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Commentary: Mission of the church as our Way Forward

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The Rev. Lloyd T. Nyarota, UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

I was excited to read the release from the moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward that focused on mission. I think the commission is getting it right. I hope mission becomes the driving force towards the special called session of General Conference in February 2019.

Our major task as Christians or as the church of Christ is to be in mission. I was encouraged and felt a sense of pride for my denomination when the Way Forward Commission identified mission as the main thing.

I once listened to one of my bishops in the denomination preach that the main thing is Jesus Christ. I can add that the main thing for The United Methodist Church is our mission given to us from our Lord Jesus the Christ.

The mission of the church was defined in the last words of our Lord Jesus before ascension. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” commanded Jesus. As an African, I understand the importance and sacredness of the last words of a loved one. The last words express the wishes and aspirations of the departing — what they would have wanted to do and see happening in our lives and family.

I have never forgotten the last song I heard my mother singing as she was dying. Every time I reflect on life and think about how she would have wished to see me and my family carrying her legacy, I hear her song “Itai muponesi izvo munoda ndakamirira ndakatiwira.”  (The Shona translation of: “Have thine own way, Lord”).

As the church, we were parented and founded by Jesus through the cross and resurrection.

In past years as The United Methodist Church, we have found ourselves off course and spending more energy on politics than mission. We have become a divided denomination because we are no longer focusing on mission, but on political and institutional power and control.

At every General Conference, it seems that more and more extremists on both sides of the issue of how to be in ministry with LGBTQ people are controlling the denomination’s agenda. This does not bode well for the mission of The United Methodist Church. We have come to a point that as soon as someone is critical of a presentation or activity they are accused of being intolerant, racist or phobic. These words and this kind of language dominate our discussions and debates more than the words evangelism, unity, repentance, gospel, love, justice and mission.

When I look deeper, I see that there is sometimes a double standard in our approach to the issues affecting our denomination. Our leaders sometimes do not seem to understand that they are playing into the hands of the extremists. But as we chart a way forward, let it be based and founded on the mission of the church.

There has been purposeful spread of misinformation in the church to help political causes, and this has always divided us. Sometimes the division is played as Africa against the United States, the two places with the most United Methodists. Political extremists have promoted the spread of misinformation so much that it is sometimes unclear what is true and what is false. This compromises our mission as a denomination and has taken our denomination off course for years. Now as we think of a way forward, let’s focus on our mission.

We get ourselves off course and conflict is inevitable. Always when we move our focus away from the mission given to us by our Lord, we find ourselves spending time and resources on conflicts.

The Book of Discipline is an important book for our denomination, but it is not the most important book. John Wesley, whom all the extremists keep holding up as their shield in this battle, is an important founder of United Methodism, but he is not the founder of the church. Our bishops who have found themselves on opposing sides of the issues are important shepherds in The United Methodist tradition, but they are not the Shepherd.

We have to step back from all of this and see the bigger picture. God is not trapped or confined to the details. God is beyond as well as within, and sometimes we have to step back and try to see things from God’s perspective.

I have spent some time with some of the key voices in the conflict that is going on in our denomination. I know some of the leaders on both sides who are talking about and engaged in talk about withdrawal, schism or abandoning the denomination. They are good people.

The genuine message of “truth and grace” that God has revealed to some of them is so important for our denomination to hear in the church, and we need everybody to continue to be with the denomination.

But let us not have anyone claiming to have the whole truth because you will be cutting yourself off from receiving it. Some have barricaded themselves behind a wall of “my way or the highway.” They are not only blocking themselves from receiving God’s word from what the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk would call surprising sources, but also making doctrine so important that ordinary people who are simply looking for Jesus and not for religion cannot find their way into the church, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

That is what is troubling some of us, especially when I listen to those seated in the pews in our congregations in Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular. Christian fellowship is not founded on the law and exclusion: It is about evangelism, love, unity, gospel, justice and mission. Jesus made that so abundantly clear that we simply cannot ignore it and consider ourselves to be the body of Christ.

As someone who studied conflict, I found myself sometimes thinking maybe this conflict is not in itself a bad thing, but it should serve to help all of us to think deeply about what we consider to be absolutely essential to our Christian mission and discipleship and why.

My hope is the special session in February 2019 will turn from being a debate into a conversation.

After sharing our knowledge, we need to exercise wisdom. As the saying goes “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”

Nyarota is a United Methodist elder from Zimbabwe who is now serving a two-point United Church of Canada charge in the province of Alberta. He has served as a consultant for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. 

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