Worship and Discipleship, Part 6: Fix, Practice, and Discipleship after Revivalism

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


worship-planning-worship-and-discipleship-part-6-1It's back...that strange, geeky and still unlabeled network diagram. I'm keeping it out there on purpose... and I've made it smaller on purpose-- I want you to see it, but keep it more in the back of your mind through most of this post. But I also have a few labeled diagrams this time around as well!

In part 5 of this series, we looked at the ways in which early Methodism had essentially re-created a fuller ecosystem of venues for worship and discipleship that included congregations, a conference, societies, multiple ways of worship (some as "Fix" and some as "practice"), and, particularly in the class meetings (and the bands) a real life, intensive and accountable training ground in the practices of discipleship, personal and corporate, individual and social, practical and ritual. What we also found is that by the 1830s, much of this larger ecosystem, and especially the class meeting as an ongoing face to face community of accountability and practice, was already in some state of collapse, and by the end of the 1840s the class meeting as an ongoing accountable community of practice was essentially gone.

At the Beginnings of the First "Methodist Century" (before Revivalism)
worship-planning-worship-and-discipleship-part-6-2So, here's a graphic about how things worked in early Methodism before 1784. These early Methodists would have been involved in two distinct but connected ecclesial systems that, by their connection, delivered far more than either could have done alone: the Methodist system per se (on the left-- class meetings, societies, and conferences-- and of course bands for those wishing to go even deeper) that focused on teaching the practices of discipleship, generating accountable activity in mission, and creating connections for ministry across the entirety of the culture (in part because of its requirement in the Third General Rule that people also be connected to congregations!), and teaching soteriology (the theology of salvation-- prevenient grace, justification, and sanctification). This side of the ecosystem was about LIVING the baptismal covenant.

On the right side is the ecosystem of the existing congregations, most (though not all!) of which for these early Methodists would have been Anglican. These congregations did the four basic functions that congregations had been doing since Christianity became the legal religion of the Roman Empire in 375: Public Worship, teaching basic theology/core doctrine, providing some means of caring for each other, and functioning as a valued institutional player/hub in the local community. These were in turn supported by ecclesial superstructures (diocese, synod, association, or other forms depending on the polity involved) that were intended to support and at times direct the lives and ministry of the congregations. This side of the ecosystem was primarily about CELEBRATING the baptismal covenant.

The early Methodists were expected and supported to inhabit and participate in both sides of this fully. And there were huge advantages to such "networked ecclesiology" in every way. Methodists were not just reaching the poor through the works of mercy they were expected to perform as part of their class meetings and societies. They were also connecting to the wealthier and wealth-connected folks who tended to dominate as participants in the life of the parishes and other congregations across the nation. This created and galvanized a process of social networking unlike anything England had seen before or since. And it meant that Methodists and their ideas and commitments were literally reaching every part of English society.

It also meant that Methodists were getting the capacity both to form and be formed in both worship and discipleship in all the ways that both the congregations (and their ecclesial superstructures) and the class meetings/societies (and their networking through the conference) could provide. It was both-and, not either-or. It was full-orbed in worship and discipleship, and offered opportunity and expectation to go as far and as deep as possible in both with no compromises, and with neither being used primarily as the servant actually to achieve the ends of the other.

By the End of the First "Methodist Century" (during and after Revivals, War and Reconstruction)
worship-planning-worship-and-discipleship-part-6-3So here's a diagram that illustrates what happened from 1784-1884.

First, the societies essentially became at least also congregations, and, I might suggest, to a large degree, congregations like most other congregations by the middle of the 19th century. Class meetings faded away, replaced, in essence, by the Sunday School. The Conference (and ultimately General Conference) became the ecclesial super-structure, and congregations were clearly creatures of the conference, not the other way around. The four functions the societies and class meetings were carrying out got shifted, in essence, to seminaries, boards of ordained ministry and conference and/or the still nascent general agencies. So by 1884, there's actually nothing left to speak of on the left side of the diagram. No institutions that functioned the way they did in early Methodism remained. They were all "assimilated" into other structures and repurposed-- primarily as a means for the formation and deployment of clergy, professional missionaries and other organizational professionals-- on the other.

Meanwhile, there were also changes in the actual performance of the "classic four functions" on the congregational side, the biggest change of which dealt with teaching core doctrine. While the earlier "existing congregations" had continued to teach and in worship confess doctrine built around the broad pillars of the ecumenical creeds and/or other confessional documents (depending on the tradition involved), Methodist preaching in the societies-become-congregations tended initially to truncate simply to soteriology (continuing the teaching and preaching emphasis of the former societies) and then, by the end of the 19th century, to fade in emphasis even on that, leading a number of bishops and commentators to lament that they were more likely to hear something like a "life lesson" or an "emotionally persuasive speech" on some topic of the day in worship than anything remotely related to our doctrinal standards. The laments changed nothing-- they simply highlighted the shift. (This is why "Soteriology" is in gray in the diagram).

