Rethinking Evangelism

Some have asked about the current status of the vision for St. Patrick’s—Grandview, since I am no longer an active Anglican priest, and we originally expected the new church to be an Anglican parish. I will take up that matter in my next post. I’ve already written it, but as I was writing, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to deal with another important issue preliminarily. That subject is evangelism.

I grew up believing that the main reason unbelievers were not Christians was that no one had adequately explained the “plan of salvation” to them. Evangelism, then, was primarily a matter of clarifying terms and providing instruction for what steps to take and in what order. I genuinely believed that the gospel was so logical and so persuasive that anybody who heard it clearly and coherently presented would not be able to resist its logical conclusions.

That’s what I believed, in fact, until, as a Bible college student and then as a young pastor, I met people who listened carefully to my straightforward and passionate presentation and then responded, in effect, with a polite “No, thank you.”

I assumed that my presentation must be flawed. I surely must not be saying what I needed to say, what I meant to say. So I polished my spiel and consulted all the available resources designed to enhance my effectiveness in evangelistic witness. And the results were about the same.

Eventually, I came to realize that evangelism—by which I mean the process of sharing the “good news” of Jesus Christ with nonbelievers in such a way that they can understand what it means to believe in Jesus, experienceSheet of paper with Good news text the grace and love and forgiveness of God, and follow Jesus as the Lord of their lives—includes some truly supernatural dimensions and faces some truly supernatural obstacles.

The Apostle Paul, who knew a little bit about evangelism, observed in chapter four of his second letter to the Corinthians that…

If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (New International Version)

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The Trouble With American Christianity

Contemporary American Christianity is a jumbled mess.  Christian denominations now number in the thousands. This would be bad enough if these disparate groups were simply slight variations on a common theme. In fact, however, many of these groups hold to doctrines so diverse from those of other Christians that it is difficult to believe they could all be adherents of the same religion.

Even within the comparatively homogeneous community of American Evangelicalism, where doctrinal differences are less stark, there is little unity. Evangelical Christians may sing about that day “when we all get to heaven,” but many of them are content to get there by associating with Christians from other denominations, even other Evangelical denominations, as little as possible.

Some will no doubt challenge this assessment of the contemporary scene, insisting that the day of denominationalism is past. They are convinced that the influence of theological liberalism and postmodernism, the loss of historical perspective, and differences in styles of music and approaches to public worship have produced divisions within denominations which promote cooperation and encourage fellowship across denominational lines. Supporters of this view often say they feel closer to believers in other denominations than to some in their own.

Whatever the case, there is little evidence of widespread unity among Christians. Differences in methodology, emphasis, and focus produce churches and parachurch ministries which resemble American corporate culture more than a worldwide religious movement with a common origin and heritage. Pastors and ministry leaders function like business executives who must achieve a high level of productivity in order to satisfy their investors and guarantee their continued employment.

Pastors no longer perceive their work as a partnership with others of similar calling in the service of the one who promised, “I will build my church… .”  Instead, they approach their ministry as if they are competing with other pastors and churches for recognition and “market share.” The pressure to perform—to succeed—is often debilitating, resulting in exhaustion and burnout from the constant pursuit of “the next new thing” that might work in their situation. Many eventually give up, succumb to the “greener grass” syndrome, and look for something better elsewhere.

What is the measure of success within much of the American church community? Apparently, as with most ventures in a free enterprise system, the mark of success is size and growth. We are conditioned to believe that no philosophy of ministry is successful unless it produces crowds and generates revenue. The problem with size as the mark of success, however, is that it requires indiscriminate application. All big things are alike successful, at least in theory. The largest ministry is the most successful.

Of course no one really believes that, not even, or perhaps especially, the leaders of “competing” ministries. Any conscientious observer recognizes the inconsistency in lauding the success of a ministry built on questionable fiscal policies, no matter how large or influential it has become. And should mega-churches that represent divergent, even contradictory, doctrinal distinctives and methodological approaches really be regarded as equally successful?

Still, our culture equates growth with success, and the American Christian community has embraced that idea with enthusiasm. When size is the mark of success, then the leader of a large ministry organization or the pastor of a large church achieves a measure of influence which he exploits through writing books and speaking at conferences. Especially in the Evangelical community, which lacks the ecclesiastical hierarchy of communions such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, these mega-church pastors and ministry superstars become the authority figures for millions of Christians.

Never mind that much of their “success” has come from being in the right place at the right time. Never mind that the proponents of contradictory teachings are alike claiming the blessing of God on their endeavors. Never mind that their accomplishments owe as much to marketing techniques and savvy public relations as to the application of the teachings of Jesus. They are the authorities. When they speak, we listen, and when they outline a program for advancing the gospel and building the church, we sign on.

Meanwhile, nonChristians are not impressed. Their hearing dulled by the cacophony of voices purporting to speak for God, and their vision blurred by the myriad of tactics employed to gain their attention, they are, ironically, turning away from the church. They are bewildered by the clamor and contradiction, the inconsistency and hypocrisy so characteristic of American Christianity. Even nonbelievers agree with St. Paul that “God is not the author of confusion.”

Not only are nonChristians spurning the church. A growing number of former church members, disillusioned with the carnival atmosphere surrounding contemporary American Christianity and its cafeteria-line approach to doctrine and discipleship, have joined the ranks of those for whom church attendance is no longer meaningful.

These ex-attenders are not the typical “entertain me or I’ll leave” brand of perennial church-hoppers who flitter around the periphery and eventually disappear altogether. They are, in fact, just the opposite. Many of them grew up in church and possess a genuine and vibrant faith. They have concluded, however, and reluctantly in many cases, that American Christianity does not fairly or accurately represent the character of Jesus Christ or of the “faith once delivered to the saints.”

They are discouraged by the lack of Christian unity and the competitive climate so much a part of contemporary American Christianity. They are dismayed by the elaborate media technology and showmanship upon which so much church programming depends. They are discomfited by the star-quality which attaches to so many Christian personalities and which so many others pursue. They are embarrassed by the superficiality and inconsistency which they see in their leaders, in their fellow Christians, and in themselves. And they are confused by the diversity of admonition and instruction, much of it contradictory, with which they are barraged in print, from pulpits, and over the airwaves.

And can you blame them? I mean, how are we supposed to determine which of the competing visions we should embrace? Whose definition of the gospel do we accept? Which version of Christian discipleship do we find most compelling and for what reasons? And perhaps the most important question of all—which model for growing the church and making disciples is most consistent with the teaching and example of Jesus?

Contemporary American society is based on an ethos of acquiring and consuming. Bigger is better. Wealth is power, and power is wealth. Many of the voices speaking for God in twenty-first century America trumpet a version of the gospel which seems very much at home in this culture. They have concluded that it is possible to have “all this and Jesus too.”

But is that realistic? Is a culture based on acquisition and consumption really compatible with the message of one who owned nothing and called His disciples to a life of self-sacrifice and “cross-bearing?” Does American Christianity honestly and consistently reflect the character and values of its founder? Or has it uncritically accommodated itself to the values and ethos of a consumer society?

This post is deliberately diagnostic in tone. At the same time, it is neither a critique of all church-growth theory nor a condemnation of all large ministries and their influential leaders. I am neither a sociologist nor a historian. I am an evangelical Christian, formerly a Mennonite college teacher and pastor, and now an Anglican priest. Despite the description of American Christianity in this post, my life is devoted to Christ and His church.

I once heard somebody say, “You are not caught in traffic; you are traffic.” Similarly, I am not simply surrounded by the problem I describe here. In too many ways, I am part of the problem. But I prefer to be part of the solution, and that is precisely what I will address in future posts.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.

My Hope Is In The Diocese

Like many Christians, I grew up with what I now believe to be a grossly deficient view of the role and purpose of the church. My parents were Baptists. I was baptized, and eventually ordained, in that tradition, which is characterized by a strongly congregational polity (i.e. form or system of government). That is, while Baptist churches may link together for certain kinds of cooperative endeavors, each local congregation is viewed as an autonomous entity, not subject to any kind of outside authority so far as its decision-making apparatus is concerned.

In some Baptist churches, the form of government in the local congregation is something close to a pure democracy, where a vote of the membership is required for virtually every decision of any significance. Others operate under a system in which the pastor, as the lone “elder” in the church, pretty well runs the show, assisted to some degree by a board of “deacons” who presumably advise the pastor and, in rare cases, may actually possess sufficient authority to override a pastoral decision.

A similar polity is favored by “independent, non-denominational” churches, many of which use terms like “Bible Church” or “Community Church” in their names. My first two pastorates were served in churches of this sort, without denominational identity but decidedly congregational in polity. I was in my thirties before I began to think of “church” as anything other than a local, autonomous assembly, responsible for its own program, accountable to nobody except its own membership, and sometimes not even to them.

Well, that’s not entirely true. As a Bible college graduate, I understood the term “church” to be used in the New Testament with reference to the “body of Christ,” composed of all Christians, everywhere, across the centuries of “church” history. But this “universal church” was sometimes called the “invisible church,” and a church that you could not see was, in practical terms, nonexistent. The only church I knew anything about, so far as personal experience was concerned, was a local, independent entity, operating according to its own perception of Christian doctrine, and often in competition with similar local churches in the same general area.

Eventually, I came to believe that affiliation with a local church assembly alone, to the exclusion of formal and official identification with a broader, more diverse community of Christian believers (as in a denomination), revealed an inadequate understanding of the concept of the church as the “body of Christ.” I had read the Nicene Creed, with its declaration that “we believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” and I wanted to do something, in terms of formal identification and official membership, which reflected my commitment to that church.

The proliferation of Christian denominations, I maintain, is one negative consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Thus it is not possible, in organizational and institutional terms, to identify formally and officially with the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Even the Roman Catholic Church, since Vatican II, recognizes that there are genuine Christian believers not covered by its umbrella. The best we can do, or so it would seem, is to identify with a denomination—ideally one with worldwide membership—which also recognizes its place within the family of churches, denominations, fellowships, coalitions, and alliances which, ostensibly, worship Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and King of the Universe.

That was the decision to which I came, nearly thirty years ago, when I became a member of what is now Mennonite Church USA. MCUSA is a tiny denomination, but it is linked to a worldwide Mennonite/Anabaptist network. Moreover, at the time, affiliation with even a small denomination was a big step for someone with my background to take.

I took that decision seriously. I could have embraced many of the distinctives which drew me to Anabaptism—an emphasis on radical discipleship, Biblical nonresistance, simplicity, and a commitment to social justice, for example—without actually joining the Mennonite Church. But I was ready to identify with an entity that included brothers and sisters in Christ outside of my local congregation.

Twenty-five years later, I was captivated by the beauty and mystery of liturgical worship. For a time, I tried to “scratch the liturgical itch” without identifying formally with a denomination in the liturgical tradition. Initially, I wanted to be an Anabaptist with liturgical sensibilities. The more I learned about Anglicanism, however, the more I was drawn into the communion as much for its polity, its history,

The Flag Of Worldwide Anglicanism

and its worldwide witness as for its liturgy. Today I consider myself an Anglican with Anabaptist sensibilities.

Anglican polity is decidedly not congregational or democratic. It is episcopal, which is the English form of a Greek word often translated “overseer” and is the etymological root for the English word bishop. In Baptist churches, authority rests with the congregation. In Anglican churches, authority rests (or is supposed to rest) with the bishop. The bishop’s authority extends to a specified number of local congregations (known as parishes) which all together comprise what is known as a diocese.

In congregational polity, the local church is the fundamental unit of ecclesiastical identification. In Anglican polity, it is the diocese. Local parishes exist to embody the vision and mission of the diocese in a particular community. They are the means by which the diocese interfaces with a specific neighborhood. Clergy are not members of a local parish. They are members of the diocese only, and their role is to represent the bishop in the parishes where they serve in a variety of roles.

This system of government, which is based on a particular understanding of terms and patterns found in the New Testament, has some weaknesses, but overall it is workable and efficient. Its efficiency and its effectiveness depend on the character and competence of the bishop and the faithfulness and commitment of the diocesan clergy to the system and to their vows of loyalty to the bishop.

