Tag Archives: Formation

Beloved but Messy: A Review of Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong.”

I never believed I would be someone who would enjoy reading books on ecclesiology.  Reading about the nature of the church never once appealed to me as a viable good time option.  Yet here I am, reading books on the nature of the church, and loving it!  The latest addition to my reading was Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church.”  I received a complimentary copy as part of Crossway Publishers Blog Review Program; it as a part of that program that I offer this review. 

Hill’s book is refreshingly approachable.  Although Hill has clearly done her reading, and has earned her theological chops, A Place to Belong is rooted in a real-world expression of the local church.  By that I mean, Hill writes about the church as we experience it, speaking of such things as “peppermints” and church-ladies”, “church dinners”, and “favourite pews.” These references are not simply quaint stories or humours anecdotes, however.  For Hill, these references are the church.  A congregation made up of individuals who have previously determined their favourite place to sit is not a lesser image of the church… It is the church.  In this way, the reader is able to recognise one’s own local congregation as he/she make their way through the chapters.

While Hill writes theologically, her theological vision of the church is not divorced from the messy realities of life. Thus, as Hill points out, the local church “doesn’t always seem gorgeous.” (12)  I find this quite a profound realization, and one that can so easily be overlooked.  The church is a messy reality.  It is that way because we are that way.  With fresh honesty, Hill offers a vision of the church which includes the truth that “I have sometimes been hurt by people in the church – ignored and misunderstood and intentionally deceived.  I know I have hurt a few people myself” (12).  Hill offers no rose-coloured treatment of the church.  This will undoubtedly speak to those who have struggled with the church.  With Hill they will find a sympathetic voice.  It is simply true that ‘belonging to the church doesn’t always seem like much of a glorious privilege” (13).  This acknowledgement is refreshing, and should be recognised as an essential part of our ecclesiology. 

The messiness, or brokenness, of the church, however, is not the end of the story, for ultimately, as Hill points out, this is the church that Christ loves.  Upon this reality hangs Hill’s entire treatment of the church, and it is precisely why we are called to love the local church.  The church is not a platonic ideal that exists only in abstractions.  Jesus loves the local church, in all its messy expressions.  Hill reminds the reader that the New Testament frequently addresses the local church, filled with its conflict, fighting, and imperfections, as “Beloved.”  Thus, as God loves the local church, so ought we. 

When we approach our conception of the local church from this footing, we are grounded in the biblical vision of the church – and our own call to be a part of it.  This speaks loudly within a culture where church attendance has been continually in the decline.  The popularity of ‘spiritual but not religious’, and the too-often toted mantra of “I can worship God anywhere’ has helped contribute to the slow ebbing away of the Church’s vibrancy.  Yet it is not simply because of its structure that we are called to be a part of the local church.  Nor are we to belong to the church simply because it is always pleasant for us.   We are called to the church because the gathering of the local community is a gathering God loves.  God delights in the local church, and works through it.  Thus, our involvement in the local church is an expression of, and a participation in, the delight of the Lord.  Hill’s emphasis on God’s love for the church being the basis for our love for the church is a needed reminder for us.

All this being said, there was one element of Hill’s book I did not appreciate.  Hill is clear that her vision of the church contains only male leadership.  In the fourth chapter Hill tackles the biblical concept of Shepherds, suggesting that the leaders of the local church – elders/pastors/priests – are raised up by God and offer a needed ministry.  Despite the potential to drift into clericalism, Hill has some good things to say about this.  Yet it seems that Hill almost goes out of her way to attribute such leadership positions to men alone.  She writes about the how the service of ordination is a response to the church having been “encouraged to identify men who are gifted for leadership” (65).  Similarly, in the final chapter, she highlights church administration being structured around inter-church elders meetings; meetings “where the gathered men discuss common concerns and make decisions that promote the good of the local church” (137).  Frankly, this seems ripped out of a manual from the 1940s. There is no recognition that such a framework is simply not how other local churches function.

I found this element of the book disheartening, and ultimately disappointing.  Up to this point, Hill diligently sought to present a vision of the local church that was approachable and relevant across any denominational context.  Furthermore, as has been mentioned, her vision of the local church is rooted in a deep recognition of the fragility of the human gathering.  Yet when approaching church leadership, there was none of this sensitivity.  Chapter 4, and her discussion of male elders, is presented in a way that would make one think this is a doctrinal necessity.  There seems to be no recognition that other denominations may involve non-male leadership, or employ alternate forms of church governance.  More to the point, there seems to be no recognition that several streams of her own denomination (Presbyterian) actively ordains women!   Unfortunately, Hill missed a profound opportunity to lend her voice to ecumenical unity. Hill could have put forward an ecclesiological vision that included a shared participation in the one story of Christian ministry, despite different understandings of who gets to be ordained.  Instead, however, she turned inward and puts forward a vision of church leadership that is set firmly within a very narrow, and I would argue antiquated, understanding of ordination and leadership.

