We gathered at 9am, with words of welcome from the Presiding Bishop. Then it was time for our customary "check-in" time with our table-mates. Table assignments are shuffled and re-dealth for the first meeting after every General Convention, then remain in effect through the next General Convention. So this is our second meeting with the current table assignments. I am with the Bishops of Missouri, Western North Carolina, El Camino Real, and Northwestern Pennsylvania.
After some further brief words from John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of the host diocese of Tennessee, and Gay Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, who is here as an invited guest, we adjourned to a nearby room for the Eucharist, commemorating the lesser feast of St Theodore of Tarsus, at which the Presiding Bishop was celebrant and preacher. All the liturgies at meetings of the House have, in my experience, tended to be wildly multi-lingual in text and song. Today we jumped between Spanish, French, Creole, Swahili, and, occasionally, English. I understand and endorse the motivation to be hospitable toward those in our midst who are not fluent in English, but I wish we would do so differently. Making every occasion of worship completely polyglot is distracting to the point of annoyance.
We reconvened afterward with our principal guest presenter of the day, the Revd Dr Elaine Heath, a United Methodist cleric and a professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. She is also the founder of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, an umbrella organization operating several different projects, all of which attempt to respond creatively to the challenge of a secularized post-Christian cultural context.
In many ways, the vision cast by Dr Heath hits my personal sweet spot. Anyone in my diocese with open eyes and ears has heard me talk about the imperative of making a mental shift from what the theoreticians call "attractional church"--expecting "them" to come to "us"--to "missional church"--where we expect "us" to go to "them." She uses the J-word easily and naturally, and that's something I really like to hear. There is a great deal in the way she articulates her theology that I completely resonate with. I particularly appreciate her use of the translation of John 1:14 that talks about the Word becoming flesh and "mov[ing] into the neighborhood." Reclaiming the incarnational dimension of mission is spot on. So I am more than a little intrigued by what the Missional Wisdom Foundation is up to, and I encourage you to explore their website. To those in the Diocese of Springfield: There are some potential ideas for us here.
Still, I left the afternoon session with some uneasiness. Dr Heath gave us the following definition of evangelism:
The holistic process of initiation of persons into the reign of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, anchored in the Church, for the transformation of the world.What do you think? To one who thinks in Catholic terms, as I endeavor to do, "initiate" strongly connotes baptism, and baptism connotes repentance, faith, and conversion. Yet, I heard our presenter offer so many caveats and qualifications, so many assertions of what evangelism is not (coercive, exploitative, etc. etc.), that I was left wondering how she recommends that we actually ... you know ... close the deal. I'm all for doing deep listening and building authentic relationships, but at some point somebody needs to pop the question, "Would you like to become a disciple of Jesus?" ... and then proceed to catechesis and the font. Maybe she gets to that stuff and just didn't have time to today. That could well be.
But my bigger problem is with the last line: "... for the transformation of the world." I get really quesy when I hear the suggestion that "making the world a better place," or "realizing God's dream" is the end product that validates everything we invest into the engine that supposedly produces it -- like evangelism, prayer, worship, spiritual formation, and even social ministries. "Transforming the world" is not the mission of the Church and it is not the point of the Gospel. The biblical vision is not of a transformed world, but of a cataclysmically destroyed world that is re-created, made new. There are foreshadowings of divine redemption in the world we live in; in fact, what the Church is supposed to be up to is modeling in her own life that new world, offering a sneak preview of coming attractions. But it is God who makes it happen, and pretty much without even our cooperation, let alone our help, and after a fearsome crisis of some sort. Read II Peter. Read the gospel parables about how the Kingdom of God comes.
Evensong (of a sort) followed. Then, after some down time, social hour and banquet-style dinner, all very nice. The after-dinner entertainment was singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, a country musician who is actually from Nashville. She was very engaging, and I found a couple of her songs actually quite moving.