In the second chapter of People of the Way, Dwight Zscheile outlines a brief history of mission in the Episcopal Church. He notes that the “established” church in England became the church of the establishment in the American colonies (page 22). From the outset, we were seen – and have seen ourselves, as a church of privilege. Yet, alongside this historical reality is a deep commitment to mission.
In 1835, largely through the initiative of New Jersey bishop George Washington Doane (which then encompassed the entire state; the Newark diocese wasn’t formed until 1874), we became the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society, a name which we retain today. It was expected then – and we are re-emphasizing this now – that every member of the church was invited to be a missionary. “What would it mean for us to live fully into this name, where all church members are missionaries sent into whatever neighborhood or relationship network God places them in in order to share in God’s work of healing all creation, according to their unique gifts?” (Page 23.)
There are competing tensions here. As much as we are oriented to bring people to church, we are challenged to bring the church to the world. The primary emphasis throughout my life in the Episcopal Church (which is approaching 63 years) has been the attractional model – bringing people into church. That is an enterprise that we can hold onto – but Dwight suggests, and I agree, that we also need to dare to bring the church into the world. That is the cultural change that Dwight is advocating, which will require us to continually remind ourselves through prayer and study, of who and whose we are. And that we are sent to join with God in doing God’s work in the world.
Bringing church to the world.
The discussion swirling around us about whether to bring people to the church or to bring the church to the world sometimes gives me a headache. Bringing people into the church is pretty straight forward and we all try to do that. But, getting out into the world is a totally different matter. I wonder first what we mean by “the church” and the words “bring it to the world?” What aspects of church as we know it can we bring out there? Let’s see: as Episcopalians we set a great store in worship, liturgy and rituals. “Ashes to Go”, distributing palms, outdoor processions on Good Friday or during the Easter Vigil are examples of bringing that aspect of ourselves to the world. They are all nice and many people probably find spiritual comfort from these efforts. Yet, can these rituals, taken out of the context of the event that they represent, really tell our Christian story? I don’t know. OK, let’s move away from worship and ritual to pastoral care and social justice. These too are major aspects of “church.” Many congregations are already engaged in a myriad of activities that “help people” in the world. Most are explicitly faith based; the church is providing some service and people see that it is the church doing it. So, that leaves us with what - a different kind of “church in the world?” I am heavily involved in the work of NAMI. It is a secular organization. I cannot explicitly bring my faith or even spirituality to the people whom I serve unless they ask me to. They know I am a clergy person so my hope is that the love and care I extend to them is somehow seen as an extension of my faith. I hope. The same is true of my church’s soup kitchen. It is now run by a community group and thus explicit religious practices like prayer are not permitted unless the clients ask for them. Yet, the clients have to walk up the driveway next to the church. They see the symbols of our faith in the building so they know that somehow this place where they are being fed has some connection to a religion. Is that enough? I don’t know. If my love of Jesus compels me to love and care for God’s most downtrodden ones, and I do that, with or without the trappings of my faith, is that “bringing the church to the world?” Just like we say all the time in the field of mental illness: “It’s complicated,” I think bringing the “church to the world” is complicated too, which is why it gives me a headache.
Bringing church to the world
I've been a corporate employee for over 16 years, so I can surely relate to, "it's complicated" when bringing church to the world in an environment that doesn't allow me to speak of faith or spirituality. To make matters more complicated, I work from home full time, so most of my coworkers only recognize me by voice. In my environment, there is no time to even chat about the weather as everyone is in different locations. Many years went by where I would question if I'm really doing what I'm called to do. Did God mean for all Christians to be and make disciples? Even corporate employees-like me? The answer is yes. The apostle Paul in James 2:14-26 explains that risk is the action that I have to take and the deeds that I do in response to the level of faith I have. Meaning, without taking some kind of risk, I can't really say I'm living in faith.
For me, this means I have a choice to take risks in my job. Here is an example.. I recently had a dream where I was on the alter of my church giving testimony about sacrifice in marriage. When I was done speaking, I looked out and saw a gentleman I didn't recognize, I approached him and asked his name. I quickly woke up after hearing it was a coworker I only knew by voice. Years back, I probably would have called this a strange dream, but my faith in action has matured. I wrote everything I could remember of the testimony I was giving in my dream and explained to my coworker I could not mistaken his voice in my dream. I didn't claim to know why this happened or what purpose God had in mind.... That was for him to decide and what to do with it. Long story short, this fellow is a non believer that had been contemplating marring his girlfriend bc they just purchased a house together. He admitted to soul searching recently and seemed surprised that God would care. Coindence ...I don't think so.
Taking a risk with the smallest nudge from the Holy Spirit can potentially bring people into our family. Hence, bringing church to our world. One of the best reads on this is a book by Kevin Dedmon & Chad Dedmon called, the Risk Factor - Crossing the chicken line into your supernatural destiny and The Ultimate Gift. Both have influenced me to live out my faith.
Great topic! I love it! Thank you for your post.
I was recently asked to preside at the graveside service of a Hospice patient, the husband of a life long Episcopalian, who was feeling very bad indeed because she had not been to church for the past five years as she had been tending to her husband. She's 86; he was 92. She told me that she was deeply grateful that the church continued to send her flowers at Christmas and Easter, and was now "ashamed" to ask the church for this service. None of my powerless of persuasion could convince her otherwise.
Out of courtesy, I called her rector, a young, energetic, intelligent, passionate and successful priest whom I greatly admire and respect, to tell him of the man's death and of the graveside service I would be conducting.
He responded, "He should have had a proper burial from the church.We have failed, somehow to get out our message. "
I was momentarily stunned. The man did have a proper graveside service, directly out of the Book of Common Prayer. Rite One. Which was what he wanted. His desire was for simplicity in a location that would be place of meaning for his family and friends of a variety of faith traditions - or, none at all - to gather.
The graveside service was well attended. Many Episcopalians came to me, after the service, to tell me with teary eyes how proud they we're to be an Episcopalian. Several other people asked me to tell them about The Episcopal Church. The funeral director asked if he might be able to call me, in the future, if someone needed clergy to conduct such a service.
We need to see that this was not a failure but a success. The message has, indeed, gotten out. We need to free ourselves from the tyranny of "success by numbers". We need to see the church at work in the world. And, I hasten to add, not just the institutional church but, as Jesus said, "wherever two or more are gathered together.....".
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