Don’t Call It A Comeback: What Missional Anglicanism Has To Offer (Super Serial Post #4)

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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.”

The man, the myth, the kangol

The man, the myth, the kangol hat

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).

Only the Episcopal Church would call their cathedral "The National Cathedral"

Zscheile says, only the Episcopal Church would call their cathedral “The National Cathedral”

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.

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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.

 

Newbigin-ing at the Beginning (Super Serial Post #3)

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Y’all.

It has been a while, hasn’t it?

Between my week on retreat and spring break, I’ve been away from the blog-realm for two whole weeks. But the world spins on and so do my posts on the Missional Church.

This week’s post is all about Lesslie Newbigin. Who is Lesslie Newbigin? Great question, keep reading.

This regal looking fellow is Lesslie Newbigin.

This regal looking fellow is a young Lesslie Newbigin.

A little disclaimer: I know that Lesslie Newbigin is not the only mission-minded theologian in Christendom. I also know that this short post could not do justice to the incredibly dense volume of work that Newbigin produced in his lifetime. I even know that this post may be seen by some to be like one brick compared to the Great Wall of China.

My hope is that this will give you enough information to spark a fire in you to go do some research on your own. If it doesn’t, hopefully it will give you enough information to understanding more fully that I am not just making this stuff up.

The Missional Church is not an invention of the church growth advisors and it is not a fad.

Unlike juicing, the Missional Church is not another fad.

Unlike juicing, the Missional Church is not another fad.

So let’s learn more about Lesslie Newbigin.

Newbigin was born in England in 1909. His father, a businessman, sent him to a Quaker boarding school at 12 because of their committed pacifism. He went to Queens’ College  in 1928. He became involved with the Student Christian Movement and had a conversion experience while leading a camping trip for underprivileged men.  He soon articulated his call to ordained ministry and set out to become a missionary.

In 1936, he and his wife set out for India as missionaries. Newbigin worked for many years in India and eventually helped to establish a large network of Christian communities across the country. He would train “mission agents” and send them out into smaller villages to teach and baptize. Newbigin eventually became the Bishop in the Church of South India.

He “retired” in 1974 and went on to teach at Selly Oaks College in Birmingham, UK. He turned down an offer to become the Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham and instead became the pastor of a small, inner-city Reformed congregation.

Throughout his whole career, Newbigin was a prolific writer, with 17 books published prior to retirement. During his “retirement” period, he would publish 15 more books.

Newbigin was an incredible writer and was extremely passionate about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He spent the bulk of his career abroad, but when he returned to Europe he was shocked to find that secularization had spread rapidly. On their journey home from India, the Newbigin family had to worship by themselves while in Cappadocia because they couldn’t find a church or group of Christians to worship with. This forever changed the way Newbigin viewed Western culture because he saw just how quickly a once firmly Christian city could abandon the faith.

Newbigin’s work formed part of the foundation for the modern Missional Church. Below are several quotes from Newbigin’s book, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, that can help Western Christians understand the position we are in and where we must go from here.

“In many contexts a ‘mission church’ was the second-class institution in the downtown quarter of the city….In some forms of ecclesiastical vernacular, a ‘missionary diocese’ was a diocese that had not yet graduated to the full status of a diocese without qualification. Theological faculties might have provided a place for ‘missions’ as a branch of practical theology, but it had no place in the central teaching of Christian doctrine. To put it briefly, the church approved of ‘missions’ but was not itself the mission.” (pg. 2)

“If God is indeed the true missionary…our business is not to promote the mission of the church, but to get out into the world, find out ‘what God is doing in the world’, and join forces with him.” (pg. 18)

Missionis faith in action. It is the acting out by proclamation and by endurance, through all the events of history, of the faith that the kingdom of God has drawn near. It is the acting out of the central prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to use: ‘Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven.'” (pg. 39)

[Mission] is not the property of the church. It is not domesticated within the church. Mission is not simply the self-propagation of the church by putting forth the power that inheres in its life….On the contrary, the active agent of mission is a power that rules, guides, and goes before the church: the free, sovereign, living power of the Spirit of God. Mission is not just something the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in its missionary journey.” (pg. 56)

“At this point the church has to keep silence. It is not in control of the mission. Another is in control, and his fresh works will repeatedly surprise the church, compelling it to stop talking and to listen.” (pg. 61)

I would have quoted the entire book if copyright law and the average reader’s attention span would allow it. Hopefully this post has given you a taste of the huge body of work that makes up the foundation of the Missional Church.

The main take away is that “mission is not the property of the church”; it is not just a new way of getting people into the pews. The mission is God’s. The church can take part in God’s mission by taking our hands off the wheel and following Christ.

"Jesus, take the wheel."

“Jesus, take the wheel.”

