On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were all huddled together in one room, praying, when the Holy Spirit blew through. We see in Acts what the Holy Spirit does to a group of inward-focused disciples. The Holy Spirit turns them outward – teaches them new languages, inspires them to accomplish new missions, sends them out to new people they never would have dreamed that God was interested in. From a circle turned inward, tightly closed against the dangers of outsiders, the Church turned outward and began reaching out to the world. Because reaching out to a broken and hurting world in need of God’s salvation is the mission of the Church.
Sadly, the Church's constant temptation is to turn back inward and focus on ourselves instead of on our broken and hurting world. What are the signs of an inward-focused church?
- Decline in membership
- Confusion and discomfort about the purpose of evangelism, and resulting failure to do it very well
- Focus on the people with money and power, rather than, say, powerless children and youth
- Lack of clarity about what mission is
- Focus on internal conflicts rather than external mission.
Oh, those things would never happen in The Episcopal Church, would they?
If Martians came to visit The Episcopal Church, what would they think the church was for? What is our purpose, our mission, our goal? I am not sure that they would see widespread evidence of the Spirit turning us outward.
Our Martian friends would, however, discover lots of inward focus. Clearly they would detect right away that our mission includes maintaining a headquarters in Manhattan, housing a large staff. Quite likely they would conclude that our mission includes maintaining a great number of costly and beautiful buildings, which are lightly occupied for one hour a week. And most of all, I think they would conclude that our mission was to argue with each other.
After all, since 2003 if not before, our church has been convulsed with one argument after another.
- The ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, which brought to a head the disagreement over the place of gays and lesbians in the church.
- The resulting breakups, spinoffs, and property lawsuits.
- The Proposed Anglican Covenant, now thankfully put to bed for a nice long nap by our friends in the Church of England.
- The whole question of “restructuring” the church, which has highlighted various disagreements over mission, not to mention tussles over leadership between Convention, Executive Council, Church Center staff, and the House of Bishops. Who’s in charge here?
Oh goodie, another conflict to sink our teeth into.
In the meantime, membership, attendance, participation, and finances in The Episcopal Church continue to drop. See Nurya Love Parish’s blog post here for a rundown of the numbers.
(Parenthetical note: I have to point out that engaging in frequent conflicts over “issues” is characteristic of the way that Baby Boomers, the current generation of leadership in our church, operate, according to William Strauss and Neil Howe . Strauss and Howe call the Baby Boomers an “Idealist” generation, who will often engage in conflicts over values they see as absolute. In the conflict over gays and lesbians, for instance, the “conservatives” see themselves as guardians of Truth, while the “liberals” see themselves as crusaders for Justice. Well, in a conflict between Truth and Justice, no one is ever going to back down. Compromise is hopeless.)
Now that the conflict over gays and lesbians is beginning to fade a bit (so we can hope), “restructuring” threatens to convulse us in another internal controversy. Who is right here? Those who argue that the Church Center staff needs to lead, or risk having the future imposed upon them? Those who argue that representative government is a founding hallmark of our church structure, and should not be tampered with? Those who truly believe that bishops are ordained and called by God to lead, in preference over the other orders of ministry?
I would have a wonderful time addressing all these questions, if I thought they were the most important thing right now. But they are not.
Here is what is important. This church has a mission, and the longer we expend all our energy on internal squabbles, the more that mission will slip out of our grasp. Let’s forget about arguing with each other. Let’s see how we can refocus, together, on mission. Let’s turn our faces away from those oh-so-fascinating internal conflicts, and turn them outwards toward a world that needs to know the reconciling love of Christ.
After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Stay here and talk about theology and church politics with each other, with an occasional worship service thrown in.” What Jesus said was “Go.”
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 do everything that I have commanded you. And remember that I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28: 19-20.
Not stay here and argue. Go and do mission. Don’t sit around and spend all your energy on internal conflicts. Go out there where the people are – the ones who haven’t heard that God loves them, the ones who haven’t had their lives transformed by Jesus Christ, the ones who are hungry and hurting and in despair. Go.
We need to change our structures, yes, to get rid of all the things that are causing us to stay put in old, inward-focused, hierarchical structures (like an office building in Manhattan). We need to streamline our governance, yes, to allow the leaders of our church to operate in ways that are visionary and mission-oriented rather than being consumed with the minutiae of legislative procedures and Robert’s Rules of Order. We need to re-think our budget, yes, to empower mission at all levels of the church rather than pay for the internally-focused structures that are keeping us stuck.
And doing all these things will require some internal politics to make them happen. But let’s make decisions that will allow God’s Holy Spirit to blow through our church. Let’s create structures that require and empower us to focus on mission.
Here are three proposals that attempt to do just that. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have suggestions, comments, or are interested in co-sponsoring these resolutions.
- Proposed Resolution 1 calls for a churchwide visioning process, involving all levels of the church, based heavily on Bible study, prayer, and discernment of God’s Spirit, leading to a restructuring plan. Let the Holy Spirit blow! Don’t do this by political maneuvering! Do it by prayer and letting God show the way!
- Proposed Resolution 2 requires us to refocus our budget on true mission, rather than on administrative and governance costs. If a budget is a missionary document, let’s refocus ours on mission.
- Proposed Resolution 3 looks toward a future when we will no longer have a hierarchical-model corporate headquarters in Manhattan, but will be leaner, more horizontal, and less expensive in our churchwide staff structure.
Click on the links above to see the full texts of the proposed Resolutions.