Monday, November 28, 2011

Missionary Arts & Crafts

There's an increasing amount of church chatter lately about the need to become more mission-driven, for Christians to get out out of the comfort zone defined by the familiar worship and program space of church buildings, and mix it up with ordinary people in their ordinary lives. Leaving aside the problem of wildly divergent understandings of "mission" (which is a whole topic unto itself), I happily add my Amen to this chorus. 

So the question of the day is, How do we do that? So far, most of what I read on the subject is hortatory. Preachers and teachers and conference speakers and retreat leaders ... and bloggers ... regularly harangue their audiences, captive and otherwise, on the need to "get out of the pews" and get "out in the world" and do something. But ... what, exactly?

It may be helpful here to remind ourselves of the important distinction between art and craft. Art is the product of inspiration, and is by its nature original. It springs mysteriously from a dynamic interplay between the artist's inner vision and his or her technical training, in varying proportions. A work of art--be it a novel, a painting, a musical composition, or whatever--is unique and unrepeatable. It is often brought forth laboriously, with veritable birth pangs on the part of the artist. 

Craft, by contrast, is the product of perspiration, and is by nature derivative. The scarf or the Christmas ornament or the ceramic turtle you bought at the last craft fair you walked through is no doubt a thing of beauty, perhaps even exquisite beauty, but it's not a work of art, if for no other reason than that there are a couple of dozen more just like it available at the same place. Craft is the application of acquired technical skill toward the production of an item or an experience (is "event planning" a craft?--I think it probably is) that is, at least in theory, infinitely repeatable. Quantities may be "limited," but a work of craft is always available in some quantity.

So, is Christian mission an art or a craft? As you might guess, I'm going to suggest that it's both,   that it indeed needs both aspects to be effective, but what we need to emphasize more, at this point, I think, is the craft of mission.

Inasmuch as mission is art, the primary artist is, arguably, the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who carries what the theologians call "prevenient grace" ("We love him because he first loved us." I John 4:19), working in the hearts and minds of individuals to convict them of their hopeless condition apart from God and "melt the hearts of sinners" with the "resistless energy of love" (from a prayer said twice daily in the chapel at Nashotah House). It is the Holy Spirit who inspires the church with a collective "heart" for mission, and galvanizes the church's energy toward the effective prosecution of mission. Every quantum leap forward in Christian mission--from the journeys of St Paul, to the evangelization of peoples outside the borders of the Roman Empire, to work of the Jesuits in South America and the Franciscans in California, to the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, to the current resurgence of Christianity under persecution in China--is evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Without the relentless original and ever re-creative artistry of the Holy Spirit, no mission (however one defines it) would be possible.

The practitioner of a craft takes the inspired fruit of the artist's labor (recognizing that the artist and the craftsman are sometimes one and the same person) and replicates it. In that work, the original vision of the artist becomes much more widely available and much more easily accessible than it would otherwise have been. This does not happen by accident. It does not happen casually, or without focused intention. It is a matter of thought and planning followed by trial and error followed by refinement and more thought and planning, eventually yielding a process that can be broken down into a succession of discrete actions, any one of which is actually quite simple, fairly easily taught and fairly easily learned. I have a very low mechanical aptitude, but I recently assembled two large metal shelving units (admittedly, not a work of art even in original conception, but my point still holds) in my basement, because all the tools and materials I needed were provided for me, and there were clear (I may speak somewhat generously!) step by step instructions for me to follow. The second unit took about half as much time to put together as the first one did, and had there been a third one, the assembly time would have been cut further still. Moreover, I would have been qualified to teach somebody else how to do it, saving them from some of the mistakes I initially made.

For some reason, we are stuck at the stage of "We need some shelves in the basement. Get out of your recliner and do something." I have no doubt that we have a critical mass of Christians, even among those who share my Episcopalian brand name, who are more than ready to get out of the recliner and get to work in the basement. I believe this because I believe in the sovereign and profligate artistry of the Holy Spirit. And I also have no doubt that we have a serious lack of materials, tools, and instructions. We're like military commanders sending troops into the field of battle without first securing their logistical supply lines, and often without proper training or ammunition. We expect them to be artists in the field, which most of them are not called and gifted to be. What they are capable of being, if we would properly equip them, is craftsmen

In a mission-driven church, leaders, beginning with bishops, will be doubling down on the work of "equipping the saints for the work of ministry" (Ephesians 4:12). I am not suggesting that there has been lack of attention in recent years to this need. What I am suggesting is that perhaps, in our formation and education and catechetical work, we have been trying to produce more artists when the need is for more craftsmen. We have been teaching people the faith. We have been showing them how to pray and worship. We have encouraged them to be good stewards of their time, talent, and treasure, and some have even responded positively to those efforts. We have talked about mission, sometimes endlessly. What we have not done so well is to take the art of mission and break it down into a craft, a process with well-defined component steps that can be easily taught and easily learned--"Here, do this. Just this.  ... Great! Well done. Now do this"--etc. etc. 

