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BREAKING THE HABIT

I’ve been co-opted to a group charged with implementing our bishop’s vision to turn the diocese towards outreach and re-birth as eucharistic communities in mission. Implicit in this challenge is a return to an older pattern of identity, although a modernized version of that identity. The Canons (rules) of the Episcopal Church recognize that our definition of the word “parish” is territorial. The church buildings, those who worship therein and the clergy who serve are charged with the care of civil communities or areas and to bringing the wholeness of the Gospel, ‘the saving of souls and the care for people in “their daily life and work” to all who respond to the church’s mission until “the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord Christ”..

 

It is clear that the greatest obstacle to embarking on such a project is the present understanding our parishioners have of what the local church is, and what it exists for. During the last two hundred years, since the church was disestablished in many of the former colonies, the local Episcopalian community has transformed itself from a territorial entity into a membership entity. The very term “membership”, although not without biblical antecedence as in 1 Cor. 12, that is to say connected parts of a body, organic unity, nowadays implies joining something and is loaded with secular ideas about dues and board meetings, mission statements and all the descriptions used by service organizations, including the sort of rivalry one expects to find in choosing to join the Rotary Club rather than the Lions or the Oddfellows. In short Episcopalians have turned inwards and the horizons set have been largely centered on programs, services and activities provided by and for members. A product of this has been the transformation of the role and identity of clergy from that of parish priest to that of chaplain to those who belong and with that transformation has come a list of demands made of “members’ towards their chaplains which consume most of the time and energy of clergy and which hang over clergy as a list of expectations to be satisfied.

 

It is this paradigm which must be broken if we are to realize mission as being something other than the task of recruiting new members to ensure the viability and “success” of a congregation. The bewildering variety of Christian bodies in America have for centuries relied on brand loyalty, attractive worship and program and a sufficient pool of disaffected Christians ‘in search of a church’. If this has become an enormous burden on congregations, it has had a crippling effect on clergy, upon whom the expectations of congregations has settled as the person largely charged with ‘attracting new members.’ Even when a more healthy vision of the ministry of the laity has developed, the basic pattern remains, that of communities of faith finding ways to make themselves attractive and lively and appealing. Now of course Christian corporate life is supposed to be all that. But the consumerist, shopping mall method is centered on making what happens within the community assembled in its buildings appealing to others. Rather like a shopping mall, each store has its brand identity and struggles to portray itself in an attractive manner. Success is measured by sales. Many of the self-help solutions pedaled by church growth organizations, center their task around teaching “members’ how to welcome new visitors or shoppers, how to get them to return, and how to persuade those attracted through the front doors to come back.

 

I have already written at length about the fact that fewer and fewer Americans are now ‘shopping’ for what is offered by competing stores, ‘denomination’ – the very name denotes a brand identity – and that in an unclubbable age, in which fewer and fewer people join service clubs and associations, the churches experience the same identity crisis. Nothing is more dispiriting than to labor long and hard to peddle a product which few think they need, which provides no buyers’ thrill, let alone remorse, particularly in the case of smaller local churches whose resources are utterly consumed in the upkeep of buildings and paying the salary of staff. But while there is considerable frustration and even depression in our eucharistic communities, there’s no real understanding that the model is broken irreparably and must be replaced if the life of local churches is to survive and experience new life. In short the first task the churches have is to understand, as if their life depends on it, is that the model we have used, once successfully, is as dead as the proverbial dodo. And if this is true at the basic local level, it is equally true at diocesan and national church levels.

 

One of the obstacles to understanding this to be true, is the continued relative success of larger congregations and the ever present presence of so called ‘mega churches’ upon whom Episcopalians pour scorn while secretly yearning for the success these congregations explore. For laying aside the problem of the longevity of such congregations over the long term, what is not understood is that their success is rooted in their ability to create alternative community life, albeit at some price to those who join, in a world in which the old glues of society, the extended family, community identity is disappearing. Indeed the church has always, at its best, constituted an alternative culture, even when that culture was roughly coterminous with that of secular society. Those who propose a form of Christianity largely informed by secular cultural mores, one which fits in with contemporary culture are yearning for a survival of religion which reflects the life-style, music, literature and lifestyles of those around them. If that form of culture seems to be hostile, the temptation is to withdraw and build safe places for the elect. It is no accident that the success of evangelical churches in large part is identified with their existing in communities which retain vestiges of popular Christian lifestyles, or they survive where pockets of such a memory exist in sufficient strength to continue to create a pool of likely converts. If this is true of the evangelical churches, it is equally true in the case of successful progressive churches, which are planted in areas where there are pockets of progressive thought, susceptible to the claims of religious groups which bless their concerns.

