Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Why we Plant: Churches Planting Churches

By Father Lee Nelson, SSC

"As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily." Acts 16:4-5

One of the realizations the reader of the Acts of the Apostles will make is that while the ancient Church was passionate about evangelism, it was every bit as passionate, if not more so, about establishing churches in every city of the world. In a sense, you could say that evangelism was a bridge to the establishment of a local church with local leadership granted authority by the apostles. The above verse speaks of the time just before Paul is called into Macedonia, where he would preach the Gospel in Europe for the first time. The churches of Asia are experiencing explosive growth following the Council of Jerusalem, and for good reason. The Council had made clear her expectations of Gentiles coming to the Faith, and they were not so high as some might have expected. Yet, Luke does not recount that the number of disciples grew, but that the number of churches grew as they received the decisions of the Council. So what we see is the dynamic and exponential growth of churches under the authority of the Apostles and subsequently the proclamation of the Gospel through those churches. This results in the dynamic and exponential growth of the numbers of disciples, but that growth is contingent on the numbers of churches.

Today, research shows us the same phenomenon. In towns with more churches, more people go to church, even when you correct for every other variable. A rising tide truly does lift all ships. We have long been told that personal and individual evangelism is essential to church growth, but does this really fit the bill of the New Testament? The Lord Jesus made fishermen fishers of men. Had they seen a rod and reel, they would not have understood it. These men fished with nets. They were all-or-nothing sorts and as they were taught to become fishers of men, The Lord taught them to rely upon the building up of the ecclesial community to make disciples. You may remember the disciples coming to shore after a long, fruitless night. Jesus commands Peter to put down his nets, and a great catch - 153 fish! - are hauled in. You see, the Church is the great net in which are caught up all the nations of the world. (John 21:11) Personal evangelism, though important, can never be a replacement for the local church.

In the United States, we live in the largest mission field in the Western Hemisphere. There are roughly 120 million unreached Americans. A lack of church planting, as much as cultural forces, has brought us to this point. Population has expanded, and the number of churches has remained relatively stable. It is our conviction at Christ Church that The Lord is calling us to be part of a movement of churches planting churches. It is our belief that as long as there are unchurched people in our city, there is a need for more churches, not less. We also know from the research that new churches make more disciples than older ones. Churches under three years old make three times the disciples as churches fifteen years old or older.

So that is the goal, and we are already going about that work. When I came to Christ Church, the bishop also gave me responsibility for our student ministry at Texas A&M. They had about 25 students and one family. We now have ten families ready to go in that mission. A permanent full-time planter will be starting up in November and December.

Here in Waco, we are beginning to pull together a group of people who will explore a call to plant another parish church in the area. Who knows what it will be like. Would you pray that the Lord will put clarity and passion in that group of people?

The vision at Christ Church is to become a church that plants other churches. We will do that by training up our members - especially students - as planters and evangelists. As these students disperse, they will do so with the skills and tools of church planting in their tool chests. They will know how to catechize. They will know how to find appropriate space, start small, and build patterns of sustainable growth. In other words, they will be fishers of men, mature Christians able to build up the body through replication. 

From the weekly parish email newsletter of Christ Church, Waco.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Task force at 2017 FiFNA Assembly

The task force will be leading several church planting events at the Forward in Faith 2017 Assembly, July 26-28 in Hurst, Texas (near DFW airport).

Both events take place on Thursday, July 27. At 2:00 p.m., Fr. Lee Nelson of the task force will give a lecture and lead a workshop on church planting. In the evening, we plan an informal social for those involved in Anglo-Catholic church plants.

Below is a flyer summarizing our plans. We look forward to anyone at the Assembly interested in church planting, as well as those located locally in the DFW Metroplex.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Making Anglicanism accessible

By J. West

An important issue for Anglican parishes is incorporating those unfamiliar with our liturgy (or language) into our churches. At the same time, Anglo-Catholics want to do so without diminish from the mystery and reverence that were reclaimed by the Oxford Movement and often the reasons why people seek out Anglicanism in the first place.

In my second year lay ministry class last month, only two of us (plus our rector) were childhood Anglicans. At Christ Church Waco, only four of the adults (and only one of the four five priests) was raised Anglican.

This is very different from when I joined the Episcopal Church at age 8 in a previous century. (My dad was Presbyterian, mom Episcopalian and we switched for good when we moved to Palm Springs). But it's not exactly a new phenomenon: Robert Webber, a formerly Baptist theology professor at Wheaton College, wrote about this in his 1985 book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.

