Monday, June 29, 2009

How to really make the Christian Church Grow

It is the oddest thing, but what much of what is posted below came to me in a dream last night. I don't usually remember my dreams, but this one woke me up sobbing. Never thought then that I would be sharing it.

For quite sometime, I have been disturbed by the current trend to model church growth on the American business model. I am appalled at the use of such language as "selling our product" as if the Gospel were merchandise which we manufactured. But even more, it is not ours to sell. It is God's to give.

Increasingly I see Christians recommending the American business model as a way to convince people Christianity is a good thing. I have never understood that. For one thing, the American business model is based on idolatry: the worship of the big fat bottom line and the almighty profit margin.

For another the American business model dehumanizes those that participate in it. Most of the employees are worker drones in service to the god of that idolatry. Human relationships are sacrificed to that God for the sake of productivity and getting the job done. Parents are increasingly unavailable to their children at best of times and there is not one to take the day off to care for the sick child.

Finally, what is the cost to human beings for participating in the American business model? we have only to look at this recent recession, the problems with mortgages, banks, bail-outs to know that there is something fundamentally flawed in the American business model. We have unions, ombudspersons, federal agencies, negotiators etc all to convince the corporations to be more humane: give enough time off the job, pay better, provide health insurance, allow employees to work hours that allow for adequate rest, recreation and family time.

The model for "growing the Church" is not the American business model. If there are fewer church goers in the USA it is the fault of Christians who have flawed to live out the Gospel. As Chesterton said " It is not that Christianity has been tired and found wanting, it is that it has not been tried."

Living the Gospel requires us to step outside our comfort zones and there is not one among us who does that with ease. We all fight it. We heard a passage from Corinthians yesterday if our parishes use the RCL, all about giving. The passage didn't include the bit which talks about the Macedonians, arguably the poorest church of them all, begging to be allowed to give something for the relief of Jerusalem. It is that sort of attitude which will have people flocking in the doors.

I have heard and read people speak of “placing our product emphasis” and presumably by this they mean the Gospel. Product emphasis? Did we make God? Jesus? the Holy Spirit? We are not selling a product, but living in a relationship of mutual love.

The model we should be using is that of Holy Hospitality. We must remember that when we entertain guests, we entertain Christ. We claim that Holy Hospitality is our charism what with all those signs saying "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." Except that not every Episcopalian welcomes every other Episcopalian or every other person. Welcoming another does not require that we agree with them, only that we look for Christ in them. That is our sacred obligation.

We of the Episcopal Church have the opportunity to demonstrate to the world our gut wrenching conviction that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God. That every single Christian is called to only one vocation, to love God with all that we are and have and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is only the details of living that vocation that differ. Sadly what we of TEC all too often demonstrate is that we fail to love ourselves. We can see this in our failure to love our neighbors. Scripture teaches us that every single human being, even those yet to be born, are our neighbors.

The crisis of the American Church is a failure to love. Oh I am sure there is a chorus of "hey wait a minute, what about". And yes, we do many good and wonderful things. But we do not do enough. Somehow we have failed to communicate to our parishes that it is not solely what we do that is important, it is who we are.

To badly paraphrase Evelyn Underhill, if we truly love God and truly experience God's love for us, that love cannot be contained within the bounds of a human body but must fling out our arms to embrace the world and the love of God must overflow our bodies, streaming form our very pores, to love and serve God's creation, every human being, every bit of creation.

It is a joyous but also frightening thing to love like this. It requires us to face up to the lack of love we give to ourselves, to admit how much we may be ruled by fear of what might happen if we let go of control. We are so busy discussing (or arguing!!) over this or that and the best way to accomplish such and such. What about if we just dispense with all that and ask ourselves instead "What is the most radical way to love my fellow bits of creation? What will benefit others, first and foremost?"

Can we find the courage to step beyond the tried and true and go further in and higher up in God's call to each of us to fully embrace all people as living representations of the image and likeness of God, created by love out of love to love all and invite every single person in to the full life of the Church, allowing all God's children a voice in the Choir.


  • At 3:04 PM, Blogger MikeF said…

    Oh, superb post! Thank you, Sister!

    Needless to say, all you say of TEC is also true of the CofE - albeit in the polite, slightly embarrassed diffidence with which it typically approaches so tasteless a subject as church growth. I don't know which is worse... ;-)


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