I have been spending time with Brian McLaren lately. A thoughtful Christian writer, McLaren has a way of provoking me to consider all sorts of new possibilities even if I do not agree with everything he has to say. The most recent book of his I have read, The Great Spiritual Migration, was recommended to me by my friend, Bishop John Watton from the Central Diocese. And you talk about being provocative! The subtitle is, “How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian.” In the book, McLaren pulls no punches as he discusses the decline affecting most Christian churches in North America today while arguing that the story is actually not about death but very much about transformation. He identifies three shifts – the spiritual, the theological, and the missional – and it tells us all to “get with it” for the change will not be reversed.
McLaren is an American and although the book is written with a US audience in mind I can recognize here in Newfoundland and Labrador everything he writes about. We too are facing massive change in our patterns of religious affiliation and participation. In our own Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador there is not just one story but there are multiple stories unfolding. There are stories of decline and death, stories of adjustment and consolidation, and stories of new life, rebirth and renewal. What Brian McLaren has done for me is to provide some fresh language as I engage with all of these stories. Part of that language is McLaren’s use of the word “migration.” Migration implies a movement away from something and toward something else.
Another bishop in Newfoundland, Archbishop Percy Coffin of the Western Diocese, is fond of saying that if you don’t like change, you will like irrelevance a whole lot less. The changes we are facing today as a worshipping community have by and large been set in motion by forces outside of the church. The last 50 years have seen unprecedented transformation sociologically with many of the assumptions that governed society before then passing away. Every social “norm,” from the family to the workplace, has been questioned and changed. Strong traditions of church membership and public worship have often been transformed into weaker patterns of affiliation and occasional attendance. Anglican congregations have generally become smaller and older as fewer young people take part. Unfortunately for those of us who remain, we struggle to maintain buildings, properties and systems designed for a bygone age. Many congregations are not dealing well with the shifts confronting them and many clergy are finding themselves ill-equipped for leadership in the face of such change.
I was ordained just 30 years ago and the church I was equipped to serve in 1987 and the work I was educated to do then are barely recognizable to me today. Some vibrant and full churches of the 1980s are now struggling for survival. I had to learn along the way many of the skills I needed, for I was trained to work with what I was given and to maintain ministries and churches, not to transform them or even bring them to an end. To be honest, because so much was so unexpected, I did not have an effective role model to follow nor could I find any road map save Holy Scripture. Christian leadership in this unsteady age requires spiritual resilience, great courage, and much creativity. All of which can come only if the leader is drawing from that deep well of God’s grace supplemented with their own life of prayer. There is much anxiety affecting clergy and congregations today and we all need to go deeper in faith, and deeper in our relationship with Christ if we are to find our way.
In this, the fourth year of my episcopacy, I find my work increasingly challenging as I go deeper but I accept that a key part of my role will be to lead the church I love from the old and familiar to the new and unfamiliar. There is little that I can take for granted but there is much that gives me hope. There are countless people across this vast diocese of about 30,000 identifiable givers and members spread across Newfoundland and Labrador who truly love this church and who want to make the journey from the old to the new together. It should not be acceptable for us to measure the success of that journey in terms of financial and administrative survival. If we are to truly be the People of God in 2017 we must measure our life by mission, outreach, and spiritual growth. We would all do well to engage with the Marks of Missionas they have come to our church today. They are:
·To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
·To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
·To respond to human need by loving service
·To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
·To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
The Marks of Mission should be at the heart of our conversations about ministry and mission. As I reflect upon the Marks and their relationship to the Anglican Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador it is not difficult for me to see that they are already established here in many ways. The Marks of Mission should inspire us to reflect ever more deeply upon our discipleship in the world, drawing us beyond our local and familiar places into initiatives that are fresh, life-giving and transformative. The Marks of Mission are an invitation to all of us to become a missional church, not focused upon maintaining what we have but launching out creatively and compassionately, trusting in God to journey with us.
Our God is a God of mission embodied in the person of Jesus who tells us in John’s Gospel, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” It is not the church that has a mission; it is God’s mission that has a church.