Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mission as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the fifth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

One of John Wesley’s famous lines is “I look on all the world as my parish.” A lot of Methodists like this phrase, but does it contain a potential source of United Methodist unity? I’d like to argue that it does. I think a attitude of mission has the potential to conceptually unite a lot of currently disparate United Methodist energies. Such an approach is not without its dangers and depends importantly on a robust commitment to holism, but has, I think, potential.

Having a focus on mission denotes a certain understanding of the church and its relationship to the world that I think is characteristic of Methodism (and many other denominations as well). It denotes an understanding that the purpose of the church is not just to care for its own members but also to reach out beyond itself to engage with the world, to be in mission to the world.

Currently in American Christendom, there are two understandings of how the church reaches out to be in mission to the world. One is a conversionary understanding in which the church’s job is to try to convert individuals out of the world and into the church. The other is a social justice understanding in which the church’s job is to try to combat the unjust structures of the world.

All too often, there is a bifurcation of the two, and they are seen as mutually exclusive and competing understandings of how to minister to the world. Such a view is often present within United Methodism itself and reflects yet another dimension of the conflict between conservative and religious voices in the denomination.

Yet such a breach between these two forms of ministry to the world has not always existed. Indeed, it’s really only a product of the last 100-125 years. Before that, Methodism had a long history of trying to reform both individuals and society. John Wesley was certainly no slouch in preaching individual conversion, but also tackled systematic injustices like poverty and the slave trade. He wasn’t Marx in his analysis, but he did have an awareness of and concern for systemic problems with human society. Such a combination of a drive for individual and societal reform continued through Methodist history until the fundamentalist/modernist debates of the turn of the 20th century began to drive these two options apart.

Nevertheless, I think it is possible to reclaim such a unity in the concept of mission to the world which is our parish, and thus to reclaim some unity in our denomination. To do so, however, depends upon a robust understanding of the holism of the church’s mission.

What is holism? It’s thinking about things as wholes, not as a collection of divisible parts. If we seek to undertake holistic ministry to the world our parish, we will seek to present a whole gospel to whole people in the whole creation.

This means that seeking religious and moral transformation is important. To say it’s not and that economic and political injustice is all that matters is to practice a materialist reduction that goes against the spirit of religion, which emphasizes that matters of the spirit matter.

Yet we can’t stop at seeking individual religious and moral transformation, for that would also ignore the wholeness of people, who are also economic, political, sexual, and physical beings with associated needs and concerns in these areas. Our ministry to the world must therefore address these areas as well.

Furthermore, because whole people are part of a whole world, our efforts in these areas must not be solely individual but also systemic in nature. Moreover, because the whole world is not just human, but natural as well, our ministry to the world must also include ministry to the created, natural world, the essential context of all human life.

My guess is that right now there are a lot of people doing street evangelism who wouldn’t want to see their work as flowing from the same impetus as people protesting the School of Americas, and vice versa. Yet in order to stay together as a denomination, we must find ways in which we can think of these two aspects of the church’s mission in the world as part of the same understanding that the world is our parish. Since mission in and to the world is one of the central reasons for the church’s existence, we need something to unite the denomination in its mission, just as singing can unite us in our worship. I hope that agreeing that the world (in a wholistic sense) is our parish can be an important part of that uniting bond.


  1. You make some good points, David. One of the difficulties, however, is that many of those promoting a social justice approach to mission do so from a certain political perspective. One example is the shock that many conservative United Methodists experienced when Nancy Pelosi thanked the UMC for helping to pass Obamacare. Whether or not Obamacare was a good idea, it did not reflect the approach favored by a large segment of United Methodists. So not only is there bifurcation between conversion and social justice, but also within social justice in terms of the political philosophy embraced to guide answers to generally agreed upon problems. If the UMC feels like the Democratic Party at prayer, many Republican UM's cannot embrace that (and vice versa).

    1. Tom, thank you for the comment. You're absolutely right that there are some deep philosophical divides among American Methodists on how we understand social justice, and that the UMC needs to be much more than the Democratic Party at prayer.
      I think that in addition to a holistic understanding of mission, there needs to be a willingness to tolerate actions by fellow Methodists that stem from a common impulse (love of God leading to love of humans) even when they play out in different ways. I think ultimately that depends not just on how we think about mission, but the sorts of relationships we have with one another. It's hard to correctly judge the motivations of those we don't know.
      That's where this series of posts is going to go in the next several weeks - an exploration of the importance of relationships as the real basis of unity in the UMC or any other group.
      One of the things I have really appreciated and respected about the work you and other members of the Commission on a Way Forward have done is the amount of relationship-building you have done among yourselves. I wish there were more opportunities for more Methodists to do such work.

  2. Your series is quite enlightening so far, particularly in highlighting how weak a base our unity is truly built on. When we have no common understanding of the gospel and what it requires of us, trying to seek some form of commonality in missions is doomed to failure. We completely disagree even on what missions entails; not only disagreement, but often we are working vigorously in direct opposition against each other!
    I look forward to your thoughts on relationships, but I see that as a weak basis as well. I have friends all across the theological spectrum who I respect and who respect me, but, in general, we understand that this is just a fact of how things are; we don't kid ourselves that our friendships ties us together theologically. I cherish my friendships with those in the UMC who are theological liberals in the same way that I cherish my friends who are atheists, agnostics, or who follow other religions. I pray that they will come to saving faith in Christ and that our relationship will be used by God to further his kingdom. For others in the UMC whose faith is weak such that they are being led astray by false teachings within the UMC, my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will strengthen their faith and discernment. In all cases, no matter how strong my friendship is with those who are "preaching another gospel", I definitely do not want them to be holding any positions of leadership.
    Based on this, I'm curious how relationships can form a basis for unity when we are commanded not to be "unequally yoked", and, consistent with John Wesley's doctrine, we honestly and sincerely view our progressive friends as part of the mission field, not as fellow believers.