Friday, April 12, 2013

Hope for the Church

God Needs You!

Seriously! God does need you. God's people and God's creation needs you!

There is war, violence, suffering, poverty, imprisonment, and a dying planet to save. This is serious business. My children and the host of humanity cry out for an ethical presence from both the sacred and the secular alike.

There is an emerging church out there willing to organize its life around the real needs of human beings and around the care of the planet we live on. Just this week I presented at a clergy conference in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana.

If you ever make your way to an Episcopal Church, chances are you will find a remarkable cast of characters there. The clergy are very intelligent as a rule, they are kind and quite caring of people and their sense of ethics includes concerns about American militarism, poverty, and the created order. Unlike so many of the right wing church, the Episcopal Clergy love science. The congregations they serve are also a cast of characters and often reflect this sense of care for the communities in which they find themselves planted.

It was wonderful to be in the Diocese of Montana with +Frank Brookheart and the clergy there. They are an extraordinary group of people whose commitment to the poor, the prisoner, the created order and to the host of other human needs is a marvel. Not to mention the sheer beauty of the place.

They are clearly committed to organizing the church's life around the needs of the people and the planet. This is a church worth saving and building up in strength.

I love the Episcopal Church and the "Emerging Progressive Church". The Right Wing Evangelical Church has been growing in strength for some years and we in the mainstream have been in the decline. I think it is time to reverse that trend and build up this church once again.

There is a sacred presence in the hearts of many who are becoming impatient with greed and power. 

Many of my friends in the secular world are rightly suspicious of the Church. Many recoil at the word "Christian". It evokes images of the Civic Religion of Rome before the fall when faith was wrapped in national symbols, wealth, power, and exclusive judgmentalism. American Civic Religion is seen as belligerent, bellicose and judgmental. It wraps itself in the flag and calls itself patriotic. It wraps itslef in militarism. Its God is the Almighty Dollar. There is a growing base of the unchurched who feel alienated and hostile to the world of institutional faith. Rome has often betrayed the trust of many.

My purpose in going to this clergy conference was to help make clear how we might better develop and strengthen the church's ministry.

I began with a recollection that the Celtic Church which, many forget, organized itself around the needs the people they lived among. The early monks of Aidan at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) focused their energies on a very practical set of realities.

"Do you have a loved one dying? Bring them here and we'll take care of them"
"Is there illness in the family? Bring them here and we'll tend to them"
"Are you hungry, we will feed you."
"Do you hunger for learning? We are among the best scholars in the world. Learn with us."
"Are you a weary and frightened traveller? We will provide you with safe lodging and hospitality"
"Are you burdened and saddened with life's drudgery and toil? Come here for cheer and merriment"
"Most importantly, are you Baptized? Do you know life has a purpose? Do you know that forgiveness and eternal life begin now? When you come to the waters of Baptism, you come to a wellspring of joy and life. When you come to the Table of Jesus, you come to a banquet which is but a foretaste of the Eternal Banquet?"

The Celts began with the most practical and basic of human needs and worked their way up to the greatest need of all; Forgiveness and Eternal Life. Baptized in water and fed by the Eucharist people came to know God and they in turn began to minister to the real needs of others. And the cycle turns over and over again until the world is filled with the fullness of God.

We remembered these things in Montana.
We celebrated the things being done by the church here now.
And now I challenge the church to recruit the people of God to do the work of God.

For most of my professional ministry I have been studying congregational development and evangelism. But when I bring people to Jesus, I bring them to serve people. Loving God and loving people are one and the same thing.

We face so many dangers:
Militarism, poverty, ecological degradation, and the concentration of wealth just to name a few.
What we need is a strong ethical presence in this world. The emerging Progressive Church can be just such an ethical presence. I am talking much more than personal moral agency. I am talking about the social ethic.

In many ways I find myself more allied with secular humanism than with the far Right Wing or with the Roman church. I am hopeful that Pope Francis will at least look out for the poor. That would be enormous, and probably the best we can hope for now.

