Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Amending the Mission of the Church

"The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ."
(Book of Discipline - 2004, ¶120)

At JUMC, we make sure that the mission of the Church is in our bulletin every week. Everything that we do ought to be viewed through the lens of our mission. Hopefully, it's something upon which every one who participates in our worship and ministry reflects; I know that the pastor tries to drive it home regularly!

One of the proposals to be considered by our General Conference in a few weeks will alter our mission. The proposal has been made that our mission be changed to "The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

Many United Methodists have been citing this as our mission (incorrectly) for some time. The truth is that the proposed amendment originates not in our Discipline, but in the Council of Bishops. We need to remember, though, that the Bishops cannot change our mission. Our mission remains the sentence stated at the beginning of this post.

Should we change our mission statement? The truth is that I believe GC2008 will approve the change, if for no other reason than many UMs seem to think that the new version is already in place. And transforming a world so in need of transformation is certainly not a bad thing.

But Stephen Taylor over at NitroRev raises some good points. Stephen is a GC delegate from South Carolina. Concerning the new version, he writes,
"It’s definitely a 'Methodist' statement, which means it is sufficiently ambiguous. It leaves wide open for interpretation 'how' we are going to transform the world and what such transformation would look like. That’s the perfect scenario for any cause group to argue that their issue deserves priority attention since it is part of our 'mission'."

The problem, as I see it, is that some UMs might shift their focus from the making of disciples to the transformation of the world. Transforming the world might then become our measure of success; we may not do well when it comes to baptisms or professions of faith, but as long as people are getting health care in Africa, human rights in Tibet, or just immigration laws into the USA, we may determine that we're being faithful.

Please don't misunderstand...getting health care in Africa, human rights in Tibet, and just immigration laws into the USA are all worthwhile projects. None are necessarily antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But these ministries should not be seen as ends in themselves, but rather as a response to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Our mission is a concise adaptation of Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28, in which our Lord commands, "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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." He said nothing about transforming the world in this passage.

Our reason for making disciples, then, is not to transform the world. We make disciples because Jesus commanded us to do it. Transforming the world is a secondary concern; it's not a bad thing, but it's not part of the commission given us by Jesus. The official mission statement of the Church should not obscure Jesus' command. A more faithful change, then, might read, "The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for Jesus commanded it."

Lots to pray about in the coming weeks...


Unknown said...

I agree 100%... our mission is make disciples who Love God and Love our Neighbors. Transforming the world is not a goal, transforming lives is! If, however, we transform enough lives, the world will change too.

I most concerned with people who think that passing laws will bring change. God showed us in the OT, that Law cannot transform the soul, yet still we think we can pass laws better than God's?

Ah, I am off topic a bit, but I think you are spot on in your thinking Keith.

Jeff Kahl said...


This is a great piece! When I initially read the proposed change in the mission statement, I thought it was a great idea. There is definitely a tendency in some churches to focus on "discipleship" to the exclusion of "mission and evangelism," so I felt that the changed mission statement would challenge people to more commitment in evangelistic efforts.

However, after reading your post, I am convince that you are right. The proposed alteration in the mission statement is indeed ambiguous. It implies that "making Christian disciples" is not a worthy end in itself, but it can only be justified if it leads to "world transformation." As you stated, "transform the world" can be interpreted in so many ways that are not of primary importance from an eternal perspective.

In a nutshell, thanks for a very thoughtful piece and for giving me a new perspective. You are indeed the man, and not just for your taste in music!


Randy Roda said...

Keith...you are wise...transforming one's life in a relationship with Jesus Christ must be what we are about. The fact is that many UM's equate social justice with discipleship when the two are totally different...great piece

Greg Cox said...

There will be no health care in Africa if we don't transform lives here at home! The Rev on Nitrous is wise and we do need to transform those here. As we continue to decline here in the states, we will continue to BE the mission field.

Chris said...

Great thoughts Keith! Wouldn't the outflow of a bunch of disciples be transformation? But that transformation would be directed by the Holy Spirit versus the desire of man.

Thanks for the great explanation!