I believe that episcopal polity (i.e. parishes in a diocese living under the watchcare and authority of a bishop) is not only efficient and effective (at least in theory) for the organization and operation of local churches or parishes. It is also tailor-made (again, in theory) as a mechanism for the planting of new parishes.

Here’s what I mean. A single local parish within a diocese may not possess sufficient resources, either human or material, to support the birth and development of a new church in its area, even when the need for such a new congregation is obvious and indisputable. By pooling the available resources from all the parishes in the diocese, the cost of planting a new church could be underwritten for a year or two. As the new church grew and took on responsibility for its own support, diocesan funds could be re-directed toward another area with a need for a new church. In this way, each new church would be a joint effort of the diocese, and the entire diocese could rejoice in its success and benefit from its ministry.

I have proposed a pattern such as this for consideration by the parishes in my own diocese. So far, it has gone nowhere. That makes me sad, since I have pretty much concluded that this approach may be the only way our vision for St. Patrick’s Church can be realized. And it may be the only mechanism by which I can find a context for vocational ministry in the Anglican communion.

Come On, Anglicans—Catch The Vision

I have been an ordained minister for more than forty years. I have actually been ordained three times in three different theological communions: first as a Baptist in 1970, then as a Mennonite in 1982, and finally (and I do mean finally) as an Anglican priest just over a year ago.

As a minister in three communions who has served in a variety of ministry settings and in several different ministry roles (as a pastor, a broadcaster, a parachurch executive, and a college professor), I’ve seen it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly of evangelical church life in America. In fact, I have very few colleagues in ministry whose experiences within and among the American evangelical community are as varied and touch as many different traditions as mine. There are both assets and liabilities associated with that, but they are not the subject of this post.

What is the point of this post? I’m glad you asked.

My wife is away for a week or so, visiting her family in another state, and on those rare occasions when we are separated for more than a day or two at a time, in addition to missing her like crazy, I always seem to wax nostalgic and spend some time thinking back over the course of our life together.

I am writing this on a Sunday evening, at the cIose of a day in which I preached in the worship service of the church we attend, sat in on a meeting of the church’s leadership team in the afternoon, then came home and fell asleep while nursing a pounding headache (altogether unrelated to the earlier events of the day… I think). All of those elements have contributed to the direction my thoughts are taking me tonight as I reflect on where God has brought me after four decades of vocational Christian ministry.

I am a teacher. That is my primary ministry gift. As a pastor, my preaching ministry was marked by a distinctive teaching style. As a broadcaster and a parachurch exec, much of my ministry consisted of carefully prepared public presentations in which I was explaining something or advocating on behalf of something or issuing some sort of challenge—and all of this made use of my strengths as a teacher and communicator.

I am also an introvert. When I was in seminary, my faculty advisor looked at the results of some personality type-indicator test I had taken, sort of shook his head a bit, looked at me over the top of his glasses, and said, “Hmmm. An introvert in an extravert’s job.”

“Should I look for another line of work?” I asked. (Of course he knew I had no intention of forsaking my very clear call to vocational ministry.) “Not at all,” he replied. “Just be prepared for the toll that your ministry will take—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” He was right.

Because I am an introvert, and because I have gifts that are more suited to a classroom or some other context where the environment is conducive to thoughtful interaction without a lot of fanfare or excitement, I have never looked seriously at a ministry like church planting, which, I have always believed, requires a more outgoing, aggressive personality than mine and involves the use of entrepreneurial gifts which I don’t possess.

Ever so slowly, however, I am observing an evolution in my thinking and my perception of my own gifts as well as the possible shape of the final chapter of my active ministry.

Much of this new thinking is the product of simply facing reality. I am entering the Anglican priesthood at the very moment that the orthodox Anglican communion with which I am identifying is coming into existence. While the leadership of the Anglican Church in North America wants to highlight the proactive character of its mission, and rightly so, it cannot be denied that most of the parishes which comprise the new communion were formerly associated with the Episcopal Church.

I applaud the courage and fortitude which leaders at every level have shown as they have undertaken this necessary, but often gut-wrenching, act of conscience. I fully support and endorse the vision and program of the ACNA. Among the consequences of this decision, however, is the unavoidable reality that numerous parishes have been forced to abandon buildings they had paid for and assume new financial obligations which are made more substantial by the fact that, in the move from TEC to ACNA, most parishes retained all their clergy but not all their members. So the heavy costs are being borne by a smaller giving base. Thus, the hard fact is that there are almost no opportunities for ministry in established parishes to which people like me, new to the communion and with gifts not traditionally associated with church planting, can be called.

So far as the future health and vitality of the new communion is concerned, this is not a bad thing at all. Christianity has always thrived under pressure. It has been said, in fact, that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” Evangelical Christianity, especially, is marked by a pioneering spirit that flourishes when it is required to face new challenges, break new ground, blaze new trails, or move into uncharted territory (pick the analogy you prefer).

That’s precisely where orthodox Anglicanism is at the moment. Mainline churches in the liturgical tradition are in steep decline. As painful as the experience of separation has been for ACNA, the liturgical tradition in the United States and Canada has actually been given an opportunity for spiritual renewal. The rich heritage of this communion proved irresistible to me, and I believe it can do the same for many others.

This post was sparked by an email from the rector of the church I am currently attending. In it he forwarded an email he had received from the pastor of one of the largest evangelical churches in central Ohio, if not the nation. The subject was church planting. The association of churches to which that large super-church belongs comprises about 550 congregations nationwide. That group of churches has taken up the challenge of establishing 750 new churches within the next decade.

In order to reach their goal, the national leadership of that association of churches is calling on each of their current member churches to assume a portion of the responsibility, commensurate with their size and setting. The large local church in our community has taken upon itself the task of planting twenty new churches as its contribution to the overall goal. They are marshalling resources, both human and material, and unapologetically calling for the kind of commitment and sacrifice that a venture of that magnitude will require. I applaud their zeal, and I wish them well in that endeavor.

