The Dirt on Organic," or Why the Early Methodist Both/And Still Matters...

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


Worship planning dirt on organic
Image Credit: Organic Apples, Pateros, Washington. Photo by Surachit. Used by permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Share Alike License.


Leadership Magazine has an insightful article on the challenges of planting and leading Organic Groups/ Church that would be a great read for all of us-- or anyone interested in the organic model of "doing" or "being" church. Despite its title, "The Dirt on Organic," this isn't a "tell-all exposé" that trashes the idea of organic groups/ organic church at all. Instead, it describes the challenges one organic church planter faed in the course of his efforts, as well as some of the accomplishments that that format of Christian community was able to address and "typical" congregations could not. Go there and read!

As I was reading, I couldn't help but often think to myself, "But of course you faced these issues!" Why? Because implicit in much of the organic church movement (though not all of it) is that small is always better and institutional is always wrong. That means these small organic groups (if actually out there on their own-- and there's a real bias that says they should be) end up dealing with all kinds of issues that are actually well beyond their capacity to address well if they're actually pulling "double duty" as small groups AND congregations. Among these are finances, time management, intimacy, in-grown-ness and personal engagement. What the author concluded from his foray into this work was that it may well be unsustainable-- at least the way he was approaching it.

While Methodists may be known for "trying anything that works," expecting organic groups (or even groups of organic groups) to function AS congregations (with all the financial, programmatic, and institutional connections that requires) rather than being tethered TO established congregations in a fruitful and mutually beneficial way is certainly an example of "Not So Great Expectations"-- precisely for such reasons.

Small groups can do community, accountability, spiritual formation, evangelism and grassroots hands on ministry and advocacy in the world remarkably well. They can also develop worship practices among themselves-- both personal and group practices-- that can deepen and enrich their personal and group lives in every way and bring honor to God.

Congregations can do public worship (engaging all sorts of people in such groups and not in them and training them in the lasting core corporate practices of the faith), basic training in theology, systems of care beyond the individual and small group, and institutional matters (including but not limited to finances, facilities, scheduling, sustainability and connecting to other institutions in the larger community and world) very well.

"Church happens" at its fullest when both kinds of formats of Christian community are vitally connected to and collaborative with each other, neither ultimately controlling the other. Small groups that try to control congregations end up frustrating themselves and weakening the capacity of the congregation to function institutionally. Congregations that try to control small groups end up over-regularizing and domesticating them, "quenching the Spirit" that gives them life and vitality. Congregations and organic groups that collaborate-- forming something like the "anchor congregation/monastic cell" relationship Scott Kisker and Elaine Heath describe in Longing for Spring may find themselves in the best position to "let every flower bloom."

And for judicatories and planters who think and act on the principle that organic groups can or should function AS a congregation, or that congregations are the be-all and end-all of missional engagement, rather than a necessary but insufficient component (as are such groups!) for church to happen as fully as possible in a given place-- well, maybe it's time for them to ReThink and ReBe Church along the lines our earliest Methodist forebears did-- by actively engaging in both, each doing its part well.

But you've heard that line from me before... How are you finding that to work-- and not work-- where you are?