What congregations do

For a while now, Taylor Burton-Edwards has been talking about the historic competencies of the congregation. If you haunt about the same blogs and Facebook groups he does, you would have picked this up. But until now, he has not wanted to share in a public way the framework he has developed.

Over at the Emerging UMC blog, he posted today the framework. It includes four things a congregation can and should do well: offer public worship, teach basic doctrine, care for members and participants, and be a reliable institution in the local community. (At the blog, he adds a fifth aimed at Methodists and other missional bodies.)

What I have long liked about the framework is that it gives us a way to think carefully about what a congregation can do, what it historically has done, and what it should do. It also helps us understand what a congregation is not generally set up to do well. Taylor has long argued that “making disciples” is not a core competency of a congregation. Disciples are made in intentional communities — like the early Methodists society and bands — consisting of people who want to pursue discipleship and agree to covenant together to watch over each other in love. A congregation might house some disciple-making bodies, but it is not itself such a body. The congregation is open to everyone. The disciple-making community is open only to those willing to submit to its rule and expectations.

His argument is hugely important for the United Methodist Church. Getting a clear bead on what a congregation is meant to do and what it cannot do will go a long way toward helping us plot a path forward. In many ways, the Call to Action plan lines up well with Taylor’s framework. The things the Vital Congregations initiative seeks to do fit within his four competencies.

But you can do all the things that Vital Congregations calls for and what you will have at the end is stronger congregations. You will not necessarily have more disciples (unless you define the word “disciple” loosely enough.)

This is why so many people are wary of the Call to Action and Vital Congregations efforts. They claim more than they can deliver or even attempt to deliver. They claim they will create disciples. What they really will do — and perhaps quite well — is create more congregations that have strengths in some of the four competencies Taylor outlines.

This is not  bad thing. Quite the contrary. It is good. Stronger congregations are good because the four things they do well (or five in Taylor’s expanded framework) are necessary for the functioning of the church universal.

But they do not actually produce or make disciples. They provide a support structure on which disciple-making communities can anchor.

This way of thinking about it helps me. It helps me think about the church I serve. It helps me be less anxious about the claims of the Call to Action initiative. I appreciate Taylor’s willingness to share his ideas.

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