Plastic Christ: songs of absence

by Derek Olsen

My daughters, 10 and 8, are approaching the end of their first year at a Christian school. It’s been a bit of a shift for us, moving from the public school system. One of the chief things we’ve been adjusting to is contemporary Christian culture. While the school is non-denominational and has a roughly even blend of Roman Catholics and Protestants (and, yes, both are equally puzzled by the appearance of our Anglo-Catholic girls who don’t fit any of their paradigms!), there is a general embrace of the evangelical-flavored Christian subculture.

When my younger daughter arrived in her second grade class, she was quickly asked whether she preferred TobyMac or Justin Bieber. It was a culture question: do you participate in “Christian culture” or “secular culture”? Predictably for her, she said, “Neither one,” messing with their simplistic paradigm. (I still don’t know who TobyMac is…)

I do understand the desire behind the construction of a distinctly Christian subculture. Parents who choose to go in this direction can feel secure knowing that their religious values will be reinforced by the culture their children consume. It represents a way to conform externally to the same kinds of entertainment as the broader culture, but without the culture’s more problematic content. That's their choice; that's not the road that we have taken.

While there can be something very comforting about a “safe” Christian subculture, in the end I find its intention to insulate Christian culture from the broader culture misguided and ultimately dangerous. Yes, there are philosophies and attitudes antithetical to Christianity and Christian living in modern culture, especially in pop culture. Yes, there are songs and movies and such that I don’t let my girls listen to and watch. But ignoring them won't make them go away; attempting to hide your children from them is not a tenable long-term strategy. We regularly discuss the lyrics of the songs on the pop station in the car on the way to ballet, and I model for them what it looks like to listen and critique, noting what is both positive and negative.
More generally, though, we do a disservice to our work of evangelism, and to our own deep wrestling if we ignore what the culture is saying generally, and in particular what it is saying about and to the church.

images-1.jpegI drove the girls to school in my wife's car this morning. The radio was on, and, in an attempt to avoid the disc jockeys’ gossip about the latest pop princess, I switched over to the CD. I didn’t know what Meredith had in there; as a result, the soundtrack for our drive to school was Suicide Commandos’ “Plastic Christ”:

Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe,
That God will hear your cry?
Do you believe
In eternal life?
Do you believe
That you will never die?
Do you believe,
Praying to a plastic Christ,
Do you believe
That God will save your life?

The name of the band might tip you off to the fact that this is not a Christian group; half the moms in the second grade class would probably freak if they even suspected its presence in our car. However, there is no doubt that the lyrics wrestle with fundamentally religious questions.

My wife and I have never been into pop music. For my part, I find most of it musically and philosophically anemic. I much prefer the Goth and Heavy Metal from my youth, and, these days, much of the new music I listen to is best characterized as Industrial.
Industrial and its related genres like EBM (Electronic Body Music) aren’t all that common here in the US; it tends to be a more European and continental phenomenon. Nine Inch Nails is probably the best-known American representative of the genre. Like metal, it's best listened to at loud volumes; like Goth, it tends to wrestle with emotion, meaning, and aesthetics. Characterized by a heavy use of electronic instrumentation, sampling, and computer manipulation, as a genre it investigates the philosophical hole at the center of industrialized society in a post-certainty world. That is, in the aftermath of the 20th century when we saw the two great pillars of the Western social contract, the state and the church, fail humanity in dramatic fashion, where do we turn now for certainty, authority, and meaning? One possible answer is a Nietzschian nihilism trending towards hedonism as exemplified in the lyrics of folks like Marilyn Manson and Thrill Kill Kult. And yet, there are also much more articulate and nuanced approaches that explore humanism, spirituality, and post-Constantinian faith. Particular standouts for me are Assemblage 23 and VNV Nation.

While I'm sure some of the parents at my children's school would be scandalized by our choice of music, I see it asking some deep and important questions that the church needs to both hear and be able to answer. The lyrics to “Plastic Christ” can be read in at least two ways. One interpretation can see it as straightforward mockery of a simplistic faith. A better interpretation, I think, reads it as deeply ambiguous. The act of posing the question—rather than simply making an assertion—invites the listener into the question itself. Do you believe this, or don’t you? It invites soul searching. My answer is, naturally, “yes”—but the act of investigating the question, seeing how I qualify and interpret it, is an exercise worth conducting.

At its root, I see this song as participating in a body of songs in this genre that grapple with the question of the presence and/or absence of God. Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” and VNV Nation's “Gratitude” spring quickly to mind as other examples. We can, like the Christian subculture, try to duck the question. Or, as people of faith in but not of the world, we can listen to the question with integrity and attempt to respond to it in kind.

Indeed, I find this season of the year, as we walk through the last days of Lent and move towards the cross in Holy Week, the question of the presence or absence of God in the midst of suffering to have a particular poignancy.

Assemblage 23, brain-child of Seattle-based Tom Shear, confronts listeners directly in the catalogue of his own deeply personal struggles with this issue in “God Is A Strangely Absent Father”:

Depend on me
And I will let you down
Repeatedly
You'd think you'd have learned by now
In your hour of need
I'm nowhere to be found
And while you bleed
I'm indifferent

[Chorus] God is a strangely absent father
His back is turned perpetually
All the orphaned sons and daughters
Abide in their suffering


That is the first verse and the chorus; there are two additional verses in the same vein.

What do we do with this? Some would simply write it off as modern impiety. But is that the best we can do? I’m a grown-up—I’ve heard blasphemy and impiety, but what I’m hearing here is pain. I’m hearing someone who has looked to God for solace and hasn’t found it.

First, I choose to treat this song as an honest question that people—particularly seekers—bear in with them through our doors (if they make it that far). Do we have an honest answer for them? If Tom Shear walked into your parish, sat next to you in your pew, and asked you point-blank questions about where God was in the world and in our lives, would you be able to give him an answer that doesn’t sound glib in the face of personal pain?

Second, hearing his lyrics remind me of others. Try on these:

[God,] Take your affliction from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
With rebukes for sin you punish us;
like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us;
truly, everyone is but a puff of wind.

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears.

For I am but a sojourner with you,
a wayfarer, as all my forebears were.
Turn your gaze from me, that I may be glad again,
before I go my way and am no more.


Or, perhaps, there’s this set:
Lord, why have you rejected me?
why have you hidden your face from me?
Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the
point of death;
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
Your blazing anger has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me;

They surround me all day long like a flood;
they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.


Recognize them yet? If not, here’s your final clue:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest.


These impious lyrics, these words which Jesus uttered from his own lips in his last moments, are all from the Psalms. That’s Psalm 39, 88, and 22 respectively. Usually psalms of lament will have sections like this, then make a turn that praise and thank God for his presence and salvation. Psalm 22 does this, and the end speaks of the vindication of the sufferer.

But Psalms 39 and 88 lack this completely. The sections I’ve excerpted contain the ends of both psalms. There is no happy turn. Psalm 88 literarily leaves us alone and in darkness.

Hearing “God is a Strangely Absent Father” gives me new ears to hear these psalms again. It helps me to be confronted and challenged by these scriptural words which confess the experience of divine absence spoken by unknown Israelites sometime over 2,500 years ago. It reminds me that our tradition made the deliberate choice to include and retain these psalms as words to be heard for posterity. These psalms give us no glib or easy answers, and they take on new poignancy as words from the cross itself, words spoken by the dying Christ.

In turn, the psalms lead me back again to the song, and ask me how I would hear it if it appeared under the rubric “psalm of lament”? Does it really sound so foreign alongside the words of the psalms? The psalms remind me that this is no new song—songs of absence have been sung by believers and non-believers alike throughout recorded religious history.

How often are we guilty of trying to shelter the church from the difficult words of Scripture and, in so doing, lose hold of the very passages where we see our forebearers—and our Lord himself—wrestling with these same hard questions that do not resolve themselves with easy answers?

If we were to cut ourselves off from the music and the art (and—dare I say it—the Scripture?) that asks us the difficult questions, does that makes us safer or more complacent and ultimately more afraid to face the hard questions ourselves?

As we enter the last days of Lent and the period of Holy Week, Jesus calls us into a place of suffering. It’s a suffering very much experienced in the world around us—as well as in our selves. Sometimes we are blessed by the power and presence of God in these moments.

Sometimes we’re not.

Sometimes we need to ask with Jesus “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sometimes we need to hear it and take it seriously from the lips of those around us.

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.

Asking too little

by Ann Fontaine

In the course of my interim ministry and training work I have been observing churches and their lives. I am coming to a conclusion that we ask too little of people and the result affects our church growth, both in numbers and in our depth of life in Christ. I do not have any hard evidence or measurable data just my experiences.

My thinking about "are we asking too little," came from a person who started attending church with her husband. He had grown up in the Episcopal Church but she had grown up in what we now call the “none” church. She had no knowledge of or feelings (positive or negative) towards church. After they had attended for a while she wondered to me why they did not ask anything of her. She felt they were nice and welcoming but shouldn’t there be more? I have heard this from others since that time.

This was the beginning for paying attention to what I see as a failure to ask enough of those who are coming to church to find something more than a social club. In the old days church was just a thing people did. They joined to find friends or for business contacts or to look like a good person. Now none of those reasons for church are necessary. At least in the Pacific NW people get those needs met elsewhere. The only thing we have to offer that is different is Christ and a way of life.

As I see growing churches I see churches who raise the bar on membership. Just showing up occasionally and having ancestors who were once active is not enough. All are welcome but to really be a member requires more. Can we be totally welcoming as a church, offering all we have: sacraments, ministry, and care, unconditionally, to those who walk through the doors? At the same time can we ask more of those who want to be part of the decision making and shaping of the life of the church? It is a fine line and one that invites continual reflection.

"Below the fold" is an example of one church's process. The result is increased numbers, more commitment, and increased depth of faith. The essential steps were looking at the core values of the church and if they are the values it wants to continue, developing a mission statement, in the language the church uses, that reflects those values and asking people to make a commitment to be present and support the church through service and giving.

This example is just one way a church can develop a process of deepening faith and life and commitment. Development will vary according to the core values of each church. I believe it is essential to do the work of discovery before any other steps.

What I have come to believe is that we often ask too little of people. And they go away saying, “is this all there is?” Instead let us be bold and share the gift we have been given so people will find spiritual nurture, a place to center their hearts and exercise their gifts.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine lives on the Oregon Coast and oversees communications for her local St Catherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church. She is a trainer and mentor in the Education for Ministry program and an editor for Episcopal Café. Her book is Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on scripture

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Thoughts on the future of campus ministry

by Karl Stevens

Part 1 of 2

Campus ministry used to be easy. In the beginning, no such thing had to exist, because most colleges and universities in America were founded by specific denominations, and populated by members of those denominations. Then, in the late 19th century, students at state institutions began forming denominational groups. Some of those denominations called ordained chaplains to minister to them directly. The Episcopal Church didn’t, with some notable exceptions, preferring to establish parishes near campuses and work with student chaplains. And it was pretty clear who those chaplains and parishes were meant to serve - four year residential undergraduates, and graduate students who might stay for longer but certainly lived within the vicinity of the campus and the church.

That model began to break down in the 1960s, as campus unrest led many nearby parishes to disengage. But there was also a larger social trend going on. The mainline denominations began losing members, and the denominational students on campus, who had once created ministries to serve themselves, were now no longer interested in those ministries. The impetus for forming Episcopal communities on campus shifted from the students to church institutions, and this marked the beginning of a decline.
For the past fifty years, the Episcopal Church has tried to keep a presence on campus by hiring campus ministers and chaplains, who sometimes step in to serve healthy and existing communities, but often are charged with creating such communities out of thin air. This has made for challenging work, and the challenge is increasing due to one simple fact: four year residential undergraduates are no longer the majority of American college students.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute only 40.6% of students who enter as full-time undergraduates complete their education in four years. So there goes the idea of a four year education. Couple this with the fact that a growing number of students are part-time or taking online courses, and the percentage of “traditional” students falls to 20%. Yet these are the students that higher education institutions were set-up to cater to, and these are the students that campus ministries have relied on to remain viable. But if they’re not on campus, they can’t be expected to be in campus churches. And for those who are on campus, they don’t value denominational identity in the way that their 19th century forbears did. For the most part, they’re not looking for other Episcopal students to bond with over their shared Episcopalianism.
This obviously presents some very strong challenges to Episcopal campus ministry and to the church in general. But in some ways Episcopalians are more fortunate than our sisters and brothers in other denominations. Because we never separated the idea of campus ministry from parish life, we still have the basic scaffolding that allows outreach to students. While many denominations have closed down the dorms they once owned and sold off their campus ministry houses, we still have viable parishes near campuses that are mostly supported by their own membership, rather than by funding from a diocese or the national church.

Of course, this very blessing requires something of us. Much of what I’ve said about the history of campus ministry in the Episcopal Church comes from a thesis by the Rev. Brian Turner. Brian points out that the clergy who served parishes near campuses in the 19th and 20th centuries were expected to have some scholarship, and to understand “the needs and aspirations and perplexities of youth.” Now that students are of multiple ages and, if they’re taking online classes, are sitting in the pews of churches that are nowhere near a campus, this 19th and 20th century demand that parishes and priests understand students and learn how to speak to them has become universal.

The “needs and aspirations and perplexities” of students are different now then they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The vast majority of students (87.9%) believe that going to college will help them get a better job. They’re focused on their future earnings potential, but they have good reason to be anxious about this potential, since almost a third of recent college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. They’re not finding opportunities to use the education that they paid so much for (the cost of higher education increases by 7.8% per year, which is higher than medical costs and more than double the rise in consumer prices). They’re worried about their future, and they didn’t necessarily take the time in college to wallow in great books and great thoughts. This should come as a relief to priests and parishioners who are worried that they might have to have PhDs to communicate with students. But it also means that these students probably haven’t been introduced to the great intellectual traditions of Christianity, nor have they had the opportunity to think about their faith’s relationship to the classes they took, the life they want to lead, and the ways in which new academic discoveries are shaping the world.

What can parishes do for them? And how can those of us who specialize in campus ministry help parishes engage with the students in their midsts? (read part 2 next)

The Rev. Karl Stevens writes at Praxis. He is an Episcopal Priest and a writer and illustrator. He is exceedingly fortunate to be the Missioner for Campus Ministry with the Diocese of Southern Ohio. He also got lucky when he married the lovely Amy Stevens, with whom he has one glorious child. Early in the summer of 2013 he and a bunch of parishioners from Saint James's in Columbus set themselves on fire to demonstrate the properties of propane mixed with bubbly water and, of course, the power of the Holy Spirit. Everyone else got fantastic flames up and down their arms. Karl found that he had to cosset his flame like a small bird. He's trying not to read too much into that.

Beer to Attract Church Members? No.
To Celebrate God's Grace? Yes.

by Win Bassett

NPR published a story this morning with the headline, "To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer, and the article's accompanying audio is available on Weekend Edition Sunday. The writer profiles a few churches across the United States who have begun using craft beer to counter a decline in church membership:

A guy sits at the bar nursing a beer, he overhears the Gospel of Luke, he sees people line up to take bread and wine, he gets curious. Phil Heinze says pub church has now become an official — if edgy — Lutheran mission.
...
"I think the institutional church now is getting onboard," says Heinze, "because there's a lot of anxiety frankly about the church's decline and they're trying to think outside of that institutional box."

One of my Twitter followers remarked that she thought the headline misled readers. "The story is more re: being able to come as you are," she wrote. Admittedly, one of the church leaders questioned in the article said, "I'm not interested, frankly, in making more church members.... I'm interested in having people have significant relationships around Jesus. And if it turns out to be craft beer, fine." The general angle of this particular report, however, does focus on recruitment:
The Christian Church Disciples of Christ — a small mainline Protestant denomination — has experienced a steep drop in membership in recent decades. Beer & Hymns is one attempt to attract new people, in this hip, beer-loving city, while keeping a safe distance away from stained-glass windows.

Combining beer and religion — and more specifically, Christianity — is nothing new. Catholic dioceses have used "Theology on Tap" programs for more than thirty years, and I recently wrote about Grace Episcopal Church in Massies Mill, Va., and The Graceful Brewers Guild. Church leadership, in these cases, didn't implement beer programs to bump declining church membership. "We're enjoying the fellowship involved with creating an ale that can be enjoyed at special occasions at our parish," The Rev. Marion Kanour, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, said. In other words, these churches and others use community-building powers of beer to facilitate fellowship around God and not simply to put more butts in pews.

Introducing alcohol, or anything for that matter (food, travel excursions, book clubs, etc.), merely to increase church membership runs the risk of using idolatry to bring people to God. Paul said in his speech to the Athenians,

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For "In him we live and move and have our being"; as even some of your own poets have said, "For we too are his offspring." Acts 17:24-28, NRSV.

God doesn't live in beer made by human hands. God lives in the hands themselves ("For 'In him we live and move and have our being'.") Perhaps the churches mentioned in the NPR piece, to bring more people to God, should encourage wanderers to "search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him" instead of filling the groping hands with pint glasses. "Indeed he is not far from each one of us," and once we find him, then we may rejoice with the fruit of our neighbors' labors--not the other way around.


Win Bassett is from southwestern Virginia and is a seminarian at Yale Divinity School. Follow him on Twitter: @winbassett.

Raising the bar on pub theology

by Sam Laurent

Talking about church stuff in a bar! Can you believe it? Such is the energy behind innumerable articles and blog posts about pub theology, theology on tap (that one's trademarked, so proceed with that awareness), or any other name for getting together in a bar to talk about church stuff. I've been a leader for one such program, which we call Indulgences, for two and a half years now, with some sessions really taking off into something beautiful, some not so much, and a good amount of trial and error in between. This model has been around long enough that I don't think it counts as edgy or innovative anymore, and my main point here is that it never was terribly edgy or innovative, and edginess and innovation really have nothing to do with good pub theologizing, anyway. Those values, in and of themselves, offer little for the folks who come out for a pint and some discussion, and also don't give much to the life of the church, other than maybe some hypothetical bragging rights.

Right at the top, let me be clear that doing pub theology is terrific, and I don't want to discourage it at all. Quite to the contrary, I think it can be a vital part of how we engage our faith and our negotiation of the complex and mysterious waters of Christianity. Talk about church stuff in a bar! Do it!

But don't do it to make your church look cool. If that's the motivation or expectation, you can expect the engagement with it to go no deeper than the superficial trappings of the event. And it will quickly grow stale. If the novelty of being at a “church thing” in a bar (or “beer church” as one friend calls it) is the primary energy you bring to the event, then you may find yourself casting seeds on rocky soil.

I like to think of our Indulgences sessions as an intentional reclamation of the pub atmosphere as a place to discuss theology. My inspiration for this comes from the beers of England, many of which have rather low alcohol contents, and are termed “session ales.” They're meant for folks who gather at the pub and talk for hours, so they can drink for a while with friends and still possess their faculties. So the story goes, anyway. So, my love for English bitters (on cask!) has an ideological facet to it.

The idea of a pub as a place to gather, enjoy company, and to engage in something more than just small talk has a tremendous appeal, and can be a refreshing thing for churches, where cultures of clericalism or a simple forgetfulness of the fact that church teachings arise from living discussions can stifle difference and conversation. Rocky soil, you see. Pub theology can do some tilling. The informality of the setting, the ritual of having a pint (or whatever...), and the act of gathering around a table all help open up a space for discussion, and indeed it is the discussion that is rewarding.

With this aim at a pub discussion, a few guidelines come into view.

First, it must always be a discussion. Lectures and classes are suited to other venues, but to me, the point of doing theology in a bar is to open up a conversation. At the Advocate, we try to choose topics that are live issues within the church and in the wider world, and we don't shy away from debating. After all, the tradition of debating in bars is time-honored. So folks who lead these sessions need to shift out of traditional Christian education mode, and let things be looser. I make handouts for our sessions, with a few passages of scripture or theology which can serve as grounding points for our discussion, and I generally open things up with a quick introduction of the topic, but that's the extent to which I intentionally plan out the conversation. As a leader, I certainly try to facilitate deep discussion, but I don't need to control what that discussion sounds like.

A lot of this, especially for folks accustomed to a more traditional role of teacher or instructor, is a matter taking on the discipline of letting it be a pub conversation. Unlike some other program offerings, pub theologizing will often actively resist any attempt to end up with a designated belief or doctrine being agreed upon. Rather than insisting on consensus, we aim to get ideas out on the table that we can use in our thinking, praying, and living, to test-drive those ideas and see how they work. We often tackle a genuinely big question and end up in a genuinely ambivalent space at the end of the session. Those have been my favorite sessions.

So go talk about church stuff in a bar. It's a good thing to do, and it's a lot of fun. But don't think of the bar as just a change of venue. It changes the ethos, shifts the tone of the conversation, and inherently decentralizes it, which is to be commended, I think. Moreover, by providing a less formal place, where people don't feel the eyes of church hierarchy holding their every statement up to the yardstick of orthodoxy, pub theology reveals levels of honesty and frankness that often aren't ventured on Sundays. And that is very good. We say that all opinions are welcome, and I feel obligated to honor that, as a matter of hospitality and honesty. If we aren't debating, if we aren't questioning deeply and courageously, if we aren't saying “oh, that's a really great way to think about it”... if we aren't really digging into some aspect of our life with God, then I think we're missing the opportunity that pub theology programs provide us. Frank and thoughtful discussion is a beautiful and engaging thing.

So I'll close by admitting that I often head into our Indulgences sessions with a bit of nervousness, because I don't know what folks will say. As a leader at these gatherings, I'm supposed to be able to help facilitate a good conversation, to ask provocative questions, and to offer something that would seem to justify my years of graduate work. So the necessarily open-ended structure of our sessions is not the most calming, ahead of time. But it really pays off every time someone offers an honest and insightful thought that energizes the whole conversation, and sends us into a space that none of us could have outlined on our own. It's easy to make jokes about doing theology in a bar, and indeed the title of those programs rightfully ought to indulge a little cheesy humor, but when the Holy Spirit gets some traction in our conversations, I'm always glad I didn't try to lecture or indoctrinate. Not in a pub.

Sam Laurent Ph.D. is the resident theologian at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC and director of the Center for Theological Engagement

Smartphones in church: permission granted

by Dan Webster

Visiting preachers have some freedom, and so for the past few Sundays at different parishes I’ve started my sermon by holding up my smartphone.

“If you have your mobile device with you it would be good if you put it on silent. But if anything in this service—a prayer, reading, hymn or this sermon—moves you, please feel free to tweet it or post it to Facebook,” I’ve said.

Reaction has been predictably mixed and I’ve had the most interesting conversations with younger congregants. Two acolytes now follow me on Instagram. Many of the 40-somethings are my newest friends on Facebook.

“That may be the first time social media has been mentioned here,” one longtime parishioner said recently.

Well, I hope it generates something at that church and others. Checking in on Foursquare, Twitter or Facebook while at church, lets friends and followers know that you actually do go to church. I view it as following the Gospel invitation to let your light shine before all, telling the Good News to all the world.

Sometimes folks just need permission.

A year ago Easter, as I was tweeting during a sermon, the rector’s wife, a friend, leaned over and said, “Not fair.” I guess she felt the need to be on her best behavior.

So did I. My best behavior was to share an inspiring quote from the sermon with my 800+ followers on social media. And I hope those words may have inspired some of them.

Spreading Good News in the 21st century is getting easier. Our reach is ever-widening. We should be grateful for these wonderful tools that truly are full of wonder. . . and use them to tell people our story.

During the first century stories of faith and God’s grace were told on mountains or shouted from rooftops. These days, the ability to do this is quite literally in the palm of our hand. How will you provide permission to share the Good News in this way?


The Rev. Dan Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Diocese of Maryland. He is the former media relations director of the National Council of Churches.

Focused on marketing

by George Clifford

During the course of my internship in a downtown Nashville parish, tasked to expand the congregation's ministry to the needy and the homeless, I met a man baptized four different times, each one in a church of a different Christian denomination. A homeless alcoholic, he kept hoping that baptism would "take," i.e., miraculously free him from his addiction and restore him to pre-addiction health and relationships.

However, sacraments are not magic. Whatever happens in a sure and certain means of grace, it is not a technique for manipulating God and producing guaranteed benefits. Preachers had oversold or misled this man with respect to God's power; he then used God's alleged failure to heal him as an excuse for remaining ill.

Pastoral ministry as selling connotes inviting people to share in opportunities to love their neighbors, care for creation, and encounter the living God. With proper pastoral concern and respect for the dignity and worth of others, we solicit commitments to the Church and to opportunities to serve and to participate in experiences that some people find helpful in experiencing the living God's presence and love.

Integrity requires selling the Church as an imperfect institution, a community of broken, hurting people who join in worship, ministry, and mission. I've learned to suggest approaches, techniques, and perspectives on the spiritual journey, helping persons learn and practice what they deem best suited to their needs and situation. I've discovered that people need, even want, to commit to a community, spiritual practices, and ethical living. But I never promise what God will do in a person's life, constantly surprised at what I discern as the moving of the Spirit. God is management; the rest of us are in marketing and sales.

Over the decades of my ministry, I've read several dozen books on evangelism written by authors, some Anglican and some not, ranging from conservative evangelicals like Paul Little and Michael Green to more liberal like Richard Armstrong and James Adams. I've explored friendship evangelism, the church growth movement, the Alpha course, the effective church, and others. In general, I've found them to be better sources of ideas and encouraging anecdotes than systematic thinking that resonated with me.

Instead, I have found a set of four basic marketing criteria that I learned in my MBA studies far more helpful. Known as the four Ps of marketing, these comprehensive, flexible, and easily remembered criteria are product, price, place, and promotion.

Product connotes the service or product that one offers. For the Church, what is our product? Who wants it? Why do they want it? (NB: The latter two questions demand practical, real life answers.) I find that thinking about product helps, even forces, a shift from vague platitudes (e.g., our product is relationships with God) to the specific (e.g., an opportunity to experience God through participating in a contemplative Holy Communion service or to feed the hungry by packing 10,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now). If an activity, regardless of what it is, is not part of the product we want to offer then it has no place in the institution. Facets of a product important for thinking about what the Church provides include its features, packaging, and branding.

Price connotes the product's cost to the consumer. The cost may be time (time spent in worship represents an opportunity cost because the person could spend the time in alternative ways), money (the cost of getting to the proper location, of food brought, or even of making a pledge), or effort (using one's talents). When I served in Hawaii, the value of Sunday morning worship to various attendees was obvious on Super Bowl Sundays. Attendance annually plummeted at late morning services, regulars opting to make party preparations or to watch pre-game TV instead of attending.

Place connotes how, when, and where the product is available. As a seagoing chaplain, I quickly realized that in port sailors wanted to get off the ship as much as possible. Sailors considered their ship, even for those who had no other place to live, primarily as a workplace. Underway, sailors would attend worship aboard the ship; in port, even the most devout on their duty Sundays, unable to go ashore to worship, would rarely attend a shipboard worship service. Likewise, mid-week noon services in suburbia may not make sense while noon services in downtown parishes may be very popular. Contemporary Ash Wednesday distribution of ashes on street corners is one highly visible attempt to find a better placement for the Church's product.

Promotion connotes communicating information about the product to potential consumers and includes both publicity (free) and advertising (paid). No longer can the Church reasonably expect potential consumers to seek out the nearest parish and automatically become active participants. We need to reach out to our communities in appropriate (Does anyone still consult printed yellow pages? If not, why buy an ad?), multiple media (Twitter, Facebook, Internet, mailings, perhaps radio or TV, etc.) with repeated messages about products they want/need, at an acceptable price, and at an agreeable place.

Many parishes have marketing pros among their active participants. These persons, with their practical knowledge of selling and marketing, are a rich resource for institutional transformation. Building a better mousetrap (or ball field, if you prefer that metaphor) is not enough. People no longer will come just because the Church is there. Instead, we need to develop an intentional ministry that highlights who we are and what we offer, communicating that message to those for whom it is appropriate (aka target marketing).

