Episco-upgrades: Reclaim the mission

This is the first post in a series. Click here for the next post.

Thanks to the Prodigal Kiwi, I had a chance to read a thought-provoking piece by Walter Russell Mead. In it, Mead says what many of us have been saying: mainline Protestant churches are in their death throes. This is a full blown crisis, and something radical will have to happen to revive the patient.

He puts this in stark and familiar terms:

It is not OK that more and more local congregations are grimly struggling with deferred maintenance, dwindling membership and marginal budgets. It is not OK that the mainline churches no longer play the kind of role in public debate or intellectual discourse that they did thirty or fifty years ago. It is not OK that the mainline churches have gotten locked into an antagonistic relationship with most of the church in the developing world. It is not OK that the decline of old models of organization and ministry are far gone in decay but that new alternatives are still struggling to emerge. It is not OK that so many young people raised in the church leave never to return, and that few come from outside to replace them. It is not OK that two generations of theological and liturgical innovations introduced with a conscious intention of making the church more relevant, more approachable and ultimately well, larger, have left the churches smaller and less relevant than before.

I could not agree more. On every count. Mead goes on to raise questions which we must be able to answer if the church is to survive.

If the churches develop their ethical standards (sex before marriage, divorce, homosexuality, racial justice, political ideas) from secular society and the general American consensus, why go to church for anything except weddings, funerals and Christmas carols? What do you learn in church that you can learn nowhere else? What kind of relationships do you form in church that you can form nowhere else? Why is churchgoing so important to you that you will not only go there no matter what — but that you will do everything in your power to encourage your friends and neighbors to join you? Why is church the daily bread you must have, not a lovely garnish on an already full plate?

There’s much more in his essay, including an important emphasis on sustainability. To expand what he says a bit, we have to pay attention to this at every level: individual, congregational, diocesan, denominational, and global. Too often, we simply look at a situation and assume that, somehow, it will get better in the future. This is human nature. And it has to stop. We have to return to the focus of the church, as defined in, say, the Book of Acts.

One commenter responds to Mead’s piece with this:

It would have had a great deal of listen for me if on any given Sunday a pastor would have asked, “You come here today because you are self proclaimed Christians. What did you do this week that though inconvenient you did anyway because you thought it was your Christian duty?”

That’s from someone who describes himself as a former Christian. Sad, that. Here’s a person who wanted to be challenged to live a better life, and who heard nothing. Here’s a person who wanted to hear stories of God’s power in the lives of others, and who heard nothing.

For a couple of generations, we’ve been so busy saying “I’m OK, you’re OK” that we’ve forgotten about salvation. Of course, none of us is OK, really. We all need salvation. And yet, we are also more than OK, because God loves us so much that God has offered us a path toward salvation. Got it? You’re not OK. I’m not OK. But God loves us more than we can imagine, so it’s possible for us to inherit eternal life. We can be made whole through God’s grace.

We have to get this right. If the church is one choice among many, we’ll lose. Our marketing budget and zazz can’t compete. If the church doesn’t remind people that we’re all in need of salvation, then people will — to their own detriment — stopping seeking it. If the church isn’t focused on its God-given mission, we aren’t going to thrive or even survive much longer.

Let’s get specific

I am a bit more familiar with the Episcopal Church, so I’ll take on my own tradition. Our “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!” is great. However, we have to have something once people show up. (We also have to be welcoming, a skill at which many congregations fail miserably.) Into what are we welcoming people? Inclusion is a by-product, not proper a mission focus.

We have gotten too political without a theological core. Martin Luther King was powerfully political, but nearly every sentence he spoke was steeped in a biblical witness. Even when King was denouncing someone, he was proclaiming the Good News. The same could be said for Archbishop Demond Tutu. Alas, when I read pronouncements by various Episcopal Church leaders (national and local), the biblical voice is drowned out by (progressive, usually) politics. Now I’m a bit of a political leftist, and this turns me off. Imagine if you’re a moderate or a conservative. What then?

We have focused on social justice, not building the kingdom of God. Like inclusion, social justice is a great by-product of a mission-focused church. If we think about building the kingdom of God, social justice is part of that work. If we think about doing justice work, we’ll be outpaced by any number of more nimble NGOs.

We have ignored our rich liturgical heritage and sanctified humdrum liturgy. Try this one Sunday. Go to a medium sized Episcopal Church and which you know no one. There’s a good chance you’ll be bored to tears. We clergy and lay leaders get emotionally invested, rightly so, in our own congregations. We love what’s happening in our own congregations, and much of that positive feeling comes from the relationships with the people joining us in celebrating the liturgy. Take away the emotional and relationship component, and what’s left may not be inspiring. Part of the problem is that we all try to be mini-cathedrals. Here’s a pro tip: your six-voice village choir should not try to sing anthems from Westminster Abbey.

If we stopped trying to be something we’re not, we might discover ways to offer authentic, amazing, transcendent worship. (Sure, you can tell me how wonderful YOUR congregation is. Just get a total stranger to come and give you feedback first.) Now, I’m not claiming to have this figured out. And the parish I serve is a bit above average size. We have a few resources to pull off some decent pageantry now and then — though anyone who shows up on a Sunday when I’ve drug out a cope would be right to point out my cathedral-ish tendencies. Maybe we get it right sometimes; probably we get it wrong sometimes.

Nationally, our average ASA hovers around 70, and we have to develop other models of Anglican worship. There are plenty. Worship needs to be authentic and well-done. It requires careful preparation. It does not need to be high church. It does not need to be “accessible”. It needs to work for someone who’s not part of the insider crowd. It needs to be holy.

