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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back To The Future. . . .

. . . . . Toward a more true Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society: Part I.

Note: Here is the first part of my Lenten Series at St. Paul's. I'll post the second part of the presentation later tomorrow. I'd love to hear your responses and reactions to it in the comment section. You can read the entire essay by Dwight Zscheile here.

There is an old joke about the Episcopal aversion to Evangelism and Mission which ends in the punch line, “Anyone who needs to be an Episcopalian already is.”

That’s not so funny anymore – if it ever was.

This year’s Lenten Series is learning about how to move into the shifting paradigm from a traditional, caretaker model of church to one I like to call “back to the future” which is the mission of the church. More about this particular point in a moment.

I hope we – you and I – will learn something from the discussions that will take place in these session during Lent. We will be using an essay “A More True Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society: Toward a Missional Polity for The Episcopal Church” by Dwight Zscheile, as well as some organizational lifecycle stuff from Arlin Rothauge.

Additionally, we’ll be graced by the presence of three stellar clergy in the Diocese of Newark who have been and are engaged in and passionate about moving congregations back to the future of God’s mission in the church. We will be listening to their stories and engaging them in discussion about what it is like to become a more missional community of faith.

This is discussion that is long overdue. Indeed, it has reached a critical point of importance. We are a denomination in serious decline, which is part of a diocese in decline. As you can see from the handouts (NOTE: You can find statistics for your own congregation here), we are a congregation that has been pretty much at a plateau in terms of average Sunday attendance and baptism for the past decade.

Lawrence Miller’s work on organizational life cycles provides a provocative lens which charts six leadership roles that characterize the phases of an organization’s life, from founding to death: the prophet, the barbarian, the builder, the administrator, the bureaucrat and the aristocrat.

Zscheile writes: “When an organization reaches the administrator phase, decline begins: the tighter emphasis on control and regulation that follows, the deeper into the death cycle an organization has progressed. The fact that many Episcopal churches and dioceses are living off endowments as their membership dwindles may be interpreted as an ominous sign of the aristocrat phase.”

Arlin Rothauge, in his work on the lifecycle of congregations, identifies the easily recognizable milestones of birth, formation, stability, plateau, decline and death. He maintains that any church which has reached a plateau for a decade or more is in danger of decline. Please look again at the charts of our community which were compile by the staff at the National Episcopal Church Center (815) based on the information from our annual parochial reports. We have enjoyed some lovely upward ‘blips’ over the past 10 years, but mostly, we are in plateau.

I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but neither is my head in the sand, so let me say this as clearly and as calmly as I possibly can: We are in danger folks. It’s time to think about the questions which Rothauge poses to congregations that have reached a plateau and are in danger of decline. These questions have to do with IDENTITY, VISION and STRATEGY.

We must explore who we are as a community of faith and what we believe our mission and ministry has been, is, and will be. We must examine and challenge the underlying assumptions which are the foundational understandings of our identity as a community, a congregation, a diocese, and a denomination.

We must define, revision and redefine our mission as the mission of God through Christ Jesus whose sacred body we are. Zscheile writes: “The church is a local manifestations of the reconciled diversity of the reign of God.” How are – or how are we not – living into this ‘local manifestations of the reconciled diversity of the reign of God’? And, what do we want to do about that?

What strategy will we employ in order to achieve, embody and make manifest our vision? What tools do we need? With what shall we equip ourselves? What resources do we have, what can be shared, and what do we need to borrow? What is/are the source(s) of empowerment?

Let’s talk for a moment about identity. You may not know this, but in the corporate papers of this church, the word ‘Episcopal’ does not appear. We are simply “St. Paul’s Church of The Chathams”. There’s a hint of arrogance there which flows out of an assumption that, if it’s a church, why, it must be an Episcopal Church. Our identity is clearly bound up in the religion of the establishment.

You may not know this, either, but the legal name of our denomination is not The Episcopal Church. The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, created in 1820 to support evangelism in the United States, became the official legal name of The Episcopal Church in 1835.

This was in response to the anticipated twentieth century revolution in missional ecclesiology, most clearly articulated by Bishop Charles McIlvaine of Ohio, who argued, “The Church is a Missionary Society, in its grand design, in the spirit and object of its Divine Founder”, so that The Episcopal Church is itself a missionary society to which every Episcopalian, by virtue of his or her baptism, belongs.

And therein lies one of the tensions – an identity crisis, if you will – in which we find ourselves in the church today: Are we members of an elite society of the establishment at prayer, or are we members of a domestic and foreign missionary society?

Another tension in our church flows from the two dominant theological strands of our faith. The first and most uniquely American is a liberal Catholicism – a blend of broad and high-church concerns that emerged in the late 1800s – which emphasizes the Incarnation. On the other, competing side is a strand of Evangelicalism, with its roots more firmly planted in the Reformation, and a decided emphasis on the Atonement.

The tensions between the two have been more sharply drawn with the current rise of Evangelicalism. Indeed, the two strands make such different assumptions about human nature that they sometimes seem impossible to reconcile.

And therein, my friends, is the second strand of the identity crisis in which we currently find ourselves. They are the two horns on which we have found ourselves stuck in a crisis of identity: One secular and political and the other theological and spiritual.

Zscheile has many things to say about how the church – at national, diocesan and local levels – as well as individual members in all four orders of ministry – laity, deacons, priests, and bishops – need to shift our understanding of our historic roles and identity as missionaries and move “back to the future” of God’s mission.

I will be reviewing what Zscheile has to say about this re-formation in the second part of this presentation. Right now I’d like to know what you have heard that concerns you or frightens you? What sparks your imagination? What inspires you and gives you hope?

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