Go, therefore, and make disciples from all the nations.  Baptize them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them all that I have commanded you.  I am with you always, even to the end of this world (Matthew 28: 19-20, Christian Community Bible)

When a method of doing things becomes so deeply associated with an institution that we no longer know which came first–the method or the institution–then it is difficult to change the institution or even to imagine alternative methods for achieving its purposes.  (Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 143)

The past couple of decades have been a time when the churches have had to think somewhat seriously about mission.  In the Anglican Communion, we quite often point to the Five Marks of Mission.  And then we turn around and spend a lot of energy on the problems of declining attendance and congregational sustainability.

Which have, really, very little to do with mission. 

The Great Commission, the Gospel quote at the start of this little essay, is what church–and mission–is about. Incorporate people into the life presented in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, help them to learn from the Savior, and turn them loose to incorporate them into that same body.

It has nothing to do with Sunday attendance, Harvest festivals, carol services.  Or the Vestry/PCC, or singing in the choir, or teaching Sunday School, or traditional worship vs. “Fresh Expressions”.  Or worrying about the roof or heating system, or the stewardship campaign or coffee hour or Back to Church Sunday. Or any of the other things that congregations do.

Those things aren’t bad in themselves, and they may indeed be useful tools for spreading the love of God on earth.  But they are not church, and they are not mission. Because Jesus Christ never commanded his followers to establish settled congregations.

Postman makes an important point when he writes of the difficulty in distinguishing institutions from the methods they have employed toward achieving their goals.

We’ve confused the institution of church with the method of the congregation. We even call the congregation the church–or perhaps more tellingly, my church.

But the congregation as we know it–a group of people who see each other once a week (or more) for worship, instruction, fellowship, service to others, with only those who are members of the “community” participating in these activities (or, in the case of visitors, a plan that they will soon become members)–is a relatively new development.  And congregation as a high-commitment association that limits other life activities, is probably less than 150 years old.

Christian congregations developed out of convenience and efficiency–early Christians met in homes with other nearby followers of Jesus, for worship, learning, and mutual support.  And then they went out and spent most of their lives dealing with people outside these gatherings.

As time progressed, and the church became legally established (and as a result, wealthy), purpose-built structures for worship and communal living appeared.  Mainly these were monastic foundations, or other arrangements, such as minsters, where groups of priests lived together to pray the offices, celebrate sacraments–worship was available to whoever wished to attend, but not expected.  Indeed, it was not easy to “join” this kind of church, as it took years of preparation and discernment (novitiate and postulancy) before men could take final vows or receive the sacrament of holy orders.  Women’s communities were equally difficult to join.  But except in cases of cloistered communities, monasteries, convents, and minsters, there were quite a number of people who came in and out of the settlement.  Trade was carried out (religious communities often produced very good wine, cheeses, and breads, and exchanged these for needed items they could not make themselves).  Hospitality was offered to travelers, and donations were offered in exchange.  News of the outside world came to the religious houses through visitors; the religious men and women offered prayers and spiritual guidance.  Many people had contact and commerce with the religious house who never became members.

This was what Postman would call a “method” of doing the work of the church, although in its day, it was certainly as confused with the institution of church as local congregation (which is also a method) is today.

We’ve largely abandoned that mediaeval method of religious house and its interface with those living more secular lives, and in the last century and a half, it has been eclipsed by local congregation.  There’s a lot of talk about a “new monasticism”, but I am not seeing much in it about welcoming and learning from those who will never become settled members of the monastic community.

Congregation as method has served well for decades, but it has been in decline for most of my life. And the investment made (in seminaries and at the national level of most denominations) in the “congregational development” movement has not fulfilled its promise in reversing that decline.  To deny this is a folly.  Thinking that local congregation is the only way to do the work God has given us to do is willfully to confuse the institution of the church with its method.

So new methods need to be found, and perhaps older methods revived and adapted. And perhaps we need to revive the idea of churches as communities of prayer and industry, where strangers are welcomed and both bring and receive benefits–but where there is no demand that everybody becomes a “member”.

We need to do serious rethinking about the difference between our institutions and long-used methods.  If the methods we are used to no longer serve the purpose and mission of the institution–the church–we need to be brave about finding new ones.

Or maybe adapting some old ones.

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