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.”
It is not uncommon to hear the question: “How do we get Millennials (aka Young Adults) into our church(es)?” This question, however, misses the goal if you are a faith community trying to connect with young adults and invite them to join you in following Jesus. The motivation behind this question is misguided. Masked as an attempt at evangelism, the real question being asked is “how do we get young adults to buy/invest/tithe into our communities and the work of our church institution.” My response to this is to re-think the question.
Why not try these on instead: What is it about my experience of faith in this community that I want to share with young adults? What are we doing here in this church, at this time and place, that young adults would want to be a part of, be companions in, be leaders of? How is my relationship with God leading me to invite others to know the joy of following Jesus? And how does inviting young adults to be a part of this faith community nourish, equip, encourage me to do that?
I feel like I need to tell you upfront that I didn’t join Tinder to spread the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all of my potential matches. I do hope you already knew that. But after three years, a laundry list of bad first dates and a handful of short-term relationships, I learned that I have become readily equipped with all of the skills I need to be an evangelist. I’m no longer involved in online dating rings - moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to Northwest Arkansas meant a swift and jarring shrinking of the dating pool. Also, online dating in a college town when your match radius only reaches the campus population you are responsible for pastoring to is an absolute non-starter. I’m now in an #offline relationship. Still, I use the skill set entrusted to me to by God, developed with a little nurturing by Tinder and OKCupid, every single day. There are quite a few transferable skills between partially blind dating and talking to strangers about Jesus. And maybe, the online platforms that the church has given side eye to are actually doing the work of equipping the saints of God.
In our Baptismal Covenant, we pledge that we will “strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” The world is crying for justice and peace, yet controversy lurks even in definitions of terms. Like a squirrel kicking up dried leaves, we scurry through the space provided for conversation, anxious to find our own safe place.
How can we make the conversation space safe enough for everyone? As we consider this, some self-reflection might be beneficial.
In her book, An Altar in the World, acclaimed spiritual writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes about twelve practices that engage us to experience God. The book helps us recognize some of the altars around us, which Taylor describes as ordinary-looking places where human beings meet the divine “More” they are seeking and sometimes call God. For your prayerful consideration about how to live in respectful peace with others, check out Chapter 6, The Practice of Encountering Others.
On Easter morning, I will offer the short, sweet, three-point sermon that I’ve offered before:
We gather today to celebrate Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection.
And I want to say three things about the Feast of the Resurrection that we celebrate this day:
1) The Resurrection is a mystery that cannot be described in words.
2) The Resurrection can’t just be celebrated by our intellects and in our heads. It requires our whole selves.
3) The Resurrection is best celebrated with others.
So, rather than give any more words in response to the Gospel and the Feast of the Day, we will dance.
At that point, the feelings in the congregation are a blend of excitement, anxiety, curiosity and relief (for many are only occasional church visitors, and not particularly revved for a sermon). Then I call on a good sport of the congregation to help me show folks how the dance goes.
At a recent meeting, one of the assignments for our dinner conversation was to answer the question, “Name one thing that you cannot live without.” Given the occasion, many of the answers were frivolous and funny e.g. chocolate, hot water, the ocean etc. It is a question worth pondering seriously and also in turn asking in the context of our life as a congregation, “Name one thing that our congregation cannot live without.”
Personally, after we get past the life-saving items (food, water, shelter), the answers should reflect things that are truly important in our life: our family, friends, and yes, most importantly, our faith. Obviously, whatever we think we cannot live without is where we should spend our time and treasure. Experience shows that problems arise when these areas are not nurtured.
If you want to get better at something, you practice. That’s true for sports, or musical instruments, or spiritual disciplines.
Want to become more diligent in prayer? There’s no shortage of prayer practices that have developed through the centuries. Want to read your Bible more? We’ve got you covered.
But what if you want to get better at evangelism? You practice.
I hope you’ve kept up in our reading of Romans. If so, we’ve been in Romans 12 this week. As I read through this chapter, I’m struck by what Paul is pointing out. He lists several gifts that may be given to some of us: Prophecy, preaching, exhortation, ministry, giving, leading, compassion.
That list isn’t exhaustive, but it is interesting. We’d agree that not everyone has the spiritual gift of preaching or prophecy. But giving? Compassion? Those seem like qualities all followers of Jesus should have. But Paul seems to be saying here that some folks will be particularly gifted in those areas.
But that’s not even the most interesting thing to me in this chapter. After we get through that list of qualities that some folks might have more than others, Paul then hits us right between the eyes with a quality he assumes all followers of Jesus will have in abundance: Love.