We United Methodists have concluded our quadrennial General Conference. As expected, the church spent days upon days arguing about a long list of divisive social issues – each settled by a divided vote of 992 delegates representing over 12 million worldwide members. We can calculate the labor-hours wasted at General Conference on this exercise, but this waste pales in comparison the damage that has been inflicted on the church over the past four decades of our existence.
Still, this may not be the worst thing to come out of General Conference. The worst thing may be six words that nearly everyone agreed on. Currently, the “mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 120). General Conference voted 776-102 to add these words to the mission statement: “for the transformation of the world” (Petition 80271).
The mission now contains a task and purpose. In its form, it would make a perfectly good mission statement in a military order. We routinely give commanders both a task and a purpose. For example, “secure Objective A to prevent the escape of enemy forces” is different from “secure Objective A to facilitate the forward movement of 3d Brigade, 52d Division.” The task is just a means to an end. When the plan to accomplish the task does not go as expected (and it never does), the commander keeps the ultimate purpose in mind as he/she makes adjustments to the plan.
We have declared that making disciples is a means to an end. The end (or goal) is the transformation of the world. There are really only two ways to read this statement that fit its grammar. Either the act of making disciples itself somehow transforms the world, or the disciples that we make then go on to transform the world themselves. I suspect those who adopted the statement intend the latter. Even if one posits “with God’s help” at the end of the new mission statement, however, it still does not correspond to the faith that I find anywhere in the New Testament. Whether disciples are transforming the world by their own good works or by the power of God working through them, we do not make disciples primarily so that they can transform the world.
I agree with the idea that the transformation of the world is at the heart of the gospel. I might summarize the gospel story as “He makes all things new.” Transformation is what we in the military call “the end state.” When the mission is complete, what is the state of being that exists? In the Christian scriptures, the end state is the the just and peaceful reign of God in the age to come. It is the New Heavens and New Earth, the universal and cosmic transformation of all existence at Christ’s appearing. In the coming age, not only is human sinfulness (in all its dimensions) overcome, but even death itself is vanquished forever. And I do not dispute that Christians receive an incomplete and imperfect foretaste of that age now by the power of the Holy Spirit. In some ways, our life together anticipates the life of the age to come. (In other ways, we are mired in intractable sin in our life together.)
The new mission statement, however, conforms very well to the optimism of late 19th century Christian liberalism that stripped Christianity from its eschatological (“Christ is coming again”) and anthropological (“sin is universal and pervasive”) framework. Despite its male-oriented language, William Merrill’s 1911 hymn Rise Up O Men of God captures the spirit of that age very well.
Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
to serve the King of kings.
Rise up, O men of God!
The kingdom tarries long.
Bring in the day of brotherhood
and end the night of wrong.
Rise up, O men of God!
The church for you doth wait,
her strength unequal to her task;
rise up, and make her great!
Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where his feet have trod.
As brothers of the Son of Man,
rise up, O men of God!
Merrill’s hymn and its sentiments are lovely. I’ve sung this hymn all my life and on a purely emotional basis, it is one of my favorites. It’s theological foundations, however, are distorted. In Merrill’s theology, the kingdom that “tarries long” ultimately comes through human acts; the church can and will “bring in the day of brotherhood and end the night of wrong.” Those states-of-being are indeed aspects of the kingdom, but we won’t bring them into existence, at least not in any lasting and universal sense. God will bring the kingdom, apart from and often despite our best efforts and best intentions.
I find no gradualism in the New Testament, no idea that we – or God working through us – will over time make the world better and better until at last it becomes fully what God created it to be. None of the New Testament authors describe the mission of the church in terms of transforming the world. Christ’s appearing at the end of the age – and the transformation it brings – is the logical completion of Christ’s resurrection, not the completion of the church’s mission.
It’s not that 19th century Christian liberals didn’t believe in Christ’s resurrection; they did. But they certainly did not believe in an eschatological transformation at the end of the age. Christ’s victory in their thought had two components: personally, a believer (or perhaps everyone) would “go to heaven” when he or she dies. Socially, Christ’s victory comes through dedicated believers living faithfully in the world. For 1900 years, however, the church had taught that Christ’s victory is one: my personal resurrection to eternal life is inseparably bound up with his transformation of all creation at his appearing.
I understand that Tom Wright has tried to make a similar point in his new book Surprised by Hope which has been excerpted by Christianity Today in “Heaven is Not our Home.” Wright is correct in his major premise, but I suspect that he is much more optimistic than I am about unqualifiedly positive nature of the church’s impact on the world. He says, “The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.” Wright suggests that Christians proleptically stake a claim on “this world in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’ lordship, and of the Spirit’s power” and “go straight from worshiping in the sanctuary to debating in the council chamber.” While I agree that the church anticipates the kingdom to come, I also know that the institutional church is still deeply entangled in sin and believers are too easily deluded into mistaking their own thoughts and feelings for the voice of God or the work of the spirit. I am apparently much more simul justus et peccator than Wright, and apparently less charismatically inclined. Even Wright, however, does not claim that Christian disciples finally and completely transform the world. The best we can do is “anticipate” the transformation that is yet to come.
The 19th century liberal vision was based on an often-unspoken triumphalist theology. With its new utopian social vision – instead of the dead orthodoxy of 1900 years of church history – the church would grow in size and influence until all humankind adopted its vision of the kingdom. All social relationships would be eventually be perfected as God’s kingdom values took hold. Of course we United Methodists can’t really agree about what this transformation looks like. Winning a vote at General Conference is not the same as winning hearts and minds. The larger the group, the harder it is to come to a real consensus. Our 12 million people don’t agree on the most loving course of action in the political world, and we are less than 0.2% of the world’s population. But, beware of big organizations with utopian aspirations! They’ll give you what’s good for you whether you like it or not.
So, I’ll always place an asterisk by the new mission statement and mentally translate it it my head:
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ, who himself will transform the world and those who belong to him at his glorious appearing.
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ, so they will be delivered from the wrath to come and be forever with the Lord.
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ who by the power of Holy Spirit receive an incomplete and imperfect foretaste in this age of the age to come.
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ, who anticipate the life of the age to come in their life together.
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ who, like salt and light, have a positive effect on their immediate surroundings.
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ who will do their best to love their neighbors as Jesus loved them.
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ because he alone is the full and final self-revelation of God the Father and the church is the witness to his story.
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ – because the one with all authority in heaven and earth said so.
- To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the glory of God alone.