I remember, before we had digital clocks, when our kids had to learn how to tell time. It was challenging at first, but soon they began to catch on. Then we could give them a watch and say, “Come home for dinner when the big hand is at the 12 and the little hand is at the 6.”
Those days are gone for good. Now we all have phones which display the time whenever we touch the screen. Wrist watches talk to us and preview our text messages and display video clips. But even with all this technology, do we really know what time it is?
I don’t mean confirming the exact hour and minute, but recognizing a turning point that really matters, in God’s time. When the Apostle Paul told us, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” he wasn’t foretelling what alarm clocks would do someday. “The night is far gone,” he wrote, “the day is near.” He meant that a new era is dawning, and we need to meet it with our eyes open. (Romans 13:11)
Much of what we see in the Gospels happens around a meal or in general food. Whether it was Simon Peter’s home, the wedding at Cana, the feeding of 5,000, Zacchaeus’ house and many others; sharing of food was a common means of sharing the good news of the Kingdom. There is food involved in every resurrection account and Jesus founded the church in a sacramental, covenantal meal. If Jesus had a Day-Timer recording his activities, we would see that he prayed, taught, performed miracles and healings, and he ate.
Somewhere along the way the church lost the centrality of the meal as ministry. Since the Reformation, church became a place you went on Sunday to primarily be taught and sufficiently catechized.
I am formed by the liturgy of camp; by singing to music led by amateur guitarists, pianists, and bongo drummers. We sat on a worn hardwood floor and listened to chaplains tell the stories of their lives and of God’s action in the world, all the while whispering to one another about what came next, telling secrets and laughing under our breath into a space made holy by our half attention and full presence. Each week, we gathered, still seated on that hardwood floor to share a cup of wine and a plate of bread, passing it from one set of dirty, sweaty hands to another. We would laugh and whisper, having no idea what we were doing, but knowing, somewhere, somehow, that this was set aside time. But also, perhaps, that it was time connected to all the rest- to the games, friendship bracelets, canoe trips and picnics where we would sit under shade trees and imagine a different kind of world, to the old table in the back of the main gathering room where generations of us would secretly carve our names into the soft wood with ballpoint pens knowing without knowing that we were a part of something bigger than ourselves. My understanding of church is still rooted under those shade trees, still carved into that old table, still sitting criss-cross on that worn hardwood floor, laughing and learning what it means to be the body of Christ together.
“In today’s world, if your church needs to choose between a youth minister and a communications minister, you should probably choose the communications minister.” I wish I could remember who said this at a conference I attended long before the COVID-19 pandemic, because I would like to thank him.
This provocative statement shook me loose from an outdated assumption I had made about church staffing. In a culture with an insatiable appetite for the quick exchange of information, we need to consider church communication to be a ministry in itself, not just the infrastructure that supports other ministries. And, we need to prioritize it.
This month we offer five reflections on the upcoming Easter holiday. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers, blogs, and the monthly digest.
A few years back a speaker at our clergy conference was discussing the church’s experience after 9/11. He showed diagrams documenting that attendance jumped immediately after that disaster, and then drifted back down within three months.
It is too early to be sure, and much harder to measure, but there are many reports of on-line participation being much higher than historical in-person attendance when COVID first began, and now is drifting back down.
Our conference speaker concluded that people were not actually interested. I went up during a break and offered the alternative explanation that people entered church looking for something, but did not find it, so left. (He never responded or discussed that possibility.)
As we prepare to close the books on this second year of the pandemic, we invite you to take the time to celebrate Advent. Advent can be a wonderful time to pause and reflect not just on what has happened, but what is to come. To help you celebrate this season, we’ve gathered ten resources below. From all of us at ECF, we pray that your Advent is filled with health and hopeful anticipation.
1. 5 Ways to Prepare Ye is a short and practical article to help Episcopalians recognize and observe the differences between Advent and Christmas.