Our preaching has to get better. I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard which had no obvious point. Add to that the number of sermons which made the point that I should (a) be nice or (b) feel good about myself, and that would cover quite a few of the sermons I’ve heard. A few years ago, I heard someone preach a fine sermon. When I said something to him after the service, he said simply, “Well, thank you. I try to proclaim the Good News every time I preach.” Of course, that seems achingly obvious. And yet it’s too rarely done. I’m fortunate to work with a colleague who offers excellent sermons just about every time she enters the pulpit. I also know she works hard on them. To preach great sermons, it takes deep faith and great preparation. I hope I manage to pull this off now and again. At the risk of sounding hopelessly evangelical (I’ll make up for it in a future post by sounding hopelessly catholic, I promise) every sermon is chance to call people to a new life. We’d better take that seriously. Lives depend on it.

Reclaim the mission

There are signs of hope. Within congregations, there are thriving people and ministries. Within denominations, there are congregations showing life and growth. When you look at those places, they are probably filled with clarify of purpose and alignment with God’s mission.

The upshot of all this is that we need to get back to basics. We need to believe and preach that Jesus lived, died, and was raised to new life for our salvation and for the good of the whole creation. We need to realize (paraphrasing Reggie McNeal) that the church does not have a mission; the church is part of God’s mission.

We must stop behaving as if we are still living in 1950s Christendom. Our church had better start to act like we’re back in the first or second century. That’s much more like our situation these days. If we can reclaim our mission, we’ll flourish again as the early church did. More than just increasing our ASA, we’ll be transforming the world, one life at a time.

I’m going to offer a series, over the coming days, of posts on how I think the Episcopal Church might become vital once again. Believe me, I have no illusions that I’ve got it figured out. We’re struggling with this in the parish I serve and in my home diocese as well. Still, like every cranky blogger, I figure I’ll offer up my ideas as if I had some vague idea what I was talking about. I do this knowing that you, dear reader, will tell me when I’m utterly and completely wrong.

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12 Responses

  1. I’m sometimes struck by the wisdom of the incredibly foulmouthed Blessed Gordon Ramsay, the superstar restauranteur, who goes around the UK and the US critiquing restaurants. He bursts the bubbles of people who think their restaurant is great even though the food is lousy, people who just hope someone will show up, staff who run the joint for their own benefit not the diners, restauranteurs who don’t understand their context, those who have no passion for food but just treat it like a business. I commend the analogy to the Church. May even blog it sometime.

  2. Thank you for this. I hope it gets well-circulated.

  3. mojwnun says:

    One of the Niebuhr boys remarked that a preacher ought to have the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. I think a whole lot of them ran out of hands long before they could do that.

  4. RWilliams says:

    If “God” is running the “business” how can it fail? If a church is Christ centered and not in the business of being a church I think the “customers” will come.

  5. My friend Doug Pagitt recently posted a video saying that he believes the Christian Church does better when it is not in the mainstream. Perhaps we need to let go of our mainline attitudes and the accompanying desires for power and authority (both within the church – and in the larger society) and grasp instead our desire for the greater purposes of G-d.

    BTW, In your series I’d love to see you tackle theology, Christology and the Episcopal Church.

  6. Poor preaching is endemic and epidemic, not just in the Episcopal Church. But you already know that. Love the pro tip about hymnody.

  7. Empy Schneider says:

    “We have ignored our rich liturgical heritage and sanctified humdrum liturgy.” In many cases, “Sad but true!!” We might do well to keep in mind the phrase, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!”

  8. KJ says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Both on the right, and the left, when the church becomes about secular politics or “whatever”, it becomes increasingly irrelevant. However, when it becomes about the Good News, lives are changed, and those things that some would like to consider primary, such as social justice, become a natural outflow of the Spirit as we live in accordance with our baptismal vows.

    I look forward to reading your continued thoughts.

  9. Scott Gunn says:

    +Alan, please do blog about Ramsay. Maybe we need a church critic a bit less polite than the Mystery Worshiper.

    Ralph, you are, of course, right. Sometimes it’s not easy to discern what God might like us to be doing.

    Wendy, your friend is spot on. The church is no longer in the mainstream in the US. We just need to own up to that. Also, can you say more about what you’d like to see re: theology/Christology in the Episcopal Church?

    Meredith, right you are. I just feel more comfortable critiquing my own tribe.

    Everyone else, thanks! More comments are most welcome. This is a good (and essential) conversation for us to be having.

  10. nancy says:

    As someone who is a newcomer on a somewhat regular basis to various Episcopal churches in my area I love your comment that “Worship needs to be authentic and well done….It needs to work for someone who’s not part of the insider crowd. It needs to be holy.”
    Some of my best worship experiences in church have been early morning, where more silence is kept, there is actual eye contact and warmth when passing the peace, and there is a genuine feeling of connectedness within the congregation, and with God. It doesn’t have to be splashy. It just needs to feel real.

  11. padre mambo says:

    speaking of kitchen nightmares: I blogged on it several months ago.


  12. Tackle theology/Christology…I find that the theology/Christology we use in the words of our liturgy, hymns, and even sermons do not match that which makes sense in the 21st century US nor does it even line up with the theology/Christology being churned out at seminaries.

    While I understand the ‘inherited’ nature of our liturgical language, I believe we’ve all become far too accustomed to the apologetics of the church when it comes to things we say (eg., much of what we say in the creed). In my mind, it simply makes gatherings inaccessible to folks who aren’t already “in” the historical Christianity club or who aren’t interested in mental gymnastics.

    I also believe we need to move away from the orthopraxy/orthodoxy situations and move toward something I call orthorelational. Seems like what Nancy might be getting at in her comment.

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