Churches Versus Societies – Part Two

To read part one, click here.


I first started to think about the differences between churches and societies when I read an early version of  “The Systems That are Congregations” by the Reverend Taylor Burton-Edwards.  What really jumped out at me in the essay was how churches over time moved away from disciple-making.  It should be noted that Burton-Edwards uses the word congregation instead of church.  When I used the word church in my first post, I meant a local church.    He uses the word congregation for the local church.  The word church for Burton-Edwards is sum of local congregations and other groups.

Originally local congregations were the nexus of disciple-making according to Burton-Edwards.  When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire, the core functions of a congregation changed over time.  Monastic communities became centers of disciple-making.  Local congregations shifted focus to other concerns.

One reason the focus shifted is accountability.  Discipleship requires accountability.  The early church was a closed group.  To join you had to go through a catechetical process.  Someone joining the church risked persecution and possibly death.  Members of the church had high expectations placed on them.

When Christianity became the state religion the nature of the church changed.  The requirements and expectations for joining the church changed.  At some point the assumption was that everyone was a Christian.  Nominally most people were.  The Reverend Taylor Burton-Edwards has a good explanation of the whole process.

Once discipleship was no longer the focus of the local congregation there were still avenues for serious discipleship formation: monasticism and ordination.  Over time other avenues would develop.  Groups outside the local congregation would take up the charge of disciple-making.  One such group would be the early Methodist societies.  They did not replace the local congregations.  Instead they were vehicles for deeper discipleship.

A local congregation struggles with holding people accountable.  A Methodist society could hold people accountable as disciples.  They agreed on the ultimate end of discipleship –  Christian Perfection.  The early Methodists has a common Wesleyan theological language to understand their journey.  These Methodists had rules to help guide their journey.  If they strayed from the rules, they could be held accountable.

Local congregations, especially in the United Methodist church, struggle to hold members accountable.  Theoretically we could hold members accountable to their membership vows.  In practice we do not.  The Book of Discipline makes the process onerous.

Some even find the idea repellent.  When the former Central Pennsylvania Conference joined with the Pennsylvania churches of the former Wyoming Conference to form the Susquehanna Conference we had to decide on a new Shares of Ministry/Apportionment formula.  The Central Pennsylvania Conference had used church membership as part of their formula.  Churches had a financial incentive to purge their membership roles of people who were not living out their membership vows.  The Wyoming Conference did not.

At one point, a former Wyoming Conference pastor was explaining the situation to us.  He noted that the Wyoming Conference churches had large membership roles.  The pastor than made a snide comment about purging church membership roles.  As if it was a heartless and graceless act.  I concede it might seem crass to tie financial incentives to keeping your membership roles accurate, but accountability requires accountability.

As United Methodists today, we are churches, not societies.  We have adopted the priorities of churches.  Our focus is not on real discipleship.  In many ways we have shed our disciple-making capabilities.  On one level we might yearn for our understanding of a golden age of discipleship from our early history, but the reality is that we are far removed from that time.

We say we want to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Yet, most of our focus is on facts, figures, and finances.  Instead of defining what a disciple is and how to make one, we spend our energy trying to save our institutional church.  While more people in the pews does not inherently mean more disciples, we do not spend a whole lot of time worrying about the distinction.

If we want to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we need to start by acknowledging that we do not make disciples.  Our Triune God makes disciples.  At best, we create environments and systems where God’s disciple-making grace can work.  If we want to, by the grace of God, work on creating these environments and systems we need to first define what we mean by disciple.  It would help to also define to what end.  Do we have an ultimate end in mind towards discipleship?  We would then need to discern what disciple-making systems and environments look like.  Is there a process that can be contextualized?

The genius of the early Methodist societies was that they were able to do this.  I do not believe that a modern United Methodist local church can do this easily.  A local church will not hold people accountable.  Most members of the congregation will struggle with the demands and challenges of discipleship.  Our obsession with facts, figures, and finances put pressure on leaders to not move in directions that would jeopardize short-term statistics for long-term spiritual health.

My proposal would be that we start by defining what do we mean by disciple.  Literally a disciple is one who follows Jesus.  In our context we could say that a disciple is one who is growing in with God, growing in his or her love for neighbor, and is living out the the membership vows of the United Methodist church.  We might want to incorporate some understanding of fleeing the wrath to come or sin into our definition.  The ultimate end of discipleship might be Christian Perfection – the idea that we are so full of love for God, love for our neighbor, that there is no room for sin in our lives.

If the local church will not be the center of disciple-making, it could be the starting point.  Local churches could continue to be a witness to God’s way in the world.  Preach with their words and actions the Good News of Jesus Christ and God’s Reign.  People would be invited to come to church and ultimately answer Jesus command to come and follow me.

Local churches would then invite people to take the next step in discipleship.  Two ways I envision are neo-monastic communities and Wesleyan covenant disciple groups.  Neo-monastic communities would be places where people interested in intense spiritual formation would gather.  They would live out the vision of the Acts 2 church and be extremely focused on discipleship.  These communities would experiment and innovate with how best to create environments where God’s disciple-making grace can be experienced.

Neo-monastic communities are not for everyone.  In fact, most Americans would find the concept repellent.  As the community subversively lives God’s Reign, it would butt heads against the powers and principalities of this world.  Sharing, communalism, and working towards the Common Good are not ideals lifted up at the moment in American life.  A second vehicle for discipleship would be Wesleyan covenant groups.

Churches, clusters, and districts would form and encourage Wesleyan covenant groups.  The groups would gather to hold each other accountable.  Gifted facilitators, both lay and clergy, would iterate between these different groups to teach, exhort, challenge, and hold these groups accountable.  A modern version of the old Methodist societies and circuits.

Comparing the past to the present is not overly helpful when done simplistically.  To not acknowledge the difference between the early Methodist societies and modern United Methodist churches when bringing up the past does not help anyone.  Our history is not as golden as we imagine.  The present is probably not as bad as we fear.  As we try to discern how God is calling us to live into the future, the past might illumine.  We need to start by acknowledging that there are major differences between our start and where we are now.

Jerusalem Cross and Chain.” ©2009 Copyright mtsofan. Licensed Under Creative Commons.

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