us be honest and reflective in the programming we do, recognizing the ways in which it does and does not contribute to the transformation of the world and always remembering that God is at work both through and beyond our programs.


  1. I think you've nailed this, although I'd put even more emphasis on the difference between mere programs and transformation at the level of programs created and deployed by the general boards and agencies. As Christians we believe that God is the ultimate transformer of the world, and thus our most important task is to put ourselves at the disposal of God's Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, as it is at work in the world. Worship is the primary, and indeed only way, that this change in congregations and individuals can take place. But most UM worship that I observe is too often a slipshod addendum to other congregational programming undertaken primary for the purpose of entertainment and an offering. If we really believe in transforming the world we'll focus on worship and preaching, not programs. But that aside, having put ourselves at the disposal of God's Spirit we must study and understand just which types of human engagement with the world result in transformation. I'll suggest that quite the possibly the most important of these activities are the narrative arts: radio, television, movies, books and other forms of story telling broadly conceived. But this is a space where United Methodists are notably absent whether in creating or using. Next would come engagement in politics. A local city councilperson in most cities would take notice if a sizable congregation took a stand on a public issue. As would their equivalents across the globe. But (back to part 1) we are so busy with our numbers that we would rather have a vacuous consensus around nothing than risk alienating members by suggesting the Christ actually cares about issues of public importance. And this gets us to the profound change in the US context, and everywhere in the UMC that US assumptions have take root. Over the last century UM churches became an integral part of local society and culture. Our programs reflect the fact that far from transforming anything, we are deeply invested in perpetuating the status quo. We really are a community center busily engaged in activities that are really important for the life of the community and really unimportant for disciples of Christ. We need to get over the illusion that our task is to be a community center and get back to being a church.

  2. Looking at the denominational program theme through organizational lenses accentuates the duality of the internal (discipiling/recruiting) and the external (apostle making/witnessing) functions of the church/Body of Christ. The choice of the term "transformation" for the latter leaves much to interpretation. It assumes change which for conservative minds implies creating a new reality through the change of hearts, and for liberals through structural or systemic change. Both happen because of experiencing the power of the gospel at work in communities of faith, as imperfect as they may be. Some of us remember an earlier expression of the current theme that called upon local churches to focus upon "equipping the saints (laity) for their witness in the world." I like that image because it speaks of a teaching mission for the local church aimed at empowering a ministry for the baptized laity beyond the confines of the parochial/institutional church. And it envisions the potential magnitude of that witness to be realized through countless numbers of the converted actually taking the gospel to their places of work or service in the world with a missionary zeal. But the structures of contemporary society can only be penetrated by a witness to the gospel that has corporate dimensions, thus the importance of denominational and ecumenical agencies which help with framing/ advocacy of issues through communication channels and educational materials.
    Robert Harman

  3. David,
    I take your point that the temptation today is that United Methodists will CONFUSE mission and structure/programming, not that mission mediated through structure/programming is inherently problematic. Agreed. Where I'm less persuaded by your (and Robert Hunt's) analysis is the binary between "discipleship" and "transformation," mapped onto an "inward"/"outward" focus, respectively. What you describe is no doubt too often the case in congregational life. However, what is needed is not to perpetuate this binary but to call it into question theologically. As Russ Richey has argued persuasively over the years (and as Bob Harman intimates in his response), Methodists have rich resources for such theological redress. A primary resource is a theologically fulsome account of PRACTICES--the peculiar way in which Methodists embed their theological convictions in our practices and how these practices become concrete structurally and institutionally, including judicatory and general agency structures, etc. A theologically nuanced understanding of practices provides United Methodists with a continuum of theology-in-practice, from liturgy to building hospitals--which, for its part, enables us to circumvent the sort of binaries you describe so ably in your post.