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently commented on H.A. Dorfman's The Mental ABC's of Pitching, a book on the psychology of pitching:

Others are eloquent about courage and creativity, but Dorfman is fervent about discipline. In the book’s only lyrical passage, he writes: “Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.”

His assumption seems to be that you can’t just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind. …

A baseball game is a spectacle, with a thousand points of interest. But Dorfman reduces it all to a series of simple tasks. The pitcher’s personality isn’t at the center. His talent isn’t at the center. The task is at the center.

By putting the task at the center, Dorfman illuminates the way the body and the mind communicate with each other. Once there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence. In fact, it’s easiest to change the mind by changing behavior, and that’s probably as true in the office as on the mound.

And by putting the task at the center, Dorfman helps the pitcher quiet the self. He pushes the pitcher’s thoughts away from his own qualities — his expectations, his nerve, his ego — and helps the pitcher lose himself in the job. ("Pitching with Purpose," New York Times, April 1, 2013)


The path out of the Episcopal Church's numerical decline is for us, laity and clergy alike, to return to the business of selling, i.e., pitching with a purpose. You can call this evangelism if you want but, I, for one, find that term too encumbered with unfortunate cultural baggage, often implying that humans are responsible for converting the world. God's graces changes people; people can also change themselves. Being a change agent means helping people have opportunities in which they may recognize the experience of God's grace and then to discern those moments of grace.

Ultimately, we're in the business of selling God. But in practice, we're in the business of selling a wide array of products to help people grow in love for God and others. Like any large, multi-faceted organization, accomplishing that mission requires people performing a wide variety of tasks that includes leading worship, preaching, teaching, pastoral caregiving, organizing, etc. However, selling is arguably the most essential of those tasks, one that only we can do and one too often undervalued and neglected.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

The privilege of inviting

by George Clifford

Roughly four decades ago, I did something that I had never done before or again. I conducted an altar call, i.e., invited members of the congregation to commit their lives to Jesus publicly by stepping to the front of the worship space. It occurred in a Nashville, TN, rescue mission's nightly service.

I was an intern at a downtown parish, tasked to discover ways in which the congregation could expand its ministry to the needy and the homeless. One of the first homeless men with whom I began to develop a relationship had arranged, without consulting me, for the rescue mission's director to invite me to preach there. Everything about the mission – its clientele, its services, its theology, even its very existence – was alien to me.

Not wanting to damage the nascent relationship I was forming with the man who had arranged the invitation, knowing that he had sought the invitation as a way to help me, and having already learned that trustworthiness is a sine qua non in ministering to people living on the streets, I warily accepted the invitation.

All went well until I finished my sermon. Then the mission's director sidled up to me and told me that I had to conduct an altar call. I replied that this was foreign to my religious tradition. He answered that without an altar call, none of the men would eat dinner. His manipulative aggressiveness angered me. Still, I quickly evaluated my options. I could refuse, leaving the premises if necessary to avoid a pointless argument and a no-win confrontation. If so, would the director conduct an altar call himself, perhaps inflicting another sermon on hungry, restless men? Or, would he follow through on his threat and cancel dinner? Alternatively, I could accede to his demand, invite those present to commit their lives to Jesus, and hope that the service ended quickly and with no further harm to anyone present. Apparently, most of the congregation knew that sitting through the service, with an altar call, was the price of dinner, a cot for the night, and breakfast. So I capitulated to the director's coercion.

When I studied marketing as part of an MBA program, I learned that the most common reason a salesperson loses a potential sale is that the salesperson never directly asked the potential buyer to make the purchase. Reflecting on my experiences and observations of ministry, I repeatedly saw opportunities to nurture commitment missed and abused.

On the one hand, I suspect that a key factor in the growth of evangelical churches is their clear and frequent emphasis on giving people an opportunity to make a commitment to Christ and/or a religious institution. Unlike what happened in Nashville's rescue mission and too often occurs elsewhere, I've occasionally witnessed this done in genuine, caring, and non-coercive ways by clergy from other faith traditions with whom I was honored to serve in the Navy Chaplain Corps. This is pastoral ministry as selling.

Similarly, valued chaplain colleagues from faith groups more akin to the Episcopal Church and I regularly afforded people in the military, a secular institution in which the average age is about 21, genuine, caring, and non-coercive but explicit opportunities to commit to Christ and the Church through Holy Baptism, Confirmation, receiving Holy Communion, and volunteering. This, too, is pastoral ministry as selling.

A correspondent sent me the following thought-provoking comment in response to my last contribution to the Daily Episcopalian, "Pastoral leadership as selling:"

Leadership, charisma, etc. are very important, but very difficult to teach. And the church needs to acknowledge that fact, especially in a modern world with so much else to do/choose. But, do you tell people who are looking at ordination they just don't have the right stuff? Or do you send them to training classes for car sales representatives? What's the solution?

Also, is it a lack of leaders capable of selling the product or is it a problem with the "product"? Does TEC know what it sells? Are the "via media," Big Tent, or Anglican Fudge still sellable? After a lifetime of infomercials, how many believe anything that "... Does … It ... All!" really does, or does anything other than empty your wallet.


I'm deferring ruminations about inspirational leadership for a future post. In prior Daily Episcopalian posts, other contributors and I have frequently emphasized that the Episcopal Church is not theologically or liturgically bankrupt. People continue to want be part of an intentional community focused on cultivating the spiritual life (loving God) and cooperating in developing ethical lifestyles (loving others and caring for creation). They come, attracted by good liturgy, enriching aesthetics, welcoming inclusivity, and pastoral sensitivities.

Visitors whom nobody asks to come again, and, as appropriate, to become part of the community, integrated into its ministries and missions, slip away. I observed many chaplains from a wide spectrum of religious traditions whose ministries were less effective than they might have been because the chaplain failed to ask people – both visitors to religious services and people encountered in other settings – to make appropriate religious commitments in a caring, genuine, and respectful manner.

As Jim and Jennifer Cowart in Reach More Volunteers insightfully remark, "Recruiting sounds like work; inviting is a privilege. People want to be needed. Even more than that, they want to spend their lives doing something significant. So don’t ask people to do a job; instead invite them to join you in changing the world." This is the essence of pastoral ministry as selling.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Proclaiming the Gospel with Reckless Abandon

by Douglas J. Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, the good people of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Longmeadow, MA gave me this wonderful mandala. The words around the mandala are these: “Together, we are called to the great adventure of expressing our faith in a new era, a time full of challenges and possibilities. May we have the courage to proclaim the Gospel boldly and creatively.” The quote is something I said in the walk-abouts. It is really cool to have your own words put into art. That also means those words stand as an on-going prayer to our Living God. Give us the courage Lord to proclaim the Gospel boldly and creatively.

Let’s look at that and let’s get there by way of a story. My oldest daughter Caragh was a gifted basketball player – set the record at her high school for most points in a career by a female basketball player. But before that, in 8th Grade she went through a rough stretch. She had a coach on an AAU travel team that was really tough. For years I had been her coach, always encouraging her and staying positive and she played the game with a joyful aggressiveness. Now this coach was very knowledgeable but screamed at kids when they made mistakes. I went to one of her games and Caragh would run down the court and go to the exact spot her coach had told her to go. But she would just stay there. If she caught a pass she would throw it right back to the teammate who threw it to her. After the game I said to her, “Caragh, you aren’t having any fun out there. You are just trying to not make mistakes. I want you to listen to your coach but take risks out there. If you mess up, you mess up. But play with reckless abandon.” That became our phrase – reckless abandon. I was at West Point at that time and Caragh was used to all the cadets talking in acronyms. Like rem for “ready to eat meal” –in which none of those words are true. We agreed I would shout out RA from the stands to remind her to play with reckless abandon.

The change was remarkable. I would shout out RA and she would go back to her old style. On defense she would jump the passing lane and steal the ball, charge at the dribbler and create turnovers. On offense she would hit the cutter with a pass, if she was open she would shoot or drive the lane. The game was fun again.

One time I arrived at a game late, coming directly from a church service so I was dressed in clericals. As I shouted “RA” from the stands, a person turned around, saw how I was dressed and said to the person next to her “I don’t know what that means. Maybe it is one of those John 3:16 things.”

It is time, in this new era, a time when our world, our country and our state have become more and more secular – a time when church going Christianity is in decline and consumerism is the new mainline religion, it is time to express our faith with reckless abandon. It is time to try new things, to take risks, to be bold and energetic and not be afraid to fail. There is someone who lived that way – his name is Jesus.
The Gospels tell us Jesus’ last words on the Cross were “God, into your hands I commend my spirit.” A statement of profound trust. Where did Jesus get the strength to say it at that moment? I propose that Jesus could say that line because he practiced it. Could it be that every time Jesus was on the frontier of the unknown, every time he was doing something new, every time he was not sure what would happen next, he prayed “into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus made that prayer a way of life. I invite us, God’s people in the Episcopal Church to make that our way of life. Let’s express the eternal truth of the Gospel in new ways. Let’s look at one of many possibilities.

Matthew 25 tells us where to find Jesus. Jesus is the person who is hungry, who is in prison, who is sick. Matthew 25 calls us to a ministry of outreach and social justice. It is the challenge of the prophets. Matthew 28 tells us to go forth and baptize all nations. It is a clear invitation to evangelism. What would happen if we risked mashing those two great challenges into one. In my experience, congregational development happens when we are passionate about both Matthew 25 and Matthew 28. What social justice ministry is your parish called to? And how are you expressing “Jesus Christ is our Savior” in an imaginative, creative, enticing way? Put Matthew 25 and Matthew 28 into action and the Holy Spirit will set our churches on fire.

Amen. RA

The Right Reverend Dr. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. This homily was excerpted from the sermon that Bishop Fisher delivered at the Western Massachusetts Diocesan Convention last December in Springfield, MA.

Below is one priest's response to the Bishop's sermon:

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A blizzard of challenges: church on Facebook

by Alex Dyer

A wise person once told me, “Most of life is not what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens to you.” With that in mind, imagine just before the weekend a massive blizzard descends and drops nearly three feet of snow in one evening. Even in New Haven, Connecticut, this is a very rare event.

Every priest leading a congregation is forced to make the difficult decision whether to cancel church or march on as usual. Unsure whether we could even plow the sidewalks by Sunday and a travel ban in effect throughout the city and state, perhaps there is another way. Perhaps there is a via media, or should I say via social media.

When presented with unique circumstances, one must come up with unique solutions. I began to think about having a church service via Facebook. It was not a perfect solution, but it was worth a shot. I sent the word out via our email lists and held the service at our normal time, 10:30 AM on Sunday.

One of the local reporters, who I am Facebook friends with (always a good idea to get to know your local press) picked up the story and wrote a piece on the virtual service. It became a form of “e-vangelism” as well. Now it was no longer a simple service for our own parishioners. The pressure was now on to make it something special, and the clock was ticking.

I pre-recorded my sermon for Sunday on a video. I decided to wear my clerical collar because I am an Episcopalian after all (since no one could see from the waist down, I must confess I was also in pajama pants). I led the liturgy of the Word, as that was most familiar to people. I gathered all the pieces for the service. I collected hymns via Youtube and had all the readings typed up and ready to go.

I invited people to join me on the church Facebook page, and I posted the words of the service via our status updates. Before the service began, I invited people to comment and like the hymns. I was shocked how quickly community started to form. I was also shocked how much work it was to lead a service this way.

I found that you are flying blind and have no idea how quickly or slowly to move through the service. It is always tough for me to preach to a camera with nobody else in the room. Despite these obstacles, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Religion and social media have had an interesting relationship. Churches seek to build genuine, deep, rich communities, and social media can present many challenges to this community building. There have been critics ever since the conception of social media. Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of social media are tools; they are not perfect, but they also serve a purpose by connecting people.

I was amazed at how the Holy Spirit was active. One parishioner commented that this idea led her to call an elderly parishioner and say Morning Prayer together since she was not on Facebook. It led another parishioner to begin to think of new ways we can use technology to get our worship services out there to people who cannot make it to church. We had people from Texas, New Hampshire and Nebraska join us for our virtual church service.

It would have been easy to take a Sunday off because of the snow. Believe me, the thought crossed my mind. I am so glad that I did not go that route and was able to see the Holy Spirit move in new and exciting ways. I know in my own life, I do not always take risks as much as I should. The Church is facing a blizzard of challenges in today’s society, and perhaps God is calling us all to be more creative and take more risks. Challenging circumstances are inevitable. How are we going to respond to them?

The Rev Alex Dyer is the Priest-in-charge of St. Paul and St. James Episcopal Church, New Haven, CT

Tweeting the good news (Tweevangelism)

By Walker Adams

I love Facebook. It is a great way for me to keep track of what is going on with my friends, find out who has a birthday, and see my cousins vacation pictures. As much as I love Facebook, I think I love Twitter more. Twitter brings me a constant source of news and information. It allows me to have conversations with people I may have met only once, or people I have never met at all (which is how this article even came about). What I love most about Twitter though is that following trending topics enables me to see what is going on around the world, and gives me a glimpse into what people around me think is important (or not). In short, it keeps me in touch with society.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was in our diocese (West Missouri) this week to celebrate the centennial celebration feast day of one of our parishes, St. Andrew’s. She preached about St. Andrew, evangelism, and compared various fishing techniques to spreading the gospel, encouraging us to find what bait attracts us and use it to fish for others. While I loved her sermon, and wholeheartedly agree with her, I fear we as Episcopalians spend less time fishing and more time keeping the aquarium.

Let me explain. Over the course of the last few days as I have been reflecting on the words of our Presiding Bishop in comparison to Bishop Kirk Smith’s sermon “Digital Bishop”. As a young Episcopalian I am disheartened, and not surprised, at statements like “80% of people looking for a church to attend for the first time, go to the internet, and yet only 20% of Episcopal churches have an active and up-to-date website.” or that “Of the 110 active bishops in this country, only six are on Twitter.” (Although I think Twitter informed me that a few have joined since this sermon was preached, thanks be to God). Growing up in a digital age with a digital mind frame, I do not understand why the church would attend to current culture from the pulpit and preach the gospel as it relates to war in the Middle East, or the greed and need associated with this time of year, but will not take the step to log into Twitter and hashtag #BlackFriday. I understand sometimes the aquarium needs attention, but eventually it also needs fish, and it seems foolish for us to wait for them to jump into our Episcopal tank.

So, my challenge to the church during advent is this: don’t waste your Advent waiting for Mary to give birth to Jesus. Instead, make your faith incarnate right here, right now. Log into Twitter, find a trending topic, and preach the gospel in an ocean where the fish are. Will you proclaim by word, tweet, and example the Good News in Christ Jesus?

Walker Adams (@walkeradams1) is a senior music education major at The Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He is a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church and Day School (@StPaulsKCMO) in The Diocese of West Missouri.

Evangelism and Fake Thanksgiving

by Derek Olsen

Episcopalians can do a lot of things well. Historically, evangelism was one of them. Anglican mission societies brought the faith to wherever British and Americans traveled; the breadth of the Anglican Communion is a signal of that success. But for modern Episcopalians, evangelism is not something that we’re known for. Indeed, not being “Evangelical” in a way yoked to the American political Right, not being missionally coercive in the way that some groups are, is one of the ways that we distinguish ourselves from other groups in the American religious marketplace.

And yet—we are called to proclaim the Gospel. “Evangelical” does have a long and proud history in Anglican circles, and we forget our heritage if we seek to cut it out of who we are. At the end of the day, a church that doesn’t want to share itself with others needs to take a long hard look at itself and consider what Good News it really has to share.

Now, I’m not pointing fingers here—I recognize that I’m part of the problem. We need to be thinking and talking about how we do evangelism. Maybe one of the ways to start is to drop the potentially contentious label and to think of it in a more basic way: how do I tell people the story of my life and do it in such a way that lets them know my God, my faith, my church, are an important part of how and why I do what I do? I’ve heard that in some churches, evangelism classes and faith-sharing workshops help ordinary people gain a sense of how to do this. I have no idea—I’ve never been to such a thing—but it’s probably not a bad idea for us to talk about how we talk and relate and share the good news of what God has done for us and is doing with us.
I offer here mission notes—nothing more. A few choice interactions that I had the other night that made me think about my story and how I tell it, about how I interact with people in relation to my faith. There’s no big pay-off at the end, there are no mass conversions—I’m just opening space to wonder aloud about what we say and how we say. It’s a starting place, not an ending place.

About a year ago, my neighbor across the street bought the old carriage house behind where we live. The fenced-in outside area became a set of lucrative parking spots on days when the Baltimore Ravens play at M & T Bank Stadium which stands at the foot of our street; the weathered brick interior has become a neighborhood hangout complete with pot-bellied wood stove, couches, a big TV, and a polished wood bar with brass footrails that a local drinking establishment was throwing away. On Ravens game days we hang out to grill hotdogs and drink beer, my girls play with the neighborhood boys, and several families gather to chat about their lives. In short—it’s a place where community and communion occur.

Since I work from home, this is an important site of my interactions with live people not connected to church or my girls’ school. As a result, in a de facto kind of way, it’s my “mission field.” It’s not a place to pressure people or force them to believe something, it’s not a place to spin high promises about what God will do for you if you invite him into your heart. No, this is simply the place to share my life with my friends and neighbors—and to express that God and my faith have an important place in my life. These people are not my “project” with some kind of conversion goal—they’re my friends! Not only that, I’m fully conscious that my witness here isn’t just in words alone. These are the people who see me dragging the garbage cans out in my pajamas, who hear what I say to my kids as we rush off to school or activities: it’s one thing to spout sanctimonious words in a religious discussion, it’s another say words you mean and then live like you mean them.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we gathered to give real thanks at Fake Thanksgiving. A few weeks ago we cooked up the crazy idea of a full-on Thanksgiving dinner before the actual date to test out and share our recipes, and to hang out together before we dispersed to the winds and our families of origin. It’s just like Thanksgiving—just without all the family drama. Too, it was a chance to provide a Thanksgiving for some in the community who wouldn’t get one otherwise, like the elderly widow—alone save for her dog—and the young underemployed guy rehabbing a house across the alley.

The girls and I went over first—I’d just finished cooking my green beans with bacon; M was filling her pumpkin pie and putting it in the oven. We met the usual suspects around the turkey fryer in the outside lot and I was introduced briefly to some new additions, a family who lived next to the house in rehab—young, with a new baby, whose names and accents revealed them to be recent immigrants but I couldn’t pin down from where—and a man who’d lived in the neighborhood for a while before moving down to Annapolis.

In a short time, all three turkeys were out of the fryer, the other food was warming away in chafing dishes, and the people were gathered. Dinner was about to commence! One of the hosts glanced over at us and said, “Derek or M, would one of you give us a blessing?” M nudged me and said, “Public spontaneous prayer is your thing—go for it…”

All right—there I was. Time for a “religion moment.” I feel like these sorts of things have to be managed well—something needs to be said, the intent of a “religion moment” needs to be honored, and it sets the tone for interactions with the people who don’t know me. I know that one of the families is mostly lapsed Catholic, another is not part of a faith tradition, and I had no idea of the tradition of the host who’s just asked me to pray. Something Protestant, I’d guess. The young immigrant couple? They could be Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, or nothing at all—and how would my prayer impact how they saw this group and whether it was a safe place for them?

In this kind of situation, I think there are two good approaches. The first is to claim your tradition and allow others to claim theirs too. In that case I’d say something like, “I know that we come from all sorts of faith traditions and maybe no tradition at all. We’re Episcopalians, and when Episcopalians get together for this kind of thing, this is a prayer that we use…” This allows me to pull out a nice classic prayer that mentions Jesus and the Trinity without feeling that I’m imposing my beliefs on others. At the same time, it recognizes that not everybody has to be on-board with Jesus and the Trinity to be included. Of course, I prefer this approach when I’ve got a good Anglican collect in mind! Not having one, I went for Plan B and punted.

The second approach is to pray a prayer that’s both open and sincere. For it to be open means being general enough that everybody can get behind it, whether they’re theists, non-theists, or atheists. That way they can choose to interpret it as they like and plug in their beliefs as fits. Hopefully, nobody feels compelled or coerced to sign on to something they don’t believe in. The trick is keeping such a prayer sincere—using it to actually say something, ask something, bless something while still remaining open. This is the direction I chose to go and came out with something like this: “We are so thankful for what we have here—thankful for family, for friends, for this community gathered here and for this food that we have brought. May we be blessed in sharing this food together, and may we be blessed by it so that we in turn may be a blessing for those who do not have family, friends, and food. Amen.” Not perfect, but it seemed to do the trick.

At dinner I found myself next to the fellow I didn’t know. We introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about where he lived. The discussion from across the table turned to the Arab Spring and to the tension between a democratic process and the rise of Islamicist political parties. The neighbor across the table asked me what I thought about all of it, and I began pontificating about the Enlightenment and the rise of Humanism as an important part of the process that prepared the West for a non-theocratic democratic process, the religious processes involved, and the degree to which that has or hasn’t happened in the Muslim world. I got an unusual look from the guy next to me and he said, “What is it that you do?” I replied that I worked with computers but that I had some degrees in religion and my wife was an Episcopal priest. The neighbor across the table said that I was a medievalist too and that talking religion with me was interesting because I was informed on things.

It was a moment. It was an opportunity to be available for someone with questions. Then my timer went off—I had to run around the corner to our house and check the progress of M’s pumpkin pie. I dutifully excused myself and the moment passed. When I came back something else was being discussed and religion didn’t come up again.
Was the interaction a waste? No—I don’t think so. I’ve decided that when I talk about my faith, the goal isn’t a conversion or full agreement or for the other person to embrace my convictions. Rather, it’s an opportunity to (hopefully) show that regular, normal people are also people of faith—that the tendency to stereotype or caricature “believers” isn’t true to reality. Too, I never know if it might provide an opportunity for a thoughtful discussion with him at some other time—or for him to have a similar discussion with some other person. If the goal is a “result” then I fear that we skew the process, moving towards a premature result, and push for something we don’t need. If the goal is share ourselves, than that happens much more easily and naturally.

Later in the evening, a few of us guys were standing around with drinks. I have no idea how we got into it, but P, my mostly lapsed Catholic neighbor, brought up the novena to St. Jude (patron saint of desperate and lost causes). “It works—it really works!” he insisted. “In the few times that I’ve really needed something, and I’ve gone and done it, it did happen!” A, the immigrant father, asked if he went to church a lot. P replied that he’d been some recently but that mostly it had just been funerals and weddings before. A said that he had also been raised Catholic but didn’t attend any more.

P said, “My dad wasn’t religious either until he was in the war. Like they say—there are no atheists in foxholes. He made a deal with God in the Argonne forest that if he got out of there, he’d go to church every Sunday. I wouldn’t say he was a religious person, but he was in church every Sunday. And he made all 7 of us come along with him. I went for a while but, you know—I like Bill Maher and saw Religulous, and a lot of it does just seem like superstition. But, you know…” C, the underemployed rehabber, was nodding along at the “superstition” part.

A chimed in that he didn’t go much but found that it sometimes helped him cope with things.

I felt that I had to say something—but what?

I said, “Well, yeah, there’s no doubt that there’s sometimes superstition mixed into religion. I see it as a continuum, though. There’s superstition, and there’s magic, and there’s religion. And sometimes they shade into one another. I think that anytime that we get too focused on God as the big vending machine in the sky, then we’re kind of heading towards the superstition direction. And yet, I still think that there’s religion for religion’s sake that’s different from superstition.”

P looked at me with curiosity: “I’m not really sure I know what you mean… What is that, religion for religion’s sake?” A and C looked at me expectantly.

Here it was—my moment. Time to refute Bill Maher and the New Atheists and to repair decades of off-putting religious experience with a coherent thirty-second sound bite… No pressure.

“Umm…” I eloquently began. Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God flashed into my head. There’s an argument Bernard makes in there about how we grow to love God for God’s sake—rather than for the vending machine model—that I thought needed to be a part of my response. Something that communicated that there was a deeper and more profound way of understanding faith and being religious than asking for stuff then going along with it if the stuff was forthcoming. Then Evelyn Underhill’s Practical Mysticism flashed in. I admire the way that she opens that book. She makes a totally non-theistic argument about reality and about how as humans we are disconnected from it and that the point of mysticism and earnest religious practice is to reconnect with reality. Of course, she ultimately finds it in the Triune God, but she is able to present her argument in such a way that leaves her work open and accessible to seekers no matter what their faith stance. That was followed by James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

“Well,” I finally said, “I’d say that religion for religion’s sake is about getting connected in to Ultimate Reality. It’s about plugging into something that’s bigger and deeper than myself and my own ideas and wants, and engaging with what’s really real. And that you know that you’ve gotten to it when that connection with Ultimate Reality makes you starting caring more about other people—that plugging into it makes you see the needs around you and help out.”

P slowly nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. Like sometimes when I’m at the novena to St. Jude and I look around and see people who really are desperate and I say to myself, ‘I’m getting all worked up about my pilot’s license or my reputation? Really? These people are dealing with something way bigger than that—it makes my problems seem kind of petty…’”

I then told a story about M’s day—their food bank had given away over one hundred turkey dinners for Thanksgiving on Monday, but when M arrived at the parish there had been a line of people waiting to see if anything was left. She’d had to turn them away because the whole food pantry had been wiped out. One person in particular was there—a fellow who was a regular recipient who had seven mouths to feed, had just gotten out of the hospital, and whose car had recently broken down. Having the relationship, knowing his story, M knew that the parish was his only hope for a Thanksgiving at all. With a couple of phone calls, parishioners arrived fresh from the grocery store with arms full of supplies. “Now that’s religion for religion’s sake,” I said, “Something that really makes a difference.”

I wanted to say something about how we come into the world with nothing and we go back out with nothing and that what really matters is how we treat people along the way—but I couldn’t figure out how to word it right.

At that point, the discussion turned somewhere else. Was my answer satisfactory? Was it good enough? I’ll never know. But what I hope I did was to give them something to think about. For me, being religious isn’t about voting a party line, or about believing six impossible things before breakfast, or about judging people who don’t spend Sunday morning the way I do. And I hope I shared a sense of that.

I don’t believe in one-encounter evangelism. I just don’t think it works that way. Maybe sometimes—rarely—but I feel it’s more important to take a longer term approach. I hang out with my friends and neighbors. I call it like I see it. And if my faith makes me see something a certain way, I’ll let that be known. And if that leads me to an opportunity to invite them to church with me, I’ll take it. For me, that’s authentic Episcopal evangelism. It’s not coercive, it’s not manipulative, it’s a way of inviting people to experience something that I’ve found helpful and important in my life.
Now—what about you?

I know that there are better answers than the ones I gave. I know that there are common situations that we find ourselves in. How do you answer? What do you do? How do you share yourself and your story that will help people give the Gospel, the faith, the Episcopal Church, a second look?

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves as Theologian-in-Residence at Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as the Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc

Speaking Faithfully: Telling a story people hunger to hear

The following is an excerpt from Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World by Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton from Morehouse Publishing.

By Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton

Despite the examples of Jesus and Paul, or, for that matter John Wesley, Billy Sunday, or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the church has been agonizingly slow to realize that communications is a ministry in its own right, not simply a support for “real” ministry. When parishes, dioceses, and churches are economizing, they will often cut communications budgets first. Parishes that would never dream of having a volunteer organist are happy to turn their communications ministry over to volunteers with no background in communications, and no opportunity to receive training.

Any number of church leaders will tell you that they did not establish an online presence because they were too busy building the church or feeding the hungry or visiting the sick—as though somehow learning to speak about these things in a way that gets others involved detracts from and is less sacred than these activities. But it is not a small thing to be able to put the word of God and the activities of God’s people in front of people. The printing press helped make the Reformation possible. The radio supported the growth of the vast network of nondenominational megachurches across the country. We probably don’t need to tell you that certain evangelists have built careers and fortunes from broadcasting their sermons on television.

