A UM Missional Future: Transforming Existing Congregations

Part 12 of 21...

Path Two: Transforming Existing Congregations...

But, into what?

The default tendency-- built into every system-- is inertia. This does not mean a lack of energy, or an unwillingness to "do a new thing." It means what Isaac Newton described long ago in the first law of motion: an object in motion tends to stay in motion in the direction it is heading unless it is impeded by a net force.

In other words, transforming existing congregations is talking about changing the course of a moving train as it is traveling down the tracks-- and, one presumes, to do so without derailing the train per se, which would tend to harm its passengers.

Congregations transform all the time. Their size changes. Who participates in them changes. Who is in leadership changes. Specific projects they may work on change. Transformation is a fact of congregational life, indeed of all life.

What I'd like to propose here, though, is that from the perspective of our mDNA (our missional DNA) as Methodists and Newton's first law of motion, the change that most effectively changes the congregation as a form (or format) of Christian missional community is NOT a change in the congregation's form at all. It is rather a change in the net force it encounters.

Specifically, that net force involves,
1) what the people who want to be missional DO, EXPECT and therefore FORM AROUND (and not necessarily so much INSIDE) the congregation
and 2) a mental map of Christian community that embraces a vision of church that is more like a network than a mall.

Let me say that again, a bit differently. Trying first to change congregations is likely to be an inefficient use of time and resources if what we're trying to do is actually call, form and send disciples of Jesus Christ into their ministry and lives of witness to God's kingdom.

Isn't that what the early Methodist experiment told us? Mr. Wesley did not despise the existing congregations in England. No-- he insisted that all Methodists, whatever congregational affiliation they had, stick with that. He was not trying to replace or even change those congregations substantially. Rather, he was trying to find a way to change people's lives-- so they actually lived every day what they confessed on Sunday morning.

And the bottom line? The congregational form/format of his day just was not designed to accomplish what we might now call missional living. To
inspire such living, perhaps. To lift up examples of it where it happened to have occurred in the lives of saints in the past or may even be occurring in the present, certainly. But to engage primarily the task of calling, forming and sending disciples of Jesus Christ into "entire holiness" -- a way of life characterized by intentional work at doing no harm (refraining from specific practices), of doing good (practicing works of mercy as a means of grace) and connecting with God personally and as part of the body of Christ (through practicing works of piety as a means of grace)-- no, not at all. Or at least not hardly.

Why was the congregational format so poor at producing those kinds of results in the lives of many people? Basically because it left those outcomes and the processes leading to them primarily to culture or to chance. It's not that it didn't care about those outcomes-- it celebrated them regularly, as the growth in holy days and the commemoration of saints East and West attested over time. It's because it prescribed and supported as THE way to that outcome forms of worship and practice that were less than optimally suited to produce such outcomes for the vast majority of people. The "highly talented" (saints, monks, and some clergy), yes-- but for the rest of us, not so much.

What congregations were good at doing was being stable centers of worship and doctrine and a kind of ongoing hub of relationships in the lives of Christians and their surrounding communities. This was (and remains) a very valuable role. We need congregations that do this with passion and excellence. Every age does.

Trouble is, worship and doctrine and institutional hubs do not tend to
change the lives of most people in any kind of reliable, noticeable way. I don't say they don't lead to transformation at all. I'm one of those who has been transformed this way, and I'm grateful for congregations who have helped that happen in me! But what I also know just as surely is that as important as deeply rooted worship and sound theology are, and as important it is to have some kind of institutionally steady hub for relationships, just having those things in place is no guarantor of effective missional discipleship at all.

So what creates that?

Back to the two-part list above.

First things first. Missional Christians need to do this. Just do it. Just start forming the communities (small groups) and the practices (accountability, prayer, missiological teaching and practice-- i.e., hands on engagement-- and some forms of communal worship practices in addition to, but not supplanting, the Sunday Morning congregational experience). And do this AROUND congregations-- not stuck either inside them or even connected to only one congregation or one denomination. The General Rules remain an awfully good guide for all of these practices. They're General, yes, but also (and perhaps especially) very concrete.

