What congegrations are designed to do

Taylor Burton-Edwards wrote an insightful comment on Dan Dick’s blog about the nature of congregations.

Here’s his comment:

We really need to be more realistic, I think, about what the congregational format of Christianity is and has been designed to accomplish since about the sixth century.

Basically, the congregation as we have known it all these years (over 1400 of them!) was and is designed to be a PUBLIC form of Christian community that does the following, and really not much else:

1) The public worship of God
2) Teaching the basic doctrine of the faith
3) Providing some means for caring for each other (pastoral care, fellowship groups, and the like)
4) Being a good “institutional player” for the good of the larger community

Those are the things, and really the ONLY things, the congregation AS congregation, is designed to do.

Making disciples– committed followers of Jesus who are growing in grace and holiness– is not on that list. It never has been except in “marginal” settings since about the sixth century.

That doesn’t make congregations bad things. It just means they are what they are. If we want discipleship to happen for more than a very few number of people, we need to create additional forms of Christian community that facilitate that.

For many centuries in many places, monasteries and extra-ecclesial “societies” took on that role.

In England in the 18th century, Methodism did that.

In both, it was understood that BOTH some kind of congregational life AND some kind of accountable small group life were essential for people to grow in holiness and discipleship to and mission with Jesus. So those early Methodists weren’t trying to rethink church without congregations and the signficant facilities they had to do what they did– public worship, teaching, care, and being institutional players. Rather, they were trying to rethink church by ADDING structures that ALSO helped everyone in those additional structures ALSO grow in holiness of heart and life.

Congregations as public institutions usually can not do that well. If you are public, you are de facto open to everyone, and you really can’t exclude (or even easily discipline) anyone that the local public standards would say are fine the way they are. That’s pretty much what being a public institution means. It’s almost certainly what folks who hear “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors” think we mean when they hear that.

When Christianity went public, then, and located its public life in more public buildings designed for the public… well there were tradeoffs in what it could do in those public forms of community.

The biggest trade-off was that being public means you’re not going to focus much on growth in holiness as a norm for everyone to be part of the community in the first place– because you can’t. The number of people is too large to hold each other accountable. And they can’t hold people accountable for much– being a public institution.

When (and where, still today) the church is a house church, it was (and often is) not a public institution. And historically, what we would now call the congregation was not a public institution until after Christianity became not just legal but THE legal religion in the late fourth century. In many places, you would never see ANY part of Christian Sunday worship until you had been in intensive daily catechesis for three years or more! The “congregation” was much more of a secret society with its own secret ritual (and therefore, in part, maligned, ridiculed, and accused of all sorts of terrible things by those who were not part of it!).

If you think that ONLY the pre-Constantinian form of Christian communities– where the congregation was not public and was very exclusive– got it right, then, maybe you can get away without significant public worship spaces, teaching facilities, and sizable institutional expenses for those things and for the public good. But if you think that the post-Constantinian forms of congregation as public institution PLUS other forms of Christian community that are more intensive and focused on growth and mission can ALSO be right– and then if you recognize that THOSE represent the primary reality of the UMC, then, well, there is good reason, as Dean noted, to invest well in such facilities.

Where Methodism really began to vanish isn’t when it started building significant public buildings per se. It’s when it quit ALSO holding its membership accountable in other forms of community that were exclusive and very effective and making disciples of Jesus who were joining God’s mission of transforming the world.