What Is the Great Commission, Part 2: Three Good Things about the Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


worship-planning-what-is-great-commission-3In Part I of this mini-series we looked at English translations of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) spanning four centuries and the ways in which those translations both reflected and then underwrote prevailing ecclesiological and missional assumptions of those who used these translations in their day and going forward.

Here, I invite us to look more closely at relationship between the Great Commission and the official mission statement of The United Methodist Church. By now, any of us who are United Methodist will be able to quote it from memory.

"The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

It's a powerful statement in many ways. It commits this church to discipleship as its aim. And it commits it to discipleship to Jesus that embraces both personal and social holiness. In that way it's a thoroughly Wesleyan, and deeply missional vision.

It's powerful in other ways as well. It is being used intentionally and widely to direct conversations, planning and budgeting in congregations, districts, conferences, General Agencies, the Connectional Table, the Call to Action Committee and the Council of Bishops about how we will organize, manage, evaluate, and pay for our work as The United Methodist Church.

Because this mission statement is actually that powerful, it was selected as the theme statement for the General Conference that will meet in Tampa, Florida in April-May 2012. And a version of this theme is also incorporated into the logo chosen for this General Conference, reproduced above.

As the General Agency staff person assigned to the assist the Council of Bishops in designing worship for 2012, I am working closely with Marcia McFee (chosen as director of worship for 2012) and the Council, among others, to help design worship that will help us embody and experience that theme with as much depth and integrity as possible.

So this matters to me-- professionally and personally.

I hope it matters to you, too!

What I want to do here is look at three ways the United Methodist mission statement embodies the Great Commission well and invite your comments or questions to share similar or other perspectives you may have from your setting and experience.

1. The United Methodist mission statement reads the Great Commission as the work of the whole "institutional" church in a variety of ways, not just its leaders, agencies, congregations, or individuals.

As we saw with the English translations we reviewed in the previous post, each of them seemed to underwrite or later get used to support a reading of the Great Commission that applied primarily in one particular way to one particular group of people.

For the KJV, it applied initially to the hierarchy of the Church of England, and then to missionary movements and agencies and a colonialist vision of Christian mission as well.

The RSV continued to be read in light of missionary agencies, which at that point were largely the work of major US and British Protestant denominations who, despite the political collapse of the colonial empires were still predominantly approaching "mission" and the Great Commission from a colonialist perspective-- a task "we" in the US or Britain paid "others" to do "for us" "over there" in order to get "them" (the folks who'd been "over there" all their lives for generations) to come round to our way of doing religion in the world.

TNIV (2005) reflected a vastly different scene for a vastly different audience. It at least apparently individualized the text and made it apply to all Christians wherever they were, encountering folks from whatever nations (people groups) they may find themselves with. This reflects a situation both of the individualization and sort of "customized consumerization" of Christianity, devolving everything to the individual or to perhaps to the congregation with whom the individual identifies, and, concurrently, the ongoing downsizing of denominational mission enterprises everywhere, partly due to finances, but perhaps as importantly due to a fairly widespread embrace of an indigenous approach to missions most powerfully voiced by folks like Lesslie Newbigin beginning in the middle of the 20th century, though actually already embodied by the Jesuits as early as the 16th.

The United Methodist mission statement, by contrast, reflects a reading of the Great Commission that embraces the "y'all" of the Greek, and that then seeks to employ it using the "we all" of the various sorts of leaders, agencies, congregations, and other organizations that make up the United Methodist "connexion." We're not saying this is all on the bishops (KJV) or GBGM (KJV and RSV). Nor are we saying it's all on the congregations or individuals (TNIV). It's on all of those, connected and finding new connections, and each of those levels/forms/formats of community in ways each can contribute what each has to offer.

It's no secret that I think we're still putting too much emphasis on congregations as the "basic missional unit" most competent to deliver on "discipling" itself. Our denominational founders, the Wesleys (along with their EUB confreres way back) gave up on congregations actually doing this well. That's why they started the Methodist societies and particularly the class meetings, which could and often did do this better.

Congregations didn't and wouldn't and many likely still won't. That doesn't mean the mission statement is flawed or congregations are flawed. It just means we need to add more pieces into the network that long to and can, in cooperation with congregations and others, actually do "discipling" with folks and do it well.

We're Methodists. We know how to do that! It's in our DNA, even if in a bit of a recessive way just now. But it's there!

2. The mission statement of The United Methodist Church privileges "making disciples."

Yes, there are problems with that phrase, "make disciples" in industrialized Western cultures, at least. I looked at those problems in some depth in the previous post.

But the language here of "disciples" is still impressive. It's not "church members." It's not "more United Methodists." It's "disciples." And it's "disciples of Jesus Christ."

And I have to say that's impressive because of some ecumenical encounters I've had over the years where the language of discipleship to Jesus is apparently absent, or at least not understood as part of the "currency" of conversation. One of these conversations recently was with a pastor (with good connections!) in the Disciples of Christ. That one really shocked me. Maybe it wasn't representative. I don't know.

But here we United Methodists are talking-- at every level of the church-- about discipleship to Jesus Christ.

And we seem to be serious about doing more than just talking, but actually praying and doing all sort of things about it.

As long as we don't "water it down" by confusing actual discipleship to Jesus with other things, and as long as we don't get too misled by the "production model" inherent in the English phrase "make disciples" (rather than "discipling people"), I'm very, very hopeful about this. Disciples present in any of these conversations can, and will, I trust, always try to draw us back from potential precipices.

3. The mission statement of The United Methodist Church may just get the apocalyptic timeline.

Or at least it's possible to hold the apocalyptic timeline within the United Methodist mission statement.

Here's why. The "event horizon" presented here-- "the transformation of the world"-- seems to presuppose that this is happening and ongoing here and now. It doesn't propose a delay to the end of secular history. It also doesn't propose a terminus in "the by and by." It instead places before us a world being transformed by God and with and perhaps at times through us who are disciples of Jesus Christ. It leaves the question of when the "complete fulfillment" might be out of the picture entirely, and so, at least one could suggest, up to the mercy and the wisdom of God who alone could know when "all things are completely fulfilled."

For Your Discussion and Comment

How do you read the mission statement of The United Methodist Church related to the Great Commission?

Where do you see us living it out faithfully-- or at least potentially doing so?

Where and how are we not doing so?

What can we do better?

And what are you doing about it?