Happy Easter and welcome back to everyone following along on this serial blog journey. The goal of this series is to understand what we talk about when we talk about being missional. I’ve established that it is not just another church growth slogan. I’ve established that it is not just about bringing in more church members. I’ve given some backbone to the term using the work of Lesslie Newbigin.
Now, I am drilling down deeper and becoming more specific to my own denomination/tradition: The Episcopal Church.
My hope is that by the end of today’s post, you will see that the missional conversation is nothing new to the Episcopal Church or broader Anglican tradition. We may have lost our way on the missional journey, but it is nothing new to us.
Or as the great Church historian, LL Cool J, said, “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”
My source for most of the information in this post is the great work of Dwight Zscheile, whose books People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity and The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age serve as an unofficial playbook for many churches that are exploring the missional landscape.
The missional conversation seems foreign to many Episcopalians because it is fundamentally anti-“Establishment church” and the Episcopal Church has been, in the eyes of many, the quintessential “Establishment church” for two centuries. In The People of the Way, Zscheile comments that the Episcopal Church began as the Established church in the colonies and then shifted to be the church of the Establishment. “The Anglican Church in America…remained favored by many of its socioeconomic elite. As long as the Episcopal Church tended to uphold the status quo of a stratified economic system and a rationalistic faith, it failed to attract and retain wider swaths of the American populace”(pg. 22).
This establishment mindset stayed with the Episcopal Church throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. A great example of this mindset can be seen in the decision to build The Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C.. This mindset can also be seen in the missionary style of the Episcopal Church, where any effort was primarily focused on outreach, social ministry, and education, with little emphasis given to evangelism. Dwight Zscheile says, “…the predominant establishmentarian ethos fostered approaches to mission in which confessing the faith was implicit rather than explicit” (pg. 25).
Now that establishment Christianity is fading away and a new reality is emerging in the United States, we are learning that this focus on implicit mission largely failed. The idea that Christian education and evangelism would somehow work via osmosis now seems obviously misguided.
There are now generations of people who grew up going to church every Sunday, but do not know or understand the Christian story. There are also many people who attend church regularly, but could not clearly articulate why they attend or why their faith is important to them. In many mainline churches, there has been a massive failure in giving people the language to share their faith and the Christian story in favor of the “implicit” model of evangelism.
In previous posts I have written about the “attractional” model of church, which involves a bricks-and-mortar building filled with religious goods and services for those who come to the building. This is a fundamentally establishment mindset that has been the modus operandi for most Episcopal churches. Therefore, it might be hard for Episcopalians to break out of the attractional mindset. For many of us, our faith is tied to physical places: the church we grew up in, the church we were confirmed in, the church our grandparents attended, etc. I am not immune from this type of thinking.
Fear not! Being missional does not mean tearing down churches, it simply means changing our focus. In the missional mindset, churches move from the focus of all activity to an outpost or hub for mission work. Church becomes a place to be refueled and renewed to go back into the world, rather than a place of refuge and escape from the world.
The Episcopal Church is at an important crossroads. We can chose to remain the way we are and seek to bring more people into our established churches. This seems logical and safe, but I am afraid that it will lead to the shrinking and closing of many more churches. The Episcopal Church is currently organized to stay in this model and could do so easily. We could easily reorganize our internal governing bodies to be more efficient, while we paint our doors a brighter shade of red and continue to wonder why people aren’t showing up.
The second path will be much harder and much less clear. It will mean going back to our foundation and building completely new structures and processes. It will mean choosing to close some churches so that we are not forced to close all of our churches. It will mean leaving our offices and parish halls to go out into the community. It will require some grieving as things pass away so that new things can come into being. It will mean welcoming new and different people that might make us nervous. It will mean being uncomfortable and uncertain. It will mean the slow work of relationship and community building instead of the quick work of church growth strategies.
The second path will mean returning to our Anglican roots and being missional. Dwight Zscheile says that the Anglicanism has many gifts to offer this time and place. “Far too many times, I have heard Episcopalians describe themselves by what they are not – not fundamentalist, not Roman Catholic, etc. Now is the time to claim what we do have to offer” (pg. 100).
