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.
Given the danger of focusing too much on human initiative in mission, as I outlined in my last post, what should we do, then? For a denomination wracked by anxiety over perceived decline, is the temptation to take matters into our own hands simply too great, unwittingly perpetuating the distortions of which Bosch and others have warned? Therefore, should we abandon the Matthean commission in favor of, say, Johannine or Lucan themes of mission and discipleship? Some have argued as much.
I, for one, am not yet persuaded. What we need, I think, is not a new mission statement but a coherent ecclesiology to give our disciple-making task the theological depth and missional flexibility fit for a global context. And to that end Grace Upon Grace and GBGM’s Theology of Mission, reflective of the ecumenical consensus summarized in TTL, offer important resources. I will mention just one or two.
We should pause to insist, however, that we dare not do our ecclesial reflection without substantive exegetical attention to Matt. 28:19-20—and to do so in the context of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. This exegetical work serves not only to resist the all-too-common habit of using “making disciples for the transformation of the world” as a free-floating mantra in denominational discourse, deliberation, and communication. It serves also—and more importantly—to anchor our mission statement in Matthew’s total account of Jesus’ identity and mission. Surprising, perhaps even transformative, insights might result.
Take, for example, the fact that Matthew intends chapter 28:19-20 as a summary of his Gospel. “[T]eaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (v. 19) thus lifts up the entirety of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, recounted in the preceding chapters, as the pattern of discipleship. The result lends discipleship a prophetic, even costly, edge. Comments Bosch: “To become a disciple is to be incorporated into God’s new community through baptism and to side with the poor and the oppressed. . . . This is what Jesus has commanded his disciples . . .”
As a further example, consider that verse 20, promising Christ’s abiding presence with the disciples is not intended as a spiritual “back up” for however the church happens to define its mission. Rather, it reminds the disciples of mission as divinely generated and directed gift and promise. The church’s mission depends upon and endures as long as Christ’s promised presence. To use mission parlance: the church’s mission is always and forever a function of and a grateful response to the missio Dei. Does the absence of this concluding promise in the Discipline’s citation of the Great Commission confirm the above suspicion that United Methodists tend to sublimate the priority of grace in mission?
Which brings us, briefly, to Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission as resources in constructing a coherent missional ecclesiology. In both documents, and beautifully and succinctly in the latter, United Methodists encounter at least three crucial affirmations:
(1) Mission is always and irreversibly the work of the triune God. Mission is a function of the doctrine of God. Mission is missio Dei.
(2) This means the church’s mission is always and irreversibly derivative, as instrument and servant of the divine mission. Foregrounding the church’s disciple-making charge at the expense of the divine initiative contradicts the logic of the missio Dei and compromises the church’s call.
(3) Mission is a journey of discovery, surprise, repentance, and transformation, as the church encounters in the neighbor a divine initiative that always and irreversibly precedes even our loftiest visions and best-laid plans. Thus mission regains its sense of expectancy and unpredictability. And, as the GBGM document notes, the virtues appropriate to an ever-surprising divine initiative is “openness” and “gratitude,” as we “await the leading of the Spirit in ways not yet seen as God continues to work God’s purposes out in our own day in a new way.”
This understanding of mission, and these virtues of missional discipleship, we Methodists once knew well. Grace Upon Grace and Theology of Mission are ready resources in recovering these seminal affirmations, however counterintuitive to a denomination so anxious to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.