Committee 9: Evangelism & the future church

candles in a church

At this General Convention, we have 36 resolutions on public policy, in which we tell others what to do. And here we turn to the two (!) resolutions on evangelism. I won’t say more. You can make whatever sense you like of those numbers.

I will say this: evangelism is central to the practice of our faith. Though to listen to many folks in our church, you’d think we only had two baptismal promises (the last two), in fact, in our baptismal promises we say we will “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” So maybe we should pay more attention to that promise. Anyway, onward to the resolutions that deal with evangelism, 0.7% of the total number of submitted resolutions to date.

 

A045 Celebrate and Support the Planting of New Episcopal Worshiping Communities. Full text. Likely vote: YES, if amended.

I want to love this resolution, I really do. It asks for $1.6 million for church planting and for supporting church planters. The problem is that we don’t, as a denomination, seem to have figured out how to use church planting resources effectively yet. We love to launch flashy new things (“Look, it’s a Bible study at a minigolf course! Hey, it’s a worshiping community at a juice bar!”) but these are often not sustainable, nor do they appear to make disciples particularly well. We need to learn to plant churches with worship services, altar guilds, Bible studies, outreach projects, and the like. Sure, they’ll look different from church plants in the 1950s, but it is in community as we do the basics of worship, study, and service that we make disciples. I’m just not sure what will happen with the money from this resolution. We need to have great benchmarks of what works and what doesn’t. And so on.

Look, I’m not saying we need to pretend we’re back in Christendom where the main model is suburban churches with bustling Sunday schools and big parking lots. I’m saying we need to focus on discipleship. By “sustainability” I mean that there’s a plan to keep the community going over the long haul. Maybe the members of the new community aren’t paying a priest’s salary and such, but perhaps there’s a way for a nearby church or a hosting congregation to make time available from someone on their staff. The plan could look like all sorts of things, but there must be a clear plan for the long haul.

I could get on board with this resolution if two big changes were made. One is a stated goal that the aim here is to launch communities that will be sustainable in the long term. Another is that the people leading this $1.6 million initiative must be, themselves, lay leaders and clergy who have successfully planted churches that are thriving and growing to this day. If we can’t round up enough Episcopalians for this, we might borrow some folks from another denomination to help us out for a bit.

Back in my parish priest days in Rhode Island, the conventional wisdom was that we had too many churches in Little Rhody and that decline and closure were inevitable. I believed that. And then I started hanging out in a local coffee shop on Fridays. Turns out there were two other pastors, both church planters, who were also there on Fridays. We all got to know each other. In the same place where Episcopalians were busy proclaiming the certainty of decline, one of those pastors was leading a church with 200-300 on a Sunday that met in a movie theatre. That church was 2-3 years old, I think. The other pastor was leading a plant with 100 on a Sunday that met…in the basement of an Episcopal Church. The point is that maybe we could learn some things from people who do this well. And, here’s a truly radical idea: maybe before we spend vast sums, we should spend an extended time in prayer, appealing fervently for the might of the Holy Spirit to inflame our hearts and fill our minds with God’s wisdom.

So if we can fix this resolution to point it toward sustainable, measurable results, I’m all for it. Otherwise, it seems like another way to make ourselves feel better without changing reality on the ground, in this case with new, sustainable congregations as fruit.

 

A046 Support Starting New Bi-Cultural and Multi-Cultural Ministries. Full text. Likely vote: YES, but only if amended.

As with the previous resolution, I want to love this one, which asks for $500,000 to start new bi-cultural and multicultural ministries. See my commentary on A045, most of which applies here, too. I’d like to see the same focus on sustainable church plants in this resolution. We don’t need novelty ministries; we need disciple-making in churches. Again, to be clear, there are lots of ways to do that, but disciple-making must be the beginning, the middle, and the end of our church planting work. I’m also concerned that the first resolve upholds the good work of the Ethnic Ministries missioners, but then the accountability for the funds for these new bi-cultural and multicultural ministries does not mention the Ethnic Ministries missioners. If we’re starting, say, a Latino/Hispanic community, shouldn’t we have a process built in to consult with the Latino/Hispanic missioner or folks he recommends? If we can focus the spending a little, and if we can include the folks who are experts in the ministry context AND in successful church planting, I’m all for it.

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3 Responses

  1. Karen. Wright says:

    Magnificent commentary. Thank you Scott. If you have not read Nadia Bolts Webber. Saints and Sinners. It may affirm your focus here

  2. SarahELawton@gmail.com says:

    Hi Scott! Back again, because I care a lot about evangelism and future church.

    I don’t understand this comment about public policy work being about “telling other people what to do” versus evangelism which somehow … isn’t? Aren’t both of these categories about our relationship with people outside ourselves and our church gates? Isn’t all of it about discipleship and how we are called to be not only with our selves (resist evil, repent, return to the Lord) and each other (follow the apostles’ teaching and fellowship in the breaking of bread and prayers) and also with people who are not us (seeking and serving Christ in others, strive for justice and peace, respect the dignity of all human beings, proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ)?

