An Acts 8 moment?

For the last couple of weeks, I have been in much conversation with Susan Snook and Tom Ferguson (known for their blogs, A Good and Joyful Thing and Crusty Old Dean). We have been talking about our church and the situation in which we find ourselves. By many accounts, prospects for the Episcopal Church are bleak.

Acts 8We’ve seen public feuding among our churchwide leaders. We are in the midst of a decades-long period of decline. There is a coming demographic change as the baby boomers die, which means that we’ll lose a vast number of members in a short time. Oh, and the financial situation is pretty grim in a great manycongregations.

And yet, there is hope. Or, more to the point, there is hope if we look outside our current situation and our readily available options. With God all things are possible. The church has been in rough spots before, and it has survived warring factions. Now is a time for us to look beyond where we are, to see where we can go. We are in an Acts 8 moment. At next week’s General Convention, it’s time for us to turn the corner.

Susan Snook has written about our modern-day Acts 8 Moment. In a time of severe distress, it might have seemed that the church was doomed. The disciples had imagined a church that would thrive in Jerusalem, centered around the temple. As that reality became impossible, it might have appeared that the church had no future. But from this “impossible” situation, the church found hope.

Precisely in the need to move outside Jerusalem , the church found its opportunity to engage the world. In thinking beyond the familiar world of Judaism, the church was able to offer the Good News to Gentiles. A small vision was crushed in order to make possible a broad, world-changing vision.

Lots of people who are now in leadership positions in our church have imagined a world in which we will have a large staff at 815 Second Avenue in New York. Others find familiarity in a complex network of committees and commissions. We continue to fight the same battles because predictablity is comfortable. Too many of our congregations are engaged merely in maintenance rather than mission. Evangelism is virtually unheard of.

If we think we’ll find our way out of this mess by tweaking committees here and there or by merely relocating some staff, we are mistaken. If we think that we can avoid change at the local level, we are mistaken. If we think that we do not need to go out actively into the world and share the Good News, we are mistaken.

The simple fact is that while it is true that the church has survived all manner of misfortune in its history, it is also true that the church as we know it will not survive much longer. In Christian history, the last couple of hundred years in general, and the last few decades in particular, are anomalous. The world has become post-Christian, and we’re still carrying on as if we live in Christendom. We try to cling to vast institutions worthy of the Roman Empire.

Our church will soon begin to look much more like it did in 250 than in 1950. Before Constantine, the church traveled lightly — no vast bureaucracy, not many buildings, and a focus on life-changing encounters with the Savior who called people to costly discipleship.

So this time of ours is not to be wasted with petty squabbles over turf in institutions that won’t exist much longer. We must not convey to the world a small-minded vision of who we are and what we are called to do. Now is not a time to ask less of our members, but rather more.

What I’d like to see is this: a real conversation about our church and its future. Let’s briefly ackowledge the reality of our present situation, and then let us find hope in our future. Christ has given us a mission to make disciples of all nations. Christ has given us a mission to proclaim Good News, especially to those at the margins of society.

My hope is that, at this General Convention, we will manage to do three things:

1. Pass a transitional budget that gets us through the next triennium without making radical, ill-considered changes. Crusty Old Dean has written about this; we are in danger of creating unintended consequences. The PB’s budget is not perfect, but it is the best we have at the moment. Let’s pass something like that and not spend too much time hashing out pointless arguments over budget lines.

2.  Most important: let’s make sure that we set up a fresh group of people with fresh ideas about how our church might adapt for our time. Sure, we need the experience of decades-long governance veterans. But we also need to hear from people who think General Convention is a total waste of time. (I’m not in either one of those groups, but I’d like their voices to be heard.) Let’s get people who can listen to ideas they disagree with and engage in inquisitive and open conversation. This group needs to function outside our vastly broken current system.

3. Let’s have a bit more joy and prayer. Drama is not becoming. Some more humor — and grace-filled prayer — would be a great addition to General Convention. What if we all began to pray for those with whom we disagree on this or that?

OK, now I’m getting to the punchline. Finally. On Thursday, July 5, at 9:30 p.m., join the Acts 8 Moment. (Location TBA.) Like the Acts 8 Moment on Facebook to keep up with what’s happening. Tom Ferguson, Susan Snook, and I will gather people for prayer and conversation about this moment in our church’s life. Please come if you are in Indy. We’re working on video streaming for those who aren’t going to be at General Convention.

But more important than anything else, pray for our church and our leaders. With God all things are possible, but we might need to set aside our own agendas to make room for God’s call to us.

We have a great opportunity to be transformed by our Acts 8 moment. We have an opportunity to engage God’s work in new ways for our time. Will we seize this moment to grow? Or will we cling to fear?

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11 Responses

  1. Scott I can agree with the spirit of your piece, with two caveats. The first is that a transitional budget needs to show a smaller central staff. It is poor stewardship to spend money on what have bee ineffective structures.
    The second is to reject a special General Convention. Wasting $7-10 million dollars to have the entrenched institutional culture propose a restructuring would be obscene. The ideas being floated by “leadership” aim at reducing deputations and increasing centralized influence. That is the wrong path to take.

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Michael, thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

    What staff, exactly, would you propose cutting? My sense is that people say they want cuts, but I haven’t heard many specifics. I also note that our HQ staff has shrunk from about 240 to about 140 over the last decade. I think it can/should get smaller, but I don’t think an axe in PB&F is the right way to do that.

    I don’t think I said I wanted a special convention, but rather “a group of people.” I’m imagining a task force of 15-25 people. Now, that said, I’m not persuaded one way or another on the need for a special convention. It seems unimaginable that we’ll use our time wisely in a regular general convention to have these conversations to make the best choices. We seem to drown ourselves in a lot of needless debate.

    Lastly, I think I might favor a smaller general convention AND a smaller central staff. I’m not convinced that 1,000 people gathering in a legislative assembly every three years is the absolute best way to do things.

    But I’m keeping an open mind about all these things.

  3. Another thing – maybe point 4 – don’t elect any announced candidate for PHoD or EC – draft the people we need – new people with new ideas. Not the same old same old.

  4. Mary Ann Hill says:

    You mean Thursday the 5th, right?

  5. Don Collins Reed says:

    Scott, I think you mean THURSDAY, July 5, at 9:30 p.m.

  6. Scott Gunn says:

    Don and Mary, thank you. I fixed the post.

  7. Ted Hallenbeck says:

    And— Please remember the importance to Dioceses of the amount of the assessment to the National Church! Reducing from 19% to 15% would reduce our assessment in Rhode island by $94,147 in 2013. That would make a huge difference in what we can do. As with many Dioceses it is the biggest item in our budget. We, too, need all the help we can get.

  8. Kevin says:

    I can certainly understand the desire by dioceses to reduce the assessment to 15%, but I have two questions: 1. What are you willing to do without? 2. Are you willing to support some sort of penalty for dioceses that do not pay the full assessment without good reason?

  9. Paul Rosbolt says:

    Scott, just to add some weight to one of your thoughts. Reorganizing does not solve problems! What’s needed is a good clear vision, and a strategic plan to achieve it.

    I spent many years in large government and corporate organizations and found that the “reorganize to solve a problem” approach usually led to a 2-3 year delay in actually attacking the problem while we did the reorg! And that was in top down organizations where there was unified direction on how to do the reorg.

    In this case, we could spend all of our time arguing about how/when to reorganize, and none attacking the real issue.


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