Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pressing on Towards the Goal

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. - Philippians 12b-14
This past Sunday morning, coincidentally on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I announced that we had reached the point in our life together where we needed to be about the work of (re-)planting St. Edward's and announced that we were formally beginning that replanting effort. Replanting a church means re-launching the church in a fresh new way that honors the past yet looks towards the future. In other words, while we do have already existing buildings, budgets, and committed members, we need to look to the world and essentially say "We're planting a new church. How should we go about doing that, assuming we were just starting out with nothing?"

There are two challenges we face as we re-plant St. Edward's. The first challenge is that our mission context is vastly different from the one that existed 55 years ago at our first "planting." The culture of sometimes explicit, often tacit, social supports to our faith--often called "Christendom"--is dead and is not returning. The world outside our doors is almost completely secular and often, at best, looks upon the church as a curious anachronism of a bygone era. It is thus a huge challenge to convince any twenty-first century American that church has anything to say that would be applicable, much less transformational, to his or her life.

That is not to say that people are not spiritually hungry and thirsty--they very much are. Sometimes, especially around significant life events, the pull of ritual and church ceremony exerts itself. This past weekend we had over 200 people at St. Edwards. Those people were spread over four services (two funerals, our 9 a.m. Eucharist, and the 9/11 commemorative service) but I would like to think that we made at least a minimal impact for Christ on the life of each person who came through our doors. Note that since neither of the funerals were for current members, fully three-fourths of the people who sat in our pews at some point during the weekend were not our members. This doesn't even count the many Christian brothers and sisters who were here as part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that meets in our church building on Saturday mornings! It also doesn't include the many twelve-step or other groups that use our social hall and Fireside Room. Clearly our buildings have been and continue to be well used by God, if not necessarily by us.

The key, of course, is (to use Diana Butler Bass' terminology) to help the spiritual "tourists" who are here for a single experience to join us as spiritual "pilgrims" on a long journey of faith. To even hope to do so, we have to admit to the second challenge: we often succumb to "tourist Christianity" (my term) ourselves. We sometimes think of our financial contributions to the church as a mere payment for services rendered, we ask "what am I getting out of being here" and, if the answer seems to be "nothing," we are tempted to move on. Sometimes we even find a good spot along our own pilgrimage trail and set up housekeeping, not very much interested in moving forward to new things.  No one is immune from these temptations, even clergy! A more pointed version of this indictment was recently expressed by The Rev. Frederick W. Schmidt, an Episcopal priest and avid blogger, who wrote:
What Muslims have rightly criticized in western culture is that it is spiritually flaccid and self-indulgent. The churches of Europe are empty. While they are not as empty in the United States as they are in Europe, Christians here often live remarkably dissolute and directionless lives that are not easily distinguished from the lives of those around them. We are without discipline. We live as if our faith in God doesn't matter. And in our desire to not be thought of as fundamentalists we have crafted churches that are a studied attempt to avoid deep commitment.
In today's post-Christendom, post-9/11, and increasingly post-Christian society, any attempt to plant (or re-plant) a church that is "a studied attempt to avoid deep commitment" is doomed to failure. People do not seek out hospices unless they or a loved one are dying. People do not seek out churches designed to be (or that have come to be) spiritual hospices unless they simply want to be comfortable as they decline. Offering Karl Marx's "opiate to the masses" is no longer an effective long-term growth strategy, if it ever was.

If you are a member of St. Edward's, please don't read this as some sort of blanket condemnation of your commitment to St. Edward's, much less your commitment to Jesus Christ. A great many of you have served long, faithfully, and well in a variety of capacities over the many years St. Edward's has been here--some of you from the very beginning of its existence! You have left a lasting legacy for future generations and continue to come and support the church as best you are able. As wonderful as that is, however, I am asking everyone to actively support, commit to, or at the very least not oppose the inevitable changes that every new effort like (re-)planting a church brings.  Stay with us, ask for help on the pilgrimage if you need it, and pray and expect God to do wonderful things in your life and in the life of those who have yet to walk through our doors.

So, to borrow from St. Paul, we are forgetting what lies behind--the difficulties of the last decade at St. Ed's, the pain and loss involved in the split in March 2009, some of the initial missteps of the last couple of years, and the lingering fear and uncertainty that follow such things--and we are straining toward what is ahead and pressing on toward the goal of responding faithfully to our own call from God to welcome all, worship fully, witness to God's grace, and walk the way of Christ. I invite you to pack up your spiritual backpack and join me on the adventure.

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