The doctrine of the church and the small membership congregation



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

The doctrine of the church and the small membership congregation

Nov. 2, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011   
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando {0567}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

The commitment of the Florida Conference is to strengthen small membership congregations so they are vital in faith and effective in mission.

Before we identify strategies to strengthen small membership congregations, we should understand them in the context of ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church.

There is one principle of ecclesiology that demonstrates the legitimacy of the small membership congregation. The principle is that each local church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in its community.

This principle is understood in a larger perspective of the relationship between the local church and the whole church. On the one hand, all of the local churches comprise the whole church. On the other hand, each local church is called to be the whole church in its location. In the doctrine of the church there is the paradox of the many in the one and the one in the many. While we often emphasize the principle that all of the local churches comprise the whole church, it is also important to remember that each local church is called to be the whole church in its location.

Reflecting upon this principle, we are reminded of the dignity and purpose of the local church, including the small membership congregation. There are six dimensions of this principle that demonstrate its meaning.

First, the whole Gospel is proclaimed in each local church. The size of a congregation does not limit the scope of the proclamation of the Gospel.

Second, the Christian tradition is taught in each local church. This tradition includes what we believe (the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed), how we pray (the Lord’s Prayer) and how we live (the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount). The size of the congregation does not limit the teaching of the Christian tradition.

Third, the Triune God is worshipped in each local church. We worship the Father whose name is love; we answer the call of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to be his disciples; and we pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us and bring us to perfection in love, which is union with God and communion with others. Nowhere do we worship the Triune God more perfectly than in the Eucharist, the sacrament of Holy Communion. The size of a congregation does not limit the worship of the Triune God.

Fourth, the whole world is the parish of each local church. This is the Wesleyan way of describing the “catholic” character of the local church. It means that everyone in the “parish,” the geographical area served by the local church, is one to whom the local church is in mission. While each local church primarily ministers to those in its parish, it also participates in the global mission of the whole church as it is able. Size does not limit the mission of the local church to the whole world in principle.

Fifth, each congregation embodies the whole church in its particular local cultural context. While each local church is the whole church in its location, each local church is able to be culturally relevant to its particular environment. The size of a congregation does not limit its capacity to be culturally relevant.

Sixth, since each congregation recognizes all other congregations who are the one church in their respective locations, then each congregation participates in a communion of churches. The existence of clusters provides a structure to enable local churches to participate in a communion with other local churches. The size of a congregation does not limit its capacity to participate in a communion of churches.

These ecclesiological reflections are reminders of the theological validity of small membership congregations when they are faithful to the mission of the church of Jesus Christ.

So then, the practical question is, how can we enable small membership congregations to become more effective in becoming what they are by God’s grace — the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in their locations?

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This article relates to Christian Mission.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.




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