People have always been eager to tell the story of God in their own times. We see this in the ways that the image of Jesus has been placed in settings and cultures across two millennia—note how Italian Renaissance paintings set the nativity in the palaces of burghers—and in the ways prayers are written to express timeless truths to people far removed from first-century Palestine and possibly unversed in the traditions of the Western Church.

Back in the sixteenth century, having the Bible in your own language was thought to be such a dangerous thing that Thomas More wanted to kill William Tyndale for making it possible. Having the liturgy in one’s own language was a cause of great celebration for Roman Catholics after the Second Vatican Council. It is easy for us to appreciate when the word of God is made accessible to a culture we consider exotic.

Think of the words of the Masai Creed:

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We can see that this is poetry, and that it is a skillful and devout attempt to reach new audiences and to articulate the distinctive way they understand the Christian faith. We understand the necessity of expressing Christianity in a way that speaks to the Masai, but too often we do not grasp the importance of expressing Christianity in a way that speaks to twenty-first-century Americans. …

Jesus said that no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15), but Jesus had never met any Episcopalians or other mainline Christians. As a rule, we have been reluctant to call attention to ourselves. We are more comfortable being the church invisible, the church inoffensive, the church optional, and the church afraid of being associated with intolerant and heavy-handed people who are also Christian.

We need to get over this, but we won’t do that by illuminating the interiors of bushel baskets. We won’t do it by speaking in inoffensive generalities about kindness and politeness. Nor will we do it by announcing that we’re having a potluck supper.

Rather, what is required of us are compelling accounts of what our faith means to us, clear explanations of the nature of our spiritual experiences, descriptions of our church communities as places where people are committed to working for justice and peace, and stories about the ways that God has changed our lives and the lives of people we know. These can be hard stories to tell, and hard institutional communications to produce for people who sometimes hold inoffensiveness as a high virtue. But it is possible that the future of our churches depend upon it.

Even the word “evangelism” makes some people feel uncomfortable. We have worked with church communicators who argued hard and successfully 
against our efforts to include information about what Episcopalians believe and how they 
worship on their website. They
 were happy to have it conveyed 
on parish sites, or on the website 
of the Episcopal Church. They 
just didn’t want it on their site. 
We think this is symptomatic of 
the fear and unease that what
 people sometimes refer to as the “E word” arouses.

The Most Reverend Frank Griswold, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, once said that the Episcopal Church’s approach to evangelism was similar to setting an aquarium on the shore of the ocean and waiting for fish to jump in. That doesn’t work in an age in which churchgoing is no longer socially normative. We live increasingly in an on-demand world where activities that once required us to be in a specific place at a specific time (television shows, movies) can be indulged on our own schedule. We live in a culture in which youth soccer and other sports compete for the affection of our children, and there is no longer a taboo against holding those activities on Sunday mornings. Fear-based motivations for attending church (to avoid going to hell or being seen as an outcast by one’s neighbors) have lost their force, and people who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” look to Oprah as a spiritual guide, to therapists for moral direction, and to book clubs and cycling groups for their sense of community.

Churches are up against all of those competing forces. Too often we respond by retreating to the comfortable place in which we communicate primarily, even exclusively, with our own members. Take a look at a few church websites. Which ones seem more like they belong on an intranet than on the Internet? How many take a “member services” approach to communications aimed at making it convenient for those already in the church to find the information they need quickly and then be on their way? This doesn’t make much sense as a web strategy. Your highly motivated regular visitors are already deeply familiar with your site. They do not need primary homepage real estate to draw them into the church, and after a visit or two they are going to know how to find what they need. Instead, the homepage of a church website is for the stranger who needs the real welcome, and who wants a deeper understanding of what the church is about.

We have not yet awakened from the dream of a time when aspiring to mainline Protestantism was part of rising into the middle class, and coffee hour was an extension of Saturday night at the club or Sunday afternoon on the golf course. We have not yet adjusted to the fact that the world, in many places, has passed us by, or that to catch up we have to tell a story that shows we have been meeting God and living lives of genuine faith all the while.

Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton are the principles of Canticle Communications. Naughton is editor of Episcopal Cafe. Speaking Faithfully is available through Cokesbury and Amazon.

In sure and certain hope

by Maria L. Evans

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister N., and we commit his/her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him/her and keep him/her, the Lord make his face to shine upon him/her and be gracious to him/her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him/her and give him/ner peace. Amen. --from Burial, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, p. 501

It's not every day one bumps into someone who actually plans on being cryogenically frozen, but at the very least this story I recently saw in the local college newspaper brings up interesting musings.

At one level, I totally get why a college-aged person with an inoperable brain tumor might choose such a thing. The overall sense of "unfairness" of a life not fully lived is quite palpable in her story. It's something I would not choose at this point in my life, but I don't really know what I'd have considered at her age. I also suspect as our society becomes more and more non-theistic, people will choose hope in a different sort of resurrection. If anything, it underscores the fact that it's human nature to hope in something. I applaud her for having hope in something, actually.

What it does remind me of, however, are those two decades I mostly hid from a relationship with God through community. I suppose one could say many of us who walk away from that thing we call "the church"and return...well, in a way, we chose to be cryogenically frozen. When I walked away from organized religion in the early 1980's, my recollection is I did not walk away from God. I could just no longer deal with the growing pain of other people's notions of a God where I was never enough, and I had all these things wrong with me. When I tried to change them to suit those people (or this God I was not sure about,) it felt disingenuous, and filled me a nagging sense that something was just not right in their assessment of God. I wanted--really wanted--to be obedient to God as I (barely) understood God, but it just seemed impossible to the point I was almost moribund. So I put myself into suspended animation. Coming back into a church community really did feel like a re-awakening, with the antifreeze in my vasculature slowly being replaced with my blood mixed with the Blood of Christ. My heart seemed to go from barely beating back into normal sinus rhythm.

When I think back on those times, those times when thoughts of God were few and far between, it really didn't feel that awful living that way. I felt fine most of the time as I was living it. But now, with the me that I am presently, I recognize that in some places there was a boredom that I no longer have, as well as a longing of sorts, to fill this blank spot in my soul that I had no clue could actually be filled. I didn't know it at the time, but I was living in a sure and certain hope of resurrection.

I also think my return to church must have been incredibly labor-intensive for some of the people around me, particularly my one friend who pestered me for over five years to join her at church. Even upon my return, when every step closer to God filled me with a sense of "Ok, when's the other shoe going to drop? When are these people going to tell me there's something wrong with me?" I'm sure I was quite annoying to those around me.

Believe me, life in a church community is not Shangri-La. There have been things that have happened in my parish and in the church at large that I don't think anyone would have blamed me if I walked. It would be understandable. Some days have even been the antithesis of Shangri-La. But I can no longer imagine living my life in suspended animation. I think I'd rather live in this more fully alive state that I'm in, crap and all (and yes, there IS crap living in community with other Christians, I'd be rather suspicious of anyone who says there isn't) with the understanding I have now already lived out parts of that sure and certain hope of resurrection, and there is more to come. The blood coursing through my veins feels much warmer these days, and I would not trade that for anything.

A lot of press-inches have been given lately to that group we call "the religious 'nones'," or the "SNBR's" (Spiritual But Not Religious,) and much of the popular progressive religious press says we shouldn't worry about them, they seldom return to church, that evangelism is more or less wasted on them. There have even been a few studies, with data. We fret over the lack of 20 and 30somethings in church, grumble about the aging boomers clogging things up, even use phrases like the "death tsunami" to describe what's in store for the mainline churches in the next decade, as the silent generation and the elder boomers drop off the map of the living.

Are we really sure about all those declarations of death? Or are we dealing with massive numbers of people who are in a spiritually cryogenic state, who will remain so unless the rest of us who are being re-animated become more fully alive?

Could it be that there are people out there who live in a sure and certain hope of resurrection, and display it all the time in a non-theistic way, but they are simply unaware that it involves God? How does it call us to be more fully alive in the world, and in that sure and certain hope, ourselves?


Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

On inclusion

by Gawain de Leeuw

I have a problem with the word “inclusive.” When people announce “We’re an inclusive church,” or I see signs that say, “Everybody’s welcome,” I cringe. Because chances are I won’t go to that church. And it’s not because I don’t like everybody, or try.

But these phrases for me are like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It’s not because announcements of inclusivity are inaccurate. I don’t mind the hypocrisy of churches that won’t expand their musical repertoire or disparage the attractive techniques of megachurches. What we mean by “inclusive” is specific: we have lesbian, bisexual, gay and a few transgender people who take positions of authority in our congregations. But I doubt we’re that inclusive until we have Sam Cooke or Gloria Gaynor in the hymnal.

I’m not unsympathetic. After all, inclusivity reflects the sentiment, “We’re not like those awful evangelicals and Roman Catholics.” We can now dine in polite society and hang with the professional, educated class. We can now be done explaining that we’re not like the bigots on the other side.

But once we’ve patted ourselves on the back, enjoyed our being inclusive, we still have work to do. Because declaring our “inclusivity” will not strengthen our church or make us more appealing. It’s lovely theater, and plausible marketing. But it’s just the beginning.

Inclusivity conveys nothing of value except being inclusive. It’s like advertising “free stuff” for the taking. But what is free can often seem worthless. What we offer for nothing can strike the outside as cheap. If everyone can have it, perhaps it’s not particularly valuable. For if we’re busy saying we’re an open place, with open doors and open minds, and it does not seem appealing, perhaps we’re focusing on the wrong issue.

I suggest two confusions.

First of all, inclusivity is not the same as hospitality. Hospitality requires intentionality and resources. We can talk about inclusivity all we want, but if we aren’t curious about others our inclusivity is insincere. If our communities aren’t willing to do the careful work of making people at home, making them feel loved, we’re not as inclusive as we’d like to be. And this is a delicate dance. There’s a difference between hospitality and desperation.

Secondly, inclusivity is passive. Being inclusive does not mean we will learn the primary, fundamental task of the institutional church: building relationships. That means not merely opening up our doors with the “inclusive” banner, but going out into the world. Our open door policy might be about letting us out, rather than ushering people in.

My issues is not about the sentiment. I love the sentiment. I like having a diverse congregation with a wide variety of backgrounds. I like that we have a church that assumes that any person who enters has a place at the table. But pronouncing inclusivity is one thing. Demonstrating that our shared life has value is another.


The Rev. Dr. Gawain de Leeuw is a priest at St Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in White Plains, NY. He blogs at The Divine Latitude.

Rally and Get Out There! Woof Woof, Meow!

by Carol Barnwell

It's that time again. I know it's more than a week before October 4 but pet blessings are right around the corner and I want you to be prepared. This is a major evangelism opportunity if you do it right.

We have lots of things we already do as Church but we don't always use them to our best advantage. Think about the explosion of dog parks in recent years. We even have a dog park/pub in Houston, the Bone Yard, where you can have a beer and play catch with one of 60 canines of varying sizes and shapes.

Here's the how to:

Locate a photographer in your congregation to offer pet portraits at your pet blessing, put them on Flikr and let people order their own copies-simply provide the service. You could even have the Sunday school kids paint a backdrop on a $10 painter's canvas from the local hardware store.

Invite the animal shelter to bring a mobile adoption unit to your campus the afternoon of your pet blessing. Ask your members to donate dog food for the shelter and have a bake sale of dog biscuits at the pet blessing benefitting the shelter. There are thousands of recipes online and this gives everyone in your congregation buy in for the event.

Dip into your evangelism dollars and underwrite $10 rabies vaccinations from a local vet (who might even be a member of your congregation) and offer these at your pet blessing.

Serve holy hot dogs and hush puppies! Have a drawing for a new dog bed. Print up blessing certificates with the St. Francis Prayer and your website on them for everyone.

Be sure to let the local news station and paper know about all this in plenty of time for them to write a story and make sure it's on your Facebook page. Tell your members to share the information with their Facebook friends. Take out an ad on Facebook. (Trinity, The Woodlands, TX did this and had a 20% increase in ASA for their "Blessing of the Backpacks" on August 26! The ad cost them $107.00)

Don't forget to have a few members who can answer questions about the Church or provide a quick tour. Have some information on your services and programs available and make everyone WELCOME!

Then you can start planning for Epiphany and making sure you reserve a tree shredder to make all those noble firs into mulch (instead of burning the greens). Believe it or not, you can get bags printed with your name and website here. But plan early and let people know beginning right after Thanksgiving.

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

Carol E. Barnwell, communication director of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, is an award winning photographer, writer and producer, and editor of the quarterly magazine, Diolog: Texas Episcopalian. She has served on the press teams of four General Conventions and the Lambeth Conference, and has covered numerous international stories

On being left-handed

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his
disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith,
that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives
and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

--Collect for Wednesday of Easter Week, Book of Common Prayer, p. 223

Although Easter Week still seems light years away, I had a recent experience with my contractors that brought this collect to mind, and opened my eyes about the way we open doors to behold the glories of God's realm.

I have spent the last ten months of my life living in the middle of a major remodeling project that can best be described as happening in fits and starts, mostly because I'm trying to keep it as a "Pay as you go" process. One of the surest marks of middle age is probably best expressed in the fact that the room I most desire to be perfect is the master bathroom. (I think when one cares more about the bathroom than the living room, kitchen, and yes, the bedroom, it's a sure fire sign one has moved into the second half of one's life.) I came home to discover that the contractors had installed the shower stall door with no consideration of my "minority status."

You see, I'm left-handed.

The door handle on the shower stall was as far right as it could be, with the splash panel on the left. A left-hander opening it would have to turn right 90 degrees, facing the wall, open the door, walk around the door, avoiding the linen cabinet, while turning 180 degrees back to the left--and then would be facing backwards in the stall.

Right-handers have no idea how many things we southpaws have to adjust to in the world. (Try fanning playing cards in the natural direction left-handers would to hold a hand of cards, and see how many of the numbers in the corner show up. Pull the handle on the footrest of your recliner. Use a potato peeler in your left hand. Let me know how that works out for you.) Mostly, we grin and bear it. We learn to do some things with our right hand. We turn things upside down. We crook our hands like a "U" to see what we are writing and write more or less upside down. Sure, there are many left-handed implements out there, but they are not always available everywhere we go, and they are useless if we want to share a task with a righty.

We even have to endure a form of language discrimination that will probably be with us for millennia. The word sinister is derived from sinistral, from the Latin sinus, or pocket. Roman togas had their pocket on the left, the open flap tilted so one got in the pocket by reaching with the right hand in a "cross draw" fashion to retrieve the contents of the pocket. Hence, the left side became the "sinful" side. In many cultures, the right hand is used for eating and the left for butt-wiping, so that eating with the left hand becomes a gross insult to the host or cook. Even the language of the Bible, and Jesus' parables themselves, put the good things on the right and the wicked things on the left. In my grouchiest moments, I sometimes feel even Jesus stacked the deck against me.

As I stood there, fuming, recalling the amount this shower stall cost me, I also recognized I was not the only misaligned group that would have trouble with this configuration. Folks on the more portly side of life would probably not be appreciative, if they were house guests, doing contortionist moves in my bathroom. I knew that I would have to have a word with my contractors (after I finished snarling and stamping my feet.) When I caught up with them the next day, I explained (more calmly,) "You know, I really would like this so anyone who used my shower would find opening this door reasonably okay. There are so many things about this bathroom that are perfectly glorious, but when the first thing I do--open the shower door--hacks me off--it kind of ruins the rest of the experience, you know?"

The following Sunday, in church, as I looked at the Prayer Book, and the Hymnal, and the bulletin, I got to thinking about how visitors shuffle and fidget these items nervously while we the faithful, sometimes obliviously sing or speak on. I thought about how so many of our historic churches are small, with no sound system, and have no means to assist the hard of hearing. I thought about how I've never seen large print items in most of our churches I've attended. (They may well have some, but they are not usually where they are obvious, when I enter.) That can't be a very endearing first look at an Episcopal church for a first-time visitor.

I found myself grateful that we recently began seriously examining the first steps in hospitality and accessibility--both physical and spiritual--in my home parish, but the shower door incident really brought home to me how important these seemingly insignificant and invisible touches were, and how there is much to do for all of us.

Sometimes, the first look at an Episcopal church doesn't even involve church. Perhaps it's the Twelve Step group that meets in the undercroft, or the Scout troop, or the quilting group. How often do we leave the tools of quiet evangelism in plain sight--flyers and friendly tracts--in the undercroft, as well as the sanctuary? How effectively do we use the internet and social networking as another form of invitation?

The Shower Door Incident also reminded me that I hardly ever think about being left-handed unless something comes up that reminds me that I am NOT right-handed--and then my initial response is to feel put out at some level, maybe even angry. It reminded me of the various other forms of "minority" in my community--not just ethnic, racial, and gender orientation, but also the single, the special needs community, the wounded, the lonely, the recently incarcerated, those in recovery, and the displaced. If grappling over a shower door can make me feel excluded, in what ways am I unaware of how my community and I are making others inadvertently feel excluded? How is that projecting to others that God is excluding them?

Opening the eyes of our faith can be painful. It sometimes reveals glimpses of things about ourselves we'd rather not address. Yet one of the recurring themes of the Good News in Christ is that the God that calls us again and again to return is also the God of do-overs--and that our open eyes of faith have the power to open doors for others to view the glories of Heaven on earth.


Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Will you invite someone to church?

by Robert Warren Cromey

Spiritual and formerly religious people are the church’s best bet for new members and growth.

Many people today proclaim that they are spiritual but not religious. Others attend church from time to time and struggle with concepts of God, spirit, the Bible, Jesus, homosexuality, abortion, church and traditional beliefs in general. Some attended church as children and left after confirmation or when their family moved to another town, city, state or country. A remarkable number of young people today have never been to a church even for a wedding or funeral much less Sunday School or worship. Yet some say they are spiritual. I believe them.

SBNR equals I’m “Spiritual but not Religious.” When people are asked what they mean by being spiritual, the answers include:

I have a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of God as transcendent.
I want a sense of holiness and the divine in my life.
I want more love and forgiveness in my life.
We should have a better world. Food for the starving, homes for the homeless and justice for all.
I want a sense of family and community in my life.
I pray meditate, do yoga and appreciate nature.
I want peace in the world.

One of the biggest obstacles to joining a church is helping unlearn what people have learned in conservative, fundamentalist or Roman Catholic churches. They now call these teachings into question. The Bible is the big one. How could anyone believe in the Bible when it taught the world was created in seven days? Mary was a virgin and Jesus’ body was alive after he died? What does the word of God mean?

One woman said in frustration to her priest, “Just tell me what to believe.”

The priest replied, “I can’t do that, Linda. I can give you a way to look at what the churches have taught down through the centuries, then you have to decide what you believe.”

She said, “I don’t think I can do that.”

The priest said. “I see my religious belief as a work in progress. It has changed and developed over the years. It probably will refine as I get older. Belief is a journey.”

Linda joined the church, seeing it as a community of seekers.

Linda is like many people who have a sense that life is more than money, marriage, babies and accumulating. It was a vague awareness that her life’s meaning and purpose lay beyond the traditional values she had been taught in her fundamentalist church. She was taught about God, the Bible and Jesus. But it wasn’t enough. Her church gave her all the answers but did not minister to her spiritual needs. Her church also did not nurture her intellectual development and did not respond to the questions she asked about the meaning of the Bible, worship and sexuality.

At San Francisco Airport recently I got talking with a woman in her early thirties, a journalist, unmarried and pregnant. She said she was one of a growing new group Americans. She believed in some power above and beyond herself and this world. As a journalist she was most interested in the environment and thus she had a spiritual as well as political concern for the environment. Since she was pregnant she was aware of the mystical and awesome process of having a baby. She believed in love and concern for others. But she has always been skeptical of everything and did not like dogma handed down to her. Her family is Syrian Orthodox. We did not talk about that, but I assume that church has long boring liturgies in a foreign tongue. The doctrines and dogmas are set for her to believe without question.

The recovering fundamentalists and Roman Catholics and the SBNRs, those who say they are spiritual and not religious, are the seeking, searching people to whom our churches may look for new members.


The Rev. Robert Warren Cromey is a priest of the Episcopal Church, retired and living in San Francisco.

Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?

By George Clifford

Ample evidence of the continuing numerical decline in The Episcopal Church (TEC) is widely available. The recent report, Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey, provides the latest documentation:

• Over half (52%) of all Episcopal congregations are in communities of 50,000 or fewer people and another 8% are in rural areas, a cause for concern given the steadily increasing urbanization of the U.S. population.
• The median age of Episcopalians is 57; fewer and fewer young people identify with TEC.
• Unless the median age drops significantly (or life expectancy increases very rapidly!), half of all Episcopalians will die in the next 18 years.
• Only 3.1% of Episcopal congregations have an average Sunday attendance of 351 or greater; these large congregations are more likely to grow than are smaller ones.

The picture is deeply depressing for people who value TEC. Median attendance in Episcopal congregations was 66 in 2009, 72 in 2006, and 77 in 2003 (Episcopal Café: Numbers worth watching). If that rate of decline continues (i.e., median attendance declining by 5 people every 3 years), in 15 years the median attendance will be 31 and in 30 years attendance will average just 6 people on a Sunday per congregation.

Having once taught college statistics, I know that projecting a linear decline over the next 30 years based on three data points relies upon an indefensible methodology. However, the projection underscores the dire future confronting TEC. Although some Episcopal congregations are growing, and a handful of dioceses have experienced some growth, the preponderance of the evidence clearly points to the inevitability of continuing denominational decline if not demise.

This decline constitutes an existential threat to TEC. Unless TEC reverses the decline, TEC will soon become a remnant numbering in the tens of thousands. When that happens, the media will not care, and few non-Episcopalians will even notice, what the Episcopal Church says or does. TEC will no longer be a vital incarnation of God's love in Christ. Instead, TEC will have gone from being the established church in several eighteenth century American colonies and states to being a twenty-first century anachronism.

In my hometown, the Grange has made a similar transition. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Grange was a vibrant, influential organization that enriched the lives of its members and celebrated, supported, and defended an agrarian lifestyle and economy. Today, that agrarian economy and its associated lifestyle are long gone. The Grange Hall sits empty, maintained by a handful of elderly members who find satisfaction in each other’s companionship and in caring for the building.

Although I hope that no Episcopalian wants such a future for TEC, the denomination’s current trajectory seems inexorably headed toward an elderly and (hopefully!) companionable remnant preserving underutilized buildings as monuments to once vital ministries and missions.

Contrary to some pessimists, I do not believe that the current trajectory and prospective fate of TEC are irreversible. Change is possible. Even as a small rudder can steer a mighty ship, so can visionary leadership steer an organization. Adding the momentum of committed people and well-utilized resources to that vision will accelerate the speed of organizational transformation.

Visionary leadership begins with a simple question: What is our agenda? That question integrates vision (who we are) and mission (what we do) into an action-oriented proposition. An agenda that addresses the root causes of numerical decline may enable TEC to alter course. An agenda that fails to address fifty years of relentless numerical decline in TEC is tantamount to acceding to the denomination’s passing from influence and presence on the American scene.

Current TEC agenda items include developing rites for blessing same sex relationships, publishing a new hymnal, restoring Church buildings and ministries in Haiti and Japan in the wake of disasters, and resolving a host of governance issues, not the least of which is the proposed Anglican Covenant. Those are important issues. Some of them evoke passionate responses; some of them, such as the rite for blessing same sex relationships, are long overdue. As important as any of those issues is, or others that I neglected to mention, none represents or identifies an existential threat to TEC. None of those issues, individually or collectively, will cause the demise, much less the renewal, of TEC.

What should be our agenda?

Better use of our resources is an obvious agenda item if TEC is to reverse its numerical decline. Demographic analysis quickly reveals that TEC has resource distribution problems. A majority of TEC congregations (53%) were founded before 1901. Consequently, population shifts have left many congregations with underutilized facilities in a location where the congregation is unlikely to grow. Apart from staff support, most congregations (remember the median attendance is just 66 people!) expend the largest portion of their resources on maintaining their physical facilities (19-36% of the budget, varying indirectly with average attendance – the larger the attendance, the smaller the percentage spent on facilities). Staff support represents the largest set of expenditures, averaging about 50% of a congregation’s budget. The 17% of congregations with average attendance of 1-25 persons on a Sunday, the 36% of congregations with average attendance of 26-50, and the 66% of congregations with average attendance of 51-100 that now have full-time clergy do not fully utilize this costly resource. Similarly, a disproportionate share of diocesan resources supports a small congregation (episcopal visits, deployment issues, etc.).

From an objective, statistical perspective the analysis proceeds easily. Identify congregations that waste resources based on average Sunday attendance. Then find and implement a creative alternative. Some congregations could merge, with either another TEC congregation or a congregation with whom TEC has intercommunion. Other TEC congregations could yoke together, establishing team ministries, as is increasingly happening in the Church of England. In both cases, congregations could cede surplus assets to the diocese and utilize revenues, previously expended on building maintenance and staff support, to fund mission. Dioceses, serving fewer congregations, would also have more resources for mission.

However, these are not new ideas; TEC has rarely implemented any of these ideas. The real agenda in TEC is not maximizing our participation in God's transformative activity. The real agenda, though generally unspoken and unacknowledged, is self and local congregation. Institutional and personal inertia, emotional attachments to buildings, and Churchmanship modeled on the eighteenth and nineteenth century Church of England all represent substantial barriers to change. As readily apparent from meeting agendas and budgets, congregations and their members invest themselves and their resources more in building maintenance than mission; TEC and dioceses similarly invest themselves more in institutional maintenance than mission.

I am not arguing, à la Rick Warren and The Purpose Drive Life, that the Church’s purpose is evangelism. I am passionate about making a difference in the world. I believe that the Church should incarnate God's love for the world, modeling in community the abundant new life that God wants people to enjoy and offering living water, literally and figuratively, to a world dying of thirst. TEC talks a great deal about this or a similar vision for itself. Yet we fail to incarnate that vision. In truth, we are more about maintaining the status quo than about transforming the world. A dying church unavoidably sends the opposite message. A dying church dissipates its precious resources in a losing campaign to maintain an increasingly lifeless institution.

Yet, we in TEC have some cause for hope. The Episcopal congregations most likely to have experienced numerical growth in the past decade are large and very liberal congregations, according to the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey. A Church committed to ongoing renewal, a Church that seeks to live ever more fully into love for God and others, and a Church that recognizes that theology, worship, and resources are but earthen vessels is a Church that will become an increasingly vibrant and alive incarnation of the body of Christ. I want this future, this agenda, for TEC. I believe God wants this future, this agenda, for TEC.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

Is the church captive to its buildings?

By George Clifford

During the course of a recent weekend in the English town of Ludlow, I visited six Church of England (CofE) parish church buildings, each hundreds of years old and two more than a thousand years old. All six benefices now belong to “team ministries,” a group of churches served by a clergy team. Unlike most U.S. churches, all six facilities consist of only a worship building; none include a parish hall, offices, or education spaces; any children’s programming occurs in a corner, side aisle, or former chapel.

I attended the Sunday Family Communion service at St. Laurence in Ludlow, where I found a thriving, welcoming congregation with good music and respectable preaching. This parish, prominently located in the town center, is the principal parish for a team ministry comprised of fourteen parishes served by three full-time and numerous retired clergy. St. Laurence also has two musicians; the clergy team benefits from a full-time administrator and part-time secretary.

Another parish church, St. Mary Magdalene in Eardisley, which I visited on Sunday afternoon was exceptionally clean, tastefully decorated for their harvest festival held that morning, and appeared to host as numerous and active congregation as one might expect in a small village. Even empty, the church felt welcoming and like a place of prayer.

My other four church visits were uniformly depressing. All four buildings are still used. Two are located some distance from the nearest village, each adjacent to a large country house; two are in small villages. Although I did not attend worship in any of these four churches, none gave any sign of especial love or care. Books and pamphlets were dusty, dirty, or even moldy. Several altar hangings were decrepit. Notice boards listed the worship schedule, usually one or two Sunday services per month in each place. In two, I could find no indication of children being regularly present. Each church had distinctive architectural features; a grant from the English lottery was funding a partial renovation of one. To avoid unhelpfully shaming any of these four churches and their small, probably elderly, and definitely struggling congregations, I will not name them.

