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From The Rector

Hello friends....

My column for this month can be summed up in the following phrase:

Invited and Welcomed

How many of us are here in this church, St. John, because we were invited to come wor-ship by a friend and then felt truly wel-comed by the congre-gation? How many of us came into the Angli-can/Episcopal Church because we were invit-ed and truly wel-comed?

A big part of how a congregation grows follows the same pattern as building a circle of friends: we invite people into our lives and do all that we can do to make them feel truly welcome. And like friendships, congregations are sustained and thrive through shared experiences, ideals, and a sense of purpose or meaning. 

So, how do we go from the simple mainte-nance of our common lives together and go into thriving mission, inviting others to par-ticipate in our life of grace here at St. John? 
In thinking about our future, we are always being asked to discern who the Lord is asking us to become and where the Lord is ask-ing us to follow. I strongly believe that a revitalized Church of the future will share in at least three important characteristics. It will be Christ focused, doc-trinally centered, and pastorally driven.

Christ-Focused

Often, the received wisdom is that the Church is broken and needs to be fixed. So, how should we go about fixing it? More often than not, the cure for fixing the Church is to focus on the Church:  how can we make the Church more attractive?; how can we get more people in the door; who should we target in our marketing?; what should we say?; how should we dress and act and think?; what music should we play?; what politics should we promote?; how can WE be the Church that WE want to be so that other people will want to join US?

I truly believe that we do not need new or exotic methods to carve out a portion of the market. Rather, what we need is a Church that takes seriously the fact that our entire reason for existing is to point a hurting human family towards the re-deeming, transforma-tive love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus has told us how He will build His Church, and it isn’t through slick marketing or bold new initiatives. He builds his Church through his own life given for us, which renews us, and the proclamation of the good news that calls us into that mystery. We must recover the reality of the truth of the gospel, and find in Jesus more than the guy who is our friend, our cheerleader, our example, or a guy who gives really great advice. He may be some of those things, but the job of the Church is to point to the cross and the emp-ty tomb. The entirety of the message that we proclaim begins and ends with the incarna-tion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s where the truth of Christ is to be realized. 

Doctrinally Centered

It is also often true that the received wisdom is that the Church needs to just relax a little, and not be so dogmatic. If the teaching of the Church, its dogma and doctrine, are not thought of as life-giving, it is only be-cause they have been poorly taught and un-derstood. The stability and depth of the teaching of the Church is not something that we tack onto the local community, but are essential to its life. On purpose or not, we are always teaching something. Sometimes what we hear in our Churches, liberal or conservative, is that none of this really matters very much. It’s all about your own subjective experience, about feeling good. There is no real stable content to our faithful believing. 

The purpose of the Church is to bear wit-ness, to proclaim the gospel, to make disci-ples, and to teach them to obey all that the Lord has commanded. People may not say so if you ask them, but this is what they’re hungry for. They want to know Christ, and the only way they get to know Him is if we speak His Word. This means that the must make a radical return to Holy Scripture. We cannot afford to assume that people know the Gos-pel, even here in the “Bible Belt”. We need to learn how to talk about Jesus, personally and passionately, and to be grounded in our Holy Scriptures. We need to reclaim the language of doctrine in ways that are life-giving and transformative.

Pastorally Driven

Parish churches have been diminishing over the last 40 years, across all Churches and Christian communities, and one of our knee-jerk reactions has been to assume that the Church of tomorrow won’t need parishes or full time priests. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need full-time priests now more than ever, and we need the Church to return to an older model of what it means to be priest and congregation together as the body of Christ.

First, we must always be reminded that there is one shepherd of the flock, and that is Jesus Christ. Second, we have to move beyond the idea that only those who are ordained are called to ministry and mission. This clergy-centric way of doing things has to change. The Episcopal Church teaches the ministry of all the baptized, and we must learn to live more fully into the reality that all of us are being empowered by God for the healing of the world. Bishops and priests have a very specific role to play in the common life of the Church, and can only do a small part of the work of the body of Christ. It requires all of us to be faithful to do the full work that God has given us to do.

There are two equally unhelpful models of priest that have be-come endemic in the Episcopal Church, and mainline Protestantism, today. The first is the therapist/life coach model, whereby the priest is simply there to lead you along the path to self-actualization. Equally problematic is the idea of the pastor as the social justice advocate. The Gospel is neither self-actualization nor social change, though it certainly brings these into being when lived faithfully. The Gospel is the life altering news that God became a human in Jesus, and died and rose again to life so that we might live, and that everything is for-given and all things are being made new.

Pastoring is about the “cure of souls”, of knowing the Scriptures intimately through a life of study and prayer, of providing teaching and counsel, and ushering all of God’s people deeper into their heavenly life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The pattern of pastoral ministry since the early Church has been communal. The parish is the center and focal point of a common life in which we are shaped into disciples.  It is, I be-lieve, the loss of com-munity and the false belief of radical individualism, along with a profound materialism, in our culture that has done more than anything to diminish our Church. We live in a society in which place no longer matters, in which dependency on one another is seen as a vice rather than a vir-tue, and in which the primary mode of social interaction is commer-cial/material. The community used to create a comfortable cushion in which pastoral work could take place. Now, in the absence of that cushion, we must not only build pastoral relationships but create community as well. We do so not for its own sake but for the sake of creating a space in which authen-tic conversion and re-pentance can take place.

How the Church can or will fund the ongoing work of its pastors re-mains uncertain. Some careful thinking must go into this problem. But the one thing that is certain is that we cannot afford to allow priestly ministry to go by the wayside or to be transformed into something done by proxy rather than in the context of relationship. The standard tenure for a rector now in the Epis-copal Church has be-come five years or less, hardly enough time to even begin to build the kind of trust that is needed. Many parishes opt now for part time priests since they can no longer afford full time, but that is an ox-ymoron. How can you pastor people only part of the time? Thus, many “part time” priests are part time in name only.

There is no single method for church growth. As we continue to grow in our faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel with love, passion, and clarity, and create a loving parish environment where we can meet God in trans-formative ways, we will see God bless our church, in one way or another, because these are not ultimately methods for us to reclaim the Church but ways in which the Lord has promised to reclaim us and to build his Church.

There is only one doc-trine and only one pas-tor, and it is Jesus Christ. May He set us free from captivity to our fears and bring us into the light of His truth.

---Fr. Troy+

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