Thursday, May 3, 2012

Empowering Mission

This is the fourth post in a series.  For the other posts, see:
Day One: Deck Chairs

A few days ago, I argued that the real problem facing The Episcopal Church isn’t our budget, or our budget process, or our churchwide structure.  The real problem is the fact that we are declining precipitously in attendance, membership, and finances.  Those other things are just symptoms of the real problem. 

And yes, we are declining because the culture has shifted around us, because our core membership group isn’t having babies at the same rate it used to, because immigrant non-Episcopal and non-Christian groups are growing as a percentage of the population, because we live in a post-Christendom world where many people are spiritual, but not religious, and don’t identify as members of any religious group. 

These are reasons, but they are not excuses. 

After all, we are called by Jesus to join him in God’s mission.  That mission can be described in many ways, but most assuredly it includes the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: 

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In other words, we are called to the ministry of evangelism.  We are called to reach new people with the good news of Christ.  We are called to do all the work of discipleship – evangelism, teaching, baptism, and acts of loving service. 

But how can we inspire our church to a spiritual reawakening?  How can the churchwide structure help a group of loyal Episcopalians do the work of evangelism when many Episcopalians are watching their churches decline, don’t understand the reasons why, and don’t know how to make a change?  How can we provide a space for the Holy Spirit to move and bring us to a place of new hope and new inspiration?  After all, as Jesus says in Luke 10:2:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

God’s harvest is more abundant than ever.  How can we become the laborers we’re waiting for?

In Diana Butler Bass’ book, Christianity After Religion, she makes the point that the change we are experiencing is occurring in many places, and it is important to recognize the universality of the phenomenon while simultaneously taking steps to address the environment for which we are accountable.  

One of the arresting comments in her book is this: “In this terrain, changed minds and hearts – that is, what we think about ourselves, God, and the world – precede institutional change (which means, of course, that those people who seek to change minds by changing institutions are probably working backwards).”

Yes, we need to re-think churchwide structures, cut costs, and reorganize governance.  But that’s not the most important thing.  The most important thing is to change our minds and hearts, to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit, to allow God to show us God’s deepest dreams and hopes for us. 

I think we need a churchwide process of spiritual discernment that includes Bible study, prayer, and visioning about the future of our church and our ministry.  I think this discernment process needs to involve people at all levels of the church, not just General Convention or provincial or diocesan leaders.  I think this process should be led by people who are not already leaders of our current church structures, so that they can listen for the feedback coming from the people, and use it to make Spirit-led proposals that are not bound by the current structures of the church.  Only then will real change be possible. 

Here is what I am proposing:

Create a churchwide consultation to engage all levels of the church in a visioning process, helping people who are NOT involved in current governing structures – i.e., those who are busy with local ministry and who don’t have a churchwide voice – to express their own longings and dreams for the church.  What would they like to do, if only they had the money?  How could the churchwide office empower them for mission?  What resources do they need and long for?  How is God calling them to move in their own ministry? What harvest do they see waiting, ripe and golden, in their neighborhoods, if only they had the laborers to go out into the harvest?

The visioning process, if constructed creatively for discernment, would itself be a catalyst for local ministry, even without considering the feedback brought back to the churchwide level.  We could ask them about structure too, but frankly I don’t think they care. They care about local mission.  And that’s as it should be.

And guess what – the visioning process would help people at all levels of the church focus on the real problem – their need to respond to God’s call to do mission, ministry, and evangelism. 

Because I don’t think this ship is going to sink.  I think the Holy Spirit is going to use this process to make this church into something new, a renewed, inspired, reawakened church that transforms many lives in this century, and for centuries to come.

Next Post:  Where I Think This Ship is Going


  1. Yes! Yes! Yes!
    I've been advocating something like this for years, so I am deeply grateful for your witness. I've done exciting pro-bono work in the non-profit sector using models like 'Future Search' and based on the work of Wheatley and Senge, and have been waiting for our beloved Church to find its own way to a similar place.
    So thank you for this, Susan.

  2. Thanks, David! I hope it catches fire!