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 “methodical” adherence to practices that included worship, the sacraments, daily prayers, Bible study, classes, giving to the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Every organizational innovation fostered that way of life. Circuits were created as a means of providing the sacraments and for deploying leaders. Class tickets were given and giving records were maintained, not merely to provide an accounting for the aggregate totals, but to hold each person accountable for growth in Christ. Wesley did not establish faith communities so that he could have a conference; he established a conference to support the work of Christ through faith communities. .
Throughout the history of Methodism, the primary means by which we have brought people into this way of life has been through faith communities. Congregations offer the invitation and embrace of Christ. They offer worship that connects people to God and that stimulates the change of heart that transforms lives so that people see the world through God’s eyes. Congregations provide the means to grow in faith through small groups, Bible studies, support groups, and the care of souls. People cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their own sanctification, growing in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. And 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. Congregations draw people into the body of Christ, and through congregations God changes the world.
Consider the impact of congregations on your own life. Suppose we could extract from your life all the influences that God has had on you through congregations. Imagine we 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 from your life all the pastors, friends, colleagues, laypersons, youth leaders, and teachers who have encouraged and embraced you in the faith. Extract from your soul all the work projects, the meetings, the soup kitchens, mission projects, hospital visits and support from others you have experienced. Remove all the volunteer hours, stewardship campaigns, mission fairs, camp experiences, and youth ministries.
If someone removed from your life all the influences congregations have ever had on you, you’d be someone totally different. The congregations you have belonged to have changed and shaped you. Congregations are a primary means by which God reaches into our lives to work on our behalf 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. 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. In small congregations and large, in urban and rural churches, in every place and culture and language, God works through faith communities to change lives.
The Call to Action invites the leaders of The United Methodist Church to redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The focus on congregations is not about institutional survival, an obsession on numbers, or a fear of failure. It is about returning to the basics. In the first sentence that immediately follows our mission statement in the Book of Discipline, we say, “Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs” (¶120, italics added).
Imagine if we really allowed this priority on Christ’s mission through congregations to direct us in our alignment of resources, personnel, and energy in every district, conference, and general agency of the church. Imagine bishops and superintendents and conference staff and lay leaders and pastors viewing Christ’s mission through congregations as job one. Imagine if reaching the poor, the vulnerable, the hurting, and the lonely with ministries driven by the grace of God focused our energies. Imagine fostering congregational leadership and spiritual depth and invitational culture and courageous witness in every community of faith. Imagine how God could use our churches all the more to change lives, foster communities in Christ, and relieve suffering if we really behaved as if local churches provide the most significant arena through which we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Imagine!
How has God used faith communities to shape your life?
How can decisions at General Conference foster life in Christ for more and more people?
For deeper exploration, read Acts 2:37-47 in in The Message as well as in the NRSV for added perspective, and reflect on the practices that formed the earliest faith communities and how these form congregations today.
To expand horizons about the purpose of faith communities for the future, try one of these: Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt; The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch; Church Re-Imagined by Doug Pagitt; Transforming Church by Kevin G. Ford; or Emerging Churches by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolgar. Also, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase offers a clear line of sight between the work and practices of congregations and God’s mission in the world.