Global Missions Fellow Janjay Innis (right) coordinates a gathering of African women who are regular program participants at Tacoma Community House in Tacoma, Washington, where Innis serves. She learns about their unmet needs and helps to connect the women to appropriate resources.
Disciples and Justice: A Look inside GMF's Theology
by David R. Johnson, JanJay Innis and Grace Killian
The Two Sides of the Gospel
by David R. Johnson
Have you shared the gospel with someone this week?
Has anyone ever asked you such a question? What kinds of thoughts and feelings does this question stir up inside you?
In my facilitation work with the United Methodist Seminar Program in Washington, DC, I like to ask participants questions like this to guide people toward self-reflection and self-identification. Such a question can reveal something about someone’s deeply held beliefs.
In my experience, people tend to fall into one of two groups.
One group will engage this question, perhaps experiencing a sense of pride for having invited someone to church. Or, people in this group might view the question with a sense of obligation, as pressure to tell someone about Jesus. This group may champion Bible passages such as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Here, Jesus calls us to bring people into a personal relationship with God through his teachings and by immersing people in the life of Christian faith.
A second group will have an altogether different response to the question, which might look more like a raised eyebrow. Images arise of a street-corner preacher pleading with passersby to come to Jesus, while completely ignoring the homeless individual on the same corner. This group tends to champion scriptures such as Luke 4:16-20, which some scholars call Jesus’ mission statement, announcing good news for the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release of the captives and oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor.
You may experience this question in an altogether different way. The point I want to make is this: Because of our experiences, we tend to allow our concept of “sharing the gospel” to gravitate toward either disciple-making or justice-seeking. Since sharing the gospel is at the heart of mission, our idea of mission will naturally follow our basic views on how the gospel should be shared.
I think we are inclined to view these two perspectives as opposite sides of a spectrum, when in reality, they are like two dials on the same stereo—let’s say treble and bass. We all have the ability to tune our balance of disciple-making and justice-seeking to the music of our mission. When these are out of proportion (when you’re all about that bass with no treble), the music sounds hollow or muddy.
Jesus taught both messages, so why should we choose one over the other? Further, there is synergy in the interplay between these two sides of mission—they fuel one another.
Through the remainder of this article, you will hear two other voices of Generation Transformation—young adults serving in mission through the UMC—and their perspectives on making disciples and seeking justice. I hope through them, you will come to a deeper appreciation of the fullness of the gospel as, together, we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger
who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God
Isaiah 52:7 (NRSV)
David R. Johnson is a US-2 missionary commissioned in August 2013. He serves as a seminar program associate with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society in Washington, DC. Originally from Pennsylvania, David holds a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State and a Master of Science in Engineering degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan.
The Complexity of the Gospel
by Janjay Innis
The beauty of the gospel is its complexity. The holding together of multiple concepts without having them conflict allows me to accept that the gospel has a message for those on the margins and those who have usurped the center. The gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This gospel is both personal and social.
While our varying experiences cause us to interpret the gospel in different ways, I have found these multiple understandings to be a comprehensive way of doing mission.
If the church wants to take mission more seriously, it needs to let go of its tight grip on the traditional understanding of mission as the literal conversion of non-Christians to Christianity. We must follow the actions and words of Jesus.
We can indeed attribute the exponential growth of Christianity, beginning in the 4th century, to this literal interpretation of mission. Yet we must also accept the reality that the church’s inability to thrive in this 21st century is the effect of what can be problematic with the conversion theory.
While conversion is a meaningful and particular encounter with God, there is a prevailing understanding that everyone, upon hearing the gospel, must choose to become a Christian. Not becoming a Christian can, and has, led to judgment and the exertion of power by Christians. Throughout history, this has led to the deaths of many and the birth of suppression and supremacist ideas.
