January 14, 2019

The Courage to be Bold

Every so often the leadership of a congregation decides that it is necessary to spend some valuable time discerning what needs to be addressed. The motivation to discern could be related to the growth of the parish, the outreach component of the church’s ministry, or how the building structure is impeding the mission of the church.

Unlike most nonprofits the church includes God in the conversation concerning next steps. “What is God calling us to do?”

While including God in the task might seem highly appropriate, it is important to note that the nature of God’s call in scripture is consistently bold, even radical. When Abraham and Sarah listened to God, they heard that they were called to leave their own country and go to the land of Canaan. Deeply embedded in the call is the promise to “make of you a great nation” (Gen. 12:1). Note that the promise is realized as Abraham and Sarah are faithful to the call. Faith as a response is the capacity to embrace God’s announced future.

It is significant that these two individuals did not go forward with great confidence. They were both rather advanced in age and Sarah was barren, that is, she had no child. The metaphor of barrenness could serve as an image of the current church that seriously wonders about the foreseeable future. The odds seem stacked against the church in the current culture. But this narrative suggests that barrenness is the area of God’s life-giving action.

There are numerous examples of the bold nature of God’s call. Moses is called to free the Israelites from bondage and the prophets are frequently moved to speak truth to power. Jesus calls the disciples to change the very course of their lives to follow him, and Paul’s transformation entails a considerable change of mind and heart. God’s intention throughout scripture is often not stability but a “new creation.”

Once a congregation learns that discerning God’s call could entail considerable challenge and cost, there could be an inclination to go back to business as usual. The church has been known to be rather risk averse and prefer comfort. Plus there is a great tendency to underestimate the capacity to respond to God. Considering the nature of God’s call it is no small matter for a congregation to listen to God.

Once a bold address is summoned, a key component to accepting the call is none other than courage. We do not often use this word in the faith vocabulary but the word comes up frequently in our Book of Common Prayer.

In the prayers for the candidates for Holy Baptism we pray “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere…” (BCP p. 308). After receiving the bread and wine at the Holy Eucharist we pray as a congregation to “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you…” (BCP p. 365). In the Burial service we pray, “Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved…” (BCP p. 481).

Moses’ final words to his people as they prepare to enter the wilderness are “Be strong and of a good courage (the RSV translates “courage” with the word “bold”); have no fear…, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31: 6)

When a congregation finds that the call of God includes a capital campaign, my experience is that a common reaction is to feel overwhelmed and fearful. Like Sarah, a church may feel their condition is one of barrenness, incapable of producing what is truly needed to go forward. A good discernment process and a feasibility study will often create more confidence, but there is no question the response needed is that of faith and courage.

What has been wonderful to behold is what God can do with a congregation that is faithful. One of my favorite blessings sums up the nature of how a new and exciting chapter is written in the church: “Glory to God whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…” (BCP, p. 102).

The original text of this article has been edited to reflect ECF's current programs.