Is The United Methodist Church's mission statement really Methodist?

April 1st, 2016

This article is an excerpt from Alsted's essay “Evangelism and Prevenient Grace in the 21st Century.” The essay appears in the journal Nordic Perspectives on Methodism, Volume 1: What Is Methodist Identity Today?

Perhaps the strongest influence on our present understanding of mission in northern Europe and elsewhere in The United Methodist Church is from this statement in "The Book of Discipline": “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs” (BOD 2012, p. 120). What is the message conveyed in this statement?

The distinct emphases—evangelism, church, the kingdom—have each been prioritized (and occasionally combined) during different periods in church history.1 For example, a missional concern for evangelism inspired missionaries to go into the world to share the gospel. However, this often led to minimal follow-up with new converts and a flawed ecclesiology. Then when the focus narrowed to making “church” the priority of mission, people built churches, organized congregations, developed leaders, and practiced faith formation. The danger was that a church could become self-serving and rely too much on human effort. Sometimes the narrow focus moves to God’s kingdom, and the emphasis tends to be on social justice and peace, while the human need for Christ is often overlooked, and the church becomes a political agent advocating democracy, human rights, and western civilization.

The United Methodist mission statement emphasizes a combined focus on the church and on God’s kingdom, while evangelism appears to be absent. The mission statement emphasizes “Church” with a capital C. The church is clearly at the center of our purpose, but it’s not taking part in God’s mission. Rather, in our present reality the church seems to have a mission of its own—“to make disciples for the transformation of the world.” It’s unclear whether the purpose is “making disciples” or “the transformation of the world.” Is “the transformation of the world” the expected outcome of disciple-making, or is “the transformation of the world” the real purpose and disciple-making is only a means to this end? The tension between the cause and effect is not resolved by reducing it to both/and in our mission statement, and this might explain in part the lack of alignment in The UMC.

Dana Robert and Douglas Tzan observe that our mission statement lacks integration with the nature of the church. It’s “an essentially pietistic and activist definition of mission.”2 I agree that our mission statement is not rooted in Missio Dei thinking. In fact, it seems the integration of “evangelism” with the “church” is the main problem with our denomination’s mission statement. The statement is too occupied with what the church must do and accomplish, while not reflecting what God is already doing through prevenient grace. The problem is that our mission statement holds us in a soteriological paradigm(3) that, in spite of being part of our history, is not essentially Wesleyan. It doesn’t take into account the work of prevenient grace and the invitation to communion with the triune God for experiencing the fullness of salvation.

Martyn Atkins at the British Methodist Conference in 2011 acknowledged the work of prevenient grace by saying that the Methodist Church is a “disciple-­making movement shaped for mission”—meaning we Methodists are continuously shaped for mission as we engage in God’s mission. Our church doesn’t have a mission. God’s mission has a church, and this involves us. The result of God’s mission is not emphasized in this memorable statement about a “disciple-making movement shaped for mission,” but our Wesleyan theology informs us that God’s mission will undoubtedly lead to the transformation of the world when disciples in community engage in justice and as salvation in its fullness encompasses all of life and all of creation.

Here are two additional questions out of the Methodist experience that need answers:

  1. Are we able to detach ourselves from the revivalistic perception of instantaneous conversion in a soteriological paradigm that doesn’t work anymore? Can we begin to ask what the Holy Spirit through prevenient grace is doing today in and among the people of our communities—and how we can participate?
  2. What can we learn from Wesley’s approach to mission—inviting people on a journey into communion with God and into Christian fellowship while encouraging them to do good, to do no harm, and to use the means of grace?

1. Dana L. Robert and Douglas D. Tzan, “Traditions and Transitions in Mission Thought,” in The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies, edited by William Abraham and James E. Kirby (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 434ff.

2. Ibid., 446.

3. Phillip Meadows, “The Journey of Evangelism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies, 413.

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