For us in the Episcopal Church and in the Emerging Progressive Church there are no distinctions according to race, ethnicity, class, gender or orientation. For us Jesus spent his time recruiting the very same folks who had been "cut off" from the Temple. We're doing our best to fling wide the door so that the church can be "A House of Prayer for ALL People". We are doing our level best at embracing the teachings of Jesus.

So now, how do we build such a church? How do we strengthen it?

Now I shift into my "priest" role. I believe in the priesthood of all believers and let me just highlight some of the work I've been doing to strengthen the church in places I've served. My special thanks to the folks at St. Gabriel's Church in Douglassville, PA who have been a "laboratory" for some of these ministry efforts. The essence of what I presented in Montana is as follows.

The Mechanics of a Membership Drive as an annual congregational effort which doesn't end in the fall but is a continuing year long effort. Frankly when we use the word "Stewardship" we reflexively resist because it is all going to come down to the wallet.

The focus of a Membership Drive is to encourage all to work and pray and give for the spread of the Kingdom of God. This language is drawn directly out of the church's catechism.

The work of the church is much as I have spoke about above; to serve the needs of humankind.

The prayer of the church is to gather week by week as a community and to express our love of God as well as our love of all human beings. We gather at Christ's Holy Table and rejoice in the Risen Christ and his victory over sin and death. (By the way sin is seeking our own will instead of the will of God. And God's will is for the greatest good for the greatest number, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God)

The gifts we give are in proportion to what God gives us. The biblical tithe is 10%. Some give more, some give less. But giving in proportion to what we receive is part of what it is to be a member of the church.

Thus Membership is not about pledging alone. It is about salvaging what we can of our lives and the lives of those we love, and the communities in which we live. It is about salvaging what we can of the planet we live on.

This is a matter of great urgency.

In the context of this presentation I did share this model for New Member Ministry. This is a new idea for many in the mainstream or emerging church. But I believe we need to become more intentional and systematic about our efforts. And we need to sustain these efforts over time. Many churches use this model or variants of it. Here are just a few highlights of the idea.

New Member Ministry is a five step process:
     Visibility: Increase the congregation's visibility though signage, Every Door Direct Mailings, Web pages, blogs etc. God knows I've done all the above and more at all my churches and the efforts result in a flurry of interest.
     Greeting: Fine tune the congregation's greeting skills. Practice good hospitality. Get the names and addresses and make a same day contact by telephone and ask how their fist visit was to the church. See if you can set an appointment to have a cup of coffee and have some conversation.
     Orientation: Help guide folks into the life of the congregation. The Membership Task Force of a Congregation should plan follow up and help establish relationships between newcomers and folks who are already members. You may want to provide classes for newcomers.
     Incorporation: There is a right time and a wrong time to invite folks to consider membership. Some will be clear about that right away. Others will want time to "explore". Give this some thoughtful prayer.
     Apostolic Call: As a general rule you have six months from the first visit to help folks find and involvement mode in the congregation. It can be as simple as ushering or choir, but there is plenty of work to be done. Lots of folks will be attracted to a church that has feeding programs for the poor and the like and they will often want to help out. Encourage that.

In all the church's I've served there has been significant growth. We've also tended to the needs of the young and the old, the poor and the hungry, the homeless or even battered women and their families. The church is not here to "survive". The church is here to serve. St Gabriel's, Douglassville, where I currently serve as interim is a case in point.

I want to thank Bishop Franklin Brookhart and the clergy of the Diocese of Montana for their kind hospitality over the past few days. I hope that what I have shared will help. I only wish all God's churches could awaken to the new hope of servant ministry.

I will end by saying that having been nurtured by the Episcopal Church, I believe we are a very well kept secret...too well kept. By publishing this article, I hope to bring the church to the attention of many. I plan to write some more on this subject. And I stand ready and able to share by learnings with others.

The folks here in Montana told me to tell you; "You had us eating out of your hand!"

Peace be with you,
Fr. Paul

1 comment:

Ron Reed said...

Paul, good stuff here. I think the emphasis on membership, especially as membership is related to serving the other, discovering the other, etc. and the Celtic aspects of that make very good sense and have synergy and function in people finding hope in relationship to all the others. Thanks.