Even as we renew our trust in the missional artistry of the Holy Spirit, the work of the hour is to equip the troops in the field, to form and deploy technicians of Christian mission, people whose knowledge of any grand strategic plan may be limited, but who, with joyful hearts motivated by a love for Jesus, are willing to learn to do one thing, to do it well, and to do it over and over again. The work of the hour among leaders is to secure robust supply lines that keep these troops fed, trained, motivated, and proficient at what they do. 

In short, we need to get organized for mission. Somebody (several somebodies, actually) needs to know the strategy, how it all fits together and works together. Leaders in the field need to be able to make tactical decisions, implementing the strategy at a local level. Only with this sort of leadership can those who are being led pursue the craft of mission confidently and competently. The good news is, we can do it. We have all the resources we need.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Guest Post: Another Anglican View

With the crack in the seams of the Anglican Communion continuing to widen, and "cracks in the cracks" even beginning to appear (witness recent developments in the AMiA/Rwanda relationship), and with anxiety over who's accepting and who's rejecting the Anglican Covenant ratcheting up, this piece shared with me by Father McMichael seems salient. Speaking personally, it well defines the circle (a wide one, I think) of those I am happily eager to "do church" with.

Another Anglican Voice
Proposed by
The Rev. Ralph McMichael, Ph.D

We are Anglicans.  We are Anglicans who are deeply concerned about our fellow Anglicans who are taking steps to “walk apart” from the Anglican Communion.  Likewise, we are Anglicans who are deeply concerned about our fellow Anglicans who are overly defining how Anglicans should walk.  We have Anglicans who are walking away from the Anglican Communion through unilateral actions, and we have Anglicans who stridently insist through various coalitions that all Anglicans must walk as they do.  We are Anglicans who are distressed over the escalating abandonment of the essentials of catholic faith and order, and we are distressed by efforts to solidify Anglican identity through appeals to such historical documents as the 1662 BCP and the Thirty-Nine Articles.  The problem, as we perceive it, is the dissipation of the Anglican catholic vision of drinking from the deep well of tradition in order to bring living water to the full scope of humanity wholly called to share in the divine life.  In other words, the Anglican appeal to essential or primitive catholicity is never a search for safe harbor but a dynamic that will draw us into God’s future for the church and for the world.  Anglicanism at its best nurtures a generative tradition and a faithful creativity.  With this preamble in mind, we would like to address directly the current situation of the Anglican Communion.

We are Anglicans who wish to uphold the disciplines of communion, including those articulated by Lambeth Conferences, the Windsor Report, and the proposed Anglican Covenant.  And yet, we hold that authentic theological reflection and debate must continue on an array of critical questions facing the Anglican Communion.  We decry any province taking unilateral action of any sort that steps away from communion: the binding mutuality of all ecclesial actions.  Likewise, we consider any effort toward unilateral speaking one to another to be its own kind of threat to communion: the binding mutuality of all ecclesial speaking. 

We are Anglicans who desire to remain faithful members of the Anglican Communion through communion with the See of Canterbury.  Some of us wish for the eventual acceptance of gays and lesbians into all the orders of ministries of our common life.  Some of us maintain the traditional teaching on sexuality and marriage.  All of us are committed to the disciplines of communion, ongoing vibrant theological reflection, and to the Anglican tradition of essential catholicity that generates a life of worship and mission exercised in humility and patience.

Therefore, we call on the whole Anglican Communion to enter into the disciplines of communion where we act and speak in light of the whole but not as the whole, where we act and speak always as response to the gift of communion that only God provides.  The disciplines of communion are to be renewed and understood from the baptismal font and the Eucharistic table.  Let us live from our roots in the Triune life into which we were baptized, and into which we participate at every Eucharist.  Let us stop hacking off branches of the tree instead of tending to the roots.  Let us dig deep and wide in the Holy Scriptures and the works of our own tradition.  From the disciplines of communion, from our common roots, life will grow and flourish: a life characterized by glory and not anxiety, by patience and not haste, and a life of wholeness and not division.  Will this solve the problems of the Anglican Communion?  No, but that is not why we are here. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Unpacking the Vision

This is the lead article in the November issue of the Springfield Current, our diocesan newsletter.