 

For the most part, Episcopal parishes, outside big cities or suburbs, largely located on the East and West Coasts of America, exist where neither pool of likely customers dwell. They exist in places where the general public pass our buildings daily without seeing them, where people ignore the church pages in newspapers and don’t feel drawn to surf the internet in search of ‘a church home’. As I have remarked before at length, a growing constituency of people around our churches have little or no idea of what we do inside our red doors, have no belief that whatever goes on has any impact on the complexity of modern living or thinking or experiencing life and are impervious to our usual ‘sales pitch’. I hasten to add that God’s mission is to add to the church “those who shall be saved”, for it is God’s mission. But resting on that fact is a cop out. We are called to be the agents of God’s mission. If God had intended to do it apart from the church, the church would not exist. Given these extraordinary facts it is easy for us to say with the disciples, “Will God, when He comes, find faith on earth?’  That the church is growing apace in Africa and Asia means nothing to us, conditioned as we are to believe that such foreigners have yet to catch up with the modern world, poor things.

 

These thoughts press hard on me as I prepare for the Celebration of a New Ministry for my two tiny congregations in Southern Illinois, and for myself, a seventy-two year old, who perhaps should be retired and is linked to the past glories of Anglicanism by upbringing and sentiment. I have now lived in Glen Carbon, Illinois for just over a month. Glen Carbon is a village, something rather quaint in a country of ‘cities’. Just over twelve thousand people live within the borders of this village. The Christian community is served by half a dozen or so churches, reflecting the usual brand names, of which the tiny Episcopal church ‘attracts’ just over forty people. The village consists of a former coal mining community, its inhabitants a mixture of the descendants of those who came from Great Britain and Slovakia at the turn of the last century and a newer community of retirees, those who work at the local university or who work in larger surrounding communities or in St. Louis, scarcely half an hour away across the Mississippi. Part of Glen Carbon now encompasses the larger stores which have spilled out of Edwardsville, such as Walmart and some restaurants. Thus Glen Carbon is divided between those who live inwardly struggling to preserve some sort of community identity and those who look to Edwardsville and beyond.

 

As I encounter local residents, I’m armed with three weapons. My English accent makes people stop me and ask me what accent I have and questions about why I am here at all!  I carry a stick, to hold me erect, one with interesting carvings on it which similarly invites questions. When I wear my uniform, other questions arise. “Are you Catholic?” When I say I am their Episcopal priest, more often than not I am met with instant incomprehension. A few ask whether that is the “gay church”. Young people seem glad that I chat, welcome me when we meet again, but that has much to do with my being a foreigner or my doing a rather odd job. I was trained to always reach out to the people I meet when I’m wearing my dog collar. One never knows what reaction I will meet. If I bring up the fact that I am the pastor at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, most have no idea where that church is hidden, for hidden it is nowadays by new buildings, let alone what it exists for. At least I have somewhere to begin contact, something I shall have to be patient in working on. I also know that those who will be with me on Saturday when I become official have none of my ‘talking points’ available, and have been taught not to share their faith, but to rely on the building, the sign, occasional advertisements in the local newspapers and community letters, and the cache of being Episcopalians. They do so with the added burden that our Episcopal faith has but a tenuous existence in this part of the world, and the movers and shakers in the community who built the church for themselves and their miners are long gone.

 

It is true that my parishioners and their co-religionists in an even small church in nearby Granite City have fewer resources than those in larger communities, but across this diocese the story is roughly the same. Our congregations at best are stable but aging and at worst are dying out. If we are to be faithful to the Great Commission, we must break the mold brutally. Our addiction  to things as they have been is terminal unless we embrace our addiction and seek a cure. That the old pattern of denominational consumerism is dying is, after all, a good thing. It has enabled us to concentrate on the incidentals of brand religion while ignoring the purpose and work for which our Lord created his Church. Thus bound up with our seeking a cure for our chronic addiction is a willingness to re-learn the basic truths of Christian Faith and practice. Only then may we begin to tackle the task of offering Christ to a hungry and perplexed secular world.

4 Responses

  1. Welcome to the Greater St. Louis area. I know the area around St. Bartholomew’s in Granite City, having worked in the area for a few months. I live in St. Charles, MO, but may cross the river to visit one of your churches someday. I’ve been reading your blog for several years.

  2. I’d be delighted to meet you Todd.

  3. I entered an Episcopal Church for the first time in several years today — to vote. It was a surprisingly emotional experience, starting with the Episcopalian smell. Other churches don’t smell like that. I wonder what it is.

  4. Old check books.

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