Keith H. McIlwain said...

AND...we don't make disciples in order to transform the world; God will do that just fine, thank you very much, when Jesus returns and we get to live in the New Jerusalem. We make disciples BECAUSE JESUS TOLD US TO DO IT.

Unknown said...

Good stuff Keith. If disciples are made and in the making, transformation is occuring. Clearly, our mission is to make disciples.

Anonymous said...

How about our Believe Again program? It also has in the mission statement "to make disciples for the TRANSFORMATION of the world?" Perhaps we need to fix that? (Tried to post this earlier but I think my computer burped)

Brett Probert said...

I am on vacation and I've been pretty much absent from the blog world lately. However this morning I was perusing some of my blog haunts and saw your latest soapbox speech.

Keith, I think this is your best blog article ever. You clearly articulated the rationale behind your feelings. You present a great argument. You are speaking prophetically, something we seem to fear in these days.

I agree completely with your argument. Let me add a few randomly related thoughts:

Mission statements don't change anything. God in His Holy Spirit living through people, who are transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and whose sole purpose for living is to respond to that, changes things. Our annual conference lost members, attenders, and church communities last year despite our new "Believe Again" focus.

I recently heard a bishop say, about a colleague, that if he doen't stop trying to be so radical in the change that he was trying to bring that "he wouldn't last long" in that annual conference. Wow, I didn't know that was the goal...to see how long we can last in an annual conference. Let's face it...power corrupts. Sadly, our bishops are corrupted by this power. I actually hope our AC episcopal candidate doesn't get elected. He is simply too good a man, and too good a pastor, to lose. I believe many more disciples will be made over the years by Eric simply staying in the local church and engaging the work of ministry rather than being corrupted to only talk of such things.

Wow...sorry for the rambling. I could say so much more, but I'm on vacation you know....

Anonymous said...

Brett, et. al.
Yes! The Holy Spirit transforms people- and that is what we are all about. To the point of this blog thread: we need to be careful we don't grieve the Spirit by changing our mission statement to something politically correct rather than the one already Divinely mandated. Have we done so already- our Believe Again mission statement? If so we need to repent (including change direction... can anyone say "Legislation for Annual Conference?). if not, that giant sucking sound you hear (cup hand to ear) is the Holy Spirit leaving and taking all the honest seekers of faith with Him to some independent church near you.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

John, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The problem is that one can't legislate morality OR theology. That must be lived into.

Unfortunately - and I blame myself for part of this - we were asleep when "Believe Again" became Conference policy. Perhaps we were lulled to sleep by the sheer magnitude of it; perhaps we were simply too distracted with other matters. But we failed at the time to realize the error and state, "Hey...that's not our mission!" The good parts of the plan obscured the problems.

The truth is that we could propose a change in the Conference mission. But, I have a feeling that those who are more invested in "Believe Again" would argue against the change, and they are a lot more influential than Keith McIlwain, John Emigh, or Brett Probert (sorry, Brett).

So we'd fail, but we'd also have an opportunity to make a point, and get the theology out there, which might be more important in an age when the Church tends to think strategically before it thinks theologically (except for Zilhaver, who may be the only person in our Conference who does both at the same time).

My advice would be to wait. This year, our Conference will be dealing with GC2008 and the implementation of "Believe Again", which has been problematic at times and, in my view, largely unaccountable (and I have voiced those concerns at meetings of our Connectional Network/Conference Council). My advice would be to ponder this and propose changes in 2010, which also gives time to gather support.

BUT...the point of this post was our mission statement as a Church, not as a Conference. The Church mission statement is Discipline; it is Church law. The Conference mission statement is another matter. It's Conference policy, not Church law. There's a difference, however subtle.

The truth is, John, that those who will leave (and they will likely continue to do so) largely because of our theological and missional compromise will not change their minds because of our Conference mission statement. They'll leave if we don't faithfully live out our real mission, which Jesus gave us in Matthew 28. Let's not get too distracted in transforming the world that we forget why we're here and why we're called...and let's pledge to not allow our Conference to get too distracted either.