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.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Semimonthly ACNA planting advice

The ACNA’s Always Forward effort has inaugurated a new podcast to replace the five years of podcasts it (until last year) had posted on the Anglican 1000 website.

So far Always Forward has posted four podcasts. The first one introduces the podcast and the two hosts, both members of the Always Forward leadership team. A familiar name is Canon Dan Alger, the ACNA (and Diocese of the South) canon for church planting and a church planter in Georgia. Less familiar may be Rev. Shawn McCain, a church planter in Texas who is part of the C4SO diocese.

The second podcast, entitled “Casting The Question - Can Anyone Plant A Church?” is an example of the shorter (15 minute) format of answering a question (other questions can be emailed or submitted using the podcast web page). In this case the focus is on assessment, which Alger notes has both evaluative (how ready are you) and formative (how can you get better) elements.

The 3rd and 4th podcasts relate to a theme that Alger considers a mantra of Anglican church planting: "Church Planting lies at the intersection of ecclesiology and missiology." He attributes this to Baptist church planter Stuart Murray, author of Church Planting: Laying Foundations.

The 3rd podcast is thus a discussion of ecclesiology with Bishop Stewart Ruch, bishop of the ACNA Diocese of the Upper Midwest, while the 4th podcast is on missiology with Bishop Todd Hunter, bishop of C4SO. Each interview is about an hour, although the former has an extra 15 minutes of introduction to the podcast series. These longer interviews are promised to be posted twice a month.

For those that spend a lot of time driving (or jogging), the podcast offers a way to keep up on ACNA best practices for church planting. For those that are more visual, Always Forward is running a blog with a Cliff’s Notes summary of each podcast.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thursday's Always Forward church planting panel

From Thursday-Saturday, the ACNA church planting effort Always Forward is hosting their 2016 conference near Denver. It has four tracks: church planters, potential church planters, churches that sponsor church plants, and others (such as dioceses) that help church plants. As with the earlier Anglican 1000, it promises to be a major event for those ACNA members involved in church planting.

One session will be broadcast live on Thursday morning, courtesy of C4SO, ACNA’s non-geographical evangelical diocese. According to a blog posting by Rev. David Roseberry (a church planting consultant who until recently was rector of Christ Church Plano), C4SO is conducting a weekly webinar on church planting every Thursday, and this week’s conference session will be part of that series.

The panel discussion is called “What I Wish I’d Known Before I Planted” and will feature various church planters from the conference. As with the other C4SO webinars, it starts at Thursday 8:30am PT, 9:30 MT, 10:30 CT, and 11:30 ET. (Joining the webinar may require installing Adobe software so participants should plan to join early).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The heart of an Anglican church planter

Fr. Chris Culpepper gave his personal testimony last month of how and why church planting is doing God’s work in 21st century America. He spoke at the 28th annual assembly of Forward in Faith North America; his 42-minute talk on July 21 was recorded by Anglican TV and is now available to watch on their Facebook page.

Fr. Culpepper is the head of the FiFNA church planting task force, and the most experienced planter in the Diocese of Ft. Worth. He first quoted Proverbs 29:18: “where there is no vision, the people perish,” and then summarized his thesis: “I think church planting … is at its core bringing the Kingdom of God to a place where it does not now exist.”

“A Desk and a Phone”

He highlighted two phases of his journey towards planting churches. The first phase came in a series of jobs that he described as “a desk and a phone.” The latter story began as a young adult (as a lapsed Episcopalian) leading a UT Austin fraternity, and then a job in real estate sales. He returned to the Church at his home church — St. Andrew’s (Ft. Worth) — as youth minister for five years.

From this, he concluded “It became pretty obvious to me that church planting was where my heart really was,” attending church planting conferences and workshops before attending Nashotah House from 2002-2005.

From meeting other church planters, he drew two conclusions. His first was that “They possess one innate quality about them and it’s a certain dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to do something about it.”

The second is that church planters are driven by the Great Commission: “we want to see that taken to every pocket and every nook and every cranny and every territory where the kingdom of God is not — because we have a burning passion for the salvation of souls.”

“Giving Birth”
Fr. Chris Culpepper at the FiFNA Assembly
Photo from Anglican.TV

The second phase of his journey he termed “giving birth”, because it’s one thing to have a vision to plant churches, but another thing to put it on the ground.

Upon his ordination, Fr. Culpepper started as the curate at a TEC parish, until that congregation decided to stay in TEC while almost all of the Diocese of Ft. Worth left to join ACNA. He decided to leave that church and turn his attention to church planting, and was fortunate to find financial support from his bishop (and some former parishioners).

In 2008 he began to assemble a group in Ft. Worth, and by early 2009 they were meeting monthly; in the fall of 2009 Christ the Redeemer Ft Worth began meeting weekly. Fr. Culpepper credited both coaching and other resources for his successful efforts to transition from an assistant priest to head of a new church plant.

Before CTR was fully launched, a group from Waco asked Bp. Iker to plant a church there. So Fr. Culpepper made the three hour round-trip monthly (later biweekly) to meet with the Anglican faithful. As part of the effort, some trips to Waco became a family road trip with his wife and their two pre-teen children.

Today the Diocese of Ft. Worth has two healthy church plants. Christ the Redeemer has an average Sunday attendance of 120 and a budget of half a million dollars. In Waco, he grew the mission to 75 people meeting biweekly; in 2014, Christ Church Waco called Fr. Lee Nelson to be their first full-time vicar, and they began weekly Sunday worship in the Fall of 2015.

As Fr. Culpepper said, “this is what God has managed to accomplish by his grace. … when we continue to make people the priority, through prayer God makes the provision possible.”

Planting for the 21st Century

He called church planters and other clergy and laity to recognize the new reality of reaching the unchurched. Even in Texas, “long gone [are the times] that we can paint our doors red and hope people will fall into them.” He noted that none of the youth that he ministered at St. Andrews were attending Christ the Redeemer (7 miles away).

Nor can Anglo-Catholics assume that faithful Christians from other congregations will “find their way to Canterbury Trail.” Instead, it’s up to the Anglican churches to fight to be noticed by those who need to learn about the historic catholic faith. And when they get noticed, to have a message about the substance of that faith that will win in the marketplace of churches.”

At the same time, limited resources can help with spiritual formation. Even the most Anglo-Catholic of church plants has to gradually phase in key liturgical elements (such as acolyte robes) as funds permit. At the same time, the introduction of new elements provides an opportunity for teaching the congregation. ”It’s like picking up these incredible things that had been hidden in the dirt, and dusting them off and making them new again. People have this incredible fresh perspective on things that happen when you plant churches,” he said.

Going Forward

The goal of the FiFNA task force is to augment the resources that are out there. Anglo-Catholic church planters can’t afford to re-invent the wheel, but instead must learn from what has been done before. That notably includes the ACNA’s Always Forward, and its own efforts to compile and disseminate best practice.

He noted that his own efforts were supported by a non-denominational church planting coach who had planted five churches of his own, and coached more than 100 others. While “every church has its context, [there] are abiding principles that are the same.”