The Connection & Mission

Throughout the history of Methodism, there has been an emphasis on connection. Every church is connected to every other church. Every pastor is connected to every other pastor. We hold many things in common, including church discipline, fiduciary responsibility of money and land, theology, mission, etc. This interdependency and trust has been so important that the denomination has made up a word to describe the emphasis:  connectionalism. When we speak of connectionalism, we speak of a state of being in connection with others. It is ingrained in our very understanding of who we are.

Occasionally, this connection is challenged in the way that the great hymn speaks, “By schisms rent asunder/By heresies distressed.” Schisms dealing with slavery, urbanization, racism, and influence of wealth have led to other Wesleyan (followers of John Wesley’s theology) movements. Theology was a major sticking point when revival broke out on Azusa Street, beginning the pentecostal movement in America. Though it was birthed from the Holiness roots of Methodism, Methodism was unable to fit the movement into what had become a very modernist theology.

Today, there are two things that seem to threaten the connection of the church:  theology and mission. The former is tied up in biblical interpretation, authority of Scripture, and the history of the church. There are a few specific issues that become the poster children of this debate, namely salvation and homosexual relationships. While these are crucial issues, I don’t believe that these present the most pressing and immediate problem for the church.

The greatest threat to the connection of the United Methodist Church is a lack of focused mission. On the one hand, there is the general mission of the church to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Further, there are key elements that set some structure to that. The denominational website says that the church’s mission could be broken down into welcoming-worshiping-nurturing-sending.

Over the next few days, we will look at the each of those four areas. While they appear to be acceptable and appropriate ways of approaching mission, they lack real insight and motivation.

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Mission & Theology

The relationship between theology and mission is long and eventful, to be sure. The conversation about the relationship lay dormant for centuries, as theology became the locus of the religious academy. The conversation experienced a revival in the early 20th century (Pachuau 539).

Mission was given a kick-start when, in 1908, Martin Kahler suggested that mission is the “mother of theology” (Bosch 489). The explosion of the mission of God in early church, held Kahler, was so expansive that the early church was forced to do theology on the fly. As a result, theology was, in the early year, very practical and very tied to the mission of God.

Over the centuries, the church gained prominence and power. Mission does not have the same urgency when all of your neighbors claim faith in Christ. During this time, theology held a solid position as the instructive focus of the church. Mission became a sub plot of the church. In some cases, mission continued to be practiced actively. However, for the most part, mission became just one of many things that the church did.

As the Enlightenment began to influence the western world, the sole proprietorship of truth was transferred from history or church or family to self. Each person was given the authority to judge ultimate truth with confidence. Therefore, any dogma or propagation simply became a nuisance or an oppressive system. The dominance of this Enlightenment thought led to pluralism, and the church in the western world has been in decline ever since. Over the past century, the church has been increasingly marginalized and seems ill equipped to deal with the effects of pluralism (From Sending to Being Sent 2).

The good news is that the people of God have been in this situation before. In many ways, believers in 21st century North America may feel like Israelites during the exile or, perhaps, first century Christians. As noted above, the exile and the birth of Christianity were times when the mission of God became a focus for the people of God. The people of God needed to know that God’s purposes would be accomplished. They also needed instructions on living among pagans in a way that extends the blessings of God.

As the realization of an increasingly pagan culture began to strike, some theologians began to reevaluate the mission of the church. A worldwide war had shattered the optimism that humanity was becoming more ethical. The hope of the world must exist apart from the atrocities of humanity. In this setting, Karl Barth addressed the Brandenburg Missionary Conference (1932), saying that mission was God’s activity, returning authority to God. Twenty years later, at the Willingen Conference, the first articulation of the missio Dei was presented (Bosch 389-390).

The missio Dei began the process of shifting the emphasis of mission. In the missio Dei, mission is not a program that the church does to be proud of. Instead, the mission belongs to God and is all that the church is about. We will deal with the missio Dei more specifically in the next post.