At a time in which 125 million people in the United States are unchurched, with three quarters of that number being young adults, the church needs more than ever to be a herald of the good news that God is actively involved in human history. This means adopting a theology of mission that highlights the nuances of mission, calling out Jesus’ exemplary life and actions—incarnational living, healing, sacrifice, and prophetic witness, as summarized in Luke 4:18-19.
This theme of reclaiming mission as relational is what attracts young people like me to Generation Transformation, the faith-based and service-learning mission opportunities of The United Methodist Church. My mission experience has helped me to broaden my understanding of mission as a “both/and” experience.
Mission is having the deep assurance that God is with you in joy and pain. Mission uses that assurance to walk alongside someone else, marginalized by his or her “otherness,” who may have yet to realize God’s deep assurance.
In order to embody mission in what I believe is its true essence, I personally have had to go through a conversion experience. I now understand that while my encounter with the gospel has been transformative, the gospel is not centered on me. Mission is not about doing good works in order to check a box that guarantees that I am right with God. Mission is about unveiling the reality that the brokenness of right relationships with God and neighbor has saturated our world with the sins of racism, violence, the unequal distribution of resources, and hostility to strangers.
It is in this “both/and” experience of the gospel that I have found great meaning in the work I do as a Social Justice Advocate. In teaching people of faith about the root causes of injustice, I’ve found joy. Every day, I invite and encourage my brothers and sisters to share the good news by way of accompanying people who desperately need to see the good news come alive in their daily experiences.
Janjay Innis is a US-2 missionary commissioned in August 2013. She is assigned to work as a social justice advocate at the Tacoma Community House in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. Originally from Liberia, she grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Tearing Down Walls
by Grace Killian
Every day at the Wi’am Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem, Palestine/Israel, I work in the shadow of an eight-meter-tall cement barrier. The Separation Barrier snakes across the West Bank in Palestine and Israel dotted by security towers and a sophisticated system of checkpoints managed by Israeli soldiers. This system keeps Christians and Muslims from their holy sites, siblings from siblings, and farmers from their land. It almost completely encircles the city of Bethlehem.
It was a few years ago that I began to understand the church’s role in the world as a call to tear down walls. I was 16 and on the Northeast Jurisdiction’s Mission of Peace to Cuba. As I reflected on all that I had experienced, I was struck by the way we as humans build up walls between ourselves and what we do not understand. Yet, as Christians, we worship a God whose love and transforming power extends past any human-constructed division. I was just beginning to understand that we must tear down these walls in order to be in fuller communion with God and with God’s children.
Life in Bethlehem has brought me to a much deeper understanding of the divisions we create to maintain distance from those we perceive as different. These walls of difference are not simply theoretical; they manifest themselves in very real ways through unjust laws and societal norms. We live in a world filled with oppressive systems of power and privilege that sustain divisions between the haves and the have-nots.
Systemic injustice is not a new phenomenon in our world. Even Christ, living under Roman occupation, was very familiar with the realities of life for the poor and oppressed. In Luke 4:18-19 (NRSV), Jesus enters the synagogue and reads from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The love of God is a transformative love that revolutionizes the systems of this world. Christ did not come to earth merely to suggest a few changes to the world order or to comfort the oppressed and tell them to be patient. He came to set the oppressed free.
This understanding of mission called me into the Global Mission Fellows program. This understanding of a revolutionary, redemptive God has sustained me throughout the despair I witness in Bethlehem. To engage in God’s mission is to work against systems of oppression. We are called to dismantle unjust laws and replace discrimination with radical inclusivity. We are called to educate ourselves and others about injustice around the world in order to be healed of our blindness. We are called to work against the unjust policies and systems that hold some people captive to greed and privilege while subjecting others to poverty and marginalization. Indeed, we are called to work against the forces of wickedness in whatever ways they present themselves, including the wickedness of the walls that we build.
Grace Killian is a Mission Intern commissioned in 2013. She currently serves the Wi’am Palestine Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem, Israel/Palestine. She is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.