“The world is our parish” as basis for United Methodist unity

One of John Wesley’s famous lines is “I look on all the world as my parish.”  A lot of Methodists like this phrase, but does it contain a potential source of United Methodist unity?  I’d like to argue that it does.  I think a “world as our parish” attitude has the potential to conceptually unite a lot of currently disparate United Methodist energies.  Such an approach is not without its dangers and depends importantly on a robust commitment to holism, but has, I think, potential.

Having the attitude that “the world is our parish” denotes a certain understanding of the church and its relationship to the world that I think is characteristic of Methodism (and many other denominations as well).  It denotes an understanding that the purpose of the church is not just to care for its own members but also to reach out beyond itself to engage with the world, to minister to the world, to be in mission to the world.

Currently in American Christendom, there are two understandings of how the church reaches out to be in mission to the world.  One is a conversionary understanding in which the church’s job is to try to convert individuals out of the world and into the church.  The other is a social justice understanding in which the church’s job is to try to combat the unjust structures of the world.  All too often, there is a bifurcation of the two, and they are seen as mutually exclusive and competing understandings of how to minister to the world.  Such a view is often present within United Methodism itself and reflects yet another dimension of the conflict between conservative and religious voices in the denomination.

Yet such a breach between these two forms of ministry to the world has not always existed.  Indeed, it’s really only a product of the last 100-125 years.  Before that, Methodism had a long history of trying to reform both individuals and society.  John Wesley was certainly no slouch in preaching individual conversion, but also tackled systematic injustices like poverty and the slave trade.  He wasn’t Marx in his analysis, but he did have an awareness of and concern for systemic problems with human society.  Such a combination of a drive for individual and societal reform continued through Methodist history until the fundamentalist/modernist debates of the turn of the 20th century began to drive these two options apart.

Nevertheless, I think it is possible to reclaim such a unity in the concept of ministry to the world which is our parish, and thus to reclaim some unity in our denomination.  To do so, however, depends upon a robust understanding of the holism of the church’s mission.  What is holism?  It’s thinking about think as wholes, not as a collection of divisible parts.  An emphasis on holism is also part of the what-comes-next era, so the intellectual and cultural resources are out there to support such an emphasis.

If we seek to undertake holistic ministry to the world our parish, we will seek to present a whole gospel to whole people in the whole creation.  This means that seeking religious and moral transformation is important.  To say it’s not and that economic and political injustice is all that matters is to practice a materialist reduction that goes against the spirit of religion, which emphasizes that matters of the spirit matter.  Yet we can’t stop at seeking individual religious and moral transformation, for that would also ignore the wholeness of people, who are also economic, political, sexual, and physical beings with associated needs and concerns in these areas.  Our ministry to the world must therefore address these areas as well.  Furthermore, because whole people are part of a whole world, our efforts in these areas must not be solely individual but also systemic in nature.  Finally, because the whole world is not just human, but natural as well, our ministry to the world must also include ministry to the created, natural world, the essential context of all human life.

My guess is that right now there are a lot of people doing street evangelism who wouldn’t want to see their work as flowing from the same impetus as people protesting the School of Americas, and vice versa.  Yet in order to stay together as a denomination, we must find ways in which we can think of these two aspects of the church’s mission in the world as part of the same understanding that the world is our parish.  Since mission in and to the world is one of central reasons for the church’s existence, we need something to unite the denomination in its mission, just as singing can unite us in our worship.  I hope that agreeing that the world is our parish can be an important part of that uniting bond.

One Comment

David Shane posted on August 27, 2011 at 9:09 am

I think part of the problem would be that, when it comes to transforming the world via social justice actions, there is a lot of disagreement on what constitutes good transformation. Sure, we’re all against slavery and sex trafficking – but many issues are not that simple. For example, are stronger environmental regulations something we as Christians (or Methodists) should fight for, or against? Well, we want people to have cleaner air and water – but we also want them to have jobs, access to inexpensive products, etc.

Most Democrats and Republicans in this country believe they are in favor of policies that will produce the most good for the most people – yet often those policies are opposites of one another! (Recently – do we need more stimulus spending, or less stimulus spending?) I think individual Christians should act as their conscience and wisdom tells them to – but I’m not sure how much social justice can be a source of unity within a denomination. (Unless everyone in your denomination shares the same politics.)

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