Message from our Rector

 

From the Rector--Thoughts on Evangelism

          In the year 2000, the Episcopal Church's General Convention embraced as its priority the doubling of the size of our denomination by the year 2020.  Where do things stand as that year approaches?  Numbers in the church are significantly smaller than they were 19 years ago, and smaller still than they were in 1990, when the Episcopal Church joined in the rest of the Anglican Communion in what was called the Decade of Evangelism. 

What might we need to do differently?  I'd like to share with you portions of a lecture this summer at Salisbury Cathedral by the Very Rev. Prof. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.  Dean Percy calls for an approach to evangelism that focuses on doing God's work in the world rather than focusing on building up numbers in the church.  This approach does not mean we shouldn't use tools like Invite-Welcome-Connect, but sees numerical growth as a by-product of engaging God's mission rather than the goal. 

“If bees could talk, and we came across them busy in a flower garden and enquired what they were doing, their reply might be:  ‘Gathering nectar to make honey.’  But if we asked the gardener, he would most certainly answer:  ‘They are cross pollinating my flowers.’  In carrying out their manifest function to make food, the bees were performing a latent function of fertilizing flowers.  The mutual dependence of bees and flowers is an analogue of churches and society.”

. . . Through a simple ministry of ‘deep hanging out’ with the people we serve, attentiveness, hospitality, care and celebration, celebration, ministers often do more good for the parishes, communities and institutions they serve than they can ever know.  . . .  In being there with programmes and events, as well as in being purposefully hospitable, churches actually enable to begin that work of becoming the social transcendent communities they are called to be. 

     Abby Day [studied] ‘Generation A’ women who, born in the 1920s and 1930s, have provided the backbone to organisations such as the Mother’s Union.  Day’s analysis picks up on the function of these laywomen in churches who are often found providing support through ‘soft’ forms of pastoral care and, in particular, through their catering.  Specifically, she writes about them baking together.  Day shows how through activities such as communal baking – which are technically uneconomic – nonetheless provides an environment that promotes mutual care, flourishing, prayer and pastoral wellbeing.  It is obviously cheaper to buy the cakes and buns at any supermarket. But the communal baking fosters something else.  . . .        The manifest intention of the communal baking is to provide a supportive catering service to the church and community. The latent intent that emerges is the thick pastoral care that the gatherings engender, which also produce deeper and richer spiritual lives.  It makes no economic sense, please note, to bake buns like this.  The value lies in the actual and apparent inefficiency - which leads to deeper, unintended rewards; and goals no-one aimed at. . . .

    For some time now, I have held that one of the wrong-turns we have taken in mission and ministry is that we have assumed that the church is an organisation. That it can be managed, branded, and mobilised.  Add the right three-word strap-line to a church or diocese and just watch it fizz and buzz. ‘Committed to Growth; ‘Going for Growth’; ‘Empowered for Mission’ – it’s all there.  It is as though all the body of Christ needed was a short course of ‘missional steroids’.  Pop the pills, and watch the strength return.  But the church is not an organisation suffering with a temporary blip of weakness. It is, rather, an institution. It exists not to adapt, survive and succeed; but rather to be faithful, independent of its popularity. It may be called to martyrdom, not growth. It does not need steroids. It needs holiness, truth, light; to be fed by source that alone can patiently grow the fruits of the Holy Spirit in its body.

    Of course I do think churches should be organised. But I don’t think they are organisations. True, our Unique Selling Point (USP) is indeed Jesus. But our Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s), and drawn from the gospels, are rather mixed. It may be an abundant harvest; it may be martyrdom. It may be conversions; but it may also being hated by our friends and family for our faith.  We are not, in other words, called to measure ourselves through metrics of popularity and growth. The only game in town is faithfulness. So it is a pity that so much of our church-focussed mission is about getting people in; but the gospel is basically about getting people out: ‘go!’ is one of the last words Jesus says to us. We should focus our energies on finding our communities and loving them; not on hoping they might find us, and like us long enough to stay awhile.  . . .

    [As] writers in the field of missiology have known for years, what is more compelling and credible to outsiders is an authentic and humble church. One that listens deeply and lives its faith, faithfully and unassumingly, rather than brashly promoting its own brand on some hard-nosed recruitment drive.  . . .

  John Robinson, in his fine The New Reformation  has this to say: “We have got to relearn that ‘the house of God’ is primarily the world in which God lives, not the contractor’s hut set up in the grounds…”. Put another way, the Church was only ever meant to be the Constructor’s Hut on God’s Building Site, which is the world (or if preferred, substitute ‘world’ for ‘Kingdom of God’). The church is not God’s main project. The world is. . . .

    [T]radition is not an unchangeable bank account. It is the doctrine of going forward.  The essential does not change; but it grows and develops. How does it grow and develop? It grows like a person - through dialogue - dialogue with ourselves, and dialogue with the world around us. If we are not engaged in dialogue, we are not able to grow. The church will stand still. It will remain small.  We will eventually be dwarfed by the world around us. People will speak over our heads. This is not so much sad as tragic. When you think of the good news - the power of the gospel - we are caught up in an ecology of overwhelming love and abundant grace that is revolutionary and revelatory for our broken world.

    God is out there, abroad, already ahead of mission. Can we receive what God might be saying to our churches through the world? I dare to believe we can. Only then might we see ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

I am very much in favor of inviting people to church, making ourselves known in the wider community, and being persuasive about why it is important to become a part of what we are about.  We will continue to be intentional about our welcome and seek ways to improve how it is experienced.  We will work to organize our newcomer incorporation in the most effective way not because the church is an organization but in the interest of seeing that people aren't left out or missed.  To me, Dean Percy's reflections make it all the more compelling to do these things, not just because God's church needs them, but because God's world needs God's church.

Rob Lamborn

 

1.B. Reed, The Dynamics of Religion: Process and Movement in Christian
   Churches London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1978, 139.

2.J., Kay, Obliquity, London: Profile Books, 2010.

3. R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996 (New Edition).

4. Matthew 28:18-20.

5. London: SCM, 1965, p. 27

 

 

 

 

 

Rob Lamborn