2. Journeying the Way of Love Advent Curriculum: The Episcopal Church has produced this four-week curriculum that moves through the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke. It’s perfect for use during your Christian Formation hour before or after church and can be used by small or large groups.
A regionally famous billboard along I-65 near Prattville, Alabama reads: “Go to church or the Devil will get you.”
Did a shudder just run down your spine? Mine too.
The billboard makes no mention of God or faith, of selflessness or devotion. Salvation is sold for the price of attendance. It calls to mind the famous words of Johan Tetzel that so troubled Martin Luther in the days before the Reformation: “As soon as a coin in the [church’s] coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” While this billboard’s message feels too transactional for my taste, there are transactional elements to the relationship of the church and its people. People come to church looking for something and the leaders of sustainable churches need to know what that is.
In the gospel of Mark 2 1:12, the story is recounted of a paralyzed man who is healed and forgiven by Jesus. The account begins with Jesus preaching to an extremely large overflowing crowd in Capernaum. Four friends of a paralyzed man, determined that their friend would see Jesus, dug a hole in the roof and lowered the man on his mat. Jesus impressed by the faith and tenacity of the paralyzed man and his friends said “Son, your sins are forgiven”. The teachers of the law took issue with the words of forgiveness Jesus used believing that they were blasphemous. Jesus expressed to them that as the Son of Man he had the authority on earth to forgive as well as heal. He then told the paralyzed man “…take your mat and go home” and the paralyzed man walked out in full view of all and everyone was amazed and praised God.
“Save the church from extinction!” cry the books, consultants, webinars, and sermons. Like Old Testament prophets they plead with us to love unconditionally, befriend the poor, and acknowledge our corporate racism in order to bring about reconciliation. In short, we are to examine ourselves, acknowledge our sins, and change.
It’s difficult work, this guilt identifying and change. That’s why there are so many books, consultants, webinars, and sermons about it. As much as I pray for their success (full disclosure, I am a consultant), I have seen a brighter source of light for the future. It is the Holy Spirit’s calling of new people to ordained ministry as deacons and priests.
As we head into election week, ECF has gathered five resources from around the church to help make this election week holy.
1. Holding on to Hope: A National Service for Healing and Wellness
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will lead a live-streamed prayer service from Washington National Cathedral, Holding on to Hope: A National Service for Healing and Wholeness, on All Saints Sunday, November 1, at 4:00-5:30 p.m. EST. In the midst of a pandemic, racial reckoning, and a historic election, the live-streamed service will gather Americans for prayer, song, lament, hope, and a call to love God and neighbor. The event will be simulcast in English and Spanish. Learn how to participate here.
Community college campus ministry is likely the Church’s biggest blind spot, greatest overlooked missional opportunity, and even worse, a prime example of inadvertent systemic racism and classism. Which means it’s time we started asking ourselves, “Who are we missing?”
Over my 25+ years of ordained ministry, I have observed that as a general rule congregations and judicatories seem to put much more resources into campus ministry at 4-year colleges and universities than they do into 2-year community colleges. Not that campus ministries at 4-year institutions get all that much attention compared to typical congregation-based ministries, mind you. Most clergy seem to view campus ministry as a “junior varsity sport” when it comes to vocations, and those who start there quickly come to see congregation-based ministry as a better career move.
If you’re like my family, you’re spending a lot of time on screens. Zoom calls, emails, phone calls, and more. And if you’re like us, you’re probably looking for ways to get outside. And if your neighborhood is like ours, there are more kids riding bikes (bike shops and big box stores are reporting shortages), more families walking dogs (shelters are seeing a boom in adoptions), and just more people outside generally.
What if we viewed our time outside as something God can use? What if we viewed our time outside as missional? Our family has tried to start doing that, beginning with our front yard.
“Front yard people” is a term I first ran across when reading The Turqouise Table by Kristin Schell, a book on Christian hospitality and welcome. In the book, she encourages folks to hang out in the front yard, making themselves available for impromptu encounters and conversations with neighbors.