Did I enjoy reading Hill’s A Place to Belong?  That’s hard to say.  I enjoyed the reflections that reading the book prompted within me.  Yet I can’t get passed her fourth chapter and I find that it, unfortunately, sullies the rest of the work.  In the end, I do believe Hill has an important offering for how we understand the local church, and our call to be a part of it.  I am sure her book will be one that I reference in my own teaching, preaching, and writing about the church.  Unfortunately, because of what I see as a glaring blunder regarding her picture of church leadership, I may be hesitant in recommending this book to others.

Habits of Devotion

This article first appeared at Ministry Matters under the title “Habits of Devotion: Observing the season of Lent in a healthy, restorative, and biblical way.”  Published February 27, 2020. 

 

Are you bored of Lent? This probably seems like an odd question to ask, considering we have yet to enter into the liturgical season. The question is apt, I think. With only a few days left to go before our big plunge into the penitential season, most of us are probably trying to figure out what will define this year’s observance. If you are like me, you probably have already started to ask yourselves a series of complicated questions: “Do I give something up or take something on?”, “Do I repeat a past observance or think of something new?” , “Do I focus on my exterior life or my interior life?” These questions can be hard to answer. Furthermore, we put enormous pressure on ourselves to figure out what will make for a good Lenten experience. Have you ever felt so exhausted trying to figure out what your discipline will be, that by the time Lent arrives, your passion for the discipline is already disappeared? We may still do our Lenten obligations, with an appropriate mix of understated humility and begrudging liturgical compliance, but that’s all we do. We observe them, but we aren’t transformed by them.

How might we engage in the season of lent differently this year? What might it look like to engage in this season of spiritual discipline with the purpose of transforming our spiritual lives? Are there practices or disciplines that have been proven to do this? Luckily there are. The book of Acts contains a wonderful description of how the early church structured their Christian lives. Having accepted the good news of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, members of this new community lived in a particular way. They structured their spiritual lives around four simple habits. We read in chapter 2 that the early Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” These habits are not complicated by any means. In fact, they are rather quite simple. All it takes is a little dedication and a willingness to engage in these actions on a regular basis. For that early baptised community, devotion to these practices opened them to the continuous presence of the risen Lord.

What would it look like if Anglicans everywhere purposefully engaged in each of these disciplines on a weekly basis throughout the season of Lent? What if we structured our life around these exercises? Importantly, these four practices call us into a deeper engagement with the community of faith in a way that giving up my favourite snack does not. By adopting these practices, my Lenten observance is transformed into our Lenten observance. To follow along with the example set by the early Christians, we need to know a little more about each practice.

The Apostles’ Teaching: For the early Christian community, devotion to the apostles’ teaching meant learning about Jesus from those who had been with him. This wasn’t about private moments of silent reflection upon the scrolls. The early community discussed Jesus’ teachings with one another and explored implications for their own lives. The point was to be influenced by Christ’s teaching, example, and Spirit. How might you join others in learning more about Jesus? Can you form a small group and commit to reading a Gospel each week, or work through a 12-lesson Bible study booklet? What would it look like for you to takes notes during the Sunday sermon? Devotion to the Apostles’ Teaching is about allowing the good news of Jesus to form (and transform) the community of faith.

Fellowship: Fellowship lies at the centre of the faith community because it forces us to recognise the call to a common spiritual life. Fellowship is not just about “hanging out” or “shooting the breeze.” Nor is fellowship just about having “Coffee time” with one another. Fellowship is about connecting with a fellow Christian for mutual, faith-based, encouragement. In fellowship, we share what is occurring in our spiritual lives. This means we need to cultivate a radical sense of both hospitality and vulnerability. Could you call the clergy of your parish and arrange an appointment to talk about where you are in your faith life? Could you ask a fellow parishioner how you could support them in their faith life? We live in a time of rampant individualism, and because of this, it is easy for us to believe that such conversations are both intrusive and unwelcome. Yet devotion to fellowship demands that we push past the safety net of small talk and willingly engage in deeper, soul-rich, conversation and sharing.

The Breaking of Bread: The New Testament describes several instances where Jesus blessed, broke, and gave bread to people. Each case was a moment where the Lordship of Jesus was revealed in a particular way (c.f. Luke 24:30–32). The greatest example of this is the Last Supper. For Anglicans, we see our participation in the eucharist as the chief act of worship