By Ken Morgan
18 January 2022
“There is so much we can’t do.”
Countless times over the past couple of years I’ve heard phrases to this effect, voiced with frustration by longsuffering clergy. The normal activities of church life have been so encumbered and the constraints so variable, that daring to plan anything for 2022 seems like a road to nowhere.
When the activity that maintains the rhythm of church life is disrupted, we question the purpose of our activity. When that disruption is both sustained and widespread, the raison d’être for church itself comes into question.
The purpose of the church is not often discussed at the parish level – it’s largely presumed. When it is discussed, the presumptions about why we do what we do appear many and varied.
The conversation generally oscillates between disciple-making and disciple-perpetuating activity, based on inherited patterns and traditions. For churches primarily based on inherited activity, the pandemic has in various ways prevented them from doing what they’re there to do. For some churchgoers, this absence of activity has presented an opportunity to question their churchgoing habits. Initial indicators suggest about 20 per cent of pre-pandemic church attenders have decided that church involvement is no longer a priority for them.
For churches geared more toward making disciples, the disruption has presented an adaptive challenge, much in the same way that persecution and disaster has challenged the church over the centuries. Challenge has stimulated innovation, and for some churches the opportunity to approach disciple-making differently has led to increased fruitfulness.
It’s not that tradition and discipleship are at odds. Many ecclesial traditions began as innovations to facilitate discipleship in a particular time and place under a particular set of circumstances. As time wore on, those practices solidified into traditions and the original rationale was forgotten. And as circumstances change, traditions risk becoming less effective while becoming more entrenched. Most of our traditions originated many centuries after the time of Jesus and so are not essential for the life of faith. When the preservation of traditions takes precedence over their original purpose or displaces the timeless mission of the church, plateau and demise are inevitable.
Many of the great missionary movements of the church were founded on the formation of disciples, which – consistent with Jesus’ commission – involves teaching believers to obey his teaching and to be transformed in character.
As the Celtic monks and later Wesley (a good Anglican) discovered, weekly service attendance is inadequate by itself to form disciples. As the church in restricted nations demonstrates, public worship services are not even necessary for discipleship formation. Rather disciples are formed in smaller groups where the life of Christ is shared in the more mundane practices of life, and participants are held accountable for their habits.
Jesus himself invested predominantly in a small group of twelve, with a special focus on three. Even the most gifted leaders can form relatively few disciples at any one time.
Perhaps the pandemic is an invitation to clergy to focus their efforts on a few and to rediscover the art of making disciples.