The first gift missional Anglicanism has to offer is cultural translation. “Anglicanism…engages, reflects, and adapts to the particular cultural and social settings in which it finds itself….[It] has a great degree of freedom to change dynamically as the context changes” (pg. 100). This explains why Anglicanism has exploded in various contexts around the world. This ability to shift and change is woven into Anglicanism’s DNA.
“…[O]ur liturgies and common life must continue to be adapted and translated as the languages and cultures in our nation change….[This] also applies to younger generations and newcomers who need expressions of Episcopal worship and life that resonate with their native ways of speaking and being together” (pg.101).
The Incarnation is God’s own cultural translation and it shows that adapting to a given culture is not something to be feared. The Episcopalian aversion to change is almost as well-known as our liturgy, but that doesn’t mean that we have to live up to that reputation. The missional conversation is a logical fit for the Episcopal Church as the expression of Anglican tradition in 21st-century America.
The second gift of Anglicanism is liturgical worship in an image-based age. Cultural translation does not mean cultural conformity and being missional does not mean sacrificing tradition. The traditional liturgy of the Episcopal Church provides a welcome reprieve from the primarily image-based media of modern culture, but it does not swing so far in the other direction as some of the more heavily word-based denominations. Evangelical churches tend to master new media more quickly and more effectively than other denominations, but Anglicanism offers worship that is not primarily word-based. Instead, Anglican worship puts deep meaning to the images, symbols, and words. Zscheile says, “Worship in our churches tends to value multiple means of artistic expression – the drama of the liturgy, colorful vestments and church decorations, icons, paintings, candles, movement, music, the tangible experience of sharing in the bread and wine, even incense” (pg. 103).
Many evangelicals are moving to liturgical expressions of Christianity, especially the Episcopal Church. This is due, in part, to the holistic approach to worship (involving the whole body and the whole of human experience) and also because of the rich tradition that undergirds the liturgy. That being said, there must be a balance between celebrating the best of our tradition and falling into traditionalism. This dangerous traditionalism is clear in the “…churches resist adapting and opening up the riches of their traditions to new generations and populations as a way of reacting to cultural changes they cannot control” (pg. 103).
The third gift of missional Anglicanism is theological breadth and diversity. “The historic Anglican tolerance for complexity and ambiguity is a gift in a postmodern world, where paradox, ambiguity, and mystery are valued, not explained away” (pg. 104). In the last century, as progress in society made unclear many of those things that were once thought to be absolute, many branches of Christianity ran in the opposite direction towards unshakable (and unattainable) certainty. This is most evident in the rise of fundamentalism, but it can also be seen in more recent events in many denominations. Historic denominations, including the Episcopal Church, that once celebrated their “big tent” have been bitterly divided by the desire of some to have a firm grasp on the truth.
More and more, people are desperate for black and white answers in an incredibly diverse, multicolored world. This is why megachurches with celebrity pastors grow so quickly. In a time when so many voices are making so many truth claims, to have one charismatic person stand on stage and declare absolutes is very attractive to many people.
Anglicanism has rarely offered celebrity pastors with all the answers. What we do offer is a “framework of the historic creeds, the Prayer Book, and an ordered ministry” all seen through the lens of Scripture and our own experience. The focus of most Episcopal Churches is the altar, not the pulpit, because we primarily seek Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist and not only in the definite words of the preacher.
Admittedly, this freedom has led to disintegration of Christian identity in some individuals and churches, but it more commonly leads to a beautiful diversity and richness of Christian expression.
These are just three of the ways that the Episcopal Church has the necessary roots to sustain new growth as a missional church. Anglicanism is open to new cultural expressions and a diversity of theology while remaining within the embrace of tradition. So as we go out into the world and join in God’s mission, we can rest knowing that this is nothing new to us as Anglicans and it is definitely nothing new to Christianity.
For more on this topic, read Zscheile’s two books mentioned above. Also, check out the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission.
Stay tuned for the next two posts. I will go more in depth and talk about missional youth and young adult ministry in the Episcopal Church.