Transforming the World: Whose Job?

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.”

Antique_wallpapers_209This 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?

2 thoughts on “Transforming the World: Whose Job?

  1. I agree, Tom. Jesus calls us to follow Him, not to change the world. An overemphasis on the results of our discipleship can become very non-Wesleyan and even Calvinistic. Though there is Scriptural reference to God’s “purpose,” it cannot be understood by us mere mortals. Our emphasis is always first on accepting God’s will for our lives, then God’s purpose may be revealed through His love within us – if He so chooses.

  2. I am a life-long Methodist of more than a few decades who finally delved into Wesley to get an understanding of why Methodism is in existence. One of the things that surprised me about Wesley was his emphasis on the individual as well as the social. Methodism did not come into being because Wesley identified some social justice issues that needed to be dealt with, it came into being because he wanted to help rank and file individuals live a holy life centered in God 24/7 regardless of–or even in spite of– their worldly circumstances. In fact, Wesley, did not set out to change anything; he personally set out to explore what a holy life centered in God looked like and that lead him into unusual places.

    Based on my experience and what I have gleaned from cruising the internet listening to a multitude of voices within the UMC, the basic problem with the church is it became too much about the social–supporting the church and its ministries–to the almost total neglect of the individual being transformed by God into the person they were created to be. The progressives/liberals have taken the social aspect to the extreme. And I think that has its roots in the fact the church was so involved in the civil rights movement of the ’60’s; it gave them a warped understanding of church and its relationship to society. Problem is, what they are not stopping to realize is that although segregation was outlawed by legislation, it never truly got rid of discrimination. As Philip Yancy so powerfully states in “What’s So Amazing About Grace”, legislation can change outside actions, but only the grace of God can change the heart of a person which leads to a permanent change in how an individual views others.

    The disconnect between the individual and the social is why everybody is talking past each other; they are talking apples and oranges to each other because each side has a different perspective as to what Christianity is about. Wesleyan Christianity is about God bringing His kingdom to life in individual hearts, not about individuals going out to change the world! And it is not that it is an either/or situation because as Wesley documented so well in his journal, individuals with changed hearts resulted in a change community. Wesleyan Christianity keeps the individual and social aspects in proper balance.

    I personally know that basic orthodox Christianity of any variety has not had a strong or consistent presence in the UMC for a very long time. Instead the UMC has been embroiled in perceived social justice issues. It is no wonder she is failing and that America is now in a post-Christian era in which society as a whole has absolutely no clear understanding of who God is and who we are in relation and that the church should always be standing in tension to the prevailing culture, functioning as its conscience.

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