The topic of accessibility came up today in the monthly call of a church planting committee I belong to. How do we explain what we are doing — and why — to someone who’s never been in a liturgical church before? We compared notes of our parishes and those we’d visited, but in the end it came down to three options. From least to most intrusive:
  1. Add a written explanation to the service booklet — whether a weekly seat bulletin or a preprinted liturgy booklet.
  2. Make remarks at the beginning of the service — either weekly or on special occasions such as a change of liturgical seasons — about what we are doing and why.
  3. Insert transitional remarks during the service every week so people know what’s happening at all times.
The third option feels wrong to me: although I lack both the formal training or clerical experience to justify that opinion, it seems more like the evangelical churches that are more focused on presenting a service for the seeker than growing and deepening the faith of the believers. However, I know the priest who uses this approach has good reasons for doing so, and the character of his (charismatic-flavored) Anglican parish is very different than the bells-and-smells high church where I’m a member.

The final point is that church planters are entrepreneurs. Being entrepreneurial means trying experiments, and by definition some experiments won’t work; also, in my experience, parishioners are more tolerant of experiments and mistakes in a young (or rapidly growing) church that hasn’t done something before. So — as with everything else — it’s really up to the planter to try things that work in his particular context, and get prompt feedback to change things if they’re not working.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Missional challenges of the modern world

By J. West

Tonight I was meeting with local Anglican church planters for a social event. At the end our host asked us to articulate our major frustration or challenge.

One theme was the challenge of creating and maintaining relationships with future members of our flocks. This included the challenges of maintaining ties in a highly mobile society, and losing members passing on in aging congregations.

We also discussed other challenges in modern urban and suburban society here in Southern California. One is — reminiscent of Western Europe — the ever-smaller proportion of Christians in our communities. The other is the tendency of Americans to drive past many other churches for the denomination, program, preaching or whatever features they demand as church consumers. Together, this means that we don’t have the sense of community — and ongoing ties between Sundays — that one might have seen in small town America or a medieval England village.

As it turns out, this ties back to an email conversation I had today with the clergy at my own church, sharing a few of the many recent articles written in response to Rod Dreher’s publication earlier this month of The Benedict Option.   (An excerpt was reprinted in Christianity Today and Dreher had a great interview with Dr. Al Mohler). The clergy and I have been discussing the book and its critiques, because this parallels our own shared vision of using Mission Communities as the path to forming deeper Christians and the nucleus of future churches.

One of these articles, called “Benedict in the Suburbs,” was by Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest on the Ancient Faith website, who questions whether Benedictine communities can be constructed in consumerist American communities. A few excerpts from his important arguments:
The origin of the Benedict Option (Rod’s creative title for all of this) comes from the final paragraph in Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic, After Virtue (1981). Having analyzed and detailed the collapse of modern society in terms of its ability to produce virtuous people, MacIntyre likens our time to that of post-Roman Western Europe. With the end of empire and the dominance of barbarity, small enclaves of monastics (primarily Benedictines) began what would become the seeds of civilization’s return to virtue.

We are a consumer economy, highly individualistic with a deep regard for sentiment. The landscape of our world has evolved in response to these fundamental realities. Values and practices that fall outside of that model are difficult to nurture and sustain. Human beings are largely creatures of habit. If the structures of our world support a certain form of virtue, then that is the most likely path we will follow. We do so because it is the most natural way to live.

It is here that most aspects of a modern “Benedict Option” flounder. An American suburb is not a European village of Late Antiquity. Every aspect of a suburb’s existence is designed to serve and nurture consumers.

Religious institutions that thrive have adapted themselves to these (and other) suburban virtues.  The evangelical mega-church is, by far, the fastest growing religious phenomenon in our area (I think my Episcopal neighbor is now attending a mega-church). It is said that such Churches are popular because they require so little commitment. They flourish for the same reason as the big-box stores. Their gospel is tailored for quick consumption. “Holy Days” are generally designed to mimic cultural holidays without the dissonance of an ancient calendar.

Traditional Churches (such as the Orthodox) are also strongly marked by a suburban mentality. Sundays are well-attended, and the major feasts, with the exception of Christmas and Pascha, much less so. There is constant pressure to create “program” and various strategies to nurture piety. The integration between hearth, home and Church is quite minimal. Of course, the very structure of suburban life is constantly at war with the traditional notion of parish. I have families who travel over an hour-and-a-half to attend Church. It is only natural that their attendance is sporadic. My own family is probably the only one who lives in comfortable walking distance to the Church. I once calculated that the parish uses over 100-200 gallons of gasoline on any given Sunday.

St. Benedict’s communities “worked,” because what grew up around them were very natural, villages and towns, integrated in the life of parish and monastery. Of necessity, the economies were small, as though E.F. Schumacher himself had served as economic advisor to St. Benedict. Benedict’s entire work presumes poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. The villages of Benedictine Europe embodied these virtues in large measure in accordance with their circumstances.
The other related article was in the Catholic journal of letters, First Things. Bethany Mandel, a writer for the century-old Jewish newspaper the Forward, offers “Going Benedict, Orthodox Jewish”; a few excerpts:
Readers of a new book by Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, may decide to “go Benedict,” dropping out of society in some fashion, for religious and moral reasons.

