Congregations and the Mission of the Church
The first Key Recommendation of the Call to Action, found on page 20, reads, “For a minimum of ten years, use the drivers of Vital Congregations as initial areas of attention for sustained and intense concentration on building effective practices in local churches. In every way possible, we shall assure that our attention and flow of resources are directed toward enriching and extending high-quality ministries in and through congregations as the primary arenas for making disciples.” Throughout the report, this recommendation guides the conversation, calling for alignment of boards and asking Bishops to take responsibility for creating a culture of accountability to support this focus.
The report, approved unanimously by the Council of Bishops, calls for sustained, disciplined obedience in a single direction. It focuses us on the mission God has given us, especially at the foundational level of the congregation. Is this new? Actually, the Book of Discipline already reads, “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local congregations provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” (Para. 120)
The congregation is the primary means by which the United Methodist Church fulfills God’s mission. It is the fundamental arena where our human efforts, placed in service to God, change the lives of people and prepare them for greater service in the world. Therefore, the strength, vibrancy, fruitfulness, and witness of our congregations are absolutely critical to God’s mission through us. We cannot commit ourselves seriously to the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” while neglecting the essential role of congregations in fulfilling that purpose.
Think with me about how the United Methodist Church fulfills the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How do we advance and deepen the message of love, grace, peace, pardon, hope, and justice that we perceive and experience in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a manner that brings new life to people around us and that inspires them to greater service in the name of Christ?
Christianity began as a way of life rather than as a system of beliefs. Jesus taught a way of life and invited people into a relationship with God that was vibrant, dynamic, and fruitful. Jesus and his followers developed core fundamental spiritual practices that sustained them in God and motivated them to relieve the burdens that restrain people from flourishing by protecting the vulnerable, embracing outcasts, healing the sick, welcoming children, caring for widows, confronting injustice, pardoning sin, and preaching good news. They learned in community and connected to God through worship. They cooperated with the Holy Spirit in their own maturing in faith and offered themselves in response to God’s calling to serve others.
And Methodism began as a way of life. Wesley organized people into societies, classes, and bands in order to provide a disciplined accountability to sustain growth in Christ and growth in service. Early Wesleyans were chided for their eccentric and “methodical” adherence to practices that included worship, the sacrament, daily prayers, bible study, classes, giving to the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned. That’s why we are called Methodists! Every organizational innovation was intended to support that way of life. Circuits were created to deploy leaders and teachers and to provide the sacraments. Class tickets were given and attendance and giving records were carefully maintained not merely to provide an accounting for the aggregate yearly totals but in order to hold each person accountable for growth in Christ. The purpose of the first Conference, according to Wesley, was to gather the preachers to discuss what to teach and how to teach it.
Throughout the history of Methodism, the primary means of bringing people into this way of life has been faith communities. Vibrant, fruitful congregations offer the invitation, hospitality, and embrace of Christ. They open their doors and hearts to people. They look outward. They are driven by grace. And they offer worship that connects people to God and that cultivates the change of heart and mind that transforms lives. Through worship, singing, praying, and the sacraments, people begin to see the world through God’s eyes. And such congregations provide the means for people to grow in faith through classes, small groups, bible studies, support groups, and the care of souls. Through such ministries, people cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their own sanctification, growing in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. And healthy fruitful congregations help people discern the calling of God to ministries of service, mission, and justice. They provide avenues for life-changing, sacrificial service that transforms the world. In Christ, we talk each other into bolder ministry. We find courage for prophetic engagement and leadership. God uses congregations to draw people into the community and body of Christ. And through such people and congregations, God changes the world.
Consider the impact of congregations on your own life. Suppose someone could extract from your life all the influences that God has had on you through faith communities. Imagine if you could pull out of your mind and heart all the thousands of sermons you have heard, the tens of thousands of hymns you have sung, the pastoral prayers and personal devotions that have formed you. Remove all the people from your life and memory whom you have come to know and from whom you have learned and with whom you have worked—the pastors, friends, colleagues, laypersons, youth leaders, Sunday school teachers. Extract from your soul all the work projects, the meetings, the conversations, the service initiatives, the soup kitchens, the mission trips, hospital visits and support from others you have experienced. Extract all the weddings, funerals, volunteer hours, stewardship campaigns, prayer vigils, children’s programs, mission fairs, camp experiences, and youth ministries.
If you could remove from your life all the influences congregations have ever had on you, who would you be? You’d be someone substantially different from who you are now. The congregations to which you have belonged—their people and pastors, their ministries and teachings and programs, their worship and service, their music and rituals, their communities and caring—these have been the means God has used to form who you are. They have shaped you. Congregations are a primary means by which God reaches down into our lives to work on our behalf. God uses congregations to create us anew, to claim us as God’s own, and to call us to God’s service. It is through congregations that God’s spirit shapes how we understand ourselves, how we relate to our families, how we view community, and how we participate in the world.
Jesus intentionally formed his followers into a community of disciples to fulfill this mission, and in the second chapter of Acts we see the Holy Spirit’s formation of the church to fulfill this purpose. United Methodist congregations exist today for the same mission for which Jesus gathered his disciples and for which the Holy Spirit unified those who gathered on the day of Pentecost. The United Methodist Church makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by repeating over and over again what has happened in your life and mine. Through congregations that are rural, urban, suburban, new, old, small, medium, and large and in every language and culture, God works through faith communities to change lives.
To suggest that congregations are critical to our mission, and that we should focus significant leadership, resources, and innovation to start new congregations and transform existing congregations, strikes some United Methodists as “too congregational.” Don’t we distinguish ourselves by our connectional system and conference relationships rather than by our focus on congregations? Will we dull the edge of our social witness or limit our ability to address human need on a global level? Don’t we risk turning inward and sacrificing our distinctive connectional engagement with the world?
A concerted focus on forming and strengthening congregations in no way limits connectional ministry. To the contrary: without strong, confident, mission-driven, outward-focused congregations, the United Methodist Church cannot start hospitals, establish schools, change social systems, or respond globally to human suffering. As our congregations have declined over a forty year period so also has our capacity to impact the most critical issues of our time.
Jesus formed a community of followers around him, and through their invitation, worship, learning, and serving, they offered the good news and invited others into their midst. The transformation that began locally changed countries and continents.
John Wesley did not “spread scriptural holiness” across the land and start Methodist chapels, preaching houses, and churches so that one day he could have a conference! He held conference with churches and pastors and organized them into a connection in order to establish and strengthen faith communities to reach more people and invite them into a way of life. Congregations do not exist to support conferences; conferences exist to strengthen congregations and multiply the fruitfulness of their ministries beyond what any one congregation can achieve.
This first Key Recommendation challenges us all at every level of the United Methodist Church to a sustained, disciplined obedience. It asks us to re-direct resources, talent, money, innovation, and best practices toward fulfilling God’s mission for us through sustained and intense concentration on effective practices and high quality ministries in congregations. I invite you to talk about this focus and what it means for you. In your congregation. Among pastors and laity. In conference offices and in seminary classrooms. For the next few months, never pass up an opportunity to discuss the implications of this Call to Action and how it might reshape our ministries together in Christ.
Whenever we face an adaptive challenge that requires a fundamental shift in behaviors, our first tendency is to think this change is about someone else. Pastors hope their laity will change; superintendents hope their pastors will change; laity hope their conferences will change; conferences hope the seminaries will change; bishops hope the general agencies will change. To think only about what others should do is to miss the adaptive challenge for ourselves. Instead, prayerfully discern what this focus means for you. Personally. What part of the mission God has for the United Methodist Church are you willing to take responsibility for in a new way?
Yours in Christ,