    By way of example, here’s what my little church in the LGBTQ anglo-catholic slum church tradition is doing right now, on shoestring, with scotch tape, but with increasingly stable funding due to our community partnerships:

    – We work with our community partner the Gubbio Project to provide a place for “sacred sleep” in our nave, coffee and community in our garden, and very low-barrier entry access to health care services brought to our garden/library spaces by the Department of Public Health and other non-profits – all to meet very immediate needs, build trust and friendship, and a pathway to longer-term housing and services, for a very high-need population of people who living rough on the streets and often have drug use and mental health issues. This from dawn to dusk on weekdays, possibly to expand soon to Saturdays (thanks to opioid settlement funds–another advocacy project). My little church practices extravagant, radical hospitality with our space – and the 114-year-old building is often frayed as a result, but it is Gospel work.

    – We work with other community partners to provide space for events (Native American dance troupe, feeding programs, civic events such as meeting mayoral candidates).

    – We work with faith-based advocacy partners on issues facing our community, including the need for low-income and accessible housing in our neighborhood.

    – We participate with other faith communities in Pride events; we have long been a church that the LGBTQ community has turned to for funerals (starting in the AIDS pandemic), weddings, events for long-term AIDS survivors, and more. We are known in the community as that church. We have long advocated in public policy spaces for LGBTQ issues – AIDS funding, marriage equality, trans rights.

    – We are building an active team working on newcomers: social media, banners (color branding!), personal inviting; also greeter training, newcomers packets, and then how to incorporate new folks into our small group fellowships, formation programs, and other ministries.

    – We are experimenting with small group fellowship – evangelicals would probably call this disciple-ing – to focus on fellowship, prayer, and Bible study. (We used Forward Movement’s baptismal covenant book for our Lenten series for our first two groups-so thank you for that!) New groups are in the process of being formed and we are working on gathering and training group leaders. We offer other formation programs for the whole community on a seasonal basis.

    – We are one of the churches participating in building a young adult fellowship (20s/30s) across the city, and our vicar and his wife, both GenZ, are active leaders and participants. We are intentional in investing in this ministry, both money and time, and thinking through how to support pastoral care for our elders while also building this new community.

    – Because so many folks involved in our social outreach have started coming to church on Sundays, because St. John’s is their weekday church, and so many are Spanish speakers, we started doing our principal service in both English and Spanish a year ago. Honest talk, it’s a work in progress. We don’t want to do two services, separately – we want to build a bilingual, bicultural community. We still sing from Hymnal 1982 and we also sing Flor y Canto. The readings, prayers, sermon, and Eucharistic prayers are back and forth. The Lord’s Prayer/Padre Nuestro is a cacophony. We are very happy about the resolution A046. Sure, perfect it, but we need resources, support, and community for this work!

    – We are also looking at (5-year plan) redeveloping a portion of our property for truly affordable low-income housing. We’re not afraid of poor people; that’s who we are. So we’re the right people to do it. Thanks to advocacy work, there are new zoning laws in California smoothing the pathway for this.

    Our vision is for our 200th Anniversary, in 2057, to be a celebration of continued community engagement – that we are a place of housing, community events, support for people in need, and of course, an ongoing faithful Christian community keeping fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers, Bible study, justice work, and service to neighbors. Perhaps some of the 20s and 30s folks who are coming in now will be the active middle-aged/ young elders then! By then I’ll be really elderly, or gone to my rest in God. I’d love to be there as a 91-year-old wise elder–we’ll see! But that’s the dream.

    Anyway, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to separate our justice work, including policy advocacy, from our service and outreach work, from our evangelism and vitalization work. In this highly secular part of the country, people come to us through and because of our justice and service work. It’s part of our evangelism. And it is evangelism, in the sense of Good News! Jesus taught us that we all have need of one another. Jesus modeled for us a ministry of healing and care, including for the most outcast and marginalized. This is the Good News for our community that is often suffering so much – God in Jesus suffered so much with us and for us, and that through his resurrection he offers hope and life and more love and calls us to be imitators of Christ. How can these parts of our work be separated at all? They flow back and forth, don’t they? This is discipleship. Honest question!

    In friendship –
    Sarah Lawton
    lay deputy, California

  3. Bob Chapman says:

    When everyone is responsible, no one ends up responsible. We don’t have a center focal point for our evangelism efforts.

    We have a model, the Suffragan Bishop for Federal Ministries that reports to the Presiding Bishop. Why don’t we have a Suffragan Bishop for Evangelism and Church Growth?

    I’m thinking about what the ACNA is doing with its Diocese for the Sake of Others. Some aspects of that model is problematic, like a non-geographical diocese. I would our implementation would be where the diocesan bishop suffers or permits involvement. However, we could gather the expertise church-wide and implement it. Somebody would be watching the $1.6 million or whatever it is, and have to report on the return on investment. Say what works and when, and direct resources to those efforts. Let creative people pitch their ideas in one place.

    But I’m a dreamer, I guess.

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