Our United Methodist Mission

The mission of the United Methodist Church is “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

As a slogan goes, it has deeper rooting in the Christian tradition than our marketing slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It’s a very short jump from Jesus’ “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.” We even see the same words occurring in each.

A case can be made for a Christian reading of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” but it’s not so direct. If by “Open Hearts” we mean something like “love your neighbor as yourself,” “love one another as I have loved you,” or “hangout with sinners and outcasts like Jesus did,” the meaning is plainly Christian. If by “Open Minds” we mean something like, “Think clearly and apply yourself to becoming educated” or “Be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” we can also read the second admonition as at least amenable to interpretation as consistent with Christianity.

The problem with “Open Minds” lies in the meaning it has in the broader culture, the erstwhile audience of this marketing slogan. To many in our age “Open Minds” is more likely to mean “Be ready to set aside traditional (even traditional Christian) convictions” or “let whatever the preponderance of current scientific/scholarly opinion says replace what you used to believe.” It may be that the “preponderance of current scientific/scholarly opinion says” is worthy of our belief as Christians. But surely it’s not difficult to find instances through the ages of this not being the case.

Nonetheless, I count being an open-minded Christian to be a good thing – as long as my open mind finds its home in my allegiance to Christ. As an open-minded Christian I will seek new learning – even be hungry for increased knowledge. I will turn away from dogmatism and seeking to coerce others to believe exactly as I do. I will also, however, eschew “doctrinal indifferentism” or convictionless Christianity, as I seek to follow John Wesley in maintaining a “Catholic Spirit.” I will also learn from a Catholic Christian of a previous generation, G.K. Chesterton, and I paraphrase from memory: “The purpose of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close on something healthy and nourishing.”

“Open Doors” is also easily read as a Christian descriptor of a Jesus-oriented church. I’ve been acquainted with too many churches that turn people away for some reason or another. Sometimes it’s been their race. Sometimes it’s been their social class. Sometimes it’s been their age. I’m happy to affirm that I want to lead a Jesus-oriented church with an open door to all sinners, regardless of what sins have currently entranced them. I know I’d be in trouble if the church had shut its doors to sinners of my predilection. Church is a place where sinners are welcomed with open arms.

But church is also a place where sinners are healed and transformed. One of our central Wesleyan convictions is that sin can be overcome. There is no sin we partake in that is necessary, no temptation to which we cannot, through the power of the Spirit, say NO. As a “open-doored hospital for sinners,” we bring them in and lovingly confront their sin. Doubtless, one only needs a superficial knowledge of church history (recent or further back) to know that we’ve not only failed too frequently to have open doors – we’ve also too frequently failed to identify sin as sin and to bring the healing devices of the Spirit into play. Each age seems to have a particular set of sins we rail against AND another set that we coddle and justify.

“Open Doors” can also get us into trouble. Let’s stick with the hospital metaphor for a moment. Hospitals may have open doors – taking all the sick and injured they can so they might heal some. I bet – I hope! – however, that the role of “nurse,” “doctor,” “surgeon,” “therapist,” etc., isn’t immediately open to all comers. If I’m going to be a patient in a hospital, I want people who are well-trained in medicine, who can closely approximate true knowledge of my condition, and who can be skilled in joining in the healing process. Likewise, in church, I want leaders who have the essential Christian convictions, who connect up adequately with reality as construed by the Christian tradition, who can then join in with what God is doing and wants to do.

As United Methodists we have been less than clear in recent generations on that “connecting up adequately with reality as construed by the Christian tradition.” Although we have substantive doctrinal standards, we lack a shared understanding of what those standards say, how they are to be interpreted, and how they are to be put into action. Steve Rankin, Chaplain at Southern Methodist University, recently suggested the need for a “Methodist Magisterium” to overcome just these weaknesses.

I think we’re too far gone as a denomination to make a move to a magisterium. In the first place, for many in our leadership, the normative doctrinal pluralism of our pre-1988 Book of Discipline is still our de facto denominational position. In the second place, our lack of unity will make it impossible to settle on who should serve as the magisterium. Some would say, “Hey – we have official denominational seminaries, surely we can just trust the faculty of those seminaries to function as the magisterium!” Others will note in response, “Not only do some of our seminaries not require faculty members to be United Methodist, they don’t even require them to be Christians.” The United Methodist Church lacks the unity and trust required even to create a magisterium – assuming we became united around the idea of wanting one.

Let’s go back the beginning – to our current mission statement. How are we to read it?

There are two parts: “Make disciples of Jesus Christ” and “for the transformation of the world.” From what I see, our current major factions are willing to claim both parts. But do we share an understanding of what each part means and how each functions? I’m afraid not. The heaviest burden falls on the word “for.”

We can read the mission statement as a statement of means and end. The end, the goal, is the “transformation of the world.” The means to that end is “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  We can also read the “for” as indicating result: We “make disciples of Jesus Christ” and this results in “the transformation of the world.” My perception is that first reading is more common among progressive United Methodists while the second is more common among traditionalist United Methodists. Both value disciplemaking; both value transforming the world; it’s the emphasis that differs.

Our factions also differ on what we mean by each part of the mission. What does it mean to be/make disciples? What are the specifics of the transformed world we’re looking to produce?

It’s tempting to observe that “transformation of the world” can be read as “achieve our political agenda.” That political agenda may or may not have any connection to the Christian tradition. The more contextualized our churches and ministries, the more we are in danger of settling for a transformation agenda that owes more to our culture than to Christ. I identify this as a temptation; the temptation lies in imagining this is only a danger for the “other team,” the factions of the church I don’t align with. None of us, no matter our protestations to stand for something like the “pure gospel” or “original Wesleyan Methodism” are immune to the influences of our culture. We are always immersed in some particular culture that shapes our world.

Given this reality, I’ll close with two suggestions.

First, when we talk about “transformation of the world” we must begin with the fact that the major transformation of the world has already happened. Because Jesus, God in the flesh, has been crucified and raised from the dead, we live in the new creation. This new creation in Christ is now our fundamental reality. Any approach to transforming the world apart from the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is at best sub-Christian. As those who “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we must be centered on “Jesus Christ” who is the embodiment of transformation.

Second, Andrew Walls’ concept of the Pilgrim Principle and the Indigenizing Principle can help us hold our connection with the Christian tradition and our host cultures in proper tension. The Pilgrim Principle claims that we are a holy people, God’s chosen people, redeemed by the blood of Christ, set apart for God. We are moving on to perfection (to use the Wesleyan term – which Walls doesn’t). Our destination – our destiny – is defined around Jesus and his kingdom, not this world.

The Indigenizing Principle is what compels us to connect with the world through culture. Drawing from the reality of the incarnation, the Indigenizing Principle is the background of Paul’s self-description in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul “becomes all things to all people” so that he can win them over to Christ. We operate in our local cultures. We learn the local languages and ways of being. We translate the gospel and the kingdom life rooted in it so that through God’s prevenient grace we become bridges for those who are currently outside to come inside.

This entry was posted in Discipleship, Discipline, Diversity, Doctrine, United Methodism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Our United Methodist Mission

  1. steverankin says:

    As usual, a thoughtful piece. When Richard Heyduck speaks, I listen. I’m inclined to agree with you that a magisterium for the present United Methodism is almost entirely unlikely. I also think, however, that any successor denomination going forward that wants to avoid the paroxysms of schism that we’re currently feeling will have to develop something like a magisterium.

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