Original Posting At http://www.umglobal.org/2014/12/hendrik-pieterse-make-disciples.html
Today’s post is written by Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Dr. Pieterse contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC’s new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes. You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the “Together towards Life” tag at the bottom.
In reading Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes (TTL) alongside Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission (the mission statement of the United Methodist mission agency), it is heartening to note the resonance of major themes in mission theology and practice over the past several decades: mission as initiative of the triune God; the church as missionary by nature and so servant of the missio Dei; mission as holistic (i.e., embracing “dynamism, justice, diversity, and transformation” within the divine aim of “abundant life” for all creation [TTL, 6, 7]), and more.
One difference is striking, though—the absence of the so-called Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) in the ecumenical statement. This passage seems to play no interpretive role in TTL; in fact, it appears nowhere in the document. Instead, Lucan and Johannine commission themes predominate. Now, arguments from silence are notoriously shaky; and so I will resist the temptation to divine the document’s motives for the omission. Yet, given that the Matthean commission serves as the basis for United Methodism’s mission statement (Book of Discipline, ¶¶120-21), its absence in TTL should at least prompt United Methodists to ponder the implications of the emerging ecumenical consensus about church and mission for our continued appeal to the Great Commission as an aspiring global denomination.
Most readers of this blog are well aware of the checkered, and often deeply troubling, career of the Great Commission in the history of Western mission, especially in its heyday during the late 1880s and into the first third of the twentieth century. Interpreted as a command to be obeyed (“Go!”), and riding the tide of Western social, economic, and political power in league with a taken-for-granted inferiority of the receiving cultures, Matt. 28:19-20 was often pressed in the service of Western Christian expansionism. At least in part bolstering this Western missionary chauvinism and its resultant cultural tone-deafness, as David Bosch has pointed out, was a gradual foregrounding of human autonomy and agency, reflecting the contest with divine providence and power in some quarters of Enlightenment thought. Tellingly for us Methodists, Bosch calls this foregrounding of human agency “the gradual ‘Arminianization’ of Protestantism, evidenced . . . by the rapid growth of (Arminian) Methodist and Baptist churches in the United States . . .”
Now, we would surely want to debate Bosch’s claim. Yet it is worth noting that a significant cadre of United Methodist scholars have detected a similar dynamic at work in our current employment of the Matthean commission. The foregrounding of “making” language in the Discipline’s description of our mission (¶¶ 120-122), they complain, obscures the priority of grace in mission, focusing on “what ‘we’ do, rather than the primacy of God’s grace and power.” In so doing, and perhaps inevitably, disciple-making becomes a “system,” with disciples as “output” or “product.”
Should it surprise, then, given the deep anxiety in the U.S. church, fuelled by decades-long rhetoric of decline, that the already tenuous depiction of the grace-faith dynamic noted above should deteriorate into a full-blown obsession with “fixing”—with rightsizing church structures, with membership metrics and “dashboards”?
Buried in this frenzy is our deep-seated Methodist commitment to an accountable faith—a discipleship that is actively guided and shaped in all its dimensions, from individual devotion to denominational structures, by the rhythms of the means of grace. As Randy Maddox and others have reminded us, at our best, “making disciples” is always the function of that delicate synergy of divine initiative and human response.