The vision for church planting which is energizing this network of churches is not simply a desire to increase their numbers or enlarge their influence. Their vision was prompted by facing some disheartening, even disturbing, facts about the state of Christian faith in contemporary America. Here is a quote from this prominent church leader’s email.

It may seem odd, at first glance, to spend much time or money planting new churches in the U.S. when it seems to the casual observer that “there is a church on every street corner in America.” But when one scratches below the surface, one discovers some very troubling trends in American church life. Four out of five churches are either plateaued or are in steep decline. Put another way, research reveals that 80-85% of churches in America are on the down-side of the growth cycle, moving from plateau to decline to death.

The decline is particularly steep among Anglo-Roman Catholics and among mainline Protestants. Research demonstrates that just about the only thing that is keeping Roman Catholicism afloat in America right now is the massive influx of Latino Catholics. In terms of actual people in the pews, the Catholic Church has lost roughly one-quarter of its strength over the last 35 years. And attendance at mainline Protestant churches has simply fallen off the table. Whereas about 11% of Americans attended a mainline Protestant church service in 1973, today there are only about 4% (and the majority of these are over 65 years old).

But there is still more depressing news on the American church front. When researchers examined the World War II generation, they found that only about 5% of that generation claimed no religious affiliation when they were young adults. That doubled to more than 10% among the Boomers (those who came of age in the late 1960’s through early 1980’s). But it doubled again to about 20-30% among post-Boomers (those who came of age in the 1990’s and 2000’s). In other words, with each succeeding generation, Americans are becoming less attached to organized religion (primarily Christianity), and less inclined to attend church.

So why do we need to plant new churches in the United States? Simply put, we need to plant new churches in order to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission. Churches that are in decline or are dying are not likely to fulfill the Great Commission, and there is an increasing number of people (primarily young) who are utterly detached from church. There is a desperate need, therefore, to plant innovative, entrepreneurial, highly evangelistic, and Christ-centered churches to reach the increasingly unchurched population of the U.S.

I wish every church leader at every level of the ACNA, from the Archbishop to the parish priests, could read this email. This is a vision and a challenge which we orthodox Anglicans can and must embrace. And we need to do it with the same kind of sacrificial commitment of resources which this nationwide network (the Vineyard churches) recognizes will be required to see the vision become reality.

I’m going to stop there… for now. But I have much more to say on this important subject. Stay tuned.

Effective Leadership And The Rule Of Three

The “rule of three” suggests that groups of things that come in threes are inherently more satisfying or more effective than things in other numbers. It has many applications. Who could ever forget the Three Stooges, the Three Blind Mice, or Goldilocks and the Three Bears?

Three points are generally optimum for a sermon or speech, since they can be used in a progression to create tension, build it up, then resolve it. An equilateral triangle is one of the strongest geometric shapes employed by architects and engineers. And one of the most famous biblical images to make use of the rule of three is found in Ecclesiastes 4:12—A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

The rule of three I have in mind today has to do with the factors which contribute to effective leadership. I’m not thinking so much of the character traits which are absolutely essential for a good leader. I will have much to say about them in the days ahead. Rather, for today, I’m thinking particularly of the context or the conditions which enable a good leader to be effective. And I believe that the most desirable context for effective leadership involves a proper balance between three components: authority, opportunity, and accountability.

By authority I mean all those things which are necessary to qualify a leader for his or her position and which enable the leader to accomplish the task of influencing people to make particular decisions or take specific actions. It includes natural giftedness, formal and informal preparation, and often a credential which may be symbolized by some sort of ceremony, ornament, or attire. Authority assures those who are being led that their leaders have met some objective requirements for their role and gives confidence that leaders are trustworthy and will use their gifts and exercise their influence in prudent and careful ways.

Opportunity is the setting in which leaders operate. It may be an organization, an institution, or simply a situation which requires a leader to use his gifts and exercise her influence for the good of the people involved. It will entail an obvious need along with the potential for resources required to address the need and resolve the situation.

Accountability is the mechanism by which it can be determined whether or not leaders have acted responsibly, prudently, and efficiently in the exercise of their gifts and the use of their authority for the good of those they lead.

I am no expert in effective leadership. I’ve read a few books, attended a few seminars, taken a few courses in subjects at least vaguely related to leadership. But my qualification for addressing this subject lies mainly in the fact that I have been both a leader and a follower, I am a keen observer, and I have learned a few things along the way. That’s where these three components for effective leadership came from. I didn’t read them in a book, at least not one that I can remember. They just seem to make sense.

I believe that failure, inadequacy, and incompetence within the church today, among those who make up the body of Christ—and there is a lot of it about—arises, first and foremost, from failures, inadequacies, and incompetence on the part of those who ostensibly provide leadership to the church. If there is a crisis of spirituality, a crisis of commitment, a crisis of effectiveness in the church, it is first of all a crisis of leadership.

Most of this crisis in leadership has to do with the inner character of the leader. As noted, I will have much more to say on that subject. Some of the ineffectiveness of contemporary leaders among the people of God, however, can be traced to an imbalance among the three components for effective leadership which I have noted above. When one of the three elements is decidedly weaker than the other two, or absent altogether, that imbalance impedes the efficient and productive exercise of leadership gifts and influence. When this happens within a church context or among the people of God, the consequences extend to the effectiveness of the church in embodying the character of the Kingdom of God and advancing the Gospel of the Kingdom.

After forty years of vocational ministry, I am prepared to suggest that leadership among Fundamentalists, where I began my career in vocational ministry, is too often marked by authority and opportunity without sufficient accountability. During more than twenty-five years of ministry among Mennonites, I found leadership to be sometimes limited by opportunity and accountability without sufficient authority to enable leaders to carry out their tasks.

I am today an Anglican priest. When Anglican polity is functioning effectively, there are ample mechanisms in place to confer appropriate authority and to provide for proper accountability. What is lacking is opportunity. Oh, there is plenty of need. There are simply too few resources to enable leaders, with adequate authority and accountability, to take advantage of opportunities, or to initiate the same, through the exercise of their gifts in fulfillment of their calling.

The problem is not really that there are too few resources. The problem is one of distribution. Too many resources are being directed toward too few opportunities. The work of the Kingdom is being hindered because of inequality and disproportionality in the distribution and consumption of Kingdom resources. I have spoken to this situation in earlier posts, and I shall do so again, anon.