The Saga of the 20th and 21st Centuries (so far!)
worship-planning-worship-and-discipleship-part-6-4Although I submit this may be controversial and is certainly debatable (and I welcome all sorts of discussion and debate about this in the comments!) here's a diagram of where I think the UMC either is or is headed, rapidly, at the present and in the foreseeable future.

Now, you'll have to use your imagination a bit with this because I was not able to get the labeling and ordering of the images to come out exactly right. The brown circle is still the congregation. The oval around it (Conference-- the label got obscured) is now in gray-- a reflection of the fact that an increasing number of UM conferences are no longer functioning in ways that lead and connect as much beyond themselves as they do to try to serve an increasing number of shrinking congregations with a streamlined staff and structure. In other words, many conferences are now functioning as almost "optional" and "resourcing" creatures of the congregations rather than the congregations being seen as "mission stations" of the conference.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Schools are fast fading away as vital systematic, long-term element of congregational life and ministry. What is emerging in its place is a hodge-podge of short term classes (with short-term teachers) using a wide variety of materials with little if any overall curricular plan or coherence among them, depending on the budgets and preferences of the coordinators, leaders, or participants themselves.

You'll note that Seminaries, BOOM and Agencies are in gray here as well.

In our seminaries, and in mainline seminaries generally, while in the past few years the percentage of younger students has actually dramatically increased, the percentage of students who intend to pursue pastoral ministry in a congregation has just about as dramatically decreased. In some seminaries, nearly half of the incoming students are there for the personal formation (which they couldn't get in other ways), but they're clear they intend to pursue other kinds of careers which may have little if anything to do with congregational leadership directly.

The opportunities for ordained ministry are becoming fewer as the economic realities of shrinking sizes and numbers of congregations in the US but increasing costs for "clergy in full connection" (including the debt those clergy have to incur to obtain the necessary training!) continue to increase. Bishops continue to appoint an increasing number of local pastors and others with less academic training and different standards of oversight and relatively fewer ordained elders or deacons in full connection. So within the BOOM ecosystem, less work is being done at the conference level and more work is being done at the district level, even as the total number of districts are generally decreasing to cut costs.

And General Agency financial support is dwindling. Despite major downsizing so far (250+ job cuts already since 2008), far more radical downsizing and reorganization at this level, with perhaps even less expected budget support (and almost certainly no increase over 2008 levels!) appears to be on the horizon for consideration by General Conference in 2012.

And the "four classic functions" of congregations have also shifted further.

--"The public worship of God" as a "normative" and in that way formational expression of the historic Christian faith in a community is becoming more and more about creating "worship experiences" that people (customers? consumers?) want to "relate to." In other words, worship has become or is increasingly being framed as just about pure "Fix," except that now the "Fix" isn't designed to challenge and change us, but rather, in essence, to give us just the "experience" we prefer to have.

--The content of many of these "worship experiences" and other educational or formational opportunities is increasingly about helping people connect with themselves, their neighbors or God in a variety of ways they may find interesting or relevant at the time (formation as consumer-driven "leisure activity," not life-or-death praxis that takes life, death and the way of Jesus with utmost seriousness). The underlying consumerism implicit in this much of this approach, however, likely means that no two, six or twelve-week "orientation" series and subsequent "menu" of "options" is enough to develop and maintain the practices of discipleship to Jesus. And that won't cut it if we are serious at all about participating actively in Christ's mission to transform the world instead of finding ourselves inexorably conforming to the "niches" of its skilled marketers.

--While a number of larger congregations are developing and deploying excellent systems for lay-driven care-giving ministries (Stephen Ministry, grief support and parish nursing are prime examples), much of the emphasis on caring in many of our congregations has actually defaulted to the pastor, other professionals or immediate family as chief caregivers. In this climate, in addition to providing such hands on care as possible, many pastors also focus on promoting various way for individuals and their families to improve self-care.

--Finally, with notable exceptions (especially in a number of urban contexts where a number of congregations and a few conferences are doing some remarkable and pioneering work), many congregations are no longer creating and sustaining the means to function as reliable institutional partners for community support and change, choosing instead to encourage people to get involved in community activities as they have time, or focusing more on doing what they want to do when they feel like it (short term mission projects) in their local communities and calling that their "outreach." This is optional Christian missional organizational vocation limited to individually determined leisure time. Spasmodic or even ongoing "good intentions" do not a reliable institutional player or partner make! That's why "institutional hub" also appears in gray above.

