Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Missional Ecclesiology: Engaging the Commission on a Way Forward on mission

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.

As I mentioned in a post last week, I had the honor of being asked by the Commission on a Way Forward to assist them in developing a document on mission to guide their thinking and discernment in their work. To help readers engage in conversation about the Commission’s work around the issue of mission, I want to provide some reflections on my role in the development of their “Missional Framework.” In so doing, I will not speak about how the Commission members used and refined my contribution (most of which I do not know) but rather about the work I shared with them and what my intentions were in crafting it in the way I did. This post will be the first of several on this topic.

Late last year, I received an invitation to submit a document on “missional ecclesiology” to the Commission. I believe I was chosen for this assignment because of my role as Director of Mission Theology for Global Ministries. By the term “missional ecclesiology,” I assumed that the Commission was looking for a document that would comment theologically on mission but would also connect those comments in some way to reflections on the church (hence “ecclesiology”). Thus, in writing the document, I attempted to do three things:

My first objective was to share key highlights of ecumenical thinking about mission from the past half century. The document I prepared for the Commission contained a set of “affirmations” about mission that I sought to craft to reflect not my own personal thoughts about mission but rather important pieces of consensus on mission among United Methodists and others reached over the last half century. That is why I chose the term “affirmations.” These points are not doctrine, but they are widely affirmed by people other than just me. I am sure every missiologist would have her or his own list of most important insights, but I choose particular ones I felt most significant and most relevant to the task at hand.

My second objective was to give a description of the key ecclesiastical practices that have defined Methodism broadly over its history. Given the recent release of Wonder, Love and Praise, I did not feel it necessary to reflect on the theological nature of the church (e.g., as rooted in grace) in my document. That was perhaps a lacuna, but I preferred to let Wonder, Love and Praise speak to these issues and instead focus on key attitudes and practices that have given Methodism its distinctive flavor as a Christian tradition, as I felt less attention had been paid to such practices. Again, I called these points “affirmations” to indicate that these are not dogma but are widely adhered to within Methodism. It is worth noting that these attitudes and practices characterize Methodism broadly and not just United Methodism.

My third objective was to describe a set of values or spiritual dispositions that I hope flow from the first two objectives. In this regard, this set of values or attitudes are the pay-off of the document. Presenting the conclusions of my document as a set of values reflects my conviction that the issues facing The United Methodist Church are primarily matters of the heart, not of polity. Hence, I wanted to present attitudes of the heart that would help us live out our calling to mission. In crafting this section of the document, I was trying to be a bit more creative and not merely reflect consensus positions. I did try to draw connections from the first two lists to the list of values to show how I saw these values as logically related to the widely-held affirmations from the first two lists.

It is important to note that at the point at which I wrote the document, the Commission had released its midpoint update with thumbnail sketches of what became the three proposals now being sent to General Conference 2019. I did not consider it my job to comment on the merits of these three proposals, but rather to offer theological reflections on mission, which the Commission could use in their on-going discernment. Therefore, the documents were intended to be neutral regarding the main questions regarding sexuality and polity with which the Commission was grappling.

I completed an initial version of the document, which was about 2900 words. I was then asked to revise it down to 700 words. That was difficult for me, and I had to cut out a good deal, some of which I regret not leaving in. I delivered the 700-word version to the Commission (with a link to the longer version that I wasn’t able to let go of!), and they further revised this version to produce their own Missional Framework.

This project was undertaken in a lot of prayer, more than the amount of prayer I have used in any other professional undertaking. Nevertheless, I do not pretend to have accomplished any of my objectives perfectly, and I’m sure others would have taken a different approach than I did and set up different objectives for themselves. Moreover, as an individual, I could offer my gift to the Church, but it required the work of the Commission as a whole to discern how to transform my gift into something that reflected the Church more broadly. Having shared that gift with the Commission, I share it now with you readers, hoping it will spark more conversations about mission in The United Methodist Church.

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