September 26, 2009

the limitations of congregations

The following is something that Taylor Burton-Edwards presented at our School For Ministry here in Iowa this spring, and I was reminded of it again through a series of posts about how we nurture disciples and can we do it in the church. 

What really strikes me is that we use the same words to describe a variety of different entities, so let me first of all define some things:

the church: for me this has never been a building.  it is the Body of Christ - the hands and feet of Christ - made up of you and me and all other followers of Jesus. This is not limited to a denomination, or even a congregation.

the congregation: a local institution and community of believers.

With that subtle distinction to guide us, here is what TBE says about congregations:
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...

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.
As I work on my sermon right now, I'm wrestling with the question - How can you be a Christian outside of the church... but this discussion reminded me that the question really is "How can you be a Christian outside of the congregation?"

I'm not sure that as followers of Christ we ever exist outside of the church - but so often in our language we speak as though the church is something you must join and something you must go to. Really, we are thinking about the congregation.

I see immense value in the congregation and the tasks that it brings to the world. But we have a whole big chunk of our lives that exist outside of the congregational life. When we limit our faith to the congregation, we limit our faith to Sunday mornings... or Tuesday night bible study... or Thursday youth group.

What I am more interested in is what the church is doing outside of the congregation. Where are we demonstrating our faith in the other institutional homes of our lives? in our family? in our work? in our schools? Where can we look for guidance in these other areas of our lives?

The lectionary readings for this week give us examples of faith in action without the "congregation" - without the institution or "in-group."  Esther has actually put aside her religious practices in becoming the queen, and yet we describe her as faithful.  The disciples are complaining about people acting in Christ's name outside of their little band of followers and he chastises them (again) and urges them not to put a stumbling block before anyone who wants to act in his name.

The way I take those texts:  There are lots of faithful people out there who aren't a part of our congregations - who aren't a part of institutional Christianity. 

Our job in response is twofold: First, to encourage them in the good that they do like Mordichai encouraged his neice, and  in the process we might invite them into our congregational life.  Second, we should be challenged to learn from them new ways to be faithful Christians outside of the congregation.


  1. Brother Taylor is a leader in my new-found Order of Saint Luke. It is a religious order founded by the Methodist Church in the 1940s; it is ecumenical in outlook. The OSL has given me a fuller spiritual life outside the congregation (although we participate in church sacraments and the other congregational life.) Our daily discipline of prayers and commitment to our Rule strengthens us in our faith outside the congregation.

  2. Thanks David for the reminder about OSL - there are lots of ways that we can form intimate and faithful communities outside of the congregation - including disciplines like OSL or Covenant Discipleship Groups