Reflecting on my six visits, I found the plight of the CofE – at least in that corner of the Diocese of Hereford, though visits to numerous other rural and urban CofE churches and two years of service as a CofE priest suggest that the these six parishes are not atypical – thought provoking. First, the CofE’s resource base does not align well with England’s current population. The CofE has too many churches located where few people live and too little money with which to fund ministry adequately in more densely populated areas.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) faces a similar problem. Shifting demographics have left TEC with too many small congregations in geographic areas in which the population is at best stable and often declining. Conversely, TEC has often failed to plant new churches, or to plant them effectively, in growing suburban and urban areas. Worship attendance, not the number of worship facilities is the objective measure of vitality in any Church.

Second, neither the CofE nor TEC exists to promote cultural or local history. God calls the Church to promote the good news of God’s love manifest in Jesus and to incarnate that love by loving others. Consequently, both the CofE and TEC should act aggressively to close small congregations. (Of course, the devil is in the details. What is “small”?) Organizations and people committed to preserving cultural or local heritage should maintain any closed church building deemed important. When a putative disciple sought leave to bury a deceased family member, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Obviously, not all members of every small congregation are spiritually dead. At least a few among the relative handful of people in each small CofE and TEC congregation quite likely lament the demanding congregational focus on building maintenance rather than a mission focused on incarnating God’s love in a broken world. (Small parishes are not alone in worshiping stone idols in lieu of the living God, but that’s another problem.)

Closing underutilized buildings emphasizes that buildings are a means to an end, not the raison d’être for the body of Christ. Those committed to Christ’s cause may feel saddened, even aggrieved, by closing a building that has many significant spiritual memories for them. But committed Christians will not abandon the Church. In England, they will travel a few miles to another parish. In the U.S., they may travel to another parish or perhaps move to a different branch of the Church. Remember, we Anglicans have never claimed to be the only branch of the vine that is Christ. In both countries, a number of new house churches may emerge, permitting healthier small congregations freed from underutilized, financially draining buildings.

Third, neither the CofE nor TEC acts as if they fully recognize the costs of operating so many small congregations. These costs, monetary and other, include:

1. Attempting, often unsuccessfully in England and struggling mightily in much of the U.S., to repair and operate aging buildings, expending funds and costly staff time on tattered vestiges of once important fabric rather than investing in people;
2. Unintentionally signaling, thereby, to the larger society that the Church values maintaining its legacy of underutilized buildings more than it values life-giving missions to hurting, dying people in underserved urban and suburban areas;
3. Dilution of focus (e.g., “small church ministry” is generally a euphemism for serving a dying congregation) rather than clarity of vision and singleness of purpose (e.g., “small church ministry” connoting planting new congregations in under-churched areas).
4. Providing members of small congregations “third-rate” worship and spiritual opportunities because these congregations generally lack the numerical and fiscal strengths to ensure high quality choral and instrumental music, excellent and diverse youth, religious education, and parish life programming, and first-rate pastoral and priestly ministry. If they had such resources, most of these small congregations would no longer be small!

I like old church buildings, both in the States and abroad. I enjoy seeing what was important for different spiritual expressions and traditions; as an amateur ecclesial architect formerly responsible for several church/chapel construction projects, art and architecture interest me. If I did not appreciate old churches, I would not visit so many of them. But as a Christian, I know that I must distinguish between pleasurable avocations and the Church’s real business of incarnating God’s love for the world.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, blogging at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

Dinner church: sit down at the table

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
Luke 30-31

By Emily Scott

You are invited to Dinner Church, our posters read, this and every Sunday. Dinner Church at St. Lydia’s. So you make your way to the corner of Avenue B and 9th Street in the East Village on a Sunday evening. It’s winter now, so you bundle up against the wind as you emerge from the bus or the subway and hurry to our door. Someone welcomes you, helps you put your coat away and gives you a nametag. And then says, “Would you like to help cook dinner in the kitchen, or help set tables upstairs?” And puts you to work.

St. Lydia’s is the just-over-a-year-old church start that I founded together with a whole bunch of friends and congregants, including my collaborator and now-colleague Rachel Pollak. If you asked us if we’re doing something experimental, I suppose we’d say yes, but we’d also say that we’re doing something incredibly traditional. Our liturgy is modeled after the Eucharist of the Early Church when Christians would gather for worship that took place around a full meal, blessed with the great-great-grandparent of our modern Eucharistic Prayer. When Paul writes to the Corinthians, hassling them to wait for each other and eat together at the Lord’s supper, he’s talking about an ancient potluck with its liturgical roots in the Sabbath Supper and Seder Meal. And this is what we do at St. Lydia’s, not because we’re liturgical purists, but because we find this ancient practice resonates sonorously in our context.

But where were we? Oh yes, you were working. Perhaps you’ve elected the kitchen, and find yourself industriously peeling a squash as directly by one of our lead cooks. We’ve found that working together helps build community, as we make worship together. Rather than seeing work as a burden to be shouldered by the unlucky or unwitting, we see work as an opportunity to participate in creating something amazing.

Around 7:00, someone hands you a casserole dish to be taken to the sanctuary, where the dinner table has been set by congregants and newcomers alike with a bright tablecloth and napkins. Someone uncorks the wine and sets out the bread. Then everyone gathers in the entryway for a prayer, a welcome, and the candle lighting. You participate in singing a simple, repeated song as we process to the sanctuary and light the candles on the table. You hum with the group as the presider (it’s Pastor Phil tonight, the pastor at our host church, Trinity Lower East Side) prays over the meal, tears off a big piece of bread and says to his neighbor, “This is my body.” A moment of silence, and everyone digs into the meal, passing wine and juice and serving dishes round the table. There’s a lively commotion as conversation sparks.

Between our core group, folks who wander in and out, and visitors, attendance at St. Lydia’s can fall anywhere between six and eighteen folks on a given Sunday night. This means that the character of our worship can change drastically from week to week. Some Sundays we’re a reflective, intimate group. Other Sundays we’re a boisterous crew singing in four part harmony. It sort of depends on who shows up. And who shows up is a source of surprise and delight. Often we’ll be joined by folks who make their home in the park across the street, or kids who were riding by on bikes, or 15 college students staying in the church on a mission trip. All are welcome at the table.

At the moment, Lydia’s has a core group of about 15 congregants. Our first gathering was at a congregant’s home in Advent, 2008. The group has shifted and changed since then, gaining members one by one. For the most part, the core group is between 25 and 35 years old. We’re tend to be fairly educated and creative: an artist, a few writers, some graduate students, a copyeditor. We have a varying degree of familiarity with church. Most of the visitors who show up at our doors have one thing in common: they are spiritually hungry. They have this sense of God at work in their lives, and they’re trying to figure out how to respond.

But back to worship.

Dinner is followed by the exploration of scripture. I preach a compact sermon and ask the group to respond from their experience. You might surprise yourself by offering a story of your own. Then the group takes hands, sings a song, and prays. After a poem is read, everyone lifts their cups as the presider blesses them, then clean up begins and you dry plates and glasses in the kitchen. The moment the dishes are done, folks crowd into the entry once again for announcements, an offering, a final song and a blessing, and after sharing the peace with your neighbors, you head back out into the night. There’s food in your belly, and perhaps even a song from the evening cycling around in your head. And a postcard in your hand. And some leftovers in the other.

We do church this way because people are hungry. People in New York have hungry bellies that may be filled with home cooked food. They have hungry souls that may be filled with holy text, holy conversation. And these hungers are sated when we sit down together to eat.

We do church this way because people want challenge. People want the challenge of sitting down next to someone, someone they don’t know, who may be entirely different from them in every way, and working, reaching, to see her as God sees her: perfectly and wonderfully made. And we are challenged when we sit down together to eat.

We do church this way because people are looking for Jesus. People are looking for Jesus and thinking that just maybe they see him, but then again maybe not. But when we sit down together and break bread, we glimpse him for a moment in one another’s eyes and say to each other, I see Christ at this table; I see him when we sit down together to eat.

Emily Scott is the founder and Pastoral Minister at St. Lydia’s , a new church start in Manhattan. She holds an M Div from Yale Divinity School and blogs at sitandeat.typepad.com. She invites you explore the St. Lydia’s website.

Welcome the doubters, but challenge them too

By Martin Smith

“Come with your doubts; you’ll find a hospitable community here wherever you are on your faith journey.” Reviewing the Web sites of Episcopal churches you often will encounter a deliberate appeal to those who have difficulties believing in some elements of the Christian faith. Certain churches proudly present themselves as havens from the demands of fundamentalist or orthodox communities. Fair enough, but is it enough to be a haven, which exists only to shelter?

A church which welcomes those who identify themselves as doubters is called to be a place of risk and venture in which the actual experience of questioning is explored with candor and even rigor. A community content to vaguely affirm people where they are and leave their issues unexamined and unchallenged would be just as spiritually inauthentic as a complacently orthodox community. A goal for any Episcopal church would be to develop tools for publicly interpreting the various meanings of doubt. It would be good if in preaching and teaching, pastoral ministry and group discussion we demonstrated skills in diagnosing a wide spectrum of experiences that come under the abstract heading of doubt. Here are some themes about doubt that I would want to see openly presented in any community where I was a member, above and beyond our normal dealing with the doubts that are simply due to misunderstandings of Christian faith.

First, there is the phenomenon of healthy developmental doubt. Human beings mature not by seamless progression but by passing through discrete stages. At each stage we make meaning in a certain way. Sooner or later our ways of making meaning come under stress, turning out to be inadequate to challenges of which we have become newly aware. We experience disintegration. And then a new more adequate or comprehensive way of thinking and believing emerges from the confusion. Doubt is an essential solvent in the process of extricating ourselves from a previous stage of faith. Where would we be without this kind of doubting?

It is the Spirit working with our spirit to clear the ground for new construction. We should always be ready to recognize developmental doubt with empathy. Paul speaks about “putting away childish things,” which we all need to do not only on the threshold of adulthood but several times more in our life-cycle. Rather than repressing developmental doubt we should provide a holding environment for it, letting neither the caustic agnosticism of our 12-year old, nor our mother’s ‘crisis of faith’ in her early 60s scandalize us. We should not panic when the bottom falls out of a certain way of being religious, and we are thrown into doubt. Our churches at their best provide the holding environment for our maturational crises.

Then there is doubt as visitation, a kind of spiritual crisis that comes as a bolt from the blue to jolt us through sudden deprivation into realizing that faith is not the same as believing religious stuff that we are supposed to take for granted. Faith is precarious. Faith is a vulnerable gift. Real belief is something to be “worked out in fear and trembling” and sometimes it takes an eclipse to awaken us to what it really means to be a believer.

There is mystical doubt, which in its acutest form contemplative teachers call the dark night of the soul. In this experience a believer is put through the test of losing her foothold in any and all religious imagery, entering a wilderness of nothing. I remember the spiritual director I had in my early 20s, a truly holy priest who had been a beloved missionary in India for four decades, telling me that once during that time he entirely lost his faith in God for almost two years, and had stumbled on with his life as a priest, praying in total spiritual darkness, blindly trusting he knew not what.

Then there are entirely different kinds of doubt, which instead of serving faith, are defense mechanisms against it. So in our congregations there are those who rely on doubt for keeping Christ at bay. We need to get better at detecting the emotional dynamic that is frequently at work under doubts that are often presented as purely rational problems or even badges of sophistication. There are those whose doubts about the resurrection, doubts about the real presence, doubts about Christ, function as rationalizations for a basic dread of intimacy with the divine. In these cases intellectual agnosticism shields one from the possibility that Christ might actually touch or enter us, making us utterly vulnerable to being loved, moved, led and changed. It is good to keep on setting out good arguments for the truth of basic Christian doctrines, but they won’t be effective unless we recognize the emotional dynamic of fear and resistance that may well be fuelling a person’s unbelief as they take up our offer of hospitality and inclusiveness.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

Refraining from Invitation: Evangelism in Context

By Emily M. D. Scott

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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."

Matthew 28:16-20


Graduating from Divinity School, some friends and I had the bright idea to spell out the word “R-E-P-E-N-T” on the top of our mortar boards. Assembled together (and in the right order!) we poked fun at a stereotype of Christians: the crazed evangelist on the city street corner, wearing his sandwich board and waving his leaflets. Though our act was lighthearted, it pointed out our own discomfort with our religious tradition. We’re not those people, we were saying. And we have enough distance from them that we can make fun of them.

After the street corner-sandwich board image, when I think of “evangelist,” I see John the Baptist staggering from the wilderness in his wild and wooly state, warning the people of Israel to prepare the way. My third connotation with the word is that of the earnest Christian, usually more theologically and politically conservative than me, who speaks in a heartfelt way of the love of Jesus, and warmly invites me to his church. I appreciate his generous desire to bring me into the fold, but, to be honest, am often suspicious of his invitation. His freshly shaven face, crisp shirt and relentlessly cheerful demeanor causes me to wonder if the whole of who I am would be embraced at his church Sunday morning: my sarcasm, my doubt, my ambition, my irreverence. Politics and theology aside, I suspect that he will soon ask me to give up some part of myself (and the culture I both embrace and confront) to be “good.”

I live in New York City and I’m 28 years old. The people I meet at bars or at parties are artists, musicians, designers, and writers. Often, they seem to physically take a step back from me when I tell them I work at a church. Their heads tilt slightly to the side and their brows furrow in suspicion as they try to figure out if I’m suddenly going to spring some Jesus speech on them. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting to see if I’m just pretending to be a normal human being and if I’m actually here in this bar for some other reason. I’ve learned how to get through these uncomfortable moments with as much ease as possible, explaining quickly that my church is progressive. Often I’ll laughingly say, “But don’t worry, I’m not creepy.” I may be laughing, but I’m not actually joking. For some of the folks I talk to, the disconnect is not easily overcome. They look shocked when I swear or make crass jokes. They seem to think they need to be careful or delicate around me and avoid talking about sex. We could write volumes on the theological implications of this response – the ways in which Christians have come to see themselves as needing to be in some way protected from the realities of the secular world. Reading of Jesus sitting down to eat with prostitutes and tax collectors, I wonder that people should be so shocked to meet a church goer at a bar on the Lower East Side. But this seems to be the expectation. The people I meet seem to think that they need to be “good” when they’re around me … when all I want them to be is honest. Honest, and figuring things out.

And so the question becomes: what does it mean to be an evangelist in our current cultural context? When the simple act of inviting someone to church can be so easily seen as a judgmental deceit, an aggressive attack or a desire to co-opt, how do we live our lives as evangelists, sharing the Good News with all people?

I’m the founder of a congregation in New York City called St. Lydia’s. We’re in the very beginning stages of this thing, and I don’t know that it will be successful. I only know that God is calling me to do this, and I’ve decided to listen. Along the way, I’ve learned something important things about evangelism: in a bar on the Lower East Side in New York City, the most powerful tool of evangelism is not inviting someone to church. In a bar on the Lower East Side of New York City, good evangelism does not have to be about preaching, proclaiming, pamphletting, or proselytizing. It is about relationships.

Return in your mind to that bar stool where I sit talking with some pour soul who doesn’t realize I’m a Christian. He asks me what I do. I drop the bomb. He looks at me suspiciously. I tell him my church is very progressive. I don’t invite him to church. He says, “So you don’t hate gay people?” I say no. I love gay people. I don’t invite him to church. He asks me what it means to be a liturgist. I tell him it’s like being a director and dramaturg in the theatre, but everyone gets to participate. I don’t invite him to church. We get started talking about theatre. I don’t invite him to church.

You get the idea. And though this is a caricature of an interaction I might have on a Friday night, like a caricature, it is an exaggeration of the truth.

What happens next on that bar stool is key to reworking our understanding of evangelism.

1. We wrap up our conversation and go our separate ways. My new friend has a new (and positive) impression of at least one Christian, which, in and of itself, is a work of the Spirit. 2. We wrap up our conversation, but run into each other again – even become friends. Somewhere along the line, my new friend and I start talking about life and how it unfolds, maybe God, maybe community, maybe doubt. It’s not a formal relationship, but one day he begins to joke that I’m his spiritual advisor. I have a number of people like this in my life, and I’ve never once (other than to hear me preach) invited any of them to church. This is not to say that they will never want to come. But I believe that they will tell me if they’d like to. 3. We continue talking. We talk a lot. About faith and doubt and God and relationships. And at some point he opens a door and says something like, “You know, I’ve really been looking for a place to have this conversation.” And then I invite him to church. In context. These are the people who are coming to St. Lydia’s.

Often we think that evangelism is all about converting the unconverted. My experience has been that it’s all about reaching out to people who are looking for something that they can’t find. St. Lydia’s has been designed around filling that need. We’re building our congregation around the idea that there are people out there who are desperately seeking God, and haven’t found a Church to do that with.

In all three cases above, evangelizing – bringing the Good News – is not about convincing someone to believe in Jesus. It’s about bearing witness to what God has done with the whole of our existence, within the context of our cultures and the patterns of our lives. I bear witness to my Good News every time I sit on a bar stool on the Lower East Side and meet some new people, because that’s what I like to do. Through that act, which is fully and wholly natural to me, I’m telling a story of how God doesn’t need me to hide from the world within the confines of the Church, but to be a part of the whole of the world around me. I bear witness to my Good News every time I’m sarcastic, edgy, questioning, breaking the stereotype of a “good Christian girl.” I’m telling a story of a God who gave us brains and guts and bodies so that we could use them to love the world. I bear witness to my Good News every time I refrain from invitation, and try, instead, to listen. I’m telling a story of how God’s love is so deep and so wide that she doesn’t ask me to change people, but to walk with them, trusting that that she will do her work naturally, easily, in the context of relationship.

Emily M. D. Scott is a lay liturgist and an Episcopalian. She is currently the Director of Worship at The Riverside Church in New York City, and the founder of a budding congregation called St. Lydia’s, that meets weekly in Manhattan. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music, and a member of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission (APLM). She may be reached at emilymdscott@gmail.com.

Brian McLaren: The Episcopal Moment

Here, in its entirety, is The Episcopal Moment, Brian McLaren's keynote presentation on faith-sharing and evangelism to the annual convention of the Diocese of Washington on Saturday, Janaury 31, 2009. If you have any interest in helping our Church find a way forward in its effort to improve its evangelism, please make the time to watch. (Streaming video in Windows Media Player. We are working on something more Mac friendly.)

A ministry at the bedside

By Marshall Scott

He stopped me because he saw my clerical collar: "You're the chaplain here, aren’t you?" I nodded and introduced myself. "Do you get to help a lot of people?" Once again I nodded; but I knew that wasn’t where this was going to end. "But, do you get to lead a lot of people to Christ?"

That, of course, was the question he'd had from the beginning. He wanted to know whether – hoped it was the case that – I was meeting my patients in their moment of crisis and anxiety, and helping them to understand that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ would meet their needs, assure their spiritual safety, and resolve their fear. He was certain of what God would want, would want me to do, for the sick and suffering – even though Jesus never asked it of those he healed.

This was one of those moments when I was most aware of Jesus’ instruction not to plan what I would say, but to allow the Holy Spirit to speak. This time I said, "Sometimes I get to talk about Christ; but I think it’s important that they see Christ in me first."

He walked away, his smile fixed and noncommittal. That wasn’t the answer he'd wanted. It wasn't something he could really argue with, but it wasn't what he wanted.

I have that conversation from time to time. There are those who are just certain that the bedside of the ailing and frightened patient is the place to introduce the saving love of Jesus. After all, what better time to secure one's place in the afterlife than the moment one stares it in the face?

That's not a new thought, and for more than one reason. I have certainly done my share of emergency baptisms (usually but not always of infants), providing comfort to families in crisis. And then there’s the legend that Constantine himself postponed his baptism till his deathbed, taking seriously the thought that baptism should lead to amendment of life, amendment that he might not have managed perfectly (or might not have wanted to manage in the first place).

Still, these conversations make me sad. In the first place, they imply something I don't want to affirm: that somehow God can't accept a person who's not baptized. I appreciate that there are some who do want to affirm just that; but, to use the Biblical language, I can't believe that somehow "God’s hand is shortened." I appreciate what God wants of us. I just can't believe God's ultimate love and saving grace are somehow dependent on our success.

In the second, evangelizing at the bedside runs counter to the ethics of my profession. I am Board Certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). The Common Code of Ethics for Chaplains, Pastoral Counselors, Pastoral Educators and Students, adopted by APC and a number of other pastoral care organizations, includes these injunctions:

"Spiritual Care Professionals understand clients to be any counselees, patients, family members, students or staff to whom they provide spiritual care. In relationships with clients, Spiritual Care Professionals uphold the following standards of professional ethics. Spiritual Care Professionals:


1.1 Speak and act in ways that honor the dignity and value of every individual.

1.2 Provide care that is intended to promote the best interest of the client and to foster strength, integrity and healing.

1.3 Demonstrate respect for the cultural and religious values of those they serve and refrain from imposing their own values and beliefs on those served.

1.4 Are mindful of the imbalance of power in the professional/client relationship and refrain from exploitation of that imbalance.

1.8 Refrain from any form of harassment, coercion, intimidation or otherwise abusive words or actions in relationships with clients."

In light of these commitments, I couldn’t as a professional evangelize at the bedside.

As an Episcopal priest, I look at these commitments and appreciate just how similar they are to portions of the Baptismal Covenant. I am committed, and frequently recommitted, to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self," and to "respect the dignity of every human being." When I put myself in the hospital bed (and I have been there), I would hardly feel loved or respected by someone seeking to impose a new spiritual tradition or technology, however strong their conviction that God would want it for me.

Now, I appreciate that the Baptismal Covenant also includes commitments to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship," and to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ." At the same time, in light of some sort of "last chance for salvation" attitude, proclamation by word can indeed become abusive and coercive. We have heard much lately about how coerced confessions fail, because the coerced prisoner will say what the torturer wants to hear, whether it's accurate or not. We have a much longer history of discovering that coerced conversions don't change hearts (sadly, forced baptisms go back at least to Carolingian times).

No, instead I find myself appreciating the opportunity to proclaim by example the accepting love of Christ that the apostles taught. To do my best to love the person before me, just as the person is, seems to me the best proclamation I can offer of what Christ wants for the person, and of what Christ wants of me as a Christian.

It would, of course, also be bad clinical practice. That is, for the patient in crisis, the most dependable resources for spiritual and emotional support are those the patient knows and trusts best. If I want to help the patient rally the spiritual and emotional strength that will support physical healing and comfort, I do best to help the patient appreciate or rediscover what he or she already knows.

But first and foremost, to do otherwise, to seek to impose some Christian content and coerce some Christian behavioral response, is to deny and preempt God. We trust, after all, that the Holy Spirit is constantly working in the world, calling all to God’s purposes, including those who don’t know it. We trust that God can work in frail creatures, frail people – indeed, it is central to our theology of sacraments. In that crisis, at that bedside, I am called to discern, and as best I can affirm, what God is already doing in and around and through this person, not to somehow take control myself. That would indeed be pride of place, expressed in abuse of power; and it would evil, which in the Baptismal Covenant I am called to resist.

As I said, my conversation did not satisfy my questioner. Nor would all this reflection have made any difference. As a wise mentor once told me, sometime you just can't get your point heard. And so we parted: he out of the hospital and I back into it. I hope he prayed for me as I prayed for him. And in the meantime, I continue to pray for the many that I cannot pray with, hoping that they experience in my work some poor reflection of the love of God that someday – perhaps someday soon – they will experience face to face, in ways beyond my imagining.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

50 ways to preach the Gospel

By Heidi Shott

One summer afternoon in the mid-seventies, while waiting in the car for my mom to return from a errand, I reached a heightened pitch of boredom that only a 13 year-old girl can achieve. Fumbling around for something to read, I opened the glove compartment and found a pocket New Testament. That would have to do. That or the owner’s manual for a 1971 Buick Riviera.

My mom and I had recently started taking God a lot more seriously due to the influence of my brother’s girlfriend, Diane. Mom was raised Swedish Covenant in Chicago (now known as the Evangelical Covenant Church) but she backslid something fierce after serving as an army nurse in World War II and marrying the handsome, unchurched brother of one of her patients. My siblings and I were Protestant simply because we weren’t Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim or anything else.

But Diane’s changed all that when she entered my brother’s life and ours. Her Baptist ideas about accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior reminded my mother of her childhood roots and they suddenly took hold in an alarming way. My poor father never knew what hit him. For me, as a young girl who had thought a lot about God but not much about church, the journey toward coming to know myself as a Christian was more gradual.

Still, by the time I sat in the hot Riviera, my opinions about faith had begun to solidify along fairly strict Evangelical lines. What I read when I flipped to Philippians 1 figured as the first real challenge to my faith.

“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.”

But here’s the verse that got me. And 33 years later, it still gets me.

“What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (v. 15-18)

How can that be possible? Doesn’t intent count? I sat in the sticky bucket seat marveling at such a radical idea. Sleazy TV preachers are okay?

What does it mean for Christ to be proclaimed in every way? As a lay person, without theological training, I lack the vocabulary to speak with authority but it seems that Paul was pointing to the transformative power that the proclamation of the Gospel has when set loose in the world – a power that is set apart from the proclaimer.

I love the scene in the film A Christmas Story when the narrator says of his father’s battles with their uncooperative furnace, “My father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

Is the proclaimed Gospel a little like that? Does it hang in space despite of the flawed person who proclaimed it? Does it hang there waiting for the Holy Spirit to blow in the right direction at the right time? Does it matter how Christ is preached, or why, or simply that he is?


Another summer, several years later, my college boyfriend, Scott, joined me at our family farm. Our intent was to scrape and paint the barn which, while an enormous task, left plenty of time to play badminton and stay up late watching old movies. My 15 year-old nephew Rob was enthralled with Scott and spent a lot of time with us. One week while I went to be a counselor on a trip with my old youth group, Scott took Rob with him to his own youth group Bible camp in West Virginia. After ten days away, Rob came back with a southern accent and Jesus in his heart. His parents never knew what hit them.

In the fullness of time, Scott and I became Episcopalians, and Rob became an Assemblies of God pastor. Though there is a lot we don’t agree on, we still agree on the fundamentals of the faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Perhaps the nut of what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Philippians is that to reach every person, we have to proclaim the Gospel in every way possible even if it is barely recognizable as our Gospel. It’s Rob’s business to proclaim the Gospel and I know he does it out of love, but the fact is that Rob reaches people who will never be reached by the Episcopal Church. And the Episcopal Church reaches people who will never be drawn by the vibe of an Assemblies of God congregation. What a boring, uncreative world this would be if there was only the First Congregational Church of Stepford.

One thing I’ve loved about our Church is the stretchiness of the fabric that binds us. In 1981, as a college freshman, I walked into a conservative Episcopal church and instantly felt I’d found my home. At that time, if I had walked into a more progressive church where I’d feel at home today, I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond the gulf. I would have walked out, despite my admiration for the language of the prayer book and the power of the liturgy. I couldn’t have made the jump. Just as my coming to know myself as a Christian was gradual, my coming to know myself as an Episcopalian has been gradual as well. The beauty is that I’ve been able to remain an Episcopalian all the while. While our Church has the capacity to be big enough for many, our manner of proclaiming the Gospel will never speak to everyone. That’s not a bad thing; it’s merely a true thing. There are other proclaimers out there, and, though we may not agree with them on all matters of faith and readings of scripture, they have their work to do. The journeys of those who respond may eventually lead them to our door and we need to be ready to receive them.

The fabric that holds the Episcopal Church, and ultimately all of Christendom, is as stretchy as ever, but we humans are somehow becoming more brittle. It’s not the Gospel that is so exacting over how or why or to what audience it’s proclaimed, it’s we the proclaimers who are so particular. Like Paul, I want to rejoice that the Gospel is proclaimed in every way, so that each person, no matter how his or her ear is tuned, might hear.