A Slightly Different Route To The Same Destination

Everyone has heard some version of this story. A man is forced up to the roof of his house as the flood waters rise around him. He is very religious, so he prays for God to save him, and he is convinced God will do a miracle in his behalf. Soon a man in a rowboat comes by and invites the man on the roof to get in. “No thanks,” the man says. “I have prayed to God, and He will take care of me.”

The water continues to rise. A man in a speedboat comes by and tries to convince the man to get in. “No thanks,” the man says. “I have prayed to God, and He will take care of me.” He says the same thing to the pilot of a helicopter who offers to drop a rope ladder and lift him to safety.

Finally, the raging torrent sweeps the man away, and he drowns. As he stands before St. Peter, he is angry and indignant. “I prayed to God for a miracle. Why didn’t He save me?” St. Peter, incredulous, replies, “He sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you expect?”

Sometimes the answer to our prayers can be, as they say, hidden in plain view. That may very well be true in my own situation just now.

For several months I have been praying that God would “do a miracle” in order to raise up a group of people who would share my vision for a new church in the vicinity of Ohio State University and would commit themselves to join Shirley and me in that endeavor. During this time, we have been attending the worship services at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.

St. Augustine’s is a brand new church. It meets in a large classroom of a local college on the northeast side of the Columbus metro area. The priest-in-charge of this fledgling work is the Rev. Kevin Maney. Kevin and I had met when he was on the pastoral staff of another Anglican church in the Columbus area, and Shirley and I worshipped there.

A few months ago, sensing that I was becoming discouraged by the fact that no core group of vision-sharers was emerging to help establish St. Patrick’s Church near the OSU campus, Fr. Kevin’s wife, Dondra, invited us to worship at St. Augustine’s until St. Patrick’s was ready to begin public services of its own. At the time, I did not realize how much of a godsend this would turn out to be.

I was discouraged. At the urging of some leaders with church planting experience, I had written a detailed prospectus, outlining the vision for St. Patrick’s, and had distributed it to several dozen people with whom I had been associated during the process of preparing for Holy Orders in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). I had poured my heart into that document, and yet there was almost no response. Nobody came forward to own the vision and join the work. Nobody offered to help defray the expenses that are common to every new venture of this sort.

The ACNA is a new denomination, not yet three years old. Likewise the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes, of which both St. Augustine’s and St. Patrick’s will be members. Both the denomination and the diocese are possessed of great vision but with limited resources to carry out the vision. Many of the constituent parishes of the new church came out of the Episcopal Church (TEC). Many were forced to surrender their church buildings and other properties in the process. I know that finances are tight.

I personally believe, however, that too much is being made of the “newness” factor. It’s true that, if we use the Episcopal Church as the model for how finances are to be allocated in parish life, the new church (ACNA) doesn’t have sufficient resources readily available to maintain all existing parishes and plant 1,000 new churches by 2014 (the Archbishop’s vision). ACNA parishes simply will not be able to fund building construction and maintenance and staff salaries at the same level they were accustomed to when they were part of TEC. Especially not if existing parishes are going to do the right thing in helping new parishes to get started so that the Gospel of the Kingdom and the testimony of the Anglican Church can reach new people and extend into new areas. There will need to be some belt-tightening. Some previously well-compensated clergy will have to take a hit for the cause in the form of a reduction in pay. It’s what you do in a missionary church, and that is what ACNA is… or aspires to be.

This “missionary spirit” is precisely what I have observed at St. Augustine’s. Just a few weeks after Shirley and I began attending services there, Fr. Kevin informed me that the church leadership decided they wanted to underwrite the cost of renting office space for St. Patrick’s in Grandview Heights, the area on the west side of downtown Columbus where we hope to see that church planted. I was overwhelmed. I still am.

Last Sunday, at Fr. Kevin’s invitation, I preached and celebrated the Eucharist at St. Augustine’s. I cannot describe the joy that filled my heart as I had the privilege to serve in this way once again. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it. Following that service, Fr. Kevin asked if I would agree to preach and celebrate at St. Augustine’s on a regular basis until St. Patrick’s gets “on its feet.” I have decided to accept that invitation, with deep gratitude, and will probably preach about once a month. As soon as a schedule is finalized, I will let you know. Perhaps some of our friends in the Columbus area, who know me from other settings and are involved in churches of their own, will nevertheless want to visit St. Augustine’s on occasion.

So, here’s what I mean by “a slightly different route to the same destination.” Shirley and I have decided to join forces with the folks at St. Augustine’s and do everything we can to help that church grow and prosper as an agent of the Kingdom of God—touching people’s lives, preaching a message of hope and restoration, reaching out to the community with the good news of God’s transforming grace. In the process we will continue to pray that God will raise up a committed core of believers who will own the vision for St. Patrick’s and join us in that endeavor.

I want to make this clear. We are not giving up on St. Patrick’s or the vision God has given us to plant a church that will reach the OSU community from its base in a local neighborhood. I have always believed, however, that the scenario most likely to succeed in bringing this vision to reality was one in which St. Patrick’s is “birthed” by a “mother church”—one that will provide covering and encouragement and resources for the new work, especially in its infancy. It may very well be that part of God’s plan for St. Augustine’s includes enabling it to fill that role in relation to the vision for St. Patrick’s.

Whatever the future holds, I am pleased and honored to endorse the ministry of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, and I encourage all my friends and acquaintances to pray regularly for God’s blessing on this new work. At the moment it is small, but it has a big heart and, most importantly, a desire to serve Christ and His Kingdom in a way that meets needs and touches lives.

In future posts I will expand upon the ways we will continue to cultivate the vision for St. Patrick’s. Some of that will include plans for developing the St. Patrick Center, a ministry which will serve not only the Columbus area but, potentially, the entire diocese and the ACNA.

In the meantime, thanks for your continued prayers for Shirley and me. Our transition from the free church tradition to Anglicanism has been far more arduous than we had expected. There have been days when we have asked ourselves if it was worth it. At least for today, however, we are encouraged and expectant and are beginning to believe, once again, that God may still use us in ministry for some time to come. If that turns out to be true, we will be so grateful, both to God and to the many of you who have never ceased to pray for us as you have followed our pilgrimage—in pursuit of authentic faith and in response to the guiding hand of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

2013 Should Be A Great Year!

Yes, you read that correctly. No, I am not so addled by senility that I don’t know what year it is—at least not yet. And no, this has nothing to do with the Mayan calendar prediction of the end of the world in 2012. I’m just looking ahead, with eager anticipation, the way a college student looks forward to homecoming weekend just before a Western Civ exam on Friday. There’s a big uncertainty immediately ahead, but there is also a promise of something really great beyond that.

I am making some plans for 2013. Yes, I’ve heard the old saying that, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. I try always to follow the injunction in the book of James…

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”  (James 4:13-15 ESV)

And so, I readily concede that my plans for 2013 will only come to pass if God wills. Still, what I have in mind will require considerable lead time for preparation, so it is not at all too early to begin planning and preparing.

There is another reason I am looking ahead to 2013. By then, I expect that some of the uncertainty clouding my thoughts in January 2012 will have dissipated and some things that are unclear now will have been resolved, one way or another.

For example, I fully expect that, by this time next year, we will have a pretty good idea whether or not St. Patrick’s Anglican Church is going to become a reality. If, by January 2013, God has not brought together a core group of committed believers to be the “seedling” for this church which we are asking Him to plant in the vicinity of OSU, we should probably take that as a sign that it is not going to happen. In that event, we will need to conclude that God’s plans are the not the same as ours, and His plans trump ours.

On the other hand, 2012 may very well be the year in which God exceeds all our expectations in this regard. It could be that, by this time next year, we will not only have a core group of committed believers, but a lively, growing congregation that is enjoying the blessing of God on its ministry to both the local neighborhood and the OSU community.

It is completely within the power and the providence of God to overcome the obstacles that loom large in 2012. By this time next year, we may be meeting in a location that fulfills our needs for worship, fellowship, and ministry in such an exceptional way that we will simply stand back and declare, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Ps. 118:23)

I had hoped that St. Patrick’s Church would be a reality in time to mark that milestone with a celebration on the Feast of St. Patrick, March 17, 2012. I now think that is unlikely, but a year hence, March 17, 2013, we will likely either be celebrating God’s faithfulness to a fledgling congregation, or we will be moving in a new direction, with equally exciting possibilities.

Whatever comes about with regard to St. Patrick’s, God is sovereign, and His will is perfect. May His name be praised forever.

As for my other plans for 2013, I am looking forward to undertaking two pilgrimages next year. The first, tentatively scheduled for May, will be a pilgrimage to Ireland, to sites related to the ministry of St. Patrick and Celtic Christianity. I want to climb Croagh Patrick in western Ireland and sail out to Skellig Michael off the southern Irish coast. I want to walk in the footsteps of St. Kevin in Glendalough, of St. Brigid in Kildare, and visit the Rock of Cashel, Saul Church, and the Hills of Tara and Slane, sites that figure prominently in Patrick’s evangelistic mission in Ireland. And then, of course, I want to go back to Iona, that little island in the Hebrides off the western shore of Scotland. It is truly a “thin place,” where the boundary between heaven and earth is barely discernible. I hope some of you reading this will be able to make this pilgrimage along with me.

The second pilgrimage, which I hope to undertake in the fall of 2013, probably October, is El Camino De Santiago, the Way of St. James, in northern Spain. I won’t say more about that now, but my heart races as I anticipate the spiritual benefit of both of these ventures, especially el camino. I am not in physical condition to embark upon either of these pilgrimages at present, and that is a major reason why it is not too early to begin a regimen of walking in order to prepare for these challenges.

When I was a boy, my family lived on a small “farm” near Charleston, WV. We called it a farm, and there was enough arable land amid its 75 hilly acres to enable us to plant a large garden, raise a few chickens and a couple of hogs, along with a milk cow and a steer or two for beef. We weren’t self-sufficient, however, and my dad worked full-time as a printer for the Charleston newspaper. Our property lay just over a mile beyond the end of the paved road, and the rutted dirt road that connected our farm to the main road crossed a meandering creek four times. There were no bridges; we had to ford the creek at each crossing.

This meant, of course, that when rainfall (or snow melt) caused the creek to rise, which happened several times a year, we would need to cover that mile on foot, since the creek would be too deep to ford with a vehicle. So, on those mornings when the creek ran high, my dad and I would set out, generally while it was still dark, to walk that crooked mile between our house and my grandparents’ house, located near the end of the paved road.

I hated that long, dark walk at 5:30 in the morning. In my memory it is almost always raining and I am being slapped in the face by a wet tree branch as I try to stay close behind my dad, who is leading the way. The only thing that sustained me on those dark mornings was the anticipation of what awaited me at my grandparents’ house… a cozy fire in the living room stove, the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen, and my grandmother’s cheery greeting. I could get through almost anything on my way to that expectation.

Along the way, my dad carried a lantern which illuminated a circle about ten feet in diameter. Far enough ahead to be able to take the next step, but no farther… until, of course, he took that step, then the glow of the lantern enabled us to take the step after that. And so it would go. One step after another. Just enough light to take one step at a time. Then another. Until finally, we could see the lights of my grandparents’ house, twinkling their welcome in the distance.

That’s the way I see the future. 2012 looks like it might be a rainy walk. So far, the light is sufficient for one step at a time, no more. But 2013 holds the promise of good things to come. I can smell the coffee already.

Will Somebody Help Us?

First, some statistics. The Ohio State University enrolls nearly 57,000 students at its main campus in Columbus. Of that number, 29,000 are men and 28,000 are women; 43,000 are undergrads while 14,000 are graduate or professional students. More than 12,000 come from outside Ohio; and 5,600 (or 10% of the total) come from outside the US.

Most OSU students do not come from Columbus, and most will not live and/or work in Columbus after they graduate, although many will. Most will return to other parts of this state, or to other states, or to their home countries. All will take with them the effects, influences, and benefits of their experience while they were students at OSU.

For many, perhaps most, the effect and influence of their university experience will be almost completely secular, and the benefits will be almost entirely intellectual and social. For a few, their university years will be a time when their Christian faith was nurtured or the time when they encountered, and embraced, the Christian gospel for the first time. There are some Christian ministries doing a good work in relating to university students, sharing the gospel with those who have not yet believed and providing encouragement and fellowship for Christian students in the midst of an environment that can be hostile to faith.

In this regard, more—much more—can and should be done. For Christians in the Columbus area, and for Anglican Christians especially, this is the mission field on our door step. And this is the context for ministry at the center of the vision God has implanted in my heart for St. Patrick’s Anglican Church.

To my knowledge, there is, at present, no evangelically orthodox Anglican church in the Columbus area whose ministry is targeted toward university students. In some ways, I can understand that. It’s a difficult field. Students can be brash, arrogant, and thoughtless. Their passions and enthusiasms, whatever they might be, have not yet been tempered by real-world experience. They can be idealistic (or ideological) to a fault. They generally have little money. And they are a transient population.

Many of their liabilities are potentially their greatest strengths as well. If their energy can be harnessed and their idealism guided into productive expression, they can make tremendous contributions to a community (including a community of faith) even if they leave after they graduate.

I believe that, among those 57,000 OSU students, some are looking for precisely what orthodox Anglicanism offers. They would like to explore questions about religion, faith, and ethics in an environment that respects their integrity, allows them the freedom to explore, and encourages all of this in a setting that is non-judgmental while still committed to the authority of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God. There are many students, I believe, who would prefer to attend a worship service marked by reverence and rejoicing, where tradition is respected while every effort is made to communicate in a way that recognizes the character of the culture out of which they come and amid which they live their lives.

A church aimed at college students will face enormous challenges from the get-go. It will not be financially self-sufficient, so it will need to depend on some kind of subsidy from some other source(s). It will need to recruit members from the local neighborhood while acknowledging, up front, that, more often than not, decisions will likely be made which favor the student constituency over the locals.

But the potential rewards are limitless. In what other setting does a church have the opportunity to impact a young life with the gospel, for the Kingdom, knowing it is likely that that young person will return to his or her home community, or a new community, or a foreign country, as an ambassador for Christ and the Kingdom of God because of what they experienced in a church that cared enough to devote its resources to reaching out to them?

When I first shared the rudiments of a vision like this with Bishop +Roger Ames about a year ago, I have to admit that I was most concerned for describing a place where I could use my ministry gifts. The more I have nurtured this vision, however, the more I desire to see it become a reality, whether I am involved in it as a primary leader or not.

How can this not be a worthy vision? How can this not be a vision around which the entire Anglican community in central Ohio can (and should) rally? How can this not be worth the sacrificial commitment of time, energy, and money to help make it a reality? Can somebody… anybody… help us?

What do we need? We need everything. The first thing we need is a core group of people who will own the vision, in response to the call of God, and commit themselves, their energy, and their money, to bringing it to pass. Out of this group one person needs to emerge who will serve as treasurer, a necessity before we can incorporate or begin to receive contributions from those who are willing to help in that way. This is also essential since I resolutely refuse to be involved with the finances of St. Patrick’s, except in the most general ways. I will not control the church’s purse strings, nor will I be aware of who does or does not contribute on a regular basis to work of the church. That is between them and God… and, of course, our reliable, ethical, and competent treasurer, whoever that may turn out to be. (See, I told you we have very basic needs.)

I was having coffee last week with a good friend at Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, one of the best coffee shops in the Columbus area (and it just happens to be located right in the heart of Grandview Heights, around the corner from our office). We were discussing the vision for St. Patrick’s, and at one point he leaned forward, across the table, and said, “Do you want to know why I am so eager for St. Patrick’s to become a reality? Because my son lost his faith as a university student, at least in part because there was no orthodox Anglican church, in the vicinity of the campus, to which he could turn for worship, fellowship, and an answer to his questions.” I have played that exchange over and over in my mind in the days since we had that conversation, and each time it moves me more. We Anglican Christians in the Columbus area need to do everything we can to prevent that from happening again. When a student wants to seek answers to questions about faith in an Anglican context, let’s do everything we can to see that there is a place to which he or she can turn.

I have very limited gifts and talents to bring to this venture, but they are all on the table. As they say in poker, I am “all in.” So is my dear wife. So are a few others whose circumstances prevent them from joining us in person. You’ve heard my vision; now here is my heartcry. Will somebody please help us?

If you’d like to follow up on anything you have read here, you can leave a comment below, or contact me at stpatricksgrandview@gmail.com.

What Are The Odds?

At the dawn of this new year, what are the odds that the vision for a new church, called St. Patrick’s Anglican, located in or near Grandview Heights, OH, just west of downtown Columbus and easily accessible to the campus of The Ohio State University, will become a reality before the year ends? How likely is it that a diverse group of people will come together around the common goal of forming a community of faith, in Ohio’s largest urban area, that identifies with a local neighborhood and yet intentionally seeks to reach college students? Well, let’s see.

First of all, is the vision worthy and the goal reasonable? Yes. Is it consistent with the kind of efforts that God seems to bless in other settings? Yes. Is the motive for undertaking this endeavor wholesome, unselfish, and Christ-honoring? As far as I can discern, yes. Is the proposed location suitable to accomplish the stated goals? Yes. Are there other orthodox Anglican churches already in existence in that area with a vision for mission and ministry similar to that of St. Patrick’s? No. Are there any obstacles to be overcome? Yes; see next paragraph.

Has anybody who actually lives in Grandview Heights expressed a desire to see a new Anglican church planted there? No. Has a core group of people been identified who share the vision for St. Patrick’s, who desire to be part of this new work, and are willing to commit time, energy, and money to the effort? Yes and no. St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, itself a fledgling congregation on the northeast side of the city, has pledged to cover the cost of renting a small office in Grandview in order to give St. Patrick’s its first presence in the community. Scores of people have said they are praying for this effort. But so far, no core group of people, energized by their common commitment to the vision, has come together.

So, where does that leave us? Well, let’s consider, first of all, some other resources which have already been committed to this endeavor. We’ll call this…

Things We Already Have

First, we have a clergy-person and spouse (Shirley and I) who are ready and eager to move ahead with this vision. This may seem relatively immaterial to some of you who are reading this from the free church tradition, but for us Anglicans, it’s a pretty big deal. We need an ordained priest to celebrate the Eucharist, which is the focal point of our coming together for corporate worship, and to administer other sacraments.

Second, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned who pray regularly for this undertaking, we have a small but growing network of people, with expertise in a number of areas, including how to use the internet effectively and efficiently, whose primary attribute is their common desire to glorify God, to lift up Jesus Christ, and to follow Him faithfully as devoted disciples. They provide wisdom, counsel, encouragement, and accountability. This, too, is a pretty big deal.

Third, we have the blessing and endorsement of the leadership of the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes (of which St. Patrick’s will be a parish), including Bishop +Roger Ames, Archdeacon Fr. Mark Scotton+, Canon Fr. John Jorden+, and Diocesan Missioner Dcn. Tom Hare+. This is a very big deal. This is not a rogue operation. We are pursuing this vision under the watchful eye of these leaders who provide spiritual counsel and covering for me and to whom I am accountable for my stewardship of the gifts and authority which I received through ordination.

Fourth, we have a carefully articulated summary of our vision (soon to be accessible online through our website, which is under development), an office, and a tentative schedule (mid- to late January) for a short series of meetings/classes designed to explore the relationship between the gospel, the church, and the Kingdom of God. The goal of this series is to present the specific vision for St. Patrick’s in a way that links it to the larger purposes of God for His church and His Kingdom.

This is a start, but there is much more required to plant a church. Let’s consider some things in this category, and we’ll call this…

Things We Don’t Have (And, Therefore, Need)

First, we need a core group, an “inner circle” of people who share the vision, want to be part of this effort, will commit energy and finances to the task, are willing to meet regularly to pray about what we need to do, and then do it. Second we need an “outer circle” of people who may not feel God calling them to be part of this new work, but will pray regularly for it, providing spiritual and material resources as they are able and feel led.

Third, we need a place in Grandview or near the OSU campus, larger than my office, where we can hold meetings, such as the classes I mentioned above and the Eucharist on occasion. Fourth, Shirley and I need to move to Grandview or someplace close by. We currently live thirty miles away from that community. We cannot plant a church via long-distance.

Now, some of you are saying, “Where does God figure into all this? Haven’t you overlooked the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit in this overview?” Up to this point in this blog post, yes. Deliberately so. I have wanted to frame these questions in practical terms from a human perspective. In all of this, however, I understand fully that, if God wants St. Patrick’s to become a reality, He will provide all the resources—spiritual, human, and financial—that we need. If, for whatever reason, and it may be known only to Him, God does not want this vision to materialize, He will not provide the resources. My concern, of course, is that we wait carefully and patiently on God. Once again I reiterate: I don’t want to undertake a project and demand God to bless it; rather, I want to find out what God wants to do and join it.

So, back to my original question. What do you think? What are the odds that St. Patrick’s will be a reality by this time next year? I would welcome your response, your counsel, and your questions. You can communicate with me by leaving a comment below, but if you’d like to share more personally and more specifically, then I encourage you to write me at this email address: stpatricksgrandview@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading this. I look forward to hearing from you. And have a blessed and productive year in 2012.

A Modest Proposal (Part One–The Need and The Plan)

The New Testament book of James is all about the relationship between faith and works. The author was the brother of our Lord and the first ‘pastor’ of the church in Jerusalem. An exceptionally wise man, it was James who, as moderator of the “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15), brought forward a proposal that averted a rift between leaders of the new Christian movement which could have permanently damaged the church from its infancy.

In the “open letter” which bears his name, James made it clear that true faith always expresses itself in good works. What we believe has to affect the way we behave or there is reason to question the genuineness of our belief. He said it this way in chapter 2, verses 14-17.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

It is in the spirit of “Pastor James,” then, that I have the temerity to bring forward a proposal to address a potentially damaging rift between our faith and our works in the ACNA.

We have before us a challenge from the Archbishop to plant 1000 new Anglican churches during his five-year term as leader of the denomination. When I was ordained a priest last May, I was commissioned to plant one of those churches. Now, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, and I certainly don’t claim to have the wisdom of James. But it seems to me there is something missing from this equation, namely the part that enables the progression from vision to reality.

When I was asked recently how the effort to plant a church in Grandview Heights was progressing, I replied, “We have everything we need for this new church… except money, people, and a place to meet. Oh, and I live thirty miles away, have been unemployed for three years, and have no means to relocate to the community wherein we hope to plant the church.” That attempt to couch my response in humor, as lame as it was, nevertheless illustrates the dilemma we face in ACNA. There is no strategic plan in place to provide the resources necessary to turn the Archbishop’s challenge into reality. At least, if there is, I’m not aware of it.

I’m growing a bit weary of good-hearted people wishing me well and assuring me of their support for my endeavors. (Remember, I told you that sooner or later I would annoy you. Perhaps it’s today.) Frankly, it has begun to remind me of the fellow James described in the passage above. You know, the guy who looked at the naked and hungry man and said to him, “Go in peace; be warmed and fed.” Nice sentiment but practically useless. That’s where my proposal comes in. I believe this could benefit the entire ACNA, but to make my point here, I will frame it in terms of my own diocese, the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes.

I propose that every parish in the diocese set aside ten percent of its gross revenues each year for the next several years and deposit those funds in an account, administered by the office of the Bishop and exclusively for the purpose of financing church plants in the diocese.

Those funds would then be disbursed according to a schedule which would underwrite 100% of the new church’s costs for the first year of its existence, two-thirds in the second year, and one-third in the third. The goal would be self-sufficiency, or something close to it, for the new church by the third anniversary of its launch.

I can’t imagine there is any parish in the diocese that is living so close to the edge of insolvency that trimming 10% of its budget for the purpose of supporting church planting would drive it over the brink.

I will address this matter more fully in my next post. (If I still have any readers, that is.)