"What Must We Do to Be Saved?"
If that's not a setup for "The Fix," I don't know what is!

But the best answer I can come up with is an ancient one.

Repent, and believe the good news!

I mean this, on both counts.

First, repent. Don't just feel bad about how things are. (Things are in poor shape). Don't just lament that we've ditched just about every effective tool we had for making real Christians and wring your hands and say, "Woe is me! We are undone!" (We may be, but that's beside the point!). Don't look back at the "glory days" of early Methodism and say "let's just copy what they did then, and do exactly the same things now-- and everything will be great again!" (Though some things did work better then!). And don't say, "Let's give up on everything in the past and do something entirely different and new!"

The first is just remorse. The second is self-pity. The third is traditionalistic delusion. And the fourth represents a failure to learn or be accountable for anything we have learned at all. None of those is repentance.

Repentance begins by acknowledging both the reality of where we are and everything that got us to this place. Some of our history and practices have been helpful and should be retained. Others have been diversions that should be pursued no more. It takes wisdom to know the difference, courage to pursue the wise path, and the Holy Spirit to show and prepare the way.


And then believe the good news.

And at least part of the gospel is the promise of Christ to be with us always, even to the end of this age. These are words he gave his disciples at precisely the time he sent them into all the world to make disciples, teaching them (by word and practices!) to observe (practice!) everything he had commanded them (precept upon precept, practice upon practice) to observe (to practice!), baptizing them (ritual as practice!) in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There's no leeway in this commission not to teach practices of piety and mercy, personal and corporate, the lifeways of the reign of God, the enfleshing of the baptismal covenant, and not to teach them well enough that they get into the bodies, muscles, bones, blood and lungs! It was those who received such intensive formation as actual disciples of Jesus, practitioners of the way of their (and our!) Master, who did and in every place still do most effectively join God's mission of transforming the world through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.Teaching such practices, developing mastery at them, IS participating in the good news!

There's also no prohibition in this commission from learning from all the wisdom of our ancestors and peers in the faith. We read scripture to learn from more ancient peers. We read history and connect with each other to learn from more recent ones. We are all part of the one body of Christ. We have much to learn and benefit from the good fruit and the failures of each other.

And in our case as Methodists, we have it in our historical DNA to create a rich and full-orbed ecosystem of discipleship and worship-- worship that both moves people to discipleship and worship that also forms disciples to be leaven and light in the world, and discipleship that both infuses worship with lived truth, passion and power and that also forms worshipers to worship as fully as they can in spirit and truth.

By God's peculiar grace, early Methodists formed that ecosystem in the 18th century in England and North America by using and connecting in new ways some resources already at hand (congregations and their existing ecclesial structures, and societies as a form of purposeful association), repurposing others (focusing the society to help it help more people grow in holiness of heart and life), and innovating a few others (the class meeting, the bands, and the conferences-- though in some ways it could be argued that these kinds of groups had existed in Christian history or in other communions as well).

Not all of those parts and pieces exist at all now, at least not in our "Official United Methodist parts bucket." Some we have abandoned. Others are being carried out by parachurch or paracongregational organizations we may or may not officially recognize.

As the congregations have gone from being "primarily public" to "primarily consumerist" in orientation, it may be even harder for them now, than it was then, to undertake the joyous rigors of something like a catechumenate. But other groups that are serious about offering and experiencing such deep formation (not congregations) could do that in partnership with congregations.

Theological education, even in basic ways, is becoming harder and harder for congregations to provide, and even too expensive for "full time students" to afford. But other forms of partnerships between reliable educators and congregations or even other groups (like neo-monastic communities or campus ministries) could be created.

In other words, while whatever forms of Christian community you or I may participate in now may not be able to be full-orbed discipleship and worship ecosystems on their own, if networked in disciplined ways, anyone in the network could experience the benefits of the best gifts of each committed player.

This is good news that our history teaches. Church isnt just a congregation or its denominational (ecclesial) superstructures. It's a living, on the ground network of those things and whatever others that, when connected, can be a full-orbed ecosystem of worship and discipleship. Or as the Wesleys used to say, it's a "connexion."

worship-planning-worship-and-discipleship-part-6-1And... "Best of all, God is with us."

Next time... adding some possible labels to the diagram... in part 7 of this series, "Worship and Discipleship"