When I began my ministry in the 1980’s, you could still develop a church by advertising our unique strengths to people who were looking for a church. You cannot do that in most places anymore. Fewer and fewer people are looking for a church. For many, church is either irrelevant to their lives or, worse, is a source of a deep wound because they have been hurt by a church. How do we reach out to people in this new setting?
A Modest Proposal for a Starting Place
If we are honest, we will admit that we don’t know what to do. This can be a good thing if we embrace our vulnerability and our need to trust God in new ways. Moses did not know what to do when his back was to the Red Sea and his eyes were on the thundering herds of approaching Egyptian soldiers. But he found a new pathway forward for his people because he listened to God, prayed to God, and trusted God (Exodus 14:10-15).
I want to make a modest proposal for a starting place. Because we do not know what to do, we need to establish a corporate practice of fasting and praying for the mission of our church. In Acts, the early church waited and prayed in the upper room before the Holy Spirit came and led them into ministry (Acts 1:12-14). We need to enter into an extended season of church-wide prayer and fasting for the development of our mission.
About seven or eight years ago, Bishop Wilson Garang of South Sudan visited our diocese. He told us, “If you want your churches to grow, you must fast and pray.” We listened and established Wednesday as a day of fasting and prayer for the mission of our church. We ask our people to fast in some way on Wednesday and to pray a "Litany for Mission" that we developed. I propose that we make this a practice of our entire church; a day a week on which we fast and pray for our mission. The activity of fasting and prayer for mission will put the topic of mission on the map of our church. It is a way to begin; something we can really do. If we cannot commit to regular prayer and fasting for our mission, it means we are not serious about it.
As we fast and pray, we need to listen for God’s voice and guidance and discuss the new things we might do; the new doors we might open into our churches; the new ways we might reach out to those who are not now our members; the new good works we might do. Prayer for mission and discussion about church renewal and mission need to be regular, weekly activities of our church. And these need to be the central focus of our energy when we gather for synods.
Some Foundational Questions
Before we can share our faith with others, before we can give what we have, we must first ask: “What do we have?” We tend to answer this question theologically. We have the faith defined by the councils and creeds. We need to begin to answer this question experientially. How do we experience the redeeming and sanctifying presence of Christ as a community? What is the experience of Christ that we want to share? As Alexander Schmemann says, “Of what are we witnesses?” (For the Life of the World, Ch. 1, p. 21).
An honest assessment of our churches reveals that before we can develop a mission, we must develop our own spiritual life as a community. If we are to be witnesses to the power of Christ in our lives, then we must have a communal experience of that power. If we want people to come, there must be something powerful and compelling to invite them to come to. It won’t work to develop a great marketing campaign to get people to come to church if, when they come, they find a small group of discontented people who seem mostly to complain about the world and each other, and whose mission is mainly is to keep the doors open.
A Reorientation of Ministry Around the Theology of the Remnant
Many of our churches need a reorientation of ministry. We need to start by focusing on our own spiritual formation. The truth is that while our church has its holy people, even its saints, we have been handicapped by spiritual and emotional immaturity among our clergy and lay leadership. Our greatest need is for clergy and lay leaders who are willing to reorient the ministry of our churches around spiritual formation. We need to develop ourselves in order to develop our witness and mission.
This is a reorientation we began four years ago at St. Matthew’s Church and in the Diocese of the Holy Trinity after some profound experiences of missionary failure. I realized that our mission efforts had been undermined by the emotional and spiritual immaturity of our missionaries. Rather than being witnesses to Christ in the world, they tended to succumb to the pressure and anxieties that came upon them in the church. This is a church-wide issue.
We began to reorient our ministry around developing our life of prayer and focusing on emotional health. Our new approach is heavily indebted to the Anglican writer Martin Thornton, especially in his book, Pastoral Theology, A Reorientation (with needed adaptation because our setting is different from his) and to something called Family Systems Theory, which is having a growing impact on many churches. It turns out that other churches are facing the same issues. We have channeled our energies away from marketing campaigns and promotion and towards the spiritual formation of what Thornton calls, “the Remnant.” The Remnant is not the grumpy core of traditionalists who are mad at the world. The Remnant is the core group in the church that is willing to be serious about its own life of prayer and spiritual growth. According to Thornton, this Remnant has a vicarious and leavening impact on the larger church and the world. It is the foundation for authentic mission.
We developed a year-long class that is focused on two things. Developing one’s life of prayer in the community in the church and cultivating emotionally healthy ways of interacting with other people—developing healthy ministry. The year-long class leads into a second year and a third year and culminates in membership in our diocesan “Order of the Holy Trinity.” We currently have sixty people participating at one stage or another and nine members of our diocesan order. I’ve never made any public announcement in church about these classes. All participants have been personally invited to participate. I’ve been influenced by a seminary professor who said, “Jesus did not ask for volunteers. He called people to, ‘follow me.’”
This approach has substantially reoriented our church around interior spiritual formation leading to outward oriented mission. Though the details of this approach may vary depending on the local setting, I believe that this framework fits our tradition as a way to reorient our ministry towards mission. It creates a parochial Benedictine spirituality in which mission is focused on hospitality and building relationships.
We want to share with others what we have learned because we believe that these themes are essential to developing the mission of our church. To explore the subject further, please read "The Idea of a Mission Community" (download here). We are looking for conversation partners. If you think you might fall into this category, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.