Second-- rethink the maps. Or perhaps the way we read the map. The typical mental map we have of "a church" is what I've likened to a mall. It's one stop shopping, and it's at a particular place during particular hours. It may have different things inside it (programming for children and youth, a recovery group, athletics, worship in several formats, classes on a wide variety of topics, mission "circles"), but basically it's all under one roof. At least most of the time. And the other things it sponsors that are not necessarily under that roof are there to get people to come into the mall for what they want to do there. The mall does well when people come into it. If people don't come in, or go to other stores not in the mall, then the mall itself can find it is in trouble.

Folks, malls are closing everywhere.

Let me propose a different mental map-- one rather more like what John Wesley was doing in early Methodism, and one much more like what we're seeing among "The New Christians" (as in the title of Tony Jones's new book) today. The map is about a network. It's about how people actually leave one place and go to another, and how they relate all these different places to each other. In early Methodism, this was the "both-and" approach of Methodists being in a class meeting (for accountability in the personal and missional lives), in a society meeting (for exhortation to keep it up), AND in SOME congregation (for the connection to the rich heritage of corporate worship with all kinds of people and core doctrine). Not all Methodists in a class meeting were part of the same congregation or even the same denomination. Church wasn't just one thing-- the congregation. It was all these things, and more. It was the network.

And so it is now. "A church" is the network of connections we as missional Christians have with each other and the larger body of Christ. It is imbedded in all our way of life in all the places we live it. A congregation is one instantiation, one format of church, but is not the totality of any given church. People are more and more connecting with more than one congregation in meaningful ways, perhaps an organic group or a house church, perhaps a group that connects such groups as well. Barna called these folks "Revolutionaries." Well, I'd argue this has become increasingly the norm, and not just for postmodern 20-somethings.

It's the network-- church as network. In a network getting stuck in any one place is rather a bad thing. That's a sign the network isn't healthy, that it isn't working. The network is all about sending people from one place to another-- not so much about getting them in. The network is dynamic, not static; organic in its flow, even though there is definite structure at each node. And the network is not proprietary-- it creates and consists of many points of entry and interaction with others, "inside" and "outside." So many points of contact, indeed, that inside and outside do not carry the same sort of meaning or value that they do in the "mall" understanding of church.

Now what's hard about the shift in mental map from mall to network? Quite a lot, really. It's difficult for congregations to think of church outside the congregational format. They think about church and think immediately about things like worship and worship attendance as the bellwether for how they're doing. They tend to want to grow-- which means they want more people to attend worship. They have a hard time measuring their effectiveness or having a sense of themselves in "network" terms. This is a sea-change. Something like a bit of cognitive therapy might be needed to help facilitate the change... and then good coaching over time. That is, from the congregational perspective.

But from the missional perspective, well, we're already there, right? The temptation for us is, as I've suggested above, to wait around until the congregation catches up and approves of our crazy networky ideas before we actually implement them. Good thing, it is, that Mr. Wesley didn't bother to do that. Good thing, too, when missional Christians decide the same thing.

But also decide, as did early Methodism, with the firm resolve embodied in Rule 3, that the congregation matters and is to be respected and supported in what it does well. It's just that making missional disciples is rarely one of those things.

Be the change, folks. Be it AROUND the congregation. Be it WITH the congregation-- but not insisting that its node be reformatted itself. Be it as part of the network that is church. Be it as part of the network that actually networks with everyone and everything with which it comes in contact, thereby multiplying venues for ministry and points of contact, evangelism, conversion, discipleship and mission in the name of Jesus Christ. Be the "net force" that messes with the inertia of the congregation. Do this, and the congregations this networky movement touches can't help but be transformed in some ways, too.

So yes, transform existing congregations, by all means. Just remember that our mDNA tells us and Newton's law predicts that missional transformation is much more likely to happen via the interaction with a net force, rather than on the basis of the congregation's own "internal will."

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards