Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What Is the Great Commission, Part 2: Three Good Things about the Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church


In Part I of this mini-series we looked at English translations of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) spanning four centuries and the ways in which those translations both reflected and then underwrote prevailing ecclesiological and missional assumptions of those who used these translations in their day and going forward.

Here, I invite us to look more closely at relationship between the Great Commission and the official mission statement of The United Methodist Church. By now, any of us who are United Methodist will be able to quote it from memory.

"The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

It's a powerful statement in many ways. It commits this church to discipleship as its aim. And it commits it to discipleship to Jesus that embraces both personal and social holiness. In that way it's a thoroughly Wesleyan, and deeply missional vision.

It's powerful in other ways as well. It is being used intentionally and widely to direct conversations, planning and budgeting in congregations, districts, conferences, General Agencies, the Connectional Table, the Call to Action Committee and the Council of Bishops about how we will organize, manage, evaluate, and pay for our work as The United Methodist Church.

Because this mission statement is actually that powerful, it was selected as the theme statement for the General Conference that will meet in Tampa, Florida in April-May 2012. And a version of this theme is also incorporated into the logo chosen for this General Conference, reproduced above.

As the General Agency staff person assigned to the assist the Council of Bishops in designing worship for 2012, I am working closely with Marcia McFee (chosen as director of worship for 2012) and the Council, among others, to help design worship that will help us embody and experience that theme with as much depth and integrity as possible.

So this matters to me-- professionally and personally.

I hope it matters to you, too!

What I want to do here is look at three ways the United Methodist mission statement embodies the Great Commission well and invite your comments or questions to share similar or other perspectives you may have from your setting and experience.

1. The United Methodist mission statement reads the Great Commission as the work of the whole "institutional" church in a variety of ways, not just its leaders, agencies, congregations, or individuals.

As we saw with the English translations we reviewed in the previous post, each of them seemed to underwrite or later get used to support a reading of the Great Commission that applied primarily in one particular way to one particular group of people.

For the KJV, it applied initially to the hierarchy of the Church of England, and then to missionary movements and agencies and a colonialist vision of Christian mission as well.

The RSV continued to be read in light of missionary agencies, which at that point were largely the work of major US and British Protestant denominations who, despite the political collapse of the colonial empires were still predominantly approaching  "mission" and the Great Commission from a colonialist perspective-- a task "we" in the US or Britain paid "others" to do "for us" "over there" in order to get "them" (the folks who'd been "over there" all their lives for generations) to come round to our way of doing religion in the world. 

TNIV (2005) reflected a vastly different scene for a vastly different audience. It at least apparently individualized the text and made it apply to all Christians wherever they were, encountering folks from whatever nations (people groups) they may find themselves with. This reflects a situation both of the individualization and sort of "customized consumerization" of Christianity, devolving everything to the individual or to perhaps to the congregation with whom the individual identifies, and, concurrently, the ongoing downsizing of denominational mission enterprises everywhere, partly due to finances, but perhaps as importantly due to a fairly widespread embrace of an indigenous approach to missions most powerfully voiced by folks like Lesslie Newbigin beginning in the middle of the 20th century, though actually already embodied by the Jesuits as early as the 16th.

The United Methodist mission statement, by contrast, reflects a reading of the Great Commission that embraces the "y'all" of the Greek, and that then seeks to employ it using the "we all" of the various sorts of leaders, agencies, congregations, and other organizations that make up the United Methodist "connexion." We're not saying this is all on the bishops (KJV) or GBGM (KJV and RSV). Nor are we saying it's all on the congregations or individuals (TNIV). It's on all of those, connected and finding new connections, and each of those levels/forms/formats of community in ways each can contribute what each has to offer.

It's no secret that I think we're still putting too much emphasis on congregations as the "basic missional unit" most competent to deliver on "discipling" itself. Our denominational founders, the Wesleys (along with their EUB confreres way back) gave up on congregations actually doing this well. That's why they started the Methodist societies and particularly the class meetings, which could and often did do this better.

Congregations didn't and wouldn't and many likely still won't. That doesn't mean the mission statement is flawed or congregations are flawed. It just means we need to add more pieces into the network that long to and can, in cooperation with congregations and others, actually do "discipling" with folks and do it well.  

We're Methodists. We know how to do that! It's in our DNA, even if in a bit of a recessive way just now. But it's there!

2. The mission statement of The United Methodist Church privileges "making disciples."

Yes, there are problems with that phrase, "make disciples" in industrialized Western cultures, at least. I looked at those problems in some depth in the previous post.

But the language here of "disciples" is still impressive. It's not "church members." It's not "more United Methodists." It's "disciples." And it's "disciples of Jesus Christ."

And I have to say that's impressive because of some ecumenical encounters I've had over the years where the language of discipleship to Jesus is apparently absent, or at least not understood as part of the "currency" of conversation. One of these conversations recently was with a pastor (with good connections!) in the Disciples of  Christ. That one really shocked me. Maybe it wasn't representative. I don't know.

But here we United Methodists are talking-- at every level of the church-- about discipleship to Jesus Christ.

And we seem to be serious about doing more than just talking, but actually praying and doing all sort of things about it.

As long as we don't "water it down" by confusing actual discipleship to Jesus with other things, and as long as we don't get too misled by the "production model" inherent in the English phrase "make disciples" (rather than "discipling people"), I'm very, very hopeful about this. Disciples present in any of these conversations can, and will, I trust, always try to draw us back from potential precipices.

3. The mission statement of The United Methodist Church may just get the apocalyptic timeline.

Or at least it's possible to hold the apocalyptic timeline within the United Methodist mission statement.

Here's why. The "event horizon" presented here-- "the transformation of the world"-- seems to presuppose that this is happening and ongoing here and now. It doesn't propose a delay to the end of secular history. It also doesn't propose a terminus in "the by and by." It instead places before us a world being transformed by God and with and perhaps at times through us who are disciples of Jesus Christ. It leaves the question of when the "complete fulfillment" might be out of the picture entirely, and so, at least one could suggest, up to the mercy and the wisdom of God who alone could know when "all things are completely fulfilled."

For Your Discussion and Comment

How do you read the mission statement of The United Methodist Church related to the Great Commission?

Where do you see us living it out faithfully-- or at least potentially doing so?

Where and how are we not doing so?

What can we do better?

And what are you doing about it?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards


Mike Mather said...

Taylor, I will make a pass at responding to this post. One thing I want to remark upon before I try to address your questions is about your observation that "It is being used intentionally and widely to direct conversations, planning and budgeting in congregations, districts, conferences, General Agencies, the Connectional Table, the Call to Action Committee and the Council of Bishops about how we will organize, manage, evaluate, and pay for our work as The United Methodist Church."

Truly, I haven't noticed that this is happening - at least in terms of bringing about any different action or actual practices that would be different than if we had another statement guiding our conversations. Certainly our budget here in the Indiana Conference would not seem, I would think, to an outside observer to be built about this mission. I'm not at all sure that I would like it if it was. I'd be interested in concrete examples that you could offer. I would like to see such things because I think it would be very encouraging (and because it matters to me both personally and professionally).

Mike Mather said...

Okay - now to your questions: How do I read the mission statement...?

I read it as a thinly veiled attempt (gosh, I hear how cynical that must sound) to say we are doing something else, when what we are trying to do is get more members to sustain our institution. At the same time I'm willing to, and I work at, find the good in it.

2) Where do you see us living this out faithfully?

I would say that I see that in congregations. I don't see it at the larger level. I am pretty impressed when I meet with congregations - and see the level of commitment and discipleship in the lives of the people of the congregations. So - I see it lived out, in the witness that people called United Methodist make in their work places, their communities, their neighborhoods, their homes. Awesome. Truly.

3) Where and how are we not doing so?

The biggest sadness I have is that we are failing to recognize and celebrate when and where it is going on. It seems that, even among congregations - we seem only able to celebrate it when we act corporately as a congregation, rather than in the lives of the people of our parishes. And I think in the language of our liturgy, in the awards we give out in the denomination at large, and in the way we are structured at the district, conference, and general conference level we are failing. There is so much goodness going on and we just seem to be unable to see it. I know it takes a lot of effort to see it in my congregation - because I've been trained so well (smile). (continued - I'm worrying about running out of space)

Mike Mather said...

4) What can we do better?

Throw more parties. Really. I have spent my whole professional ministry in congregations located in low-income neighborhoods. I would have liked for once -- in all the times we have been visited by District Superintendents or Bishops from our area they would have thanked the congregation for their witness across the years - for their faithfulness in living out their discipleship (but for the most part they don't know about it - because their work keeps them focused on other things -- not because they are bad people). I would like them to lay hands on our people and bless them. I would like our general agencies staff to spend their time not providing "training" - but instead -- blessing, celebrating and throwing parties for the extraordinary acts of faithful christian discipleship that are lived out in the lives of the people of our congregations - in the world (and I know that will take a little less attention from what is happening outside of worship, in the local church -- but hey, losing leads to finding right?)

5) And what are YOU doing about it?

Good question. I think we are trying to do it, by jettisoning our programming - focusing more on our worship and on finding ways to celebrate the discipleship of the people of our parish (and we mean that in the broadest sense)in worship and at other times, so that it might multiply.

I hope these thoughts are in the least part helpful to conversations on these important topics.

Thanks Taylor.

Mike Mather

Steve Finnell said...

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journeyman37 said...

Helpful insights all, Mike.

I do not hear the conversation happening in the way it COULD happen. I agree-- much of the conversation is far more about institutional survival (not necessarily a bad thing-- but neither is it synonymous with the thriving of actual discipleship!).

My hope in the conversation, though, is that somehow the fact that this statement keeps getting trotted out means it may at least be a sort of center of gravity that at the very least restrains the conversations and subsequent actions from being as entirely self-serving as they otherwise might be.

Frankly, I tend to think that's the way most mission statements of most organizations tend to work in real life, by the way-- more as touchstone than marching orders.

I couldn't agree more that we do not celebrate enough the actual signs of discipleship in the lives of people-- in congregations and beyond them. I think that's an ongoing symptom of a way of thinking that the congregation itself is supposed to be the generator of discipleship through its programs rather than composed of all sorts of people some of whom are disciples, some of whom want to be, and perhaps a good number of whom are simply glad to be there for whatever reasons. It also misses the point that discipleship happens in real time-- and most real time isn't spent in congregations or congregational programs-- but precisely in the matrices of the relationships in which we find ourselves in our daily lives.

Your work and leadership at both "Broadways" in Indiana is living proof of this!