by Kathy Staudt
I have been reading with interest about the new movement among atheists to found churches. (an example here) The movement sounds a lot like what we hear in our conversations about congregational development and vitality: Atheist groups are adopting the word “congregation” to meet a widespread craving for what one Atheist pastor calls “a really close knit, strong community that can make strong change happen in the world. And he adds, “It doesn’t require and it doesn't even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”
His use of the word “require” reminded me of a character in one of Mary Gordon’s novels who quips that “Episcopalians are not required to believe in anything but the beauty of the burial service.” It’s a joke, but there’s some truth to it: We too have shied away from insisting publicly on “required” beliefs, in the desire to invite seekers, but we do still say the creed, commit to the baptismal covenant, retell the story of salvation at every Eucharist. To get people in the door we are more likely to promise things like close knit community, hospitality, a commitment to outreach. I was groping around for what seemed to be to be missing here: what is the difference between an atheist church and an Episcopalian Christian church, if it’s not just about “required beliefs.” What is the point of church anyway? The emergence of atheist “congregations” requires us to look anew at that question, in our own congregations.
I would say that though the difference is obviously in part about belief --God v. “not God” -- it goes deeper than that. What attracts people to an atheist church is a spiritual “practice” of gathering and sharing values. “Practice” has of course been a buzzword of late in congregational development circles and I will return to this in a moment -- but I would suggest that the purpose of Christian congregations is not just spiritual practice for our own sake, but practice in the service “disciple-making”, and all that goes into it. What if we thought about our congregations, our nurturing, our welcome, our outreach, in terms of sustaining discipleship, giving people what they need in order (to use Brian McLaren’s words in A Generous Orthodoxy) “to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.”
A disciple is someone who follows a master, who adopts practices modeled by the leader (“make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”, Jesus says at the end of Luke’s gospel). And this is done in the service of a larger vision -- as our catechism puts it the desire “to reconcile the world to God in Christ.” What might it look like to use this as the basis for mission building and ministry review in our churches -- to ask “How are we doing at making and sustaining disciples of Jesus, for the healing of a broken world?” I’d suggest three ways we might think about this, in our worship, our community life and our formation, and the headings are “Story,” “Practice,” and “Participation”
“Story” -- We have a story to tell, and it is good news. How can churches help people to own this for themselves and for their lives? A practice that has been neglected in our denomination, is helping people to learn and own the story of Scripture. We tell this story at the Eucharist each Sunday and we hear a lot of Scripture read in church, but the energy for discipleship comes when we can see ourselves in the story of God’s work in human history, understanding context, history, and ways of reading Scripture. Becoming more scripturally literate, as individuals and as congregations, can help us see how God’s story is unfolding in our own time. The process of grappling with Scripture, using our imaginations and our reason to make sense of it for our time, can be both creative and energizing, and it connects us to others who have found Christian faith to be life-giving and exciting. I was excited to see the diocese of Washington adopting an online curriculum that encourages people to study Scripture as “the Story” . This is foundational to who we are.
“Practice” -- It is now well documented that vital congregations can point to particular practices -- ways that people live out their faith through prayer, service, discernment, in that particular community. These practices are not just about self improvement - they connect implicitly to a vision for discipleship -- what do we do to keep ourselves alert to opportunities to live out our Christian discipleship in our lives? What opportunities do churches provide for us to practice our faith, through prayer, discernment, study, service, hospitality? These practices are not ends in themselves, to make us feel better or even personally “closer to God.” They are about forming us as disciples of Jesus - whatever that may mean in our time. My favorite “practice” is the practice of the discernment -- finding ways to attend to what God might be doing and how we might participate in this.
“Participation” -- The more we read the story, the clearer it becomes that we are called, not to change the world all on our own, but to participate in something that God is doing. One of my favorite prayers in the prayer book ends “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which have grown old are being made new, and all things are being brought to their perfection in Jesus Christ. . . . (BCP 280) What if each congregation asked “how are we participating in the New Thing that God is always trying to do in us and in our lives? Where do we see this happening here, in the places where we find ourselves, and in our corporate lives?
Of course I am using language about “God” and “Jesus” and Scripture in laying out this vision of discipleship as the mission of congregations, but without being very clear about “required” beliefs. . I think we work out what we believe about God and Jesus and discipleship in practice, and that is why we begin with worship and corporate prayer. That is the experience that churches offer that differs from a community center or a neighborhood group. “Praying shapes believing,” we tend to say as Episcopalians -- so do our practices of discipleship. As we seek ways to “follow Jesus” we find out what we believe about him.
I wonder what it would look like if we used the standard of “making disciples” as a way of designing mission statements and reviewing ministry in our congregations. What would it look like for leaders to begin, not with the question: are we giving people what they want, in a tight-knit community? but rather “How are we doing at making and supporting disciples of Jesus? And what particular ways are we doing that in this congregation?
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.