Dreher’s subtitle is A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. A fascinating component of the book, however, is the overlap between what Dreher proposes and what already exists within the Orthodox Jewish community, in North America and across the world. The communal makeup of the Orthodox Jewish community was built not in response to cultural upheaval, but from a desire to maintain the continuity of the Jewish people.

Thanks to the need for homes to be within walking distance of the community’s synagogue, Orthodox Jewish families often live in close proximity to one another—another recommendation Dreher makes in The Benedict Option. He acknowledges: “Geography is one secret to the strength and resilience of the Orthodox Jewish communities. … Christians don’t have the geographical requirement that Orthodox Jews do, but many of those who choose to live in proximity have found it a blessing. … Why be close? Because the church can’t just be the place you go on Sundays—it must become the center of your life.”
In addition to the Orthodox believers creating the sense of community and belonging, Mandel notes two other practices that conform to the goals articulated by the (Eastern Orthodox) Dreher: separating from the corrupting effects of modern mass media (at least on the Sabbath), and replacing secular public schools with local private schools controlled by the believers. For the latter, she confirms the risk identified by Dreher — that with the high price of private secondary schools, Dreher says the result is a “materialistic, status-conscious culture within the schools.”

Dreher, Mandel and my colleagues point back to fundamental challenge we face in building strong churches in post-Christian American society. How do we create communities that transform people’s lives by prayer and fellowship with their fellow believers — not just two hours a week, but seven days a week? I believe this is a crucial (and as yet unanswered) question for the church in 21st century America.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Always Forward looks back on church planting mistakes

The Always Forward podcast is settling into a rhythm of podcasts every 1-2 weeks, and now officially has had five episodes of about one hour each.

As with the other podcasts, Thursday’s Episode 5 — inaccurately labelled “The Top 10 Mistakes Church Planters Make” — features the ACNA’s canon for church planting Rev Canon Dan Alger and Rev Shawn McCain, who are respectively planting churches in the Diocese of the South and C4SO. One is a cradle Episcopalian and Trinity School for Ministry grad, and the other a latecomer to Anglicanism and Nashotah grad.

The “10” mistakes turn out to be about 7.5 — two of the 10 are identical, and on a third they take opposite positions. In order of presentation:

  1. DanPlanting without assessment or training (Dan). Assessment allows the planter to understand his strengths and areas where he needs additional team members. Assessment is particularly recommended for married couples, to help the spouse — typically less involved in planting and the plant — to understand planting and their roles in it.
  2. Pretending you have all the answers (Shawn), i.e. an inability to say “I don’t know.” The latter turns out to be a great way to identify opportunities for others to step up to responsbilities.
  3. Premature launch (both Dan and Shawn), a very common mistake (and one identified by many church planting books). The pressures to launch public worship will be high, but the church needs a critical mass to sustain public worship — and to have enough people in the pews to connect with visitors — for it to work. As an alternative, the launch team can pray and even commune privately as they prepare for launch.
  4. An “over-obsession” with contextualization (Shawn) or A failure to contextualize (Dan). For the former, the church should know what it is, why and not pander to the community. For the latter, the church can make major mistakes if it doesn’t understand its community. Both agree that the church must be ready to explain what (and why and how) it is to new members from the community.
  5. Handing out leadership roles too quickly (Dan and Shawn). The prospective leaders need to understand and buy into the vision, and the pastor needs to size up the prospective leader before handing over responsibility. During the pre-launch and early launch phase, the emphasis needs to be on the church and not on “leading”, power or control. (Both men also argue that early one, there should also be no vestry or formal lay control with the planter reporting to the bishop and the diocesan church planting dean/canon).
  6. Not communicating expectations (Shawn). If people don't do what you want, it’s often because you didn’t tell them; if you let them down, it's often because you didn’t tell them what to expect. Or as (Dan quoting) former ACNA church planting canon Alan Hawkins says, “Unmet expectations = pain.”
  7. Planting a worship service, not a church (Dan). A church can be successful in terms of ASA (average Sunday attendance) and giving, but not be accomplishing the mission of the Church. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Who will lead 21st century church plants?

By J. West

Fr. John Linebarger, a bivocational priest in the Anglican Diocese of the Southwest (ACNA), on Friday posted a provocative essay about how Anglican clergy will raised and called in 21st century America. It resonated with those of us involved in clergy formation in my diocese.