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice for the Diocese of Maine.

Are we still in the salvation business?

By Martin L. Smith

Sometimes we wake from a dream with only a strange question as its trace, and the other morning all I could remember as I shaved was a voice asking, “Do you mean business?” It’s a good question to ask looking into one’s own eyes in the mirror, a challenge to weigh the intentionality we are bringing—or not—to everyday living. And it is a question about faith, because for us today faith is about finding meaning in life and for life. Someone who means business today about becoming a genuine believer is conscious of wanting, needing, her life to have meaning. In fact, for Christians in the postmodern world, to find life meaningful as a gift from God through relationship with Jesus is what it means to be saved. Salvation is both to be rescued and fulfilled. Rescued from the spiritual vacuum of meaninglessness, and fulfilled by receiving with the love of God a sense of connectedness, purpose and destiny.

It is a good question to ask about the church. Does the church ‘mean business’? Do we accept that our main business today is with meaning, the struggle to find meaning, and the mission to help people discover the gift of meaning through the good news that has Christ at its heart? Are we still in the business of being saved and saving others? I wonder sometimes because of the negativity or indifference with which many Episcopalians react to the very concept of being saved. Perhaps it’s because they equate being saved with the idea of God reprieving (some of) us from the sentence of eternal damnation in hellfire. In recoil from that idea many seem to think that salvation is a concept best quietly shelved. In how many of our churches is the language of salvation really alive?

A certain historical perspective can help. How did the church mean business at first in the culture in which it grew so rapidly? It brought good news to a civilization haunted by the ravages of mortality, the inevitable decay that reduced human effort to futility. The gospel of the resurrection counteracted all that with an unprecedented sense of God’s abundance of life and his desire to bring human beings into such intimacy with himself that they could experience a fullness of being that was proof against death. How did the church mean business in later centuries? Its good news addressed the nightmare of alienation, the sense that guilt estranged us from the Holy One. The gospel offered a way through it to reconciliation with God, through the sacraments that made Christ’s gift of himself on the cross a contemporary healing power, and through a message of justification as a free gift received by faith.

In our era, mortality and guilt are all too real but they are not what haunts us most. We suffer from a crisis of meaning itself. In the doubting that comes when our defenses are down we wonder whether human consciousness is merely an accidental froth, just a spectacular by-product of evolution in a single primate species. We wonder whether human consciousness has such flawed wiring that civilization is doomed to be short-lived, and we shall bring on our own extinction sometime in the next 10 generations, leaving the planet to wheel on to its own eventual demise in a universe whose origin and destiny is a sheer enigma. Perhaps all human religions, not just some, are the product of sheer projection, imaginary thought-patterns that human beings have fabricated for bonding societies and marking pathways through the joys and pains of human life. In the kind of thinking to which we are vulnerable at 3 in the morning, we find ourselves in the horror of sheer doubt. For us religious doubt isn’t really a matter of questioning this dogma or that. It’s more primal. Have human beings been making it all up? Is there in reality any greater meaning in which my life is taking part?

A church that means business speaks to this crisis of meaning head on and is unafraid to talk of being saved. It encourages people to articulate their doubt, not just about this church teaching or that, but about the value and ultimate meaning of our fragile human lives on this little blue planet circling as a speck in a galaxy that is merely one of billions.

When I hear the gospel addressed to me in the midst of this vertigo of doubt, and accept its poignant insistence that our lives are meaningful because they are what God meant, and that we mean everything to him, and that he means to take us into his life by uniting us to the one who suffered with us and for us, whom he raised from the dead, I can say “This is what it means to be saved, and I want others to receive the same gift.”

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

I am religious, but not spiritual

By Kit Carlson


“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

This has become an incredibly popular statement in recent years. In a Beliefnet excerpt from his book, Spiritual, But Not Religious,” Robert C. Fuller estimates that about one in every five people describes themselves this way. The increasing individualism and consumerism in modern culture has also extended into the realm of the spiritual. People who describe themselves this way see spirituality as something private, not public, something personal, not communal, and something they can design and control and devise, rather than something handed to them by an institution of some sort.

Fuller quotes researchers who say such folks are “less likely to evaluate religiousness positively, less likely to engage in traditional forms of worship such as church attendance and prayer, less likely to engage in group experiences related to spiritual growth, more likely to be agnostic, more likely to characterize religiousness and spirituality as different and non-overlapping concepts, more likely to hold nontraditional beliefs, and more likely to have had mystical experiences.”

Practically, this statement – “I’m spiritual but not religious” -- has a way of raising a wall between a regular, church-going sort of person and a friend or colleague who has no intention of becoming a regular, church-going sort of person. It says, “Back off. Don’t butt into my private relationship or lack of relationship with the Divine. I know all about you ‘religious’ folks. You want to tell me I’m going to hell or imply there’s something wrong with me. Well, I have my own way of connecting – or not – with God. So shut up.”

Well, that’s how I hear it any way. It may not be what is intended, when the person speaks it. But it cuts. It says to me that the person believes that “spiritual” is somehow more authentic, nobler than “religious”, with its checkered history of pogroms and persecutions, its tedious liturgies and self-righteous evangelistic approaches. It makes me -- as a sort of regular, church-going person who actually is religious -- feel like a representative of the Spanish Inquisition or a denizen of the shiniest buckle in the Bible Belt.

But I have decided to feel inferior to these “spiritual but not religious” people no more. I am going to claim my identity as “religious but not spiritual.”

What do I mean by that? I mean to celebrate the fact that one can become part of a faith community and enter into its life and practices and find meaning there, without ever having been smacked over the head by a supernatural experience. That one can choose to adhere to the tenets and expectations of a religious community and let that life of following those expectations create a space within one’s soul where the spiritual might occur. That – much like entering into a long marriage, rather than looking to hook ups for love and affection – one might find that the long, tedious, faithful activities of a committed relationship actually can make one a larger and more loving person than one would have been otherwise, left to one’s own devices.

I mean that discipline, duty, and devotion to a religious community can work as well for the spiritual life as it does for the physical life. No one says, “I’m athletic but I don’t work out.” No one says, “I’m tennis player but I have no partners.” To become athletic, a person has to move. It helps even more if one joins a team or a health club or gets a personal trainer. To become a tennis player, you have to play tennis with other people. You can only get so far whacking the ball against a concrete wall day after day.

Religion, admittedly, has brought the world its share of grief. But religion has also given the world hospitals and health clinics, universities and inner-city schools. Religion has fed the hungry and clothed the naked. Religion gave us Habitat for Humanity. It gave us Bach. It gave us Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Religion, faithfully practiced, might even help the “spiritual but not religious” folks to grow more spiritual, to be more connected to God, and to give them fellow travelers on the way who can help them in their spiritual quests.

I’m glad that I am religious. My religious life forces me to think about God even when I don’t feel like it. It inspires me to be a better person than I actually want to be. It connects me to people I never would seek out on my own and helps me to relate to them as my brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. It believes for me when I don’t feel like believing. It prays for me when I can’t pray. It opens the pathway to God for me, week in and week out, and invites me to take another step along the way.

So, yes, I have joined the “I’m religious, but not spiritual” group on Facebook. I honestly think that this may be an idea whose time has come -- especially for those shy and staid sort of folks who go to church dutifully every Sunday, cook casseroles for families with new babies, work on the Habitat house, make a pledge, show up at church clean-up day, haul their protesting teenagers to youth group, who remember their church in their will, but who … urk … cough … struggle to offer up an extemporaneous prayer, or to articulate what exactly it is they are doing here, anyway.

There are more of us out there than you think. Religious, but maybe not quite so spiritual.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., where she blogs at Saints Alive!

The ABC and "facts on the ground"

By Marshall Scott

This is the peach season at our house. Last year a late ice storm destroyed the peach crop – and the apple crop and the blueberries and other things – from Nebraska to Georgia. The peach tree in my back yard was somewhere in that range, and so last year there were no peaches at all. This year, perhaps in consequence, the tree has borne, and borne abundantly beyond our expectations.

And so now it is the peach season. Just about every evening for the past week has included washing or blanching peaches, to be sliced, dipped, and then sugared for the freezer or spread for the dehydrator. I have been picking peaches, but we have collected as many or more from those that have fallen to the ground. However gently I try (we call it “tickling the peaches”), two or three will be shaken loose for every one I take in hand, to be collected before I move on to the next branch. And, of course, among those that have fallen to the ground there have been some more beneficial to wildlife from ants to squirrels than they have been to us.

Anyway, all of them have been valuable to someone, and many of them to us. That’s not to say that any of the peaches is perfect: none of them is. We seem to have largely beaten the fruit moths this year – only a few worms hunkered around peach pits – but we’ve had a banner year for bacterial spot. It affects the skin of the peach, and sometimes the flesh immediately beneath it. It doesn’t affect the bulk of the peach; it just has to be dealt with. The same is true of the bruises from falling on deck or driveway, and the occasional small nick from bouncing from one branch to another while on the way down. It’s true, too, of the occasional small bite – squirrels are bad about sampling several peaches before choosing one to steal away with. All of those things affect the peaches, but they don’t prevent most of them of serving for our winter storage; and they don’t affect the concerns of the butterflies or the chipmunks at all.

That got me thinking about our efforts at evangelism. We have long talked a good game about evangelism, we Christians (for this concern isn’t specifically Episcopalian or Anglican). We talk about welcome, and we talk about new tools and new technologies, and we talk about reaching the world for Christ. All the same, we fall all too readily into the same rut, and start looking for some group or some person with pretty specific characteristics. At our best we think about how we can get the message out to new communities, new people; but even then it never really rises to the level of really beating the bushes and clearing the streets. And at our worst, we get stuck reaching out to “folks like us.”

Which brings me back to the peaches. I wonder how often we actually study our growth, and whether we pay attention to those who might fall past us, even as we appreciate the new persons in hand. None of them is perfect, of course; but, then, none of us is, either. Some of them may be pretty battered and bruised. They may actually take a good deal of attention before they can live into their spiritual potential; but with care and attention they can be part of the present and future of the Church, bringing flavor and richness and nourishment for us. Some will find more to give and to receive in other communities than ours; but none should be considered beyond value for God’s purposes.

And that brings me now to the recent Second Presidential Address at Lambeth of Archbishop Rowan Williams. In the address, delivered to the bishops gathered on July 29, Archbishop Williams tried to speak, as he said, from the Center:

I don’t mean speaking from the middle point between two extremes — that just creates another sort of political alignment. I mean that we should try to speak from the heart of our identity as Anglicans; and ultimately from that deepest centre which is our awareness of living in and as the Body of Christ....

And, as I suggested in my opening address, speaking from the centre requires habits and practices and disciplines that make some demands upon everyone — not because something alien is being imposed, but because we know we shall only keep ourselves focused on the centre by attention and respect for each other — checking the natural instinct on all sides to cling to one dimension of the truth revealed.

He sought to articulate “what people on different sides of our most painful current debate hope others have heard or are beginning to hear in our time together. I want to imagine what the main messages would be,” and to place those “main message” within the context of the experience of the Anglican Communion over these past few years.

I will admit to mixed feelings about his descriptions of each side; and I am hardly an impartial observer. But what concerned me immediately was his hope for this Lambeth Conference:

Can this Conference now put [this] challenge? To the innovator, can we say, ‘Don’t isolate yourself; don’t create facts on the ground that make the invitation to debate ring a bit hollow’? Can we say to the traditionalist, ‘Don’t invest everything in a church of pure and likeminded souls; try to understand the pastoral and human and theological issues that are urgent for those you are opposing, even if you think them deeply wrong’?

It seems to me that the Archbishop has missed an important point in his challenge to both sides. It seems to me that the most important “facts on the ground” aren’t institutional. They aren’t bishops, however they may be shaped or partnered. They aren’t rites, however and for whomever they may be intended. They aren’t church structures, whether sustaining tradition or “offering refuge” for “pure and likeminded souls.” The most important “facts on the ground” were not created by us, whether “innovators” or “traditionalists,” whether primates or bishops or synodical structures. The most important “facts on the ground” were created by God. They are the men and women whom we might serve, to whom we might reach out, and whom we might invite into our midst. They will, most assuredly, not be “pure,” or even “likeminded.” They will be battered and bruised, all needing some care and attention before they can live into their spiritual potential. We might have to watch as some find their place somewhere else; but none of them should be beneath our attention. And no structural issue, no internal debate, can be more or even as important.

My point is not so much that “my” side has grasped this and “their” side hasn’t. As I said above, I think this is one of the more visible places where “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” On the other hand, it will trouble me if the Archbishop hasn’t grasped it. A challenge to each party in the fight to be generous to the other is nice but no real challenge. A challenge to both parties in the fight to be generous to those around them, and especially to those battered and bruised, those not “pure” or “likeminded” would be a prophetic call from Christ, just in a time and setting when a prophetic call from Christ might meaningfully be heard.

Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” By the same token, the structures of the Church were made for the souls we might serve, and not those souls to fit the Church. Even those fallen and scattered on the ground are among the fruits of Christ; and they are worth our time and attention.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Say it on a sign

By Melody Wilson Shobe

Last week on vacation, I was driving through a small town in Florida when I caught sight of a church marquee. I have to admit, church marquees are probably my favorite part of any road trip; they are almost always either inspiring or amusing, and sometimes both. Every time I drive past a church, of any denomination, I find myself craning my head to see what their sign has to say. This one didn’t disappoint; the big black letters of movable type read: “Exposure to the Son may prevent burning.”

While I might not like the theology of the statement, it is hard to argue with its effectiveness. The church certainly knows its audience: the hoards of tourists flocking to the Florida coast for some sun. And it was also memorable; over a week later, I still remember the slogan and the church that was sporting it.

That, of course, is just one example; church signs don’t have to be all fire and brimstone. Donald Seitz’s book, The Great American Book of Church Signs, shows signs of all stripes from church marquees across the country. He reveals that they can be puns, like the California church sign that read: “God answers knee-mail.” Or they can reference modern cultural icons, like a Virginia church that advertised, “Wal-Mart is not the only saving place: come on in!” Or, like the Tennessee church sign, “Visitors Welcome. Members Expected,” and the Alabama church reminder, “Give God what is right, not what is left,” they can make a serious point about church membership or stewardship.

Whether they snag us by their truth, their humor, or their all too often painful puns, today’s church marquees usually do the job of catching our attention. It may be negative attention, or it could be positive, but one way or another, they get noticed. And yet, they don’t seem to be used by the Episcopal Church. My church, which does have a marquee with movable font, lists the same service times week after week, only occasionally adding a reference to an upcoming parish event. There are no colorful quips to remember, no pithy maxims to ponder. There’s just bare bones, straight up information. My church, I know, is not the only Episcopal Church that avoids using the catchy sign slogans. In Seitz’s book, which includes over a hundred churches from states across the country and a wide variety of different denominations, there is not a single Episcopal Church sign pictured.

Maybe colorful church marquees are just not “the Episcopal way.” But if that’s the case, I have to wonder why. Are we wary of theological pitfalls, or reducing the complex matter of faith to a simple slogan? Are Episcopalians too “prim and proper” to muck around with kitschy humor and playful (sometimes painful) puns? Or are we just not creative enough to come up with good weekly sayings? Is there a way that we could use our church marquees better than we do now, while still being true to our heritage and self-understanding?

The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

The spirituality of sweet tea

By Luiz Coelho

Fifty years ago, in most of Brazil, it was still common to see people watch the sunset sitting on a comfortable rocking chair on the porch of their houses. Families and neighbors were usually invited over, and food and refreshments were widely available. In more urban scenarios, people would bring tables and chairs to the sidewalks, and chat before dinner. After the Second World War, these moments had an important effect: they helped build communities, often composed of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, and offered hope for a better future.

On colder days, if the weather allowed it, hot coffee or black tea, accompanied by a few slices of carrot, orange or corn cake, was just enough to bring families around the outdoor table, and soon neighbors and friends would join them. They would eventually bring more snacks, and conversation would go on until it was time to go inside and have dinner. On hot summer days, hot coffee was replaced by cold juices and mate, a special Brazilian tea cherished by many in its cold and sweet form. Sometimes, this happy encounter would be followed by a garden dinner, which could go on for hours and hours.

As a Southerner “by adoption”, I soon learned that some traditions are ubiquitous everywhere, especially when it comes to “Pan-American late afternoon environments”. Some of the foods were probably slightly different, and mate was surely replaced by intese doses of freshly brewed sweet tea on the rocks. However, the feelings and bonds of affection were the same, and long nights of laughs and conversations helped foster the sense of community here and there, especially at a time when the future seemed to be uncertain.

In churches, similar events also happened. From “dinners on the grounds” to Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers, food, community and conversations have always been part of our Church life. The rich noise of children running around the parish hall and vivid conversations between parishioners of different sorts still can be heard in many of our Churches across the world. In many places, however, this community life centered around food and conversation is dying, often substituted by an innovative “consumer Gospel”, which produces short term growth, but in the long run has increasingly contributed to empty houses of worship.

Sadly, I do not belong to the slow sweet tea generation. Raised in a middle class apartment, I did not have the possibility of playing with neighbors on the street and hearing my mother's call to come inside for dinner. To be true, I barely knew my neighbors' names. Only in the summer, when I would spend some free time at my grandparents' cottage, did I have the opportunity to enjoy the slow life of “the good old times”: playing with their pet (a dog named Perigoso - “Dangerous” in English – who was anything but dangerous), helping my grandfather harvest fresh vegetables, playing with the neighbors' kids, jumping in trees and getting dirty. And, at the end of the afternoon, we would always drink refreshments and chat for a while in front of their house. The neighbors were always invited to join the conversation, after all, everybody was part of a “big family.”

That's how Churches are supposed to be: a big family. However, the “community” aspect of church life is emphasized in our “modern” world less and less. Many search committees now expect priests to be much more like business administrators who are able to celebrate a quick liturgy rather than spiritual leaders called by God to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, with a schedule filled with committee meetings, there is little time for visiting the sick, talking on the phone with parishioners or even enjoying a cup of coffee or a glass of sweet tea at the end of the afternoon.

Parishioners also have less and less time for Church affairs. Sunday school is rarely heard of in some places. Coffee and refreshments, usually served after the main service of the day, are taken “to go” as people run to their cars, ready to drive to the nearest restaurant. There is little time for weekday activities, including longtime parish programs and traditions, which risk being extinguished within a couple of generations.

It is necessary to reclaim the “spirituality of sweet tea” in our world: the long talks, the hugs, the common meals and warm conversations. Yes, the world has changed, and the Church inevitably has to adapt to a fast-paced society. However, the essence of Christian community life cannot change. Some regard it as the strongest aspect as the early Christians' most impressible aspect and wherever it still persists, the Church is strong and active.

Maybe it is time, then, to use community life as a tool for church growth and evangelism. Younger generations, often so technologically savvy, lack the “people” aspect of daily life. If the Church will provide a warm and welcoming environment, where all are known and cherished by their brothers and sisters in Christ, it surely will be able to reach the unchurched. Our Episcopal/Anglican identity provides a solid and traditional liturgy, complemented with a comprehensive and inclusive theology. When allied with intentional Christian community, which naturally flows from our liturgy centered around the Eucharist, Christ is made truly present among us and a conduit is created that enables people to find wholeness in God in Christ.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

A disciple-making church?

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

Over the altar at Virginia Seminary, where I teach, are the words from Mark 16:15. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.” (“proclaim the good news to the whole creation” is how the New Revised Standard Version has it.) These words have inspired generations of people called to the ordained ministry of word and sacrament. But as one of the people called to the ministry of teaching in and beyond the church, I find myself drawn, this ascensiontide, to Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, and I wonder what the church would look like if we spent more time reflecting on what Jesus might have meant here. In Matthew 28: 19-20, he says “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.”

A lot of the literature I’ve seen on stewardship and congregational development seems to focus on attracting more members to our congregations, through programs that meet perceived needs: it’s about “marketing” the church. Young adult ministries, I’ve noticed, focus some energy on encouraging vocations, but often that means raising up young people to be the next generation of ordained ministers in the church. But I have been wondering what we would look like as a church, as congregations and schools and communities, if we focused more energy, not so much on selling the church or attracting new members, but on “making disciples” of the people who come in our doors, and the seekers who inquire about us. What might this call to “make disciples of all nations” mean in our time and culture and in the current theological climate?

The term “discipleship” is probably associated, for some of us, with more evangelical and fundamentalist traditions and “making disciples” primarily with overseas mission, often associated with cultural conservatism. But I believe it’s a term that we in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition should be reclaiming, reframing, and considering in light of our tradition and the culture surrounding us. Brian McLaren, in A Generous Orthodoxy, moves in this direction as he seeks a very Anglican-sounding “generous third way” between Evangelicals’ preoccupation with a personal savior and liberals’ with modern culture. He writes of how he muddled for some time over how to describe the mission of the Church, moving from the familiar language of Evangelicals in his description of the church. He tells how he started with formulaic language: the church’s mission is to make “more Christians and better Christians.” But on reflection he tweaked it further, moving to “To be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ” and then “To be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ, in authentic community, for the sake of the world.” I like his movement away from labels to the affirmation of discipleship as part of our communal identity and our work in the world. And I like the language of discipleship better than language about “the ministry of the laity” (much as I revere the work of Verna Dozier and others of her generation) because it gets us out of ecclesiastical categories back into Biblical language that describes the shared mission of everyone in the Church. How do we understand discipleship in our time? That’s the question we should be asking together, regardless of office or vocation within the structure of the Church.

The idea of discipleship also gets us back to the concept of our faith as something we practice – the great insight of Diana Butler Bass’s influential work. Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all nations – i.e. not only the Jewish community that they know but ALSO all nations: this is for everyone. And it’s about observing what he commanded. Love your neighbor as yourself; pray; teach, heal, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, seek forgiveness and reconciliation; look at the world through the lens of one who can say “blessed are the poor/ blessed are the meek.” This is not about convincing people to be like-minded or to join-up, nor is it a self-help project, about “becoming a better person.” Rather, the idea of discipleship gets to the heart of who Jesus is or wants to be for us. It moves us beyond worrying about the shape of institutions and back to a focus on the mission that Jesus has promised to support, if we try to follow him: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

What would the Church look like if we thought of “disciple-making” as our core purpose, in adult formation programs, in seminary education, in worship? The language of the baptismal covenant and baptism service in the prayer book provides some good language for this, in our tradition – though somehow or other the “ministry of the baptized” has been relegated to a category that goes with “not called to ordained ministry,” in many discussions in seminaries and vocation/formation programs. (Sometimes implying a contrast between the ministry of the ordained and the ministry of the baptized, as if the ordained were not baptized!) But discipleship: that’s something we all share, whatever office we’re called to in the church – it’s something we can reflect on within our tradition and also across denominations. How might the vision of a “disciple-making church” transform and refocus our work, worship and teaching? A question to reflect on as we approach the Feast of Pentecost.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Coming to Church: a reminiscence

By Greg Jones

I am an Episcopalian. Not by accident of birth, or cultural happenstance. No, I am an Episcopalian because The Episcopal Church welcomed me, embraced me, and initiated me into the mysterious Body of Christ Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the Whole World, of which our church is a vital part.

I do not come from a 'cradle Episcopalian' family. My paternal grandmother was most decidedly uninterested in organized religion. My paternal grandfather was a Baptist. My maternal grandparents were extremely traditional old world Roman Catholics. My father was not raised in any Christian church, my mother left Roman Catholicism as soon as she could, and most of my cousins were almost entirely unchurched in their growing up.

I spent a great deal of time with a family in our neighborhood that had tons of kids and they became like another family for me – the mother of which led the choir in a Methodist church. I joined that choir – and thus began my first experience of church life. "All Thing Bright and Beautiful" was my favorite hymn from those days. I was five years old, to be exact, when I sang in a Methodist children's choir.

My parents separated before I entered the first grade, and for the rest of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, I would shuttle between households. However, and thankfully, at the very time of my parents' divorce, a neighbor invited us to attend worship at his church. It was St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and from the moment we walked in the front door on Albemarle Street, I knew I had a home. Not only a spiritual home – but a home made of bricks and mortar, wood and glass, with a fixed location and a glorious capacity to bring people in. Every time I drove by my parish I would look at it and smile – and know that it was my place too.

St. Columba's was undergoing revival in those days, seeing tremendous growth in worship attendance, music ministry, outreach, mission, education, and spiritual formation – much like St. Michael's is today. I joined the choir there – my mother took classes and was received into the Episcopal Church – and for the rest of my childhood we spent most of our quality time associated with parish life in one form or another.

My first band played there – we played rock and roll at a talent show – and some poor kid in my band even did a break-dancing routine. (It was 1982.) I knew every single square foot of that entire facility. When they had a capital campaign and added significantly to the worship space and bought a world-class organ – it was something I was very excited about, even as a young kid. I took great pride in the beautification and expansion of the nave – and in the glorious sound which came from the organ. The beautiful architecture and the music formed me deeply.

Choir, Sunday School, retreats, youth trips, soup kitchen work, friendships, pancake suppers, weddings, funerals, sneaking around with a pack of kids – it was all what made that parish my home and my way into the Kingdom.

Quite simply, other than my own parents and grandparents, and a few other people – no other place, no other community, no other shaping force has done more to make me who I am than the Episcopal Church – as found on Albemarle Street in Washington, D.C.

If it weren't for the Episcopal Church, as expressed in that congregation with its very specific place in space and time, and its faithfulness to the Gospel, I wouldn't even know who I was. Thank God for the evangelism of the people of St. Columba's who knew that it takes more than talk to spread the Good News. It takes more than getting doctrine right. It takes more than knowing what the Scripture says. It takes more than all of that. It takes the creation of a spiritual home which is alive in the Spirit, and which is truly focused on being the place where disciples of Jesus worship God, meet and grow together, and are formed into the full stature of Christ.

For this I continue to be grateful for and at home in the Episcopal Church.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. Greg is rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

The challenge of the 44%

By Andrew T. Gerns

The beauty of research like the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is that in many ways it tells us what we already knew. The survey has confirmed and challenged a few hunches that arise out of my experience as a parish priest.

It is not particularly news to me that America’s life of faith is defined by fluidity. All I have to do is look out from the pulpit every Sunday. In my own parish, I have four basic groups of parishioners: people who used to be Catholic, people who used to be Lutheran, and people who used to be something else—they grew up in one of a myriad of other Christian traditions. Oh, I almost forgot, the fourth group of people are the ones who grew up and remain Episcopalian. That’s the smallest group in my own parish. And even then, there ought to be an asterisk because most of the folks who grew up Episcopalian were the children of parents who were themselves raised in another tradition.

Statistically speaking, I am the odd duck: a cradle Episcopalian who is the son and the son of a son of cradle Episcopalians.

So fluidity is a defining mark of American religious life. Forty-four percent of Americans belong to a religious group or tradition that is different than the one they grew up in.

But we live in an age where loyalty to brand or institution is a thing of the past. I remember visiting the Harry Truman presidential library, and one of the exhibits is a sampling of some of the cars that Truman owned. They were all Plymouths. He described himself as a “Plymouth man.“ Outside of the fact that they don’t even make Plymouths anymore, the idea of being eternally loyal to one make of car is a rare thing. Manufacturers are excited when they can get a buyer to stay with the same company, let alone the same brand, two cars in a row. And that’s not just true of cars.

I remember once meeting a self-described Episcopalian, who spoke with the pride of familiarity of things Prayer Book and his time as acolyte and the member of a Canterbury Club in college, telling me that he goes to a Lutheran Church. Why? Because it was closer to his house, he could walk or jog there, the service time was better and the kids knew kids who went there.

Speaking to a former Roman Catholic in my parish, she told me, partly in jest, the reason she is an Episcopalian is that our church doesn’t work so hard to make her mad. But that runs both ways. I remember talking to a United Methodist who used to be a member of my church; he told me that things our denomination did just “made me mad.”