Beloved in Christ,
Many who are reading this attended the regular 2011 annual synod of the diocese last month, and heard my address on that occasion. Most, probably, did not. So the text of the Bishop's Address is printed elsewhere in this issue of the Springfield Current. It deals with a draft Vision Statement for the diocese, and what I want to do here is continue to unpack some of the elements of that statement. So, if you were not at synod, I encourage to take the time right now to read my address, and then come back to this article.


So ... I'd like to share a few thoughts on what I see as some of the implications of this statement. If we embrace this statement, how will it affect the way we think and act as a diocesan community? How will it change the way we experience life at a congregational level? Among other things, this Vision Statement will ...
  • ... change much of the language we use about who we are and what we do. That may seem like a small thing, but the words we use doinfluence how we think, and how we think influences how we act, and how we act influences what we accomplish. Terms like Parish (in its new context) and Eucharistic Community, along with others, will become familiar in time, and when they do, it will means that we have changed.
  • ... organize us for mission by focusing attention on defined geographic areas. The Eucharistic Communities in a particular geographic Parish will be responsible for pursuing the mission of the diocese in that area, and accountable to the rest of the diocese for that stewardship. This will involve detailed and carefully-made plans that are shared with the rest of the diocese. Of course, this also presumes that the diocese as a whole will provide leadership and training resources that will enable the Eucharistic Communities to accomplish this mission.
  • ... draw us into "retail" evangelism and outreach ministry. Episcopalians are notoriously generous when it comes to writing checks for particular special needs when they arise, and supporting programs of service and evangelism with their financial resources. This is "wholesale" outreach, and may have worked well when the culture was predominantly Christian. But now we live in a post-Christian culture, and the need now is for individual Christians to build connections with individual non-Christians in very intentional and systematic ways. Again, huge amounts of training and formation for this sort of ministry will be necessary.
  • ... encourage us to see ourselves as one church, rather than an association of local churches. Our theology has always been that the diocese is the essential primary unit of the church, but our practice as Episcopalians has said otherwise, and has focused on the local congregation. Without diminishing the importance of the local congregation (or, in the new way of speaking, Eucharistic Community), it's time to align our thinking and acting more closely with our theology. This means moving beyond some of the unspoken jealousies and rivalries and suspicions that have hampered our mission and ministry in the past. Really. That game has to be over.
  • ... call us to develop (or adapt) concrete patterns of disciple-formation in which lay people can be trained and become confident. I've alluded to this already in two of the bullet points above, but it deserves its own place in the sun. We will need to be "methodists" in the sense of being quite disciplined about the spiritual formation of all our members, identification and practice of spiritual gifts, and growth in virtue and holiness such that we are less focused on tip-toeing around one another's egos and more focused on the task at hand, which is announcing, modeling, and expanding the Kingdom of God.
  • ... invite us to constantly raise the bar on the quality of our worship. Our week by week liturgy at the local level needs to become more organic, vital, and authentic to each local environment. This is not so that it will become more appealing or accessible to newcomers; we need to relieve the Sunday Eucharist of that burden. Rather, it is for the sake of our already faithful communicants, that they will be adequately nourished and recharged for their work in the world.  
  • ... eventually make us rewrite our constitution and canons. This vision is, to use jargon from the 90s, a "paradigm shift." Our current governing documents assume the old paradigm. If we're going to operate in a new one, we will need new governing documents. New wine, new wineskins. But we need not rush into this work. We need to first see where we walk, and then pave those walkways with a new constitution and a new set of canons.
  • ... require ceaseless prayer on the part of a cadre of spiritually mature and well-grounded "prayer warriors." I'll tell you straight out: I believe in what is called "spiritual warfare." I believe that when Christian disciples begin to do something right, something good, something that glorifies God and builds up his church, "spiritual forces of wickedness" become alarmed and become more active. I have not the slightest doubt that the Evil One will begin to throw obstacles in our way as we pursue this vision. Often, such obstacles take the form of a moral failure on the part of a key leader. Or it could take the form of sickness, or intractable conflict and strife. Whatever form it takes, we will need to combat it with serious, concerted, and relentless prayer. 
This is serious stuff. It will be difficult. There will be missteps and mistakes galore. Burnout will be a constant hazard. And I have never been more excited and hopeful about anything in my life. We have a rich heritage in the Diocese of Springfield. God has been faithful to us in countless ways. We stand on the shoulders of some true heroes of the faith--some whose names we know, most whose individuals identities are forgotten. But I would like to think that our finest days are yet ahead of us, and that the miracles we see in the future will far outshine those that we see in the past.

Praised be Jesus Christ.