He begins with his overall premise:
Clergy formation and ministry are undergoing a time of transition in America. Residential seminary is giving way to more diocese-based training. Full-time positions are giving way to various mixes of bivocational ministry. Larger churches with full-time staff are giving way to smaller churches with volunteer staff.
He makes four other points:
  • There are less conventional full-time positions and thus clergy will have to either be bivocational or find some clever way to support themselves. Most churches will be led by a combination of bivocational clergy and volunteer staff.
  • Dioceses can’t afford to sponsor clergy education, and so a full-time MDiv at a residential seminary is being replaced by local efforts at the diocese (or using residential online courses). In my own experience, everyone I’ve met in formation in the past five years has paid for his own education from the income he has from his previous job.
  • Given the responsibilities of a priest are so complex, the MDiv needs to be supplemented by a multi-year curacy and continuing education.
  • The ACNA is attracting more clergy from other traditions, and if it doesn’t do a better job of steeping these clergy in the Anglican tradition, “ it is inevitable that in a generation or two ACNA runs the danger of morphing into a denomination that has left its Anglican heritage behind.”
I would recommend the article for any one considering the priesthood, the dioceses and parishes involved in clergy formation, and laity who hope to someday call a priest to their church plant.

As a layman, I would only add that this raises the importance of having well-trained lay leadership. The most successful church plants that I have seen began with strong laity with a good business background, an understanding and love of the Anglican faith, and a respect (and deference to) Anglican church polity.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Some virtues of the Benedict Option

By J. West

Recently Christians have been discussing the so-called “Benedict Option.” The idea — promoted by Rod Dreher — is that American society has never been more hostile to Christianity and its principles (including those principles that led to founding the ACNA). Thus, they argue it would be better for Christians to focus on strengthening, supporting and growing their community of believers rather than fighting an uphill (if not futile) battle with the culture.

The term comes from the final paragraph of After Virtue, a 1981 book by philosophy professor Alasdar MacIntyre.  (My men’s book club read and discussed this last week). The book traces the long history of how philosophers, theologians and popular culture treated virtue over the past 2500 years, with Aquinas and especially Aristotle being the exemplars of the pre-modern era. Virtue was part of the central nature, being and purpose of human life, rather than associated with a particular sphere or activity.

However, with the Enlightenment, modernity and post-modernity, the idea of virtue has fallen away —  because of the disconnect from absolute external standards (whether philosophical or theological) which renders incommensurable differing perspectives on virtue. Today, virtue means not inner goodness and right behavior but adherence to bureaucratic rules.

In the final paragraph of the 1981 book, MacIntyre drew parallels (with major caveats) between the end of the Roman Empire and today [emphasis added]:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.
In his prologue to the 2007 third edition, he elaborated:
In the last sentence of After Virtue I spoke of us as waiting for another St. Benedict. Benedict's greatness lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish in a period of social and cultural darkness. The effects of Benedict's founding insights and of their institutional embodiment by those who learned from them were from the standpoint of his own age quite unpredictable. And it was my intention to suggest, when I wrote that last sentence in 1980, that ours too is a time of waiting for new and unpredictable possibilities of renewal. It is also a time for resisting as prudently and courageously and justly and temperately as possible the dominant social, economic, and political order of advanced modernity. So it was twenty-six years ago, so it is still.
This vision suggests changing the nature of church and Christian community, away from one optimized for the suburban postwar Christian America in which many of us grew up, towards one adapted for the post-Christian society of the 21st century.

One member of the task force, Fr. Lee Nelson of Christ Church Waco, has written two articles for Anglican Pastor on the applicability of the Benedict Option to Anglicanism. One article notes the Benedictine character of Anglicanism, as reflected in our prayer book and life of prayer:
One can hardly deny the Benedictine character of Anglicanism, in her Prayer Book, in her mission, or in even the unique spiritual tradition of the English people. In the Middle Ages, England was often referred to as the “land of the Benedictines,” dotted as it was with monasteries, typically tied to the cathedral cloisters, following the Rule.
In the other article, he argues that Anglican pastors need to teach and serve as spiritual directors for parish members in their life of prayer through the Daily Office. His conclusion:
Christian virtue is formed by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through vital Christian fellowship – a closeness of life which results in generations of Christians who have not only the resources, but the courage, to live lives of faithfulness in the midst of a culture which sees them as their enemies.
Another member of the task force, Bp. Stephen Scarlett of St. Matthew’s, Newport Beach, is developing and sharing the idea of churches growing the spiritual practices and beliefs of their members through shared participation in a daily Rule in the context of what he calls a Mission Community.

Together, these suggest a specific opportunity in 21st century America for Anglicanism, with its emphasis on Daily Office inspired by the Benedictine orders. More on this opportunity another time.