Of the mobile 44%, roughly half choose to go to another Christian tradition. The other half leave the church altogether, with only a tiny fraction of those go to another religious tradition. Most of this other group completely drops out of religious life.

We should have seen this coming—and many of us have but have been at a loss to come to terms with it. The question now is how we respond. Seems to me that there two choices: we can be reactive or we can listen to what the culture is telling us and work to make the Gospel comprehensible and compelling in a free-market of ideas driven by personal freedom.

The reactive comes in many forms, but it is to me essentially an exercise in trying to hold back forces bigger than us. In trying to preserve what the past and its ways teach us, we can overdo it.

Overdoing it has recently landed on my pastoral lap. I have one member whose husband is Roman Catholic and they are raising their kids in both churches. They wouldn’t call it that, but they are. The kids go to parochial school but they go to church with either one parent or the other depending on work, sports and activity schedules. Mostly they go the Roman parish, but at least once a month, they show up in our parish. I didn’t think twice about it but I have been pulled in pastorally because the pastor at the Catholic Church is pressuring the family to only bring the kids to his congregation. This not only tears at Mom’s heart—and risks breaking covenants the couple made with each other at the time of their marriage in that very same church. It is also forcing the kids to choose not only between religions but, in effect, between parents. All of this is because the kids are hearing from the Catholic priest that they may only receive Communion in that church and no other. At the same time, they hear from me and my church that they are welcome to receive because they are baptized. The mixed message is causing the kids to ask uncomfortable questions at home.

This is a crisis happening in slow motion. For the family, the conflict is causing them to think ahead to an anticipated moment of truth where they will either have to choose one tradition over another, or else drop out altogether. I do what I can to keep the lines of communication open to both parents.

My conversations with the priest of the other church have been as revealing as they are frustrating. The priest is from Africa, which complicates matters. We don’t speak the same cultural language, and he sees only threat coming from my concern that we might work together. Besides the fact that he won’t say out loud his assumption that his tradition has primacy over mine, his basic argument is that he must “hold the line” for the sake of both the family and the Church.

He does not seem to realize that in pushing them to make one kind of commitment—one that might have made sense in another time or another cultural context—they might make a completely different choice. I am afraid that if he doesn’t lighten up they could choose another religious community (maybe mine, but just as easily another more neutral one) or none.

In our history there have been lots of American religious movements that have sought to “hold the line” against some cultural movement that was marching right past them. The current political transformation of American evangelicalism is an example of the tension between “holding the line,” with its desire to return to a more structured “past” (if one ever existed), and the need younger evangelicals have for religion to speak to the culture we have instead of the culture we choose.

In the face of a religious marketplace of ideas where people are free to explore, to go where they want, for whatever reason they want. I believe there is a difference between “holding the line” and articulating values that answer the traps, contradictions and realities of a culture that emphasizes absolute individual choice and responsibility over the values of community and tradition.

So what’s a church to do? If we don’t “hold the line,” what alternative do we have?

For one thing, we must become proficient at the language of the marketplace of ideas we live in. Like every human endeavor and institution, we tend to fight yesterday’s battles. We mainline churches tend to act as if we were still the bastions of privilege and status that we were before blue laws and civil religion went away. Recently, I had the chance to speak to the local Church Women United Lenten service. It was a chance for me to realize that speaking to yesterday’s church in yesterday’s language is not a problem restricted to Episcopalians.

Another thing we can do is to change our approach to evangelism. Since people are more likely to move between traditions for all kinds of reasons ranging from conscience to convenience, I believe we should adapt an attitude that is at once more clearly defined and more generous. We should be clearer about who we are and what we offer as Episcopalians, and we should acknowledge that people choose their faith communities for a variety of reasons and that, as wonderful as we are, we might not be the right place for everyone. Whereas denominationalism used to be defined solely in terms of governance and doctrine, today it may be seen as a diversity of styles and emphases.

In terms of the Gospel mandate to go into the world, to baptize and teach, we need to decide if the goal is to make more Episcopalians or to invite more people to Christ. I would suggest that the first is about institutional survival and preserving the past; but the second allows us the freedom to be at once who we are at our best and to give people the freedom—in a culture that trains us to make individual choices in the context of a competitive marketplace—to first choose faith, and then choose the community within which to nourish it.

The most difficult thing for a congregation that assumes a kind of brand loyalty will be to learn how to discover stability, purpose and renewal when we live in a mobile culture. We may need to content ourselves that we will be places of spiritual stability…for now.

Our biggest challenge will be for us Christians to see ourselves as one church with many, diverse institutional expressions: where having people know and follow Christ is more important than what flavor church they belong to.

The fluidity of American religious life drives us to be both better differentiated and more generous. This requires us to hold on to a tension. We must be clear about what we proclaim and yet let go and give the outcome to God. Our task is to proclaim and invite and to give to God the task of transformation and conversion.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pa., and chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He is keeper of the blog Andrewplus.

Growing Episcopal congregations, Part II

By John B. Chilton

This essay is the second half of my review of FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth, authored by C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research for The Episcopal Church. FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth is based on a 2005 survey. The survey was completed by 57% of congregations surveyed, usually by clergy. The 4,102 responses were weighted to reflect size and location in the population of Episcopal churches as a whole to improve the representativeness of the sample.

Growth in membership can be measured either as a rate or as a change. Small congregations can show large growth rates (or decline) even if it is just a change of a few members. And large congregations can have large growth in numbers with a small growth rate. Congregations were therefore classified as growing if they had “substantial growth in numbers” and at least a 5 percent rate of growth comparing 2000 membership to 2005.

Hadaway’s results are presented in five groupings of characteristics of congregations: demography, worship, orientation towards growing, conflict, and clergy leadership. In Part I of my review I focused on demographic factors. Here I consider the other factors. I find it curious, though, that one of the factors asked about in the survey, outreach, is not covered in the report. Wouldn't be interesting if churches with focus on mission were among those that were most likely to grow? Why outreach is not discussed is not explained.

Purpose, spiritual vitality, and openness to change. Churches that view themselves as fitting any one of these descriptors were very likely to grow.
Joy. Congregations that affirm their worship is joyful are more likely to be growing.

What direction, though, is the causation? Growth surely increases self esteem, sense of purpose and joy of the congregation. No doubt joy is attractive and causes growth. But can you choose joy?

Can a congregation choose to be open to change, or is that a characteristic that’s in its DNA? Likewise, spiritual vitality. All organizations face such questions. A course of action for growth may be clear to the leadership but it’s another thing to change the culture of the organization.

Conflict matters. Two sources of conflict were examined, (1) conflict over the actions of the General Convention 2003, and (2) conflict over the leadership style of the priest. Conflict is not conducive to growth (Hadaway writes “apparently even minor conflict tends to lead some people to leave the congregation”). Leadership conflict appears to have been more debilitating than conflict over GC2003. That is intriguing.

I wonder, though, if some respondents reported conflict over GC 2003 even though conflict was not so much within the parish, but with the diocesan or with the national church. Conflict with an external group could cause growth. Conflict within a parish over GC2003 could be worse than conflict over leadership style. The survey question on GC 2003 does not distinguish internal and external conflict.

Drawing a conclusion about the effect of leadership style of the priest is also problematic. It could be that decline or slow growth causes conflict and blame is placed on the priest. Alternatively, it could be that congregations that are falling below their potential are more likely to be confronted by the priest – it’s not the style, but the context.

Nevertheless, we all know of anecdotes where it was the rector’s style of leadership and failure to adapt a new style that was harmful to the health of the congregation. The survey result is consistent with this anecdotal evidence.

Clergy Enthusiasm. It helps.
Cooperation. Congregations whose rector or vicar “knows how to get people to work together” are most likely to grow.

For both enthusiasm and cooperation above causation could go both ways.

Clergy Tenure. Growth is unlikely in the priest’s first two years. In this sample, the likelihood of growth improved with tenure up to the fifth year. Thereafter it falls off.

This is useful to know. Your new rector cannot replace your old rector. Not everyone in the congregation will find the old rector suits them. This pattern is normal: there's nothing necessarily wrong if it happens.

Number of services. The more services, the greater the growth.

Size is related to number of services so this could be saying that larger congregations are more likely to be growing rather than that the number of services causes growth. Smaller congregations more likely to be in rural locations and smaller towns that are not growing, or not growing as fast as urban and suburban areas are.

Contemplative, formal liturgy, absence of percussion, predictable. Congregations affirming any of these characteristics were less likely to be growing. (Yes, even contemplative.)

Could it be that “stuffiness” hurts church growth and should be avoided if your desire is growth? Or could it be that churches do desire grow and are choosing the character of worship most conducive to growth but that “markets”- mission fields - where formal liturgy (for example) is best are not likely to be growing? The data cannot tell us. What we are alerted to is that if you want to grow it’s worth asking the stuffiness question and even to experiment to find out what works in your market. (As long as it doesn’t cause too much conflict in the congregation!)

Variety. Among churches with more than one weekend service the ones where the services differed considerably were most likely to be growing.

There is the suggestion that adding variety would help growth. And several services makes it easier to experiment and compare which service attracts newcomers. But again we cannot exclude the possibility that churches are making the best choice given their mission field and some mission fields aren’t growing.

Children’s participation. Churches in decline seldom have children or youth speak, read or perform during worship.

How much of that is due to choice as opposed to lack of children is not stated. The survey did also ask about the age distribution of the congregants. Thus the question of availability could have been addressed.

Desire. Congregations that affirm they welcome growth are more likely to be growing.

Evangelism. The greater the participation of the laity in seeking new member the more likely is growth.

Communications. Among congregations that opposed a website only 12% were growing.

That’s not to say websites make a difference; it could be that lack of a website is a better signal that the congregation isn’t interested in growth than asking the congregation if it is.

Visits. Churches that don’t make phone calls or visits to newcomers or visitors aren’t likely to grow. Half of all Episcopal churches make 2 or less such contacts per month. The number of ways of following up with visitors also matters (mail, phone, email, visit, handouts).

Family enrichment. Congregations offering parenting or marriage enrichment as a key program were much more likely to be growing.

Correlation, again, is not causation; it could be that these programs are not a draw to newcomers, but rather exist because the congregation is comprised mainly of younger families.

Throughout this essay I have taken a skeptic’s perspective on what a survey of this sort can tell us. There is the question of the direction of causation. There is the question of what things are within the control of the congregation. I have pointed out that correlation can arise because of an omitted factor (such as the underlying conditions of the local market).

At the level of the congregation it would be easy to take these arguments and take a complacent attitude, or an attitude that the status quo does not need to change, or that whatever we do it’s not going to make a difference. Or that surveys like this simply aren’t useful to a congregation.

My conclusion is different. My conclusion is that there are no easy answers. Surveys like this are useful. First, they permit some degree of benchmarking for the congregation. How are you doing in comparison with similar congregations, be it similarity in terms of demographics or in terms the factors discussed above? Are you lagging behind similar congregations? If so, are there local conditions that might explain that? Are you ahead of other similar congregations? If so, this is something to feel good about and to share.

Second, while such a survey cannot tell you that, say, adding percussion to the worship service will lead to growth, it does plant the suggestion that it might. In conjunction with local knowledge of the congregation and its mission field the congregation must decide what course of action to take if it wants to grow.

I'm no expert in evangelism nor do I think of myself as a good practitioner. I've offered my thoughts on some of the research available from The Episcopal Church and urge you to take a look for yourself if you are interested in seeing your church grow. Here are some links to follow:

Studying Your Congregation and Community

Research & Statistics

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist specializing in applied game theory. In January he will conclude six years of service at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) and return home to Orkney Springs, the location of Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia.

An account of our hope

By Derek Olsen

Join with me for a moment in a dream, in a vision. We’ve been talking more and more in the Episcopal Church of that dreaded “e” word that strikes terror into the hearts of the staid faithful—evangelism. For some it conjures fearful scenes of complex theological refutation, of fast and furious verbal sparring until—pressed and pinked by verbal weapons of dialectic—our opponent throws up his arms, confessing Jesus as an act of intellectual surrender. The prospect of such a thing makes the average church-going heart quail—is that really what’s expected? How do they expect me to do that?!?

The answer from calmer quarters is: relax, that’s not what evangelism is fundamentally about. Evangelism isn’t about beating opponents into submission—intellectual or otherwise. At its heart, it’s about sharing love, communicating who God is and how God is about the work of redemption and reconciliation. It’s less about what we know than who we know—and how he has made himself known through the power of the resurrection at work in our lives. That having been said, there is some knowledge, there are some fundamentals that have to be covered.

Turning to the Scriptures, St. Peter suggests that among the basic equipment of the Christian is having at hand and in mind “an account for the hope that is in you with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). That is, when questions arise about our faith we need something to fall back on, something to guide our way in explaining what we believe. Now—here’s my dream; here’s my vision. If I were the Evangelism Czar for the Episcopal Church, I’d try and put together a brief yet comprehensive statement of what we think on things. I’d want it to be broad—we need to cover our major bases, and yet I’d want it to be beautiful too. I’d want it, in its simplicity, to hint at depths of thought and experience that could be evoked and not exhausted by a tantalizing turn of phrase. If I could pare it down to something around one hundred words, I’d send out this “account for hope” to all the Episcopal churches with instructions that it be memorized so it could be readily called to mind whenever a useful opportunity might arise.

But, hey—why stop there? Why not have a second version as well? Maybe something twice the length of the first that might clear up a few more connections but also evoke greater mysteries and introduce some language that cuts to the heart of the human religious experience—light, breath, life abundant… Embed some deeper poetry, some metaphors to be chewed upon and savored, and you might have a worthy follow-up to the first that again, isn’t just about knowledge, but that evokes a new way of being and relating to the world in which we live. Of course—I’d want that one to be memorized too.

Who am I kidding, though, right? There’s no way this crazy scheme could work, is there?

Actually…it’s already been done. The texts have already been written. Not only that—they’ve already been infiltrated into your Book of Common Prayer. Many of you have already even accomplished the hard part—the memorizing part. There’s just one little catch. The infiltration has been so successful, has been so complete, that few realize the treasure that we got. Instead of recognizing this amazing “account for hope” for what it is, it’s something that we mumble through between the sermon and prayers at Eucharist, or stick between prayers in the Daily Office.

Yes, I’m talking about the creeds. We’ve got them. Many of us know them by heart—by rote, even—and therein lies the problem. We know them so well, have become so accustomed to them, that we’ve lost sight of their power—and their potential when it comes to evangelism. So let’s review quickly what it is that we have and how we might begin the process of rediscovering them.

The Apostles’ Creed was an early baptismal formula of the church in Rome. This was the basic outline of faith that converts (and in those days they were all converts) would embrace in order to be received into the faith. It served to nail down some fundamentals to establish Christian belief and to refute some potential misunderstandings. First, it asserted that God, the good God, the Father of Jesus Christ was also the God who Creates in distinction from philosophies that suggested that created matter was not just indifferent but downright evil—that bodies were prisons for souls. No, the creed affirmed, the good God made us bodies and—not only that—second, God even took on a body in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Like us, he was born, lived, and died as a historical person in a real place with Roman officials and everything. Third, that the breath, the spirit of God isn’t just a good idea or a nice metaphor—the Spirit is the reality of God moving, living and active.

Our other creed—what we call the Nicene Creed—is more properly called the Nicene-Chalcedonian Symbol. That sounds pretentious but is really just an affirmation that the church called together four world-wide councils to make sure that the faith they were handing down was the faith that they had received from their own teachers extending back to the apostles. Built on the framework like the Apostles’ Creed, it introduces the language of Greek philosophy, not for the sake of getting all complicated, but to somehow encapsulate in word and thought how the church had experienced the power of God moving in its worlds and ways.

Please—don’t underestimate second and fourth century people, though. Even without particle physics or flush toilets they knew that there were things in these affirmations that were at odds with the daily world they experienced; for the creeds—both of them—invite us into a mystery that they neither solve nor resolve: a mystery that begins with the assertion that Jesus is both God and man. Born, yes, but of a virgin—a clear impossibility according to the mechanics of the life we know. Died, yes, but rose again on the third day—another impossibility. Ascended to the Father? We know that can’t happen…unless our grasp of the mechanics of life is somehow incomplete. Unless there is a more full understanding of reality to which we may awake, to find ourselves caught up in, a reality where life wins, where love wins, despite what our senses tell us. Even back then, they knew that these affirmations were asking them to step beyond the threshold of life as they knew it into a bigger, a broader, a wilder world where they didn’t know all the rules.

What the creeds evoke, what they invite us into, is hope. Hope that there’s more to reality than what can be touched and quantified. Hope that death does not win in the end. Hope that we are not merely isolated islands in trajectories of decay but that as our life is caught up in the reality of God we are somehow bound closer to our fellow creatures as well. But the creeds do not simply give us hope; they give us language and a framework for understanding the spiritual stirrings and movings that we detect in our lives. They give us a vocabulary to understand the movement of the Spirit, the breaking forth of resurrection power. For the creeds are grounded in our experiences of the God of whom they speak.

This, in turn, is our own offering to a world that is in need of hope: the hope and the promise that there is a reality, a deeper reality, than what can be measured, quantified, and mathematically modeled. Actually—this is evangelism; it’s the sharing of the hope that we find in Christ Jesus. It’s telling the stories of how God has shown us a deeper reality in our lives. It’s communicating the hope of resurrection even in the face of death. So next time you find yourself in worship or in prayer and you encounter the creeds, take a minute, I beg you. Think about the words. Think about what they say and the realities and hopes to which they point. Ponder the phrases and fit them to your own life’s tale . And lastly, share them. With gentleness, with reverence, give an account for the hope that is in you.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University where he is an adjunct professor at the Candler School of Theology. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

Playing to our strengths

By Howard Anderson

I’ve always thought that institutions should focus on what they are best at. When you don’t you end up backtracking. St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, for instance, banned Archbishop Desmond Tutu from speaking on their campus because he compared the treatment of Palestinians in Israel to the treatment of non-whites in apartheid-era South Africa. Banning a Nobel Peace Prize winner takes amnesia about academic freedom. They forgot what a university does. Happily, not everyone forgot, and they had to re-invite him when local Twin Cities Jewish groups, their students and alumni and scores of others advocated for St. Thomas to have the archbishop speak after all.

Now there are some institutions who have been very successful at keeping people out of their ranks. My wife, Linda, comes from a long line of Missouri Synod Lutherans. They have managed to keep women out of their ordained ranks as successfully as the Roman Catholics have. There doesn’t even seem to be much pressure to ordain women, even among female members and only very recently, in a very few places, have women claimed any significant lay leadership roles. Missouri Synod Lutherans also deny communion to those who do not believe as they do about matters of faith, and sometimes will even require an interview, in advance of a service, to determine if you are orthodox enough to be admitted to communion with them. They are very good at keeping people out.

How different we Episcopalians are from that. We are simply TERRIBLE at keeping people out. We banished African Americans to the balconies of our churches, only to find, somehow, before the end of the 18th Century even, Absalom Jones and a great host of gifted and committed African Americans not only on the main floor, but leading congregations with great skill. And when we tried to keep African Americans from the Episcopate with the clever little suffragan gambit, that didn’t work either. Some of the most effective, most inspiring bishops in the last century, and certainly today, were and are African American. What a failure we are at keeping people out of leadership in our church! Gee, we even elected the Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris the first female bishop in the entire history of the Anglican Communion…not only a woman, but African American to boot! We are the leaky sieve in the Anglican wall trying to keep people out of leadership! Thank God those Primates in the Global South are showing some ability to keep people out. We surely are not.

Up in the part of the world I come from, we tried to keep Native Americans out of the Church. Rascals like Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, the first Bishop of Minnesota, was encouraging Native people to become Episcopalians, at the time the state of Minnesota was perpetrating the largest mass execution in U.S. history on the losing side in the Great Sioux Rebellion in 1862. Why, Bishop Whipple was ordaining Enmegahbowh, and scores of other Native clergy, many trained at Seabury Seminary, which in the 19th Century was in Faribault, Minnesota. And across the country Native clergy were being ordained and giving fine leadership. Heavens, there have even been a host of Native American bishops, beginning with The Rt. Rev. Harold Jones (Lakota) of South Dakota, and including such bishops of native ancestry as Steven Charleston, (Choctaw), Mark MacDonald (several tribal lines), the late Steven Plummer (Navajo), Fred Borsch (Mohawk), Creighton Robertson (Dakota), Michael Smith (Pottawatomie), William Wantland (Seminole), Lani Hanchett (Native Hawaiian) and others whom I know I have forgotten. Better yet, we could not only not keep Native American men out of the episcopate, but the Rt. Rev. Carole Gallagher, (Cherokee) became the first indigenous woman to be elected bishop in the Anglican Communion. We are terribly inept at keeping anyone out. Why we tried to keep kids out of the General Convention and being considered full members, and now we baptize and chrismate them at Baptism, and we even succumbed and allow 16 year olds to vote. Once again, our ineptitude stymies our best efforts to keep people out.

Oh, but we can keep the gay and lesbian community out of leadership, right? Ooops…it turns out that while we all know we have always had gay bishops, we cannot even keep uncloseted gay folk from the episcopate. Gene Robinson is anything but the first gay bishop, but he was the first to be honest and out of the closet before his election. I guess The Episcopal Church is not only terrible at keeping people out of our pews and leadership ranks, we are also terrible at lying. No matter how hard we have tried, no matter how much pressure conservatives in our church or the wider Anglican Communion have tried, they cannot help us get any better at excluding people. People threaten us. People leave the Church. People withhold money, and darned if we still fail to figure out creative ways to keep people out.

Right from the beginning, when the colonies won the American Revolution and the Brits tried to strangle the Episcopal baby in the cradle, they failed to keep the Scottish Episcopalians from consecrating our first Episcopal bishops. We couldn’t even keep the Scots out of the U.S., and off we went on our long tale of woe and failure at keeping people out.

Maybe, just maybe, we should think about our Episcopal DNA . We inherited it from the British Isles. What were the British to do with Picts, Angles, Celts, Normans, Saxons of every stripe, some Vikings mixed in just for flavor. One size church did not fit all. And as the state church they had to figure out how to accommodate wide differences. So they took the only logical path, and began to accept differences as being okay. Militarily, they would like to have kept out all the invaders, but failed, and adapted. And when the English Reformation led to a period of see-sawing between Catholic and Protestant, with bloodshed and disruption being the result, it took a woman, Elizabeth I, to say, ‘Boys, boys, stop fighting. We are both Catholic and Protestant. Now go pray together! And don’t let me see you fighting over this again!” And The Church of England emerged as a non-confessional church that believed that praying shapes believing and did not require intellectual assent to a particular set of doctrines as a requirement for membership. Wouldn’t have worked if they tried. One also sees a great humility in our Anglican forebears about what we can know for certain about God. God is essentially a mystery in our tradition. And we still believe that the Holy Spirit moves in the Councils of the Church to guide us just as Jesus said.

We are a both/and church. It is in our DNA. We inherited it. We are just no damn good at keeping people out. Why not look at it this way. We are good at including people. Just like Jesus was good at including people the “decent,” law abiding Temple goers wanted to exclude.

Maybe the Holy One is saying, “My Spirit led New Hampshire to elect one of my dear ones as Bishop. He is a tiny bit different in one small way, and that has made the “decent” orthodox folks mad. But Jesus showed you that I rather enjoy breaking down barriers that you all set up thinking you are doing a good thing. Okay, just in case you thought Gene Robinson was a mistake, My Spirit is going to lead you to elect, oh let’s see, how about a Woman as Presiding Bishop. I think you are getting cold feet. You passed that B-033 at your convention restricting some people from being leaders in My Church (uh..remember, it IS MY CHURCH), so I thought it would be a good thing to burn some bridges so that you can’t go back to the same old ways you human beings have used to exclude people from leadership in MY CHURCH. Now-be MY CHURCH. Be the Church Jesus showed you--one where your petty little intellectual doctrines do not become more important than my love commandment. Be MY CHURCH and let all of humanity, gifted by My grace and able to lead can be called out by My Spirit and MY CHURCH to show the world that we are all one, that I love each and every one of you. I love those who are mad at you because you are following the guidance of My Spirit. I love them just as much as I love you. Don’t worry about them. I am God, you aren’t. Your Bishops aren’t either. I know they are trying to keep the family together. But right now, I want you to follow My Spirit, even if it is painful, and besides, you aren’t any good at keeping people out anyway. And that may just serve My purposes well.”

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral. He was a long time General Convention deputy and most importantly, is grandfather to a five year old theologian, Will.

Growing Episcopal congregations

By John B. Chilton

What do we know about how or why Episcopal congregations grow? We can start by asking which congregations are growing and what are their characteristics. I say “start” because correlation does not prove causation. For example, congregations with parenting programs are likely to be growing. But is this because congregations with parenting programs attract newcomers, or is it because congregations with young growing families adopt these programs?

In 2005 the research and statistics office of the Episcopal Church issued a report, FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth, authored by C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research. Faith Communities Today (FACT) is a project of Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Thus far, FACT has conducted surveys of congregations in participating denominations in 2000 and 2005. FACTs on Episcopal Church Growth reports the results of the 2005 survey of Episcopal congregations. In this essay I summarize a portion of the report and offer some of my own thoughts.

The FACT 2005 survey form given to congregations is here. The survey was completed by 57% of congregations surveyed, usually by clergy. The 4,102 responses were weighted to reflect size and location in the population of Episcopal churches as a whole to improve the representativeness of the sample.

Growth in membership can be measured either as a rate or as a change. Small congregations can show large growth rates (or decline) even if it is just a change of a few members. And large congregations can have large growth in numbers with a small growth rate. Congregations were therefore classified as growing if they had “substantial growth in numbers” and at least a 5 percent rate of growth comparing 2000 membership to 2005.

Hadaway’s results are presented in five groupings of characteristics of congregations: demography, worship, orientation towards growing, conflict, and clergy leadership. In this essay we focus on demography. For my purposes this will include location (rural, suburb, etc.), year of establishment of the congregation, the age distribution of the membership, ethnicity, gender balance, the theological conservatism of members, and the conservatism of the diocese.

Location matters: New suburbs of cities have the largest proportion of growing congregations (39%). In downtowns the proportion was 30%. In other categories – rural, small town, old suburb, older residential in a city – the proportion growing ranged from 21 to 24 percent. Hadaway does not state whether, say, downtowns had both a large proportion growing and a large proportion in substantial decline.

Newer congregations grow: Of congregations formed since 1990, 48% were growing over the period 2000-2005; dioceses plant new congregations where the capacity for growth is greatest, often new neighborhoods. Of those formed earlier the proportion growing was 28% or less depending on the age interval examined. Older congregations in new suburbs are less likely to grow than new congregations in new suburbs. This may reflect behavioral differences between new and old congregations, or it could reflect the fact that dioceses choose to plant churches in those new suburbs whose residents are most likely to be open to the Episcopal Church, or simply that older congregations often literally don't have much room to grow. The clear suggestion however is that existing churches in growing neighborhoods should ask if they appear insular to outsiders.

Immigration and ethnicity: US Census figures tell us the white population is growing slower than the black population, the Hispanic population, and populations influenced by immigration (e.g., Asian). Hadaway finds growth of congregations is related to their ethnicity but “the relationship tends to be stronger in other denominations.” It has been said more than once that growth will not be found by going after the traditional constituency of mainline churches.

Presence of children: Of congregations with over 40% under the age of 18 the proportion that are growing is 40%. Other categories are much lower. Even in congregations with 20 to 40% under the age of 18 the proportion growing is 26%. But is it the presence of kids that attract new families? Or is it merely that congregations with children have many families that are growing? Or are we perhaps also seeing the effect that in new suburbs there is population growth and most residents of new suburbs are younger families?