It may seem that I am beating a dead horse by constantly reiterating what missional means and that God’s mission is not fundamentally about the church. I am emphasizing it so heavily because it is my experience that people don’t really accept it. Many church folks seem to say, “Yeah, yeah. Being missional is not about church membership and church growth” while they wink and keep hoping that it is just that.

I’ll leave you with some closing words from the end of The Open Secret:

“The mystery of the gospel is not entrusted to the church to be buried in the ground. It is entrusted to the church to be risked in the change and interchange of the spiritual commerce of humanity. It belongs not to the church but to the one who is both head of the church and head of the cosmos. It is within his power and grace to bring to its full completion that long-hidden purpose, the secret of which has been entrusted to the church in order that it may become the open manifestation of the truth to all the nations.” (pg. 189)

We have now drilled down a little more to the true meaning of the missional church. The next blog posts will drill down even further to explore missional Anglicanism and what the missional Episcopal Church might look like. From there, we will look at missional youth and young adult ministry in particular.

Stay tuned.

A.A. Milne

What the Missional Movement is Not (Super Serial Post #1)

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It may seem strange to start a series of posts on the missional movement by describing what it is NOT, but there is precedent in theological studies for taking the via negativa approach and it seems like the best way to cut through the fog surrounding this topic.

First things first, the missional movement is not a movement.

I know, I know – I have referred to it as such in the lines above and the introductory post to this series. If you’ll forgive me, that was a bit of a straw man.

As I mentioned in my original post on the missional church, there is a tendency to lump missional attitudes into the same category as many of the church growth trends that have come along in the past. It is very easy to write it off as another way consultants are trying to fill the pews of shrinking or empty churches.

“Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and there are only two people…”

The truth is that being missional is not a trend but is, instead, the true nature of the church.

In his book Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, Alan Roxburgh tells a modern day parable about three old friends (pg. 31). These friends grew up together, spending endless hours together at play, at school, and everywhere in between. The three friends went to college together and spent many evening discussing their hopes and dreams late into the night. Through the many years they spent together, the three friends developed a relationship that was deeper than words. Each of their identities was formed and shaped by this rich relationship.

Over time, however, their relationship grew distant. The three kept in touch through social media and the occasional call. Every few years, the three would get together for a weekend to catch up and renew their connection.

One day, out of the blue and after several years without contact, the two friends received an email from the third inviting them to his house in California for several nights. The two made their plans to travel to the West Coast and when they arrived, their host sat them down for a feast.

Isn’t stock photography great?

The friends laughed and caught up with each other throughout the first night, but at some point in the evening the mood changed. The two friends sensed a heavy awkwardness had settled around the table as the host began to do most of the talking. He talked about his life, his questions, and his needs. Every question he asked was only so that he could further focus on his own interests. He seemed only interested in making himself seem more successful.

At the end of the night the two friends made their way back to their hotel and the host went to bed feeling great about the conversation and the evening as a whole.

So, what is the point of this parable?

According to Roxburgh, the three friends in the parable are Scripture, Church, and Culture. The first two friends are Scripture and Culture, while the third friend who hosted the other two for the reunion is the Church.

Being missional is not a movement because it is not about the church. Most blog posts and magazine pieces make the missional conversation solely about the church and what the church can do to grow itself. Too often we are like the third friend: inviting Scripture and Culture into the conversation only to further our own interests.

Church movements exist for the church – to increase their size or influence or relevance or whatever it may be. Being missional is not just another movement because it is about returning the three friends to their original relationship.

Roxburgh argues that the focus of the missional conversation is three-fold: Scripture, Church, and Culture. For too long we have pretending that the church has a monopoly on the Good News, as though we are the only way that God works in the world. The missional conversation starts with the assumption that God is already at work in the world, within and without the church.

Later in his book, Roxburgh says that the church has taken itself into a cul-de-sac with this inward focus. He says, “Church questions are at the forefront of our thinking, so we default to questions about what the church should be doing and what the church should look like.” We are wrong to think that a new movement or program will fix what ails the church in this time. Roxburgh goes on to say, “This is not something that can be ‘fixed’ with programs or discussions on church health or by appending the word missional to old habits.” (pg. 54).

Being missional is not about growing your church membership.

Being missional is not about growing your church membership.

So we have established that the missional church is not a trend or new fad, but is a return to the original calling and nature of the church. This should let you in on the fact that this series will not give you the three easy steps to become a “missional” church. This whole conversation is about changing our thinking and our view of the church. If becoming missionally focused brings more people to your parish or community, great. If you enter this conversation with the motivation of increasing church membership (or relevance or whatever), you are missing the point. The point is to stay true to our calling as Christians in the world.

Stay tuned for the next post, in which I will explore what this calling actually is.

Cliffhanger

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

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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.