The (Missional) Episcopal Church and why it’s more than just a catchphrase.

The level of snark present on a seminary campus is fairly overwhelming. This trend seems to hold true with many Episcopal clergy, especially on social media. New church fads and movements are skewered in class and at the lunch table. Some groups bring this on themselves, for instance this church that gave away assault rifles at a revival. But many church movements or ideas get shot down (pun intended) in conversation before they are even understood or investigated.

Some ‘trendy’ models of church have been thoroughly investigated and have been found lacking in certain areas. The seeker-sensitive movement came across as watering down doctrine and tradition for the sake of membership numbers. The emergent movement, at times, drifted out of the lines of Christian orthodoxy.

One movement, though not new at all, has been the topic of many conversations at the seminary recently. When you say the word ‘missional’ you usually get one of two reactions. First, a person may respond positively without knowing too much about what it means to be missional. Second, a person may respond with disdain for another church growth fad and dismiss missional ecclesiology…also without knowing too much about what it actually means.

I’m hoping this blog post will be informative about what it truly means to have a missional understanding of the church, but my true goal for this post is that it be a starting point for conversations (with minimal snark) about the future of the Episcopal Church and the future of the Church as a whole.

Being missional is first and foremost about relationship: Relationship with oneself, with the worshiping community, with the community/neighborhood/area as a whole, and especially with God. The primary goal of a missional church is not increasing membership numbers or average Sunday attendance. The focus is not the capital campaign or getting more folks to come to the annual chili cook-off fundraiser. A missional church is primarily concerned with its member’s relationships with each other and the church’s relationship with the broader community. This is not a very popular answer to the ‘problem’ of decline in the Episcopal Church. It seems that people want the five easy steps or the perfectly crafted program that will magically draw people to the empty Episcopal Churches across the country. This brings me to the second characteristic of missional churches.

Missional churches reject the purely attractional model of church. The attractional model has dominated Christianity in America for a very long time. The basic idea behind this model is that you start at the physical church building and draw people in the doors. You draw them with worship services, educational programs, entertainment, prayer groups, etc. The attractional model church presents the people in the community with a menu of religious goods and services in hopes that something will catch their eye and bring them to the building. It is a sign of the consumer understanding of religion.

This model is not working in most of the country. It is not a bad model and it has served us very well for a long time, but it would seem that it is no longer serving the needs of the church or many communities.

There are some hot spots of church activity in major cities/suburbs, but for the most part every denomination is struggling to maintain and especially to increase membership. No matter how many new programs or church growth consultants they bring in, people are just not coming to church.

Missional churches doesn’t see the question as ‘How do we get people to come to church?’ but ‘How do we get the church to the people?’

I recently attended Common Place, a gathering of young adults and young adult ministers hosted by the Diocese of Washington D.C. The weekend was filled with conversations and stories about young adult ministry success and failure. The Rev. Mike Angell, the Young Adult Missioner for the Episcopal Church, spoke about the current trends in young adult ministry in the church.

At one point in his talk, Mike said, “When I give talks or presentations, people tend to ask, ‘Where are all the young adults?’ to which I respond, ‘I don’t know. Let’s go find them together.'”

That is the missional church; one that goes out into the world and interacts with the people who would otherwise never interact with the church.

The Five Marks of Mission is a list of the characteristics of the church’s mission that was adopted by the General Convention in 2009. Since that time, the Five Marks of Mission have been engaged (and not engaged) differently in each Diocese.

The Five Marks of Mission are:

~ To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
~ To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
~ To respond to human need by loving service
~ To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
~ To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
This is the mission of Christ and, by extension, the mission of the church. The Episcopal Church, in my experience, is really good at the last three Marks. We’ve got the service, peace/reconciliation, and sustainability issues fairly well covered. The Episcopal Church, again in my experience, has a hard time with the first two. It seems that we have lost our voice when it comes to proclaiming the Good News and teaching new believers. In our reaction to the incredible growth and influence of the conservative Evangelical branches of Christianity we have forfeited all talk about the Gospel, salvation, and sin, just so we won’t be associated with the more extreme members of the Christian family. It is as if we hope that we can just do works of service for people and the Gospel will somehow seep into them. Call it osmosis evangelism.
The third characteristic of the missional church is that it knows its own story and can tell others about it easily. A missional church knows what Jesus Christ means in its life and wants to tell the world. A missional church can articulate the key points of the Christian faith when asked. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us that we are to always be ready to explain the hope that is within us, the hope that comes from God. The Episcopal Church must also reclaim its identity as Anglicans. As the recognized Anglican church in North America, the Episcopal Church has access to a great Anglican tradition of reform and renewal. The fighting and legal battles of the past decade have zapped a lot of energy from the Episcopal Church, but the same hope that we have in Christ is the hope that propels us forward. This leads into the fourth characteristic:
Missional churches are hopeful. With some of the talk above and with much of the talk around the blogosphere and social media, it is easy to become discouraged about the future of the church. It would be easy to see the declining numbers and shrinking budgets and resign ourselves to keep everything as it is and go down with the ship. The missional church isn’t discouraged by the projections and numbers. Sure, it’s sad that our numbers are lower than they were at one time and it is always sad to see a church close its doors. That being said, there is a lot of room for hope.
God is doing something new in the Episcopal Church and in the Church around the world. With the influence of Pope Francis spreading around the world and the spotlight of American culture fading on conservative Evangelicalism, the Episcopal Church is in a great position to renew itself. The type of renewal that we need is much more than reforming the Executive Council or the General Convention rules of order. We need a grassroots renewal of our identity and understanding of ourselves. This process can begin right now in whatever context you find yourself or your church. Go outside and get to know the neighborhood. Figure out what is important to the people in your church and in your community. Don’t immediately jump to a new bible study or bar event – singing hymns while drinking beer will not solve our problems, although it can be fun.
This may be frustrating to some folks. This process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Forming authentic relationships takes a long time and a lot of work, but it is the best way for the Episcopal Church to move forward in faith and hope for the future. Being missional is much more than a church growth trick or new ecclesiological fad – it is a return our roots and the roots of the Church. If we are to be ‘fishers of people’, the days of the huge, industrial fishing fleets is over. We must return to the days of individuals casting small nets on the shore, where it all began.
This is by no means an exhaustive explanation of the missional movement. For more in depth study of missional ecclesiology I recommend this book and this book, which is directed specifically at the Episcopal Church. Start this conversation with those around you and see what the Holy Spirit is doing in your church. Please, please, please don’t just bury your head in the sand and hope that things will turn around if we just wait long enough. The world is in desperate need of the Good News of Christ and the Episcopal Church can be the voice that proclaims it if we start renewing our vision and reviving our mission.

 

 

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