Aging congregations don’t grow: In congregations with less than 25% of the membership over age 50 the proportion growing was 42%. Of congregations with 26% to 50% over the age of 50 the proportion drops to 31%. And it only gets worse if more than 50% of your congregation is over age 50. As Hadaway has underscored elsewhere, the birthrate among Episcopalians has fallen below the replacement rate. With that as given the age distribution membership of the typical congregation will shift towards older cohorts unless we evangelize. Yet many aging congregations are a reflection of their community so it is easier said than done that to grow these congregations you must attract young families.

Gender balance matters: It’s well known that regardless of denomination more females than males attend church. What Hadaway finds is that gender balance matters to growth. Of congregations that were more than 60% female, 50% were in decline. The proportion in decline is 45% if the congregation is more than 60% male (however unlikely that might be!). 40% are in decline in the “balanced” category (40 to 60% female). Since age is not held constant, it could be that we are merely seeing the effect of age combined with the fact that females have a longer life expectancy. If not, there could be a policy suggestion here: think harder about strategies that bring men to church.

Theological orientation of the parish matters: Congregations were asked what is the “theological outlook of the majority of your congregation’s regularly participating adults?” There is a stair-step fall across categories from “predominantly conservative” in which 48% of congregations were in decline, to “predominantly liberal” where just 34% were in decline. That would be consistent with the presumption that conservatives are most likely to be leaving the Episcopal Church and growth is occurring in those parishes that most reflect the liberal direction of the national church.

Conservatism of the diocese matters: If you are in a conservative diocese (in Hadaway’s classification there are eleven such dioceses) your congregation is more likely to growth. At the same time, if you are in a conservative diocese your congregation is more likely to be growing if it is left or right of “somewhat conservative.” It appears that conservative dioceses are more successful at holding onto conservative members than are other dioceses. In addition, I suspect part of what we are seeing in conservative dioceses is polarization due to conflict, where congregations towards the ends of the spectrum are picking up members from congregations in the middle, as well as from each other.

There are several questions on the survey form which Hadaway does not report on, probably because they had no strong effect on growth. These included questions on political conservatism of the congregation, household income, proportion of adults with college degrees, encouragement of personal piety, programs, outreach, and clergy.

There are also questions that could be asked that were not. For example, what other Episcopal churches, or churches of other denominations, are nearby? Where there is more opportunity for people to choose a congregation according to their theological preference are congregations in the middle growing slower? Or might it be that some people are attracted to diverse congregations or congregations that offer variety in worship?

A way to add value to the survey would be to match the congregation’s responses with the data available at from the national church at Studying your Congregation and Community. As stated there,

In order to know who you are, you need to examine where you are and where you have been.

Looking at the social and demographic characteristics of the local community sheds light on the people to which we hope to minister. Looking at trends in membership, average worship attendance, and financial giving sheds light on congregational strength and whether current patterns indicate growth, decline or stability.

The social and demographic characteristics of the local community – household income, ethnicity, education are garnered from U.S. Census data. The data by themselves are useful – for example, there’s no point following a strategy of attracting young adults if there are none in the community. What makes for a sensible evangelism strategy will differ in each context. And these factors may have more to do with the efficacy of different growth strategies than characteristics of the congregation itself.

But it would also be possible with census data to group the surveyed congregations by community type. One example: group congregations according to the ethnic mix of the community (not just to the ethnic mix of the congregation). A question that could be asked then is which congregations in ethnically mixed communities are growing – those that focus on the traditional white higher income segment in the community, or those that take a less traditional approach? What makes for a sensible evangelism strategy will differ in each context. And these factors may have more to do with the efficacy of different growth strategies than demographic characteristics of the congregation itself.

More will be said about growth strategies in Part II this coming Monday. See, also, my essay from last week is here.

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist specializing in applied game theory. In January he will conclude six years of service at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) and return home to Orkney Springs, the location of Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

Demography and time trends in membership in the Episcopal Church

By John B. Chilton

In 2004 C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research for The Episcopal Church Center published “Is the Episcopal Church Growing (or Declining)?” The title may suggest the report is trivial. It is not. First, it carefully documents membership in the Episcopal Church 1930-2002. Thus, we know we stand (circa 2002 at least). Second, Hadaway uses the report to point to a core fact behind the decline in the growth rate of the church: the demography of its members.

To answer the question posed by the title of the paper, Hadaway had to first develop a consistent time series for membership. (The period covered is 1930 to 2002.) Over several decades there had been changing formats in the annual Parochial Report that the national church administered to gather numbers on membership from parishes, and changing methods of using those reports to calculate total membership in the national church. (Further, non-domestic dioceses have not been included in membership numbers since 1985 so Hadaway’s series excludes them prior to 1986 as well (adding back in Hawaii and Alaska).) Much of the report is an account of how Hadaway identified and corrected for the changing definitions and formats. It makes for rather mind-numbing reading, but the careful documentation is absolutely essential if we are to have confidence in the time series, and whether it tells us anything about the changing state of the church over time.

The corrected membership time series shows that, like other mainline churches, the Episcopal Church grew rapidly during the post-World War II baby boom. But in the late fifties growth slowed and by the mid-sixties had turned negative. Hadaway summarizes (pp. 11-12, describing Figure 6 in the report):

The [growth] trend line for the Episcopal Church has tracked quite closely to other mainline denominations. Growth rates declined precipitously from the mid-1950s [2.5%] to the mid-1970s [negative 1.5% for the mainline as a whole] and then began to moderate. From 1950 to 1974 the only meaningful difference between the pattern for the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations was that the Episcopal decline [negative 2 to 3 percent growth] was more severe during the early-1970s. … After bottoming out in the early 1970s, the Episcopal rate of membership decline began to improve greatly [between 0 and 1% decline annually] and by 1980 the loss rate was consistently better than the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations. So even though the Episcopal Church has not seen consistent membership growth, we are not declining at the same rate as other mainline denominations—a state of affairs that has existed for over two decades.

Thus, over the decades of the eighties and nineties membership in the Episcopal was at virtual plateau. This plateau was obscured by the issues surrounding Parochial Reports and highlights the importance the work Hadaway did in resolving them to establish his time series. The decline over the sixties and seventies did not continue.

In Hadaway’s analysis the reasons for the decline have to do with demography, not theology or church growth strategy. Or, rather, where he would place emphasis in a church growth strategy is in broadening our constituency. The membership of the Episcopal Church has been predominantly white. And the birthrate among whites has declined substantially since the fifties. Hathaway finds (p. 13) “the association between [white birthrate and mainline membership growth] is so strong that it produces a correlation of .94 (0 being no relationship and 1.0 begin a perfect relationship). In statistical terms, 88% of the year to year variation in mainline membership can be explained by the birth rate.” (He finds the correlation .89 between white birthrate growth and member growth in the Episcopal Church.) Further (p. 16),

As noted earlier, all denominations—mainline and conservative—were affected adversely by social changes occurring in the 1960s and 1970s. However, mainline denominations were hit hardest by the changes because declines in the birth rate were much more severe among the more highly educated white population. (Among conservative Protestants and Mormons the birth rate remained much higher than for the mainline, insulating these groups from the full effect of declines in fertility).
and (p. 17)
The Episcopal Church has the highest proportion of members among mainline denominations who are college graduates and in households earning $75,000 or more. As a result, the birth rate among Episcopalians is much lower than the national average—and even lower than the population of non-Hispanic whites. A reasonable estimate, based on education and race, is approximately 1.5 children per woman (compared to the replacement level of 2.1) for Episcopalians.
Hathaway concludes (p. 17), “sustained growth is increasingly unlikely unless we begin to reach out beyond our historic constituency.”

Earlier I reviewed recent academic work on church membership trends in mainline and conservative churches. It echoes what Hadaway concludes about the Episcopal church demography. That work also suggests that mainline churches have lost another source of growth: dropouts from conservative churches. As I wrote,

It's a great irony that after differential birthrates, the second most important fact in explaining the rise of conservative membership relative to the mainline is that a portion of conservative youth that in the past would have converted to mainline in their adulthood now drop out of Christianity altogether.

This raises an interesting empirical question: is the Episcopal church an exception? How many of its new members come from other Christian denominations?

Next Monday, Part II: an examination of Hadaway’s “FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth.”

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) specializing in applied game theory. In the summers he resides in Orkney Springs, Va., home of Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

What about Generation X?

First of two parts.

The author gratefully acknowledges the input of other participants in Northern Virginia's Mesh Community for ideas she developed in this essay. It doesn't necessarily reflect any individual's opinion other than her own, however.

By Helen Thompson

I was talking to a friend about the challenges we face by virtue of being born after 1970--well, of being gen-xers in general, and being caught between the "Boomers" and the "Millennials," and how this affects us in faith communities. It came up last week on an email group, and I passed it along to several of my friends who are doing their part, in my humble opinion, to attract people like me to the broader church. On Sept. 20, that group met over margaritas to discuss, as my friend put it, "the theological / ecclesiological / missiological / tequiliological implications" of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; indeed, the Harry Potter series as a whole. Where on earth can you find something like this? In our homespun small group, called MESH, which is an acronym for mix, entangle, share, harmonize. What it is, for me, is church. Three friends had the idea to read some books and invite their friends over for munchies and chat. And they're telling their friends. And they're telling their friends. We're not part of any one church, but part of the church.

The more I see things with top-down architectures being applied to us youngish people, the more I realize it doesn't work. I've seen great ideas committee-ed to death all because people older and wiser than me must control every outcome of every plan of every initiative. And the more input I got from friends of mine, the more I realized:

Your invitation to me to participate doesn't mean much if you don't let my input—and leadership—count. And that's what I'm hearing from frustrated 30-something laity who want to take on leadership positions but still get flak for being slackers, which we really are not anymore and we'd like some credit. It's not just the Episcopal Church. I worked at a financial services magazine that refused every pitch I made about Gen-X prospects because we're not buyers. I work for an association that's trying to figure out how to attract people under 40 because we're not joiners. One friend of mine added to the conversation that she'd like to see "'young adult' stricken from the Episcopal vocabulary"--for reasons that resonate with me: mortgage, career, family. Heck, my son is almost 15, and pretty soon I'll be the young adult parent of a young adult.

So, if we're not young adults anymore, and nowhere near middle aged (if 50 is new the 30, we're actually teenagers), what are we? How do you address the wide demographic of a narrow slice of the population that's holding an awful lot of cards and generating absolutely no buzz? Sure, skip us. Move on to the millennials.

Here's my take on things, though. Generation X is the bridge between the Boomers and the Millenials. We were raised with enough technology that we're conversant in the ways that today's teenagers interact on social networks. But we also know how to dial a phone. We're all wired in varying ways, but each succeeding generation is increasingly plugged in. Let me put it another way. Historically, many immigrants have come to America speaking only their native language. Their children, however, speak both languages fluently. But I know many cases where the grandchildren don't speak anything but English, and the middle generation must help the bookending generations understand one another--literally. So what happens if you skip the middle generation?

Here's an example I ran across recently. Blogs are a publishing platform that were adopted quickly by compulsive writers with varying degrees of web-savvy. I've had so many that it's a wonder I can populate them all with random Helen/Gallycat brain noise on a regular basis, so I wax and wane with all of them. They're a great way to distribute content, to self-publish (no, really, I'm more prolific than Stephen King!), to bypass censorious editors, to think aloud, to take the podium, to brainstorm in community. So of course, many organizations, seeing the value of being able to share content with one another, decided to barrel full speed ahead with a blog. Occasionally, some would enlist me to help get the blog off the ground, since I know the technology. One, in particular, was a church that was looking forward to getting some ideas out there.

But they didn't listen to my input on certain key issues that ultimately doomed the blog. Granted, this is a church that has huge outreach on many fronts and I don't fault them at all for determining that this wasn't the vehicle for them, especially since I was constantly moving from place to place and too peripatetic to fully participate in the community. (This is a major reason why "online" was my permanent residence, up til recently.) But the problem was that every post had to be approved by a committee. I felt like Cassandra, trying to explain to them why it would inhibit participation on the blog. It died a few months later. I was sad, but Episcopal Cafe emerged right around then, so I had another place to focus my energies.

So how is this an example of why we, Gen X, are the translators? We are well equipped to understand social media, which is going to be the communications medium of choice for today's young people. How is this changing the face of communications? My connections in the news media say it's as revolutionary as Gutenberg and the moveable type printing press. Ignore this opinion at your peril, unless you think Luther's revolution had nothing to do with Gutenberg's (again, a hat tip to my friend for saying this; I hope he outs himself in the comments). Blogs are just a part of what that next generation is coming online with. We can speak their language. We can speak the Boomers', too, though. Did I mention my teenage son? Yes? What about my aging parents? How's your retirement portfolio?

So anyway, back to the matter at hand. Don't skip Generation X. We've seen it more than once. We've heard you ask how to reach us, and seen you form committees hoping to find the magic pill that will get us back in the pews. To be honest, you might not. My fiancé has stalwartly avoided church services pretty much since he was old enough to say "no" to them. But cookouts, labyrinth walks, drum circles, soup kitchens, river clean-ups? He's so there. How is he going to hear about those activities if he doesn't come to church each Sunday? Through our blogs, our Facebook accounts, our Livejournals, our Myspace pages. I'm on each of these platforms, and on every single one it's plain to see that I'm a Christian, an Episcopalian, a Harry Potter fan and a Diet Pepsi addict. And I have slowly been building my own net community, little pockets of which occasionally gather for margaritas, that is my church.

You don't need a committee to study us and come up with a strategic plan that you'll implement just in time for my grandchildren's confirmation, by which time said strategic plan will be as obsolete and full of cheesy music as 8-track tapes. Try flying by the seat of your pants. Take a hint from my Tequila-loving pals and get a group together over dinner and a movie and see what happens. Take some popular music—U2 is just the beginning—and see what happens when you treat the lyrics as songs to God. Look at how subcultures like emo and goth have spiritual subtexts that tie in beautifully with the poetry of psalms. Take church outside the church, and take advantage of social networking technology to bring more people into the fold. Not the pews, THE FOLD. For we are his flock in the world. In the world! Such is the call to the diaconate, and the call of the deacon at the end of the service. But it's important to everyone; otherwise, such would not be the call of the deacon to us: Go forth into the world to love and serve the lord.

It's not enough to study us. Listen to us, yes, but more importantly—

Join us.

Helen Thompson directs social media initiatives for an international association in Northern Virginia and is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in the northern Shenandoah Valley, where she is in her second year of studies in Education for Ministry and plugging away at her first novel. Catch her on the web at http://www.gallycat.com, among others.

How big is too big?
How small too small?

By Sam Candler

I must admit that I like large churches. I like the suggestion that their sheer size represents something of the grandeur of God. I like all the programs and mission opportunities they provide. I like the enormously talented staffs that they are usually able to afford. Many people have deep needs met in large churches, and the better large churches really do proclaim the gospel in effective ways.

I grew up, however, in a small church. There I learned much about the idiosyncrasies of community. I learned the values of diversity (when folks got upset, no one could up and leave for another church; we were the only Episcopal church around!) For many years, however, that church remained quite small. Our parish and mission life developed a cycle of boom and bust, up to various renewal movements then down to depressed clergy, then back up to mission trips, then back down to tedious music and dry liturgy. Lately, that parish has flourished with fine and healthy leadership among both its clergy and its people.

By “flourished,” I mean that the parish has grown in numbers of people and in numbers of dollars. I realize, of course, that growth can occur in other ways; but, again, I like physical flourishing and growth. My own parish is quite large, and I know that unless we are growing in people and in dollars, we might just be standing still.

But what if there are limits to growth? Several books on natural economy proclaim that very reality in the natural worlds of farming and energy production. I have eagerly enjoyed those books in the interest of earth stewardship and sustainability. Some scientists claim that the world’s production of oil has actually reached its peak, and we do not realize it yet.

Michel Pollan makes the same sort of point regarding the commoditization of agriculture in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Once we determine everything’s value primarily in terms of its financial cost and reward, in dollar figures, and in “yield per acre,” we actually begin to cultivate crops that are less nutritious and less healthy for us. Finding it cheaper to grow huge supplies of beef and corn with synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, and hormones (mostly made with petroleum products), we feed ourselves with items that are missing key ingredients.

At one point, Pollan contrasts industrial production with artisanal production. “Industrial farmers are in the business of selling commodities,” he says, ever more cheaply so that the enterprise can grow profits (page 250). On the other hand, artisanal production, “is based on selling something special rather than being the least-cost producer of a commodity” (page 250). Having read that, I considered our own communities of growth and health. Is there a size-limit to the community where Christians can know authentic community and be challenged to mission?

If we get too large, do we lose the sense of “something special?” I believe that point occurs when we begin to relate to religion as a commodity, as if church is only a delivery system for something sterile and industrial. Some of the biggest mega churches today realize the principle of “artisanal production.” They arrange members in smaller cell groups of study and accountability. These churches are successful both because some larger structure and larger set of resources has enabled them, but also because they remember the uniqueness of small communities of diverse faith.

Small groups, like small parishes, are where different seeds meet with different soils and wonderful fruits sprout. Small communities are where we learn to be fascinated with individual searches and discoveries, those journeys of people who become our true friends. A church, of any size, becomes sterile and lifeless when it begins to speak simplistically and to make faith into a “commodity,” like any big industrial producer.

A church which can change the world, however, knows the values of natural systems; “the efficiencies of natural systems flow from complexity and interdependence—by definition the very opposite of simplification” (page 214) is how Michael Pollan puts it. What he writes about eating, a necessary and natural element of human life, is also true about praying, an equally necessary and natural element of life. Healthier prayer occurs in those communities which are not afraid of complexity. Relatively speaking, those spiritual communities can be large or small. But they need complexity no matter what their size. Healthy churches need complexity and interdependence in order to realize the grand and graceful mystery of life itself.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

The Gospel of James

By Heidi Shott

Just yesterday morning, I was thinking about what to write for my monthly deadline at the Café. Several times a day I get flashes of ideas for essays – the commonplace moment somehow connects to some big idea - but then the phone rings or someone says, “hey, did you pick up my shirts at the cleaners?” or I get a pop-up on feedreader with a story about a cop in Glasgow who was attacked by an octopus and I can’t help but click. These interruptions make it hard to be faithful to all the ideas that present themselves for consideration.

But some ideas are more tenacious than others. There’s something in the way they keep rising to the top of my mind that makes them hard to ignore.

The James Taylor concert falls into that category.

In March for his birthday or perhaps in June for Father’s Day, (sadly, I can’t remember) my sons and I bought my husband Scott two tickets to see James Taylor in August. The plan was he would share the second ticket with me.

So one evening a few weeks ago, 50 miles from our quiet village, we sat down to a table at a lovely restaurant near the Civic Center in Portland. The young waiter asked if we were going to the concert.

“S’pose you have a lot of middle-aged people in tonight before James Taylor?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he grinned and concentrated on opening the wine.

Over the last 20 years we’ve been to a lot of events at the Civic Center. Once years ago I paid for my sons to ride the elephant at the circus, then they chickened out so I rode it with one of their friends. I’m against elephant riding in general, but I’d bought the damn tickets. We’ve seen Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby. We’ve gotten backstage passes to see the Barenaked Ladies twice because our only famous friend, Ned Steinberger, is a friend of the bass player.

As we took our seats on the floor of the Civic Center, eerily near the spot I bestrode the elephant, we saw that the place was sold out. It was sardined with people of the boomer persuasion. We played a game of spotting people under 30 with the couple to my left (you can do that in Maine). “There’s one!” chirped the 50-something engineer-type beside me.

“Well, yeah, she’s under 30, but look, she’s with her mom,” Scott said.

“Right,” he said, disappointed, “doesn’t count.”

“Our son is here,” said his wife. “He’s 32. But he won’t sit with us.”

One night in the lazy summer of 1982 - the summer Scott and I painted the barn on my family’s farm, played a lot of badminton and didn’t do much else - we drove to Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see James Taylor and his band. Most people were on the lawn with their blankets and buckets of beer, but we had tickets inside. It was a great show but I didn’t notice that anyone in the audience seemed particularly old, including James and Karla Bonoff who opened for him.

At this concert, however, there was no opening act, no band, just James Taylor, his guitars, and a fellow musician playing various keyboard instruments to complement the show. He started out with a wave and hello and launched into “There’s Something in the Way She Moves.” He had all 8,000 of us from the intro. His untouched voice; his deft, self-deprecating manner; all was a balm. Just about everyone in the room had either come of age with or grown up with these familiar songs, depending on their place on the boomer continuum.

I remember first hearing “Fire and Rain” played by my brother Jim, ten years my senior, around 1970. By the time I started high school in 1976, I was listening to “Greatest Hits” every night as I nodded off to sleep. “You’ve Got a Friend” was the last song on Side A and my record player would click off all by itself. The cover of the “JT” album spent several years mounted on the wall next to my bed. He still had hair back then.

In college, Scott and I listened to “Flag” and “Dad Loves His Work” on the 15-hour road trips between school in Boston and his home in West Virginia. After we were married and terribly lonely working as teachers in Micronesia, pining for mail and books we hadn’t already read, two copies of “That’s Why I’m Here” on cassette arrived from different friends on the very same day. Years later, I listened to “New Moon Shine” over and over during those first quiet winter months of doing little else but sitting and nursing our twin sons. This extended soundtrack of my life, our life together, is an odd and precious thing.

It’s crazy to think that this man who I don’t know nor will ever meet and, moreover, have no desire to ever meet, has accompanied me through these last 35 years. At the concert an alarming number of people felt compelled to shout personal greetings to him, which he absorbed graciously. The concert ran three hours with four encores. We got our money’s worth certainly. We had a nice dinner out, alone, like a real couple on a date. We talked about the first concert 25 years before in Saratoga when it took us 45 minutes to find the car, back when we never suspected we’d be together all these years later.

As a person of faith, I can’t help but wonder what it is about James Taylor – this gawky, bald, 60 year-old - that draws 8,000 busy middle-aged Mainers to buy tickets and sit on folding chairs in a dusty ice hockey rink/monster truck arena…and to be able to hold that attraction for 40 years. As someone who thinks a lot about marketing the Church, I can’t help but wonder what we’re doing wrong. The song that we’ve been gifted with is a million times sweeter than “Sweet Baby James.” If you read the Gospels with a fresh eye, it’s hard to escape that the person of Jesus is wildly attractive and charismatic. Read the Gospels cold, and you know why the fishermen of Galilee dropped their nets to follow. Talk about backstage passes!

But what are we doing in this Episcopal Church of ours? On what are we focusing our attention? We’re not so great at crafting an achingly sweet soundtrack that draws people back again and again and again.

One of the most disheartening stories I ever heard as a diocesan communications officer was from a single mom who had stopped going to one of our churches. Bumping into her after not seeing her for a few years, I asked why she’d stopped attending. She told me that she’d arrived one Sunday with her two daughters and someone caught her before she sat down to remind that it was her day to provide snacks and juice for coffee hour after the service. Her life was complicated at that time and she’d forgotten.

“I panicked,” she told me. “I had exactly $25 in my checking account, but I was too embarrassed to tell the person who chided me for forgetting. That I didn’t have any money wouldn’t have occurred to her in a million years.” Though I knew this woman was doing better now, I could see how much it cost her to recount the story. “I grabbed my girls, drove out and bought juice and crackers, and set them up in the parish hall. Then we left and we’ve never been back.”

If only we knew how to flip the switch to be better at this stuff. If only we knew how to absorb the winsome attractiveness of Jesus and offer it freely to everyone – people we agree with and people we don’t, people we find interesting and people we don’t. In the James Taylor model, despite his addictions and demons so publicly chronicled, there’s a guilelessness, a generously proffered gift, a constancy over time, that his admirers are drawn to. It’s not a bad model after all.

That night James sang:

“The secret of love is in opening up your heart It’s okay to feel afraid But don’t let that stand in your way ‘Cause anyone knows that love is the only road”
It sounds so dumb when you see it on the page, but it doesn’t when you hear it sung in a sweet and familiar voice. In that way, it’s a little like being a Christian. I’m open to ideas for how we can work on our song.

I started this column last night with my laptop in bed. I was going great guns when Scott said, “Time to turn out the light.” So I woke up this morning and finished it. I’m just glad I remember who to send it to.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. She is also communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Heidi's essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

No more Homecomings

By Diana Butler Bass

September is my favorite month of the year. In these embracing days, as summer wanes, certain things signal autumn: the shopping trip for new school clothes, the slant of sunlight through the tress, the breeze bearing Canadian coolness. And, perhaps most notably, every Episcopal Church hangs out a banner bearing the words: “Homecoming Sunday.”

Although I have never read a history of this custom, I suspect that Homecoming Sunday began in the early twentieth century as a way of welcoming back parishioners from their summer places after months away from church. At that time, Episcopalians conceived of church as religious “homes,” complete with parish parlors full of extended family, bustling with quotidian chores of flower arranging, ironing, and cooking, all under the care of a priest called “Father.” Homecoming Sunday liturgically marked a return to the regular schedule of work and school, and the family gathered around the table to engage worship and ministry once again. Coming home served as a welcoming metaphor in this domestic spiritual world.

If you grew up in the church, Homecoming Sunday is a lovely custom. And therein lies the problem. We no longer live in a world of Episcopal churchgoers where hanging out a sign announcing “Homecoming Sunday” invites the neighborhood to church. To us theological insiders, “Homecoming Sunday” may be a way of saying “Welcome Home to God,” a sort of subtle Episcopal evangelism. Of course, we would welcome newcomers—not just returnees—on Homecoming Sunday. Good intentions aside, in a society where less than 18% of Americans attend church on a weekly basis, Homecoming Sunday seems increasingly irrelevant and even inhospitable. How can a church invite people to homecoming who have never been in the building in the first place? How can anyone understand finding a home in God if they have no spiritual language to express their longings? From the point of view of twenty-first century post-Christian people, the “Homecoming Sunday” banner may as well read “Members Only Club.”

With so much groaning about numerical decline and awkward evangelism, Homecoming Sunday is a good opportunity to rethink the messages we send to our neighbors. Therein, I have a modest proposal. Can Homecoming Sunday in favor of Open House Sunday. Instead of welcoming members back, invite everybody to church. Open God’s house to complete strangers, seekers, the curious, and the noisy. Not just Episcopal alumni.

Although church folk never consider it, the very act of walking on church property—much less through church doors—is a completely terrifying prospect for most people. Take away their fear. Give them a reason to visit. Offer tours. Let the neighbors roam through your building, trample your carpets, and ask impertinent questions about your furniture and decorations. Explain to them the meanings of Christian architecture, the stories depicted in the windows. Feed them. Have a party. Do not recruit for committee slots or solicit money for any purpose. Expect nothing in return.

Finally, measure the custom of Homecoming Sunday by the words of Jesus regarding hospitality, words that depict the church as an open community: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors . . . But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Luke 14: 12-13). We may well discover that “Open House,” describes both the ancient Christian practice of hospitality and the contemporary Episcopal Church far better than any old-fashioned homecoming.

Diana Butler Bass is the author of the award-winning Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper One, 2006). She is a member of Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C.

My mother, the evangelist

By Kit Carlson

An old youth group friend of mine recently died, and as I read her obituary, about her good work with her local parish, her funeral in a large Episcopal church in Manhattan, I thought, “Yup, Mom, you got another one.”

My mother was very proud of the people she “got” into the Episcopal church. As her own death neared, she would often run them off on her fingers, her friends, my friends, my sister’s friends, all the people she had managed to get firmly planted in some local parish. Jack and Jodie, Marcia and Chuck, Ken and Sally, Susan, Patty, Merrie. She was almost as bad as my high school Baptist friends, totting up her converts with pride.

But my mother was an unlikely evangelist. Her belief in God was tenuous at best, she rejected most of the sentences in the creeds, she railed at the hypocrisy she found in Bible studies and Episcopal Church Women groups, and she complained about the priests in our high, Anglo-Catholic parish. Holding her nose against the incense, she would murmur, “Do they have to swish around like that in those robes?”

