United Methodist Communications does some excellent work with church advertising, training courses for church leaders, and the Imagine No Malaria campaign. I did a double-take, however, when I saw the cover of the new United Methodist Program Calendar. It has the slogan: “Transforming the World for Christ.”
This slogan is obviously a take-off from our church mission statement, “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” But that little preposition “for” on the cover makes me think that our communications are perhaps out of synch with our theology here.
“Making Disciples of Jesus Christ” was the mission statement that the 2000 General Conference adopted, based on Matthew 28:18-20. This is the heart of the church’s mission, proclaiming the Gospel and inviting hearers to respond to the moving of the Holy Spirit by placing their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and beginning the lifelong walk of discipleship. The goal is that each person realizes the full potential that God placed within them at their creation by being conformed to the likeness of Jesus (II Corinthians 3:18). In becoming like Jesus through the transforming power of God, we don’t lose our individuality; rather, we fulfill God’s design for each of us in our uniqueness.
The subsequent addition of “for the Transformation of the World” came in 2008 to indicate that our personal discipleship was intended to have a world-changing impact. As we, individually and corporately, are progressively transformed into the image of Christ, our communities will change as a result. My colleague John Southwick has blogged about the impact of Christian revivals on communities in the U.S. As people’s lives were transformed by coming to Christ, the community crime rate and delinquency rate dropped sharply. Marriages were healed, and children were given a new healthier environment to grow up in. People became more dedicated to education and hard work, which often meant that they prospered financially. The jails emptied and the whole tenor of community life changed.
This individual community transformation is a dramatic illustration of the more gradual transformation that Methodism brought to England in the late 1700’s, as dedication to Christ and sanctification through discipleship transformed British life: declining alcohol abuse, protection from child labor and child abuse, and a rise in income level, to name only a few of the changes.
But some who emphasize social action have begun to equate “transforming the world” with discipleship. In other words, we grow in discipleship by transforming the world. Social action (feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, protesting injustice, reforming laws, housing the homeless, etc.) has been substituted for the personal transformation that Jesus Christ works in our lives through the means of grace (Bible study, worship, Holy Communion, prayer, fasting, etc.). Few would ever say it this way, but it’s almost as if we ought to skip all the religious stuff and get straight to where the action is, out in the community helping people.
Instead of a transformed world being the result of our growth in discipleship to Jesus Christ, the transformation of the world has become the purpose of our discipleship. We make disciples of Jesus Christ in order to change the world and make it a better place. There are two problems with this shift from result to purpose, however.
First, seeing world transformation as the purpose of discipleship can lead us to see ourselves as failures in discipleship when the world is not transformed. Were the Christians in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine failures as disciples of Jesus Christ, now that they have been marginalized, slaughtered, and exiled from those countries by a militant Muslim sector that has resorted to violence to get rid of the “infidels?” Thriving Christian communities dating back 1,600 to 2,000 years have been decimated by conflicts and forces beyond their control, not because they have been lousy at making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Second, seeing world transformation as the purpose of discipleship can easily lead us to trust in our own human efforts to change the world, rather than allowing God to lead and empower us through his Holy Spirit. Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ can too easily be measured in some people’s eyes by voting for a certain political party (regardless of which one) or advocating particular political agendas. However, all political philosophies are imperfect and stand under God’s judgment. Even when there is agreement in Christian principles, there may be legitimate differences of opinion as to the best means of achieving those principles.
The Program Calendar slogan, “Transforming the Word for Christ” (emphasis added), can be understood to take this danger a step farther. Now it is we who are to transform the world on behalf of Christ. It is our human efforts that will bring in the Kingdom/Reign of God. But this slogan is asking us to do what we cannot do. We believe that “we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us [that is, acting in us first], that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will” (Articles of Religion, Article VIII—Of Free Will). It is not possible for us to do good in the world (let alone change the world), without the grace and power of God giving us the will and the ability to do it.
Instead, we are called by our faith to pursue a life of faithful discipleship, being increasingly transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ in our thoughts, words, and actions. We are called to proclaim the good news of God’s love and the offer of redemption through Jesus Christ to all, inviting those who respond to join us in that transformative life of discipleship. In the process, we are called to partner with God to join him in the work he is doing of love, mercy, and justice in our communities and our world. Empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can make a difference in our world and in the lives of people whom God touches through us. But our world can only be transformed one life at a time, and we should never think that a transformed world can come through our human efforts alone.
Do you agree, or am I misrepresenting our Wesleyan doctrine?