We all agreed what we needed in our Annual Conference is a renewed sense of mission. At least, no one in our group offered any dissent to the idea. The sentiment made sense. Over the last 20+ years, I have heard many criticisms of The United Methodist Church coming from lay people. But I have not heard any criticisms of United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). The highpoint of our Annual Conference meeting has been the ceremonial sounding of the horns by the truck drivers carrying the mission kits and buckets for Liberia or Zimbabwe. It is a truism that people are more enthusiastic in giving to missions than to budgets. So, we may ask, why is everything falling apart?
The Mission Sense
I am aware of the colonialist baggage of the word mission. Everyone knows the term. We use it for church works of charity, witness, and outreach. What I want to discuss though is the sense of mission.
A friend in seminary and I asked a simple question among ourselves. Do United Methodists value contemplation? We answered no. You cannot value something when you don’t know what it is. This fact was demonstrated a few years later in discussion led by a lay person. He wanted to talk about John Wesley. John is a good topic for Methodists. Truthfully, we are more familiar with some of Charles’ compositions. But that is because we sing them.
The lay member read how John and his friends held “Morning Prayer” at 5:00am. “What is that?” He asked. Honestly, he did not know the United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) contained services for daily morning and evening prayers. Since he turned his question to me, I answered as best I could. The next season when I led the weekly study I brought in the practice of “Evening Prayer” as described by the UMH.
Being and Doing
I wish I could say everyone learned to pray and our mission expanded. It would not be true. But evening prayer has been a boost for congregations where I added it. If our sense of mission grew because of it, I did not see it. I made the mistake of believing it should.
Methodists, unconsciously sometimes, follow the formula of St. Luke in Acts 1:1b. “I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning.” We attach more importance to action than to anything else. It is a part the English cultural heritage of Americans. Considering this fact, it is easy for every faith practice to be the fuel for mission.
A friend who left United Methodist ministry for the Episcopalian priesthood made this point. “There is no room for being.” We have tried to further develop spirituality within the Wesleyan movement. We have borrowed Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions. But we cannot get past the hurdle of thinking these practices only have value in relation to our actions.
The issue is simple. How do we report what we are doing? It is charge conference season for my Annual Conference. Reports on our congregational mission are requested. At the end of the year, the aptly named “Year-End” reports will measure our congregation’s mission effectiveness. We will be asked how much money we raised, where it went, and how many “giving units” were involved. Year-end reports also ask about membership numbers, congregational, gender and ethnic composition, deaths and baptisms, and how many small groups met.
These are methods to quantify missions. Clergy who have just finished the Advent/Christmas seasons are required to report totals. In other words, we are to reduce a year’s worth of ministry to measurements that negate the being part of “being in mission.” The question, though, is how else can we know we are effective in mission?
Having a renewed sense of mission was agreed among our clergy small group. It was composed of pastors from large and small churches. Pastors who were either active or retired. And pastors who were liberal, traditionalist, moderate, and one self- identified liberationist made up this group too. Why did we all agree on missions? It was the simple fact that we can do mission together without considering the diversity of the members. Mission can be used for the purpose of distraction. Consider how differences of race, class, and ideology disappear during sporting events. The event distracts from the differences. There is a value in having it do so.
Are issues of inclusion, justice, holiness, and doctrine important? Of course they are. Most of the time, they are abstractions. It is not until someone acts that they become concrete. It is easier to leave these issues in the abstract and make charity, witness and outreach concrete in missional action.
The General Rules, the world as parish, and spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land are Wesleyan expressions of missional spirituality. Abstract ideas about “scriptural authority” or “intentional inclusion” are meant to become unifying principles that end up dividing people. A missional spirituality of prayer, scripture reading/study, and contemplation centered on becoming empowered as spiritual citizens of Heaven alive in this world, is the sense of mission needed.
Our activities of outreach, witness, and caring become the result rather than the goal of life lived in missional spirituality. Our missional actions should not define us. It is the other way around. What we are becomes what we do.