What Happened to the UMC Mission Statement?
A person looking at annual conference, local church, and general agency web sites, reading newsletters and other publications, and listening to United Methodist pastors, district superintendents, bishops, and general agency staff persons see and hear very clearly that the mission of The United Methodist Church is “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” But is it really? If you actually read the mission as it appears in ¶ 120 of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004, you will find the following:
¶ 120. The Mission – The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.
Did you notice the period after the word “Christ”? There is no mention of “for the transformation of the world.”
If you continue reading in ¶ 121 you will find the rationale for the mission. This is where one would expect to find “for the transformation of the world.” But you will not find it. Rather, you will find discussion of “fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.” The rationale makes clear that the mission of making disciples of Jesus is Christ is the church’s response to the in-breaking and coming reign of God. The church is called by Christ to make disciples in order to participate in preparing the world for the coming kingdom of God. The church is to make disciples so that it can participate in Christ’s work of ushering in the reign of God. It is very clear that the Church does not “transform the world.” God will be the one doing the work of transforming the world; with or without the Church.
It’s a mystery to me as to why “transform the world” was added to the denomination’s mission statement. It is also a concern to me because it muddles the mission of the church. My guess is that much of the church’s leadership is at a loss as to how to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” But they have very definite ideas about how to “transform the world.” Some would transform the world in the image of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Others would transform the world in the image of the “good old days” when the churches were full on Sunday morning and the culture was “Christian.” However, I suspect neither image, or any other to emerge from limited human desire or imagination, resembles the in-breaking and coming reign of God.
The other problem with this hybrid mission statement is that it is not Biblical and it is not Wesleyan. The mission statement as it appears in The Book of Discipline is derived directly from Matthew 28:18-20
… Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Jesus is very clear here that the mission is to go into the world and make disciples. We are to baptize them into the name and family of the triune God. And we are to teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded. Jesus’ summarized his commands in Mark 12:28-34 and John 13:34-35 –
- Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength
- Live out your love for God by loving those whom God loves
- Love one another, as Christ loves you
- Loving one another will reveal to the world that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ
All this is beautifully summarized by the writer of 1 John
Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:7-12).
The emphasis here is on “making disciples of Jesus Christ.” The task described here is that of transforming human character into the Christ-like character. It is about changing hearts, minds, and lives into the image of Christ so that they becomes and live in the world as channels of divine grace. The church is to form persons who live so that the light of Christ shines through them for the world; “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
John Wesley’s ministry was focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ. His mission was to save souls and to help them to live as channels of grace for the world. If Wesley’s mission was to “transform the world,” he went about it by doing all in his power to help Christ transform human hearts, minds, and lives.
He understood that human beings were too limited and fallible in knowledge and understanding to begin to “transform the world.” Only God possessed the knowledge, wisdom, and power to change the world. Wesley was very clear that his task, and the task of the Church, was to proclaim and live the gospel of Jesus Christ so that it is indeed good news to those who hear and receive it. He knew enough from his study of Scripture and experience of human limitations to leave the business of transformation of the world up to God. He also believed and proclaimed that the gospel equips the Church to participate in God’s mission of transformation of human lives and of the world.
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Adding to this “for the transformation of the world” only muddies the waters. If the Church is to make disciples it should leave the rest up to God and God’s purposes. After all, Scripture is fairly clear that disciples are to be prepared to live as citizens of the reign of God. In the process they are transformed by grace to become fully the human beings God created them to be, in Christ.
Finally, it seem to me that the phrase “to transform the world” exposes a post-Constantinian understanding of the Church that has more to do with power and politics than it does with the Scriptural witness. The Church entered the “transformation of the world” business when it became the state religion of the Roman Empire; this eventually lead to the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is the Church taking over for God. When the Church takes on for itself the work of transforming the world, it is like telling God “Thanks for all you’ve done to get us to this point. We’ll take over from here. If we need your help, we’ll give you a call.”
The United Methodist Church may begin to grow and experience new life and vitality when it focuses all of its energy into the ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ. This is the mission given by Jesus himself. And he has given some clear instructions on how to do this important work. He also makes clear that transformation of the world is his job. The church will play a part if and when it lives out the mission Christ has given to it.
Steven W. Manskar