This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is the second of two written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.
Christianity and other living faiths
Some physicists say that the universe is simultaneously expanding and contracting, and the same can be said of The United Methodist Church today. In less than half a century, Christians from other parts of the world will replace the departing Christians in the global north. While we rejoice over the exponential church growth in the global south, those of us in the leadership of the church in global north need to take measures to stop the membership hemorrhaging. No matter how large the sum of money and innovative programs we infuse into the structure of the denomination, unless workable solutions are put in place to end the bleeding, the church will continue to lose ground. The purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ is not to survive, any more than the purpose of our own lives is to survive. Survival is a necessity, not a purpose. Prudent precautions and sensible preparations will be for naught unless the United Methodist constituents understand the core conviction of Christian faith and their missional responsibilities.
A clear and concise mission theology motivates and assists the Christian community in reconciling all forms of alienation, while being faithful to its apostolic traditions. The denomination’s mission mandate calls for its constituents to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.” What is unclear to those of us coming from the global south is that the proposed document on ecclesiology (the nature of the church) appears to conflate grace and redemption, and offers a single blurry lens rather than sharpened distinct views. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that ALL religions are salvific.
The role of laity and their everyday encounter with the members of the broader society is visibly absent in the document. During that process, the vital aspect of mission and ministry with the adherents of other living faiths has been completely left out. As we are well aware, the church intersects with the beliefs and practices of the adherents of other living faiths, and works for peace, justice, reconciliation, and the integrity of God’s creation.
In addition, massive defections of our baptized and confirmed prevent us from being too sanguine about how many of our children will identify as Christians in coming years. Already hundreds and thousands of our children have left the church in the global north. In such a context, how do we define the nature and role of the church and its mission? How can we keep the light on for them? That light cannot be left on, unless the uniqueness and universality of Jesus is clearly defined in the context of our pluralized, post-Christian, post-modern context.
Regrettably, there is no reference in the document as to how to witness to Christ in our multi-faith world. If the church proclaims Jesus Christ as the Lord to the world around us, it should include both those within and without the fold.
Our denomination wants to gain one million more people in this quadrennium. If so, which pond should the church fish from? And, how? We need to think about where the disciples come from, especially from outside the fold, not how sheep are stolen from inside the fold. If the church has to actively get involved in outreach mission, as the document affirms, the church’s missional mandate needs to be spelled out in a coherent way in the current changed landscape.
Major shifts have taken place in the church’s mission from the past to the present including shifts
- from ecclesiocentric to theocentric,
- from theocentric to Non-Governmental Organizations-centric,
- from NGO-centric to anthropocentric,
- from anthropocentric to geocentric mission.
Today, mission has migrated from denominational mission to community-oriented, and individual-initiated mission. Making a difference is the goal. Hence the definition of the church’s mission among our constituents has become broader, larger, and comprehensive. We need to make an intentional shift in our understanding of church and mission from Wesley’s time, which was primarily mono-chromatic and mono-cultural, to the worldwide, polyphonic, pluralistic present context, in which Christianity has hybridized and is well-situated as a non-Western religious community.
A definition of the church which we call ecclesiology is not a mere doctrinaire tract or a propaganda effort or a broadside. It is a spiritual stroll through “sinners’” mazy minds about faith, tradition, and reason, with an invitation to follow Jesus. Hence, sin has to be defined both in individual and structural contexts. For the wages of sin include the loss of community, trust, equality, and social justice.
A giant reset is looming for the church’s mission during our time because we live in a space between the way things were and the way things might be. Solutions are fleeting as new challenges keep popping up. We don’t want to get locked into just a single mode of operation. We need to clarify why the church exists and does what it does worldwide, which missional values are fundamental, what specific message it conveys in today’s pluralistic world, and how its message and ministries of mercy differ from other humanitarian and social agencies.
What is urgently needed today, I submit, is a hybrid ecclesiology; a distinct United Methodist voice; a voice that emerges from informed theological intelligence and historic connectional commitment; a theology that distinguishes the church from the larger world and other faiths and all that denies the values of Christ. To construct a truly worldwide ecclesiology, the current reality of Western Christianity sitting at the table with non-Western Christianity has to be seriously taken into account. We must accept the responsibility of planting seeds of diversity and equity; of empathy and unity, while we share our fragility, as this work is an attempt to understand a behemoth theological and missiological concept by describing it from multiple angles. With our ever-enlarging global access to the visions and voices and influences of others, let us untangle the knot of what makes up the church and whom we serve and witness to as disciples and as fellow human beings.