I know the day of Pentecost is past but for some reason it has stuck with me this year. Today I noticed something about it. If you are a fan of the original Star Trek series you probably remember than when the crew set off on a mission away from their comfort zone (an away mission) you could tell which crew members were likely to be killed --- they were wearing red shirts!
I love the image that the original Pentecost was when the disciples were ordered by their captain to leave their comfort zone. Like those crew members, when we put on the red for Pentecost, we have reason to be concerned. Most of the red-shirted crew died on away missions. Scripture tells us we are to die (to self) in God’s mission.
But just as the crew members were expected to take the chance of losing their lives for the good of all people, we are expected to take the chance of losing something for the good of other people.
“Nearly every morning, I enjoy morning prayer time with a group of friends.”
Three years ago, those words began my Vital Practices blog post about a virtual community of faithful people who regularly read and comment on Forward Movement’s daily prayer meditations published online at Forward Day by Day.
Today there is a new dimension to my gratitude for this ministry and my friends who meet me there. The constancy of this place keeps me grounded while my home church is closed. Thanks be to God for new platforms for community worship such as YouTube, Zoom and Facebook. But let’s face it, it’s been a learning curve to find them and get used to them.
I am in awe of the work I see happening across our diocese and around the country to reshape the central gathering of our church. I’ve had the privilege of engaging with some of these leaders and congregations as they map out what this looks like and how this happens. Some thoughts around evangelism and connection as we continue to redefine this work in the coming weeks and months:
Make sure people can find you online.
First things first, make sure people can find your congregation online. Maybe it’s a website, or a Facebook page, but now more than ever, our online presence is essential. We also must make sure folks can find our online worship gatherings easily. For many, this will mean redesigning some pages on our websites so that the landing page and gatherings pages point to both the times and the ways in which people can engage.
The idea was simple: Let’s invite people to read the Bible together every day.
When the Good Book Club began in 2018, we weren’t sure how folks would engage. Organized by Forward Movement, the initiative brought in partner organizations from across the Episcopal Church. Groups prepared free resources for formation and study, everything from podcasts to downloadable Bible studies. That first year, we read through the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. And people responded. By the end of the first session of the Good Book Club, our weekly email list was about 3,800, with an open rate of about 50 percent. To put that into perspective, the national average open rate for emails is 25 percent. Something was stirring.
It’s not often a resource can be used by both children and adults, as a formation tool and a gift for visitors, and as a celebration of the arts and the gifts of parishioners. But one congregation struck the trifecta.
Grace Episcopal Church in Anniston, Alabama, created its own coloring book with art solicited from members of the congregation featuring different facets of the building and liturgical accoutrements as well as local traditions. Published by the Christian education department, the coloring book is offered for the simple enjoyment by children and adults as well as for formation. A glossary in the back explains each picture. So, for example, an image of the aumbry might be familiar to folks who attend the church but who may not know its function. The handy glossary explains (along with a key for pronunciation): “AHM.bri: The aumbry of Grace Church is recessed into the east wall of the sanctuary near the altar. It is used to store the reserved sacrament. A sanctuary lamp hangs over the aumbry to indicate that reserved sacrament is stored within. The aumbry was dedicated in 1961.” Other images include the chalice and paten, the baptismal font, the pitcher used to hold the water of baptism.
This month we offer five resources on evangelism. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.
1.Does your congregation yearn to bring others into church but are not sure how? In Evangelism for the 21st Century, Day Smith Pritchartt from the Episcopal Evangelism Society shares stories of some of the projects she’s worked on to serve as inspiration.
Last time we started talking about practices to build our confidence around evangelism.
There’s a good basic list of resources available on the Episcopal Church’s website. One of those great resources is a “Prayer Walk.” Prayer walking is a great starting point, but I think walking can do much more.
There’s a term, “walk-up evangelism,” which is the type of evangelism many people think about. You walk up to someone and start telling them about Jesus (or telling them that they need Jesus). That’s not what I propose. What I’m talking about is “walk-around evangelism.”