Where disciples grow

Two really thoughtful United Methodists have long disagreed about the role of congregations in forming disciples.

Dan Dick’s latest post on this topic reaffirms his belief that congregations can and should make disciple formation central to their identity. Dan has little toleration for arguments to the contrary.

There is no place in the Bible where discipleship is described as easy, cheap, or fun.  The concept of a passive discipleship — what has become the norm of “church membership” — is a contradiction in terms, and an unacceptable standard by which to define ourselves.  A mediocre faith is indicative of a mediocre God, and I can’t imagine that God is pleased or amused.

Taylor Burton-Edwards agrees with Dan about the importance of discipleship. He is every bit the advocate for discipleship as Dan. But he disagrees about the role of congregations. Taylor argues that congregations were built and have been good at a limited set of things: public worship, basic doctrinal instruction, care of members, and being a good institutional player in the community.

Discipleship, Taylor argues, is the responsibility of the larger church beyond the local congregation. Disciples are formed in intentional disciple-making communities, much like the early Methodist societies. Congregations can house such groups, but for the most part these exist and are maintained outside the boundaries and programs of local congregations.

I share these brief summaries because this debate feeds my indecisiveness. I have two smart guys making passionate arguments about the proper way to pursue disciple-making.

Now, the decisive and entrepreneurial among you will have an easy answer to this quandary. “Just do something, John, and you’ll figure out what will work.” I get that.

But humor me. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Where disciples grow

  1. John,

    I don’t think these two approaches are mutually exclusive. I do think that for the most part, congregations won’t submit to the discipline necessary to become effective discipling communities, and that where they do, they will find such resistance in the journey and such lack of support from other quarters, that they will find it hard to sustain that direction for long.

    I am grateful for those congregations that Dan found. They’re just few. They’re outliers. And as Dan himself noted on his blog in response to your question, there can be actual hostility by “the system” toward pastors who lead congregations on this kind of journey.

    So I think we need more than one approach to this, and that for the most part the Wesleys got it right about another approach– the one I describe as the formation of discipling communities alongside or outside the ambit of congregations proper, but always also connecting persons to congregations along the way.

    I do also think it is the case that we see the level of resistance to discipling among congregations because of long, long history– stretching back at least to 375 AD, when Theodosius declared Christianity THE legal religion of the Roman Empire, in effect transforming the church into a department of state. From that point forward, the nature of congregations and what they were designed to accomplish dramatically changed from being discipling communities first and foremost to being the public religion first and foremost and the deeper discipling function became more or less ‘outsourced” to monastic communities or processes for preparing persons for ordained ministry.

    1. How does the dis-establishment of the church in the West change what congregations could or should be doing? In some places were are farther along the road toward that than others.

      1. Though churches are not departments of state in this country, we still think of ourselves and function as public institutions and continue to receive privileges as religious institutions other nonprofits do not receive. It has really been only since the 1970s, I might argue, that cultural disestablishment began in earnest. So the notion that post-Constantinianism is a fait accompli is probably a bit premature in the US.

        Churches are deeply traditioned institutions. With such a long history of establishment we have eatablishment aasumptions and preauppositions

        Churches are deeply trasitioned

        1. … presuppositions and even intuitions. We haven’t even begun to reexamine many of these.

          While we should surely do so, these are the sorts of things that may take decades or generations to change. Until then, the congregations we actually have are often discipleship-weak if not actually discipleship- averse. So if we seek discipleship as we say we do, perhaps the kind of solution the Wesleys pursued– paracongregational discipling communities– may remain for us a more efficient means to that end for some time to come.

  2. So if we seek discipleship as we say we do, perhaps the kind of solution the Wesleys pursued– paracongregational discipling communities– may remain for us a more efficient means to that end for some time to come.

    Of course, we as a denomination do not resource the development of such paracongregational discipling communities. All our resources go to congregations.

  3. As a pastor of a local congregation with a well-regarded seminary around the corner, I can’t imagine abdicating discipleship to parachurch ministries. What are we if not places to “make disciples”? We certainly use the resources of the nearby seminary, but the onus for disciple-making is still on us, the local church. Some people respond to the offer and others don’t . . . but having people at such different places on the spiritual maturity continuum is what makes pastoring fun.

    1. Talbot:

      Two thoughts. First, I would not call non-congregational discipling communities “para-church.” They are just as surely forms of Christian community in mission and ministry as local congregations are.

      Second, the reality is that for most people ALREADY, the kinds of contexts where they idenitify their discipleship radically deepens is in the context of non-congregational discipling communities. At the top of the list are groups like Emmaus, campus ministries, various mission projects (typically not sponsored directly by a local congregation), and AA. Also in the mix are groups like Covenant Discipleship Groups– some of which are “inside” or “alongside” the congregation, but others of which were created by people between congregations and sometimes even denominations.

      It’s not a problem at all that people seek and find ways to be formed as disciples of Jesus more often in an accountable small group context outside of local congregations per se. If we are paying attention to what the Wesleys were up to, that’s exactly what the Methodist Societies with their various kinds of groups provided.

      So the opportunity here is to create intentional networks between congregations and such groups in a given place– with agreements between them defining what each can expect from each in an accountable way. By so doing we would actually be engaging in the sort of “network ecclesiology” that understands the “local church” to be the “network” of all the forms of Christian community in a given place, and so perhaps as “the church local,” rather than limited solely to congregational forms that tend to view any other form of Christian community as somehow in competition with or less than a valid expression of church.

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