Still, she loved getting people settled in a church home. And she believed, to the end of her days, that the Episcopal church was the best church home anyone could find. She relished inviting people to join her at church … even if it was the first time she had gone in months, and she was only going to escort them. She gleefully coaxed my sister’s and my friends into joining us for youth group. And when they got baptized or confirmed, or married, she was there with bells on … or at least a great hat and matching shoes.

Now my mother could sell snow to Canadians. She had a variety of careers selling everything from real estate to home health services. And perhaps her salesmanship just carried over to matters of the church as well. But I wonder, after all these years of Decades of Evangelism and 20/20, and every program the church has dreamed up to introduce people to the Episcopal way … I wonder if maybe her approach isn’t the better one, even if it is the more neglected one.

For we all know people who are lonely, and who need a community. And we all know people who have questions about faith, and who need a safe place to bring those questions. And we know people who are seeking meaning and purpose and need companions in that journey. They are our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our children’s friends

Somehow, though, we continually fail to overcome our reticence, our “politeness,” our fear of rejection. We eagerly tell these folks about great movies, new restaurants, trustworthy doctors. Yet when the ultimate questions of life and faith and purpose arise, we fall silent. We do not offer what we have found inside the big red doors of our local Episcopal church. We do not promise to take someone with us and sit with them until they learn the service. We do not invite them to parish suppers or Messiah sing-alongs.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with “getting” someone into the Episcopal Church. Perhaps it is something our friends will thank us for in the end, something their loved ones might thank us for at the very end, when the folks we “got” into the church exit this world and enter the next, borne along on the liturgy of the Episcopal burial service, sustained by the love and care of their church family.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and was associate and interim rector at the Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, Md., for seven years.

Why I am an Anglican

By Kit Carlson

For many years, I was a serious Anglophile. I loved being an Episcopalian, because we talked like Thomas Cranmer every single week (at least until the 1979 revision of the Prayer Book). I was obsessed with the Masterpiece Theater series on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and the connection between my local church and the its convulsive beginnings in the 15th Century was really powerful for me.

As I got older, I drifted in and out of churches. As a young 20-ish woman, there was nothing that spoke to me in most Sunday services. But on All Saints Sunday 1986, my husband and I wandered into Our Saviour Episcopal Church, just next to the Beltway in suburban Maryland. We had relocated to Silver Spring, I was pregnant with our first child, and I wanted to find a church we could settle down in as a family.

Our Saviour had a pipe organ. And a choir, one that needed a soprano. It worked for me. We joined.

Shortly after, something wonderful began to happen at Our Saviour. It had been founded in the late '50s as a "white flight" church, spun off from another Our Saviour in the Brookland area of Washington when things began to "change" in the neighborhood. But as the 1980s turned into the 1990s, Our Saviour-Hillandale also began to change. Folks started showing up, immigrants from Africa and China and India and the Caribbean.

It was another connection to British history, its history of empire and of conquest. For if once the sun never set on the British Empire, then it also never set on Britain's national church. There were Anglicans all over the world and as they moved to the United States, many of them made their home at Our Saviour.

Harwood Bowman, the founding rector, had planned for Our Saviour to be built next to the Capitol Beltway, then only a dream, because he wanted folks to come to Our Saviour from "all over." Folks were definitely coming to the church from "all over," from places Harwood had never imagined they might come, bringing their culture and customs with them. It became a Pentecostal church ... not the kind that rolls around in the ecstasy of the Spirit, but a church that looks like the feast of Pentecost, when each person heard the good news proclaimed to them in their own language.

Through these changes, Our Saviour flexed, painfully at times, but accommodated the shifts. When I worshipped there last month, for the first time in years (and for the last time for me as a resident of Maryland ...), it was very different and yet the same.

The congregation was more than three-quarters black. But not because the whites fled ... the old-timers were still filling the same pews. The parish had just grown and changed along with them.

The Mother's Union, another exported British tradition, had turned out to make a presentation. In their matching blue dresses and white hats, they claimed their pride of place as a force of feminine leadership. The sermon -- preached by the new young assistant, who is also the parish's pastor to its Latino congregation -- was free-form, delivered from the aisle, and powerful. The music was traditional (with ALL the verses of St. Patrick's Breastplate) and pietistic, with three hymns from LEVAS at communion, sung with great volume and joy. Some people waved their hands in the air. Others silently bowed their heads in prayer. It was my church. It was a homecoming.

Our Saviour is not a perfect parish. It has had its dissensions, its debates, its struggles over what is going on in the wider Communion and what is going on among its own members. But it is a community that has held together through those dissensions and struggles. It is Anglican in all the best definitions of that word ... international, comprehensive, thoughtful, traditional, yet open to the leading of the Spirit.

I am proud to have called it my church home. It has made me the Anglican I am today.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. She was associate and interim rector at the Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, Md., for seven years.

Be fruitful and teach your children well

Episcopalians do not do evangelization by reproduction. We also don’t do a terribly good job at retaining the offspring we do produce.
- Katharine Jefferts Schori, Hays Daily News, June 18, 2007

By John B. Chilton

The mainline denominations – Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian – didn’t pay much attention to competition for members from conservative denominations until the early 1970s when the number of conservatives passed the mainline denominations in total membership. Since then conservatives have continued to grow relative to the mainline churches. In the 1950s mainline denominations constituted 60% of Protestants; by the 1990s it was the conservative denominations that held 60%. Is this because the mainline denominations are soft and the upstart evangelicals do a better a job of evangelism? Many have supposed this to be the case, and I echoed those views in my essay in the Daily Episcopalian last month.

A friendly commenter suggested that the reasons had to do more with lower rates of fertility in mainline denominations. Indeed, several times our Presiding Bishop has made much the same point – that the fertility rate of Episcopalian women is lower than the rate for women in the United States as a whole. Whenever she has made that point conservative bloggers (or their followers) have been quick to headline her words and brand them as excuses. But numbers on family size are facts. I conjecture that mainline couples have fewer children for standard economic reasons; mainline families do tend to have higher incomes and those higher incomes are due to higher wages, for both spouses. Children take time to rear so children are more expensive for families with higher wages. Higher price of children, fewer children demanded.

The relative decline of mainline denominations could of course be due both to differences in fertility and in evangelism. My commenter pointed me to what he admitted was a somewhat dated paper here. From that tip I was able to find a more recent paper, “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States” by Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley and Melissa J. Wilde, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 107, No. 2. (Sep., 2001), pp. 468-500 [JSTOR, subscription only].

Hout et al. have individual records on religious affiliation at birth, change in affiliation and fertility rates of women through 1998 via the General Social Survey. The data is recent enough to include the rise of the Religious Right in public awareness, but not to capture developments after 2003, the year that Gene Robinson was confirmed as the Bishop of New Hampshire. This is just as well because they do not report on denominations separately. The 139 Protestant denominations are classified and grouped as either mainline or conservative.

Grow your own

Besides, Hout and his co-authors report, conservatives have succeeded in evangelism because they have conformed to the edict, “be fruitful and multiply.” From the GSS records they were able to tease out fertility rates for women in the cohorts born between 1903 and 1973. Using only the fertility data they then project the implied growth in membership from 1903 to 1998 – in the following categories: mainline, conservative, other religion, and no religion. Their result:

Evidence from the General Social Survey indicates that higher fertility and earlier childbearing among women from conservative denominations explains 76% of the observed trend for cohorts born between 1903 and 1973: conservative denominations have grown their own.

Again: “conservative denominations have grown their own.” Hence the “demographic imperative” – a smaller group will eventually become the larger group if its growth rate is larger. For much of the 20th century the mainline fertility by age cohort was just over two, barely enough for zero growth. In contrast, conservative fertility in the early part of the century was almost one more child per woman; more recently it remains above but is nearly equal to mainline fertility.

Teach your children well: don't grow up to be mainline

Why has conservative fertility declined? Socioeconomically the conservatives have become more like the mainline denominations. They have climbed the economic ladder, but unlike in the past, they are less likely to switch to a mainline denomination.

Herein lies the other substantial part of the reason the conservatives have had more success in evangelism. They not only grow more of their own, they “teach their children well” so that they do not convert to a mainline denomination in their adulthood. This is not to say that conservatives have improved on "backdoor evangelism," i.e. the rate at which members leave. Rather, most of those who leave don't join mainline denominations; they grow up to be unaffiliated with any faith. It's a great irony that after differential birthrates, the second most important fact in explaining the rise of conservative membership relative to the mainline is that a portion of conservative youth that in the past would have converted to mainline in their adulthood now drop out of Christianity altogether.

Two final findings: (1) “a recent rise in apostasy added a few percentage points to mainline decline” and (2) “conversions from mainline to conservative denominations have not changed, so they played no role in the restructuring.” The bad news for the mainline denominations is that they are losing more of their young people. (But this is only a small part of the explanation of the decline, and it could have to do with recent trends in delay of marriage, and delay in childbearing.) The surprising thing about conservative denominations is that their growth is not due to work in the mission field. It has to do with reproduction and rearing. Reports of their success in evangelism are greatly overstated.

Conclusion

The economist Steve Levitt argues that the drop in crime can be traced back to the legalization of abortion several decades earlier; that the drop had little or nothing to do with changes in police tactics or spending. Perhaps the fortunes of the mainline denominations can be traced not to a rejection of liberal theology, but to differential changes in family planning practices dating back a century.

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates.) In the summers he resides near Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

Measuring Success

By John B. Chilton*

The Episcopal Church is not a church that evangelizes well.

In colonial times it was an establishment church and clergy were supported by taxes rather than through success in evangelism. Membership and Sunday attendance was poor in part because establishment and the involuntary taxes that went with it were resented. Despite our national myths surrounding the Plymouth Colony and Jamestown, the colonialists were, to put it mildly, not particularly religious.

With the advent of freedom of religion after the Revolution the established churches did not compete successfully with the newer sects like the Baptists and the Methodists. Neither the clergy nor the organizational structures nor the theology of the Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians were well adapted to a competitive religious economy in a frontier country. It was not so much that the established churches declined in membership but that they did not grow at the pace of the upstarts. In market share terms the established churches declined dramatically.

The Great Awakenings – the dramatic increase in religiosity amongst Americans – were not somehow driven by the transforming effects of the frontier or freedom of religion on the hearts of the people, but came from disestablishment, unregulated open competition for souls and the success of the evangelism methods (lay preachers, circuit riders, camp meetings) adopted by sects like the Methodists. Ironically, in Britain the inheritors of the Wesleys’ Methodism – faced down by the established church – became conformist in evangelism methods, and never had the same success as their American counterparts.

At least as ironically, as the Methodist Church in the U.S. matured it let go of the methods by which it had succeeded. It became a mainline church with a seminary-trained clergy, and a less convicted laity (after all, fewer demands were made of them). Fervent evangelism appealing to the heart rather than the mind was viewed with embarrassment and was actively suppressed. Going by market share, the Methodist Church today is a shadow of its former self. The Southern Baptists had passed the Methodists in membership in the South in the last decade of the 19th century, and passed them country-wide in the 1960s.

To put it harshly, the Methodists became Episcopalians without a quality liturgy. (Nonetheless membership in the United Methodist Church is still five times ours.) But what is more important for Episcopalians is what the arc of the Methodist trajectory tells us about ourselves. Membership in the Episcopal Church did not follow the dramatic rise and fall in market share terms that the Methodists experienced. Once the Methodists became so much like Episcopalians in terms of organization, methods, demands of membership, and a professional seminary-trained clergy they became just as unsuccessful as we’ve always been in terms of evangelism.

Evangelicals in the lexicon of today embrace four doctrinal statements: (a) faith in Jesus as the only way to salvation, (b) inerrancy of the Bible, (c) personal conversion (born again), and (d) active individual participation in the conversion of others. There are Evangelical denominations (e.g., Missouri Synod, Southern Baptists), and there are substantial evangelical factions within the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant denominations (e.g., Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian).

In contrast to its evangelical wing, the majority in the Episcopal Church and in its leadership (a) decline to take a narrow interpretation of “one way”, (b) likewise, decline to take a narrow view of inerrancy, (c) do not emphasize personal conversion as something that occurs dramatically or suddenly, and (d) place less energy in (superficial?) inducement of conversion and more in bringing the Kingdom closer (the social gospel). We actively encourage people to doubt and to work out for themselves what they believe.

There’s no accounting for tastes (de gustibus non est disputandum). But the evidence suggests that the passive evangelism methods of the Episcopal Church are not effective in appealing to the tastes of the majority.

Most people, it appears, want to be told that it really matters to their salvation what they believe, how they came to believe it, and what they need to do to grow in grace. They want a charismatic leadership that professes no ambiguity or uncertainty. They want to see a clear boundary between those who are in grace, and those who are not. They desire membership requirements, and an intolerance of those who do not meet the requirements. They are inspired by unshakeable confidence, not by the encouragement to question and doubt. To most of us in the Episcopal Church all this is way too close to Amway for comfort. But we appear to be in a minority amongst believers in the U.S.

You might think that a tolerant church with modern attitudes, a willingness to experiment even with its rich tradition in order to be accepting, and an orientation to bringing about the Kingdom would appeal to those who remain unchurched in secular American society. But there’s no sign that we do appeal to the unchurched, at least not in large numbers.

Many are going to call it a cheap out, but my belief is that numbers are not the only measure of success. We are not a mass market church. We are a niche church with a rich liturgical tradition that brings some closer to God’s immanence, transcendence and longing for a relationship with God’s people. But our style doesn’t work for everyone – even if they agree with us on social issues – and that’s okay.

If it is not in numbers, what can be our measure of success? Are we doing a good job of encouraging our members to deepen their relationship with God? Christian formation is an area where I have witnessed growth and improvement in the Episcopal Church in recent decades. We’re pretty good at it (in my experience). But, in my view, we are not sufficiently demanding on this front. Evangelicals are successful in part because they create a tension with secular society. I propose that we could create more healthy tension with secular society by asking our members to grow in formation, perhaps even to adopt a rule of life. There is an aching spiritual void in secular society and adopting these kinds of standards would attract some seekers among the unchurched.

There is at least one other important measure of success. The Episcopal Church is often accused of merely being a liberal lobby group and thereby largely indistinguishable for secular society. “Social gospel” is used to describe us disparagingly. But not so long ago when society resisted change in attitudes towards blacks, women, and homosexuals the renewal of gospel attitudes in the Episcopal Church moved it into tension with the secular world. As a consequence, American society has moved in our direction on those issues; the Episcopal Church is following the call to bring heaven to earth.

It is evident that our mission now is to be that city on a hill for the Anglican Communion.

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates.) In the summers he resides near Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

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* I have drawn considerable inspiration from the research of Finke and Sharp.

PB tells EC to 'communicate the Good News'

From Episcopal News Service

In her opening remarks to the meeting of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council November 12, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori set the group's work in the context of mission and ministry.

Executive Council members must "figure out how to communicate the Good News we know in this body" to the diverse communities in which the Episcopal Church exists, especially to those people who have not been touched by the gospel or who are not yet part of a faith community.

"We have remarkable opportunities to speak and do Good News to people who don't know what that means," she said.

Both she and House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson said they are committed to what Jefferts Schori called the "deed-based evangelism" personified in the church's commitment to the Millennium Development Goals.

The full story is here, and the PB's sermon at the opening EC Eucharist is here.

There is an old rule, familiar to those who have taught writing and those who have studied it, that reads "show, don't tell." It makes a handy justification for "deed-based evangelism." But deeds alone aren't enough when communicating to a mass audience. Supportive though I am of the Millennium Development Goals, I think it would be a mistake to hang the full weight of our evangelistic aspirations on the hope that people will respond positively to the good example we are attempting to set. At some point, to persuade people to embrace our faith, we have to reach them on intimate level. Having them respect our example isn't enough.

Almost everyone I know respects the daylights out of the Society of Friends, but only a couple of them are Quakers.

A new trend in church marketing?

The New York Times carried an instructive article on church marketing this weekend. The key graphs concern Willow Creek Community Church, a well-known non-denominational mega-church in Illinois:

"Willow Creek’s shift in strategy mirrors moves by other houses of worship across a number of denominations to overhaul the programs they offer to build their congregations. These organizations say they are modeling their outreach practices on proven business and marketing strategies — not unlike what Wal-Mart is doing by adding more-fashionable clothes or what Borders is doing with its smaller “express” bookstores — to reach potential new members or to keep existing ones. They are also changing how they deliver those messages, using videocasts on cellphones and other new technologies, including an increasing emphasis on blogs and podcasts.

Bill Hybels, the founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek, has used business-world strategies — notably branding and word-of-mouth marketing — to help the church grow from 125 congregants 30 years ago into the megachurch it is today. While Mr. Hybels says he does not use marketing techniques to spread God’s word, “we do attempt to harness the full potential of modern technology and business strategies to communicate with our members and our community.”

and:

"The new messages — from Willow Creek and other nondenominational churches to mainstream denominations like the Episcopal and the United Methodist churches — tend to focus on connectedness, theology and shared values.

According to academics, including Robert B. Whitesel, who teaches at Indiana Wesleyan University, that change represents a shift from some past marketing efforts, which sought to make church more fun and inviting to baby boomers. "

Returning

Hello again.

It seems that I have returned from vacation without a great deal to say. I've caught up on all the recent developments in the Anglican saga, and for some reason, I don't feel like I need to say anything much about them.

I am hoping to spend more time this fall on helping our parishes to grow, and less time on what, from the perspective of a few weeks off, seems our increasingly irrelvant internal eccleisal drama.

Let's see how long my resolve will hold up.

The Special Commission

Some of the liberal deputies I have spoken with are uneasy about the way the Special Commission that is handling all the Windsor Report-related legislation is proceeding. It has spent what to some folks seemed like an inordinate amount of time perfecting a resolution that involves inviting members of other Anglican provinces to serve with seat and voice, but not vote, on our Standing Commissions.

This, in some eyes, has left insufficient time for a real give and take on seemingly more significant resolutions such as whether to approve a moratorium on the consecration of non-celibate gay bishops, and the nature of the Anglican Communion.

The Rev. Mark Harris, proprietor of the excellent blog Preludium, is sounding fairly downcast this morning. Mark, who was on the commission that proposed the 12 resolutions before the committee seems to feel that progresive voices aren't being heard.

Appropos of the lack of conversation about the place of gay Christians in the Church, one deputy told me. "It turns out that the elephant in the room isn't pink. And, in fact, it isn't even in the room."

I am reserving judgment on the procedings so far. The Rev. Frank Wade, chair of our deputation, is co-chair of the committee, and he's one of the smartest guys I've met through this job. I am hoping that he and his colleagues can cobble something together.

2 articles on N. T. Wright

We have two articles on Bishop N. T. Wright in our June issue of Washington Window, which will be online and in mailboxes soon. Below is a piece on his new book Simply Christian. At the end of that piece, you can click on the "keep reading" link to see a much shorter piece containing his comments about the Episcopal Church and its impending response to the Windsor Report.

The first article starts here:

Bishop N.T. Wright spends a good deal of time explaining to admirers that they misunderstand him.

To those impressed by his rigorous, evangelically-inclined biblical scholarship, he must explain that “conservative” convictions regarding the interpretation of Scripture do not, in his case, translate into support for the foreign policy of President George W. Bush.

“I often meet people in this country who tell me, ‘I love your books on Jesus. I really enjoy your work on Paul. But how can you criticize our president because God has raised him up to bring justice to the world?’ ” says Wright, the prolific author who is also the Bishop of Durham.

To liberals Christians who cheer his opposition to the war in Iraq and his advocacy of greenhouse gas restrictions, he must break the news that he parts company with them on issues such as gay marriage, and wonders whether their politics shapes their faith, rather than their faith shaping their politics.

“I think, for example, that some people oppose the idea of a bodily resurrection because it is part of a ‘center-right’ package in this country,” Wright said. “And if you believe in a bodily resurrection you are in with people who believe other things that you don’t believe. Part of my job is to constantly uncouple these assumptions. I think we just have to start with first principles on each issue.”

In his most recent book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Wright is dealing with Christianity at its most elemental.

“My publishers (Harper San Francisco in the United States and the Society for the Propogation of Christian Knowledge in the U. K.) perceived the need to do something for the 21st century like C. S. Lewis did with Mere Christianity,” Wright said before a recent lecture at Washington National Cathedral. “This book puts rather simply things that in other books, including some of my own, are put rather more complicatedly.”

In Simply Christian, Wright identifies four essential human longings: for justice, relationships, spiritual sustenance and beauty.

“I didn’t set out to create a definitive set of categories,” he says. “I knew I wanted to start where Lewis started, with justice, fairness, and that I wanted to end with beauty. But when I looked at the four of them, I though, ‘Yeah, that covers the bases.’”

The problem of evil is addressed “across the categories” Wright says, and humanity’s yearning for truth is addressed in the book’s final chapter.

Throughout the book, Wright refers to the Incarnation as a divine “rescue mission.”

“Salvation has become, ironically, a dead metaphor for most people,” Wright said. “I wanted to give it a more dynamic edge.”

In addition, he wanted to correct what he feels is a self-centered view of salvation that permeates modern Christianity. “The New Testament is not particularly interested in one’s immediate post-mortem location,” he says. “Salvation is not about going to heaven. It is about the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. We are beneficiaries, but we are also agents of this new creation.”

The book has received copious praise, and, as is often the case with Wright’s work, some of it comes from unexpected quarters. Anne Rice, the queen of vampire fiction, who shared the stage with Wright during his appearance at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, says Simply Christian is an improvement on Lewis’ classic. Wright demurs. He says his primer on Christianity resembles Lewis’ in the way that his golf game resembles Tiger Woods’.

During his book tour, Wright has been exposed again to what he considers a peculiarly American intellectual dynamic. “The left/right split in American does not correspond to the rest of the world,” he says.

“There is this assumption, among liberals, that if you believe that the Bible contains historical truths you are a crypto-creationist,” he said. But he was told after a recent speech at a conservative think tank that he “lost half the audience” when he mentioned Charles Darwin.

Wright says his book contains challenges for liberals and conservatives alike.

“Some people want to lurch back to a social gospel: that we’ve got to build the kingdom ourselves,” Wright says. “A lot of people did a lot of good work doing that,” he adds, but the 20th century is the story of how various utopian schemes not only failed, but inspired violence and repressions.

“We can’t build the Kingdom ourselves,” he says. “When it comes, it will be a gift of grace.”

But neither should Christians “remove themselves” from society until “God acts and all things are put right.”

The proper attitude is that of a stone mason working on a grand cathedral, he says.

“He may not know how what he is carving will be used, but he trusts the architect.”

Read more »

If an alarm bell rings in the forest...

I rise today to testify that it is awfully difficult to get Episcopalians excited about evangelism. We are, after all, a Church that in 2003 allocated $750,000 for a national ad campaign. That's about 1/10th of what would be required to do the job well. And, to demonstrate our cluelessness, we've decided to increase the amount requested in 2006 by a smidegen, but devote the increase to studying the effectiveness of the hilariously underfunded initial effort.

Because our Church is struggling to hold itself together due to our differences over the role of gay Christians, we sometimes have trouble admitting and addressing problems that don't stem entirely from the current controversy. Our gradual loss of membership is one such problem. (Yes, some people have left the Church because of the current controversy, but that's a small part of the story.)

I was delighted, then, to visit Anglicans Online today and find them talking good sense. As follows:

Every province of the Anglican Communion will differ in how well it attracts and retains young people, but it's obvious that first-world countries are losing the battle. Statistics drawn from the Anglican Church in Australia, the Church of England, and the Episcopal Church in the USA we suspect would be much the same and the differences likely to be uninteresting. Whilst we in the church continue our global and often embarrassing bun fights about sexuality, how much creative energy and thought have we spent looking hard at the issue of handing down to our children the Communion we're so desperately fighting for?

"It's easy to see, based on numbers alone, that in a generation the church as we have known it won't be able to exist as it has. The buildings and the budgets, the salaries and stipends simply won't be supportable, balanced, and paid. The people who remain in the pews won't be able to carry on the infrastructure; it will be financially impossible. This isn't a speculative doom-and-gloom forecast; it's simply looking at the numbers and projecting forward. Of course there will be some young people who come into the church once they're married and have children of their own. But these, we suspect, will mostly be those who had some connection with the church in their childhood.

There is no doubt much good thinking about this critical issue, whether in individual parishes or dioceses. But we're not aware of any Anglican Communion summit-level activity tackling this issue, which we might crudely call 'passing on the brand'. If we believe that Anglican Christianity is the fullest expression of Christianity — and if we don't, why are we Anglican? — we must do better at bringing our children into it."

Have a look at the whole piece, and then come on back to talk about it.

Non-religious parents who take their kids to church

From the Health section of The Washington Post comes this story of non-religious parents who expose their children to religion(s) in search of potential psychological benefits.

Reporter Stacy Weiner writes:

"Such parents may seek the sense of community or emotional security they hope religion will provide their kids; they may want a sense of purpose or tradition; and they may be looking for ethical or spiritual influences to mold their children's lives. For some, a religious education simply means giving their kids a better shot at understanding a cultural force that they consider both powerful and pervasive.

Whatever the reasons, nonreligious parents may face a number of humbling questions. Are they willing to trade sleepy Sundays for 10 a.m. services? Is it a good idea to start down a spiritual path when their hearts aren't in it? And what should they say if their 4-year-old looks up at them wide-eyed and asks if there really is a God?"

I am ambivalent about the enterprise she describes. Our churches are open to everyone from the devout to the uncertain to the unbeliever with kids in tow. If you feel attracted to our communities, maybe you will gradually become interested in the things we believe and the God that we worship. And as the communications director for the diocese, part of my job is to get people through the door. So I am happy to see them, no matter why they have come.

That said, I am not sure you get any "benefits" at all out of religion unless you actually believe in something deeply enough that it informs everything about you, including the functioning of your autonomic nervous system. And I admit to a low level of irritation with people who regard the church as just another facet of the personal services industry, or another of the many "resources" they can deploy in their creation of the perfectly balanced child. The point I think these folks miss is that faith is not about self-improvement. It is about self-transcendence.

But please, if you are vaguely interested in the Episcopal Church, for you or your children, visit the Diocese of Washington's Find a Church page or the Find a Church page of the Episcopal Church

Kairos in prison

Brother Rick Harris, O. P., from the Diocese of Alabama posts regularly on this blog. Whe he mentioned recently that he was about to make a Kairos Weekend at a prison in Alabama, I asked him to write about it for us. Click for his engrossing account. (And thanks, Rick.)

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A Word from our Sponsor

Peek through the windows of the Episcopal Church is one of my favorite sites for people who are exploring our faith. We are also proud of our diocesan welcome mat.

The Dioceses of Texas and Mississippi has good info on offer for newcomers.

And our Church's headquarters in New York City has a site that invites you to Come and Grow.

The creator of "Daniel" drops by

Jack Kenny, creator of "The Book of Daniel," left a comment last night:

"Hi. I'm the creator of "The Book of Daniel." I just wanted to say thank you for your input and support. I hope we will continue to do you all proud. Our goal has always been to tell a specific story about a man and his family... a man and his flaws... a man and his own personal, private relationship with his faith - in the embodiment of Jesus... how anyone can be offended by this, and deny the opportunity of others to watch it and make up their own minds is a continual source of confusion for me... It was written with nothing but respect and love for the Episcopal church and it's members - a church that my life partner of 23 years belongs to, and a church that I am strongly considering joining. It was always our marching orders, as writers and producers, to never mock or satirize religion, Jesus, or the church in any way, but to treat them with the utmost respect. Yes, we look for humor wherever we can - that's the job of a TV show... Please give us a few chances, and I'm sure you'll be unable NOT to watch these loving, supportive family struggle with all their own flaws and foibles in life... and ultimately overcome them - only to find new ones... because that is, indeed, life! Thanks for your interest, and please stay tuned!"

And the Rev. Rob Hensley, spotting an opportunity, responded:

So Jack, what do we need to do to move you from "...a church that I am strongly considering joining" to taking the plunge (i.e., into the waters of Baptism)?

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