The New Normal of the Christian Congregation

I don’t know Bishop Stephen Scarlett from Adam, but I saw a link to a paper he wrote a while back about “Anglican Catholic Mission”.

Some of what Bishop Scarlett has to say is good. Some of what he says, well, I wouldn’t have said it the way he said it, mainly because I am Lutheran and he is Anglican. However, he has given me some things to think about regarding the mission of the Church and how mission work plays out in the new normal of the times in which we live. Don’t expect me to junk everything we say and do as Lutherans. But do expect me to think about the “new normal” of the world in which we live and how this plays out in receiving the Gifts of Christ in Divine Service, in corporate Bible study, in prayer, and in how a congregation is viewed by the community.

Here are a few quotes from Bishop Scarlett’s paper. I encourage you to read the paper and make your own conclusions. The quotes are long. God bless you if you fight your way through them to the end.

The denominationally-concerned World War II generation did not, by and large, pass on its convictions to its children. Traditional Anglican churches are not, for the most part, populated by the children of their founding members. This is due in large part to the influence of liberal or “higher” biblical criticism in the mainline churches in the mid-twentieth century. This produced the primary modern heresy, the denial of original sin, and the consequent loss of authentic faith in many churches—and especially in their seminaries. The gospel of salvation through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ was rejected—since leaders in the church no longer believed that people needed to be saved from sin. It was replaced with various versions of the “social gospel” and various “isms.” Increasingly in the mid-twentieth century, church people did not really know Christ.

The actual behavior of many traditional churches reveals that they are more like preservation societies. Most of the central players in many parishes are something like docents at a museum. They are present to give tours and inform the few interested inquirers about the way things always have been, but they are not prepared to make disciples or to explain to people how faith in Christ can change their lives.

Emphasis on preservation leads to inward focus, to strife, and to factions. Typically, the faction that stayed is constantly harping about the faction that left—or some variation on that theme. When a church is not present to give itself for others, it tends to feed on itself. But if you want your church to be a preservation society, at least be honest about it.

Jesus said, “Make disciples.” He did not say, “Set up a traditional church outpost where Mass is said just the right way, put an ad in the paper and wait for those who already understand the faith to come. When they don’t come, give sermons—jeremiads even—about how the culture is going to hell.” This is how we have typically done church. Most of our evangelism has been an attempt to double down on this approach—do all the same things, just be nicer to visitors, make better signs, keep the church cleaner, etc. This approach has not been and will not be fruitful.

A church can ask some self-reflective questions. Is our tradition the means by which we know Christ and experience his redeeming presence and grace? Or is our tradition chiefly the means by which we differentiate ourselves from other Christians? Is the liturgy of the Eucharist something your church prays together so that it is the source and sustenance of your unity and the foundation for your mission? Or is it chiefly the thing you argue about—perhaps because you think your priest does it the “wrong way”; or because some are cranky that it is too high or low? How many people in your church characteristically ignore the invitation requirement that we be in “love and charity with our neighbors” by communing even while constantly sowing seeds of discord in these areas?

Many churches act like they did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. This was a time when denominational identity was more important. A church could attract people by differentiating itself theologically from other denominations or from others within its own church. The websites of many traditional churches are filled with excellent theological treatises that answer questions people might have asked back then when looking for a church. Or they answer questions that were (and are) important only to internal church combatants. The effectiveness of this approach has passed. Most of these treatises are now written by us and read only by us.

Will your church preach the gospel of forgiveness to sinners? Will you welcome the wounded of our culture? Will you be patient with them as they learn to embrace their new identity “in Christ”? Or would you rather continue to fight a losing battle in the “culture wars”?

All efforts at church renewal and mission must begin with prayer. Frequently, discussion about mission quickly transitions to the creation or adoption of some program—something we can “do.” We talk about justification by faith, but act like Pelagians. The truth is that we have no idea what to do; the only way to begin is to pray about it and ask God to show us.

If the membership of a church is characteristically grumpy, if the typical Sunday conversation is griping about politics or complaining about the rector or some other thing in the church, then that church will typically attract grumpy discontented people. It will only attract a few of them, and they may not stay because they will soon be grumpy about that church too! But if a church is committed to the life of prayer, if there is an evident joy and cohesion to the community, if the members are typically growing in their faith and hopeful and excited about the things that God is doing, then the church will attract (and God will send) people who want to pray, connect with people, and participate in mission.
If a church is serious about mission, it must begin by asking, what are we bringing people into here? We can only give away what we have. Mission must begin with inward renewal.

The old order for getting new church members was something like this. We would try to get people to come to church. If they liked the liturgy—usually because they already knew it—we would try to get them to come to social events and get to know people in the church; then, hopefully, we would get them involved in the ministry of the church. In a year or two they would be conscripted for vestry or altar guild or some other function. The new order is the older and ancient order. First invite people to get to know us in social and relationship contexts. If people find the community attractive, they will want to know more about the faith.

The second step is to invite them to an “inquirers’ class.” Churches should establish regular inquirers’ classes on Sunday mornings. When new people come they should be encouraged to attend that. This allows Sunday to be a combination of worship and instruction and makes outreach to new people a central part of Sunday. This class will systematically walk through the basics of the faith and teach them how to live a life of prayer in our tradition. After this they will be ready for the third step, which is Confirmation or full integration into the worship of the church.

Tagged ,

One thought on “The New Normal of the Christian Congregation

  1. jim davis says:

    My congregation has been interacting with the community like this for years. It is good to see that some others have realized this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: