I heard a great story. I heard it from the pastor and author Lillian Daniel, who pretty much seems to be the person who made “spiritual but not religious” part of our common vocabulary. The story was in a sermon she preached to an ecumenical gathering of church communicators we hosted in our cathedral, a story about a conference she attended in Amsterdam. It was her first visit there and she wanted very much to take in some of the sights. It was hard though she said to find any local folks who seemed to share her excitement very much. Maybe the Dutch are just kinda staid, she thought. “Where’s your favorite place to go?” she’d ask again and again. The answers came back, “Well, some people like the art museum” or “I had a cousin who enjoyed biking the river.” That kind of fairly lackluster thing. Finally, though, she found a local guy who perked right up when she asked. “Oh,” he said, “we have a festival that everyone should see. It has dancing and music and all kinds of wonderful food,” he enthused. Great! Lillian thought. At last. “Yes,” he said, “This festival is the greatest thing … but … it is over.”
To a room full of professional church communicators, Lillian held out that story as an image for how we behave too much as church. We’re too often spending time, energy and considerable resources answering questions that no one is asking. Or at least not asking much anymore. A lot of what we have always done is over.
In the Diocese I serve I am thankful to say we have more than a few congregations, agencies and pastoral care ministries that are not over, that do seem to be answering questions people are really asking and these ministries are bucking the religious decline trend, thriving by several different measures. And they defy easy categories. There’s a parish in the city awash in incense whose principal Mass every Sunday ends with congregational singing of Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above that threatens to take the roof off (this is the Diocese of Chicago, after all) – the place is packed with all sorts and conditions of people, who besides singing over-the-top Marian hymns band together to meet the needs of folks in prison and on the streets. I think of a congregation in a neighborhood not too far away whose Sunday eucharist involves popping champaign corks at the Offertory under fluttering Tibetan prayer flags. The leadership of this parish is dominated by frighteningly young adults, its feeding ministry welcomes over 300 guests a week, and at my last visitation a young lesbian couple came to me to say that they we’re staying after only their second visit because, they said, “No one ever told us you could be Christian like this!” There’s a fierce chaplain at Cook County hospital who almost single handedly got the county to reinstate a pastoral care department in the public hospital that receives most of the gunshot victims in our wounded city. Or there’s the group of folks whose congregation was part of the Diocese of Quincy now in what we call our Peoria Deanery. There was an acrimonious split there and faithful Episcopalians we’re told to get out of their historic downtown building. They are now in a rented facility on the college campus in their town and have an impactful ministry focused on students from abroad. At my last visit there, a woman, a life-long member of the congregation in her 80s came up to me and said “You know, Bishop, we are so much healthier today than when we were saddled with that damn building.” I could go on.
These ministries are not alone. What I can’t give you is some kind of formula that has been the magic key to their vitality. They are all radically different. I’ve puzzled over it with my staff. What do they have in common? The best we’ve been able to come up with is this. Three things stand out.
#1 Each one of them is crystal clear about its identity. Within about five minutes of being with them – on a Sunday morning, at a vestry meeting, feeding homeless guests, praying with teenagers, organizing for gun safety legislation, walking the hospital floors – very quickly you pretty much know what they’re about, what they focus on.
The second thing is that these are places and people having conversations about things that matter – not wasting a lot of time on arguments about the color of the napkins, they value and foster conversations about life and death, serving and challenging injustice, what it might mean to follow Christ in the office on Tuesday morning.
The third thing – and I don’t know how to measure this – the third (and probably most important) thing is that these ministries have heart. Leaders – ordained and not ordained – leaders at every level are all in. There is engagement. There is confidence in God. There is obvious joy. There is the unmistakeable whiff of the gospel. The proclamation at the heart of each of these churches is the death-defeating love of God in Jesus. And that is the only answer that will ever really satisfy the questions the world is asking.
I believe these congregations and individual ministers have made their priority the work that Jesus gives to his first friends. They’re making disciples. They’re helping people to make the worship of God real in their lives, helping one another to follow Christ in transforming this world just a little more into the world that God surely wants to see. They are helping people to take up the cross and follow Jesus. What they’re not doing is inviting people into an obsessive little religious subculture, as if fascinating tidbits about Henry VIII and the colors of the church year were ever going to change anyone’s life. They’re not preaching church. They’re preaching Jesus. They’re presenting Jesus and the vast mystery of his dying and rising. They understand that the good news of Jesus, the life-changing, world-changing good news Jesus lived and taught becomes a pale shadow when it is reduced to some reports about Jesus, and even more pallid when it morphs into an instruction manual on how to perform the institution’s secret handshakes.
So what’s all this got to do with us? Well, here we are, ready to get out of here to go love and serve Christ by leading the church and serving God’s People in all kinds of ways. As you go, I ask you to join together in listening to the needs and hopes and heartaches and longings of the world we live in. Listen. Listen and lead.
Here are three things I am learning from listening to people inside and outside of the church where I live. I’m trying to practice them. I commend them to you.
Help the communities you serve get clear, focused on what it is you can do more effectively than anyone else to make the Good News of Jesus real.
Lead in ways that will foster among people conversations about things that matter. Redirect them with love and patience from inconsequential church chat. Let there be real conversations that lead to real actions that will change the real world.
Give it your heart. Remember what it is you fell in love with in the first place that led you to today and beyond. Or rather remember Who it is who loved you and chose you first. Nurture your relationship with the Risen Jesus who is with us always. Nothing is more important than that.
Then go. Take up the cross. Heal the hurts, bind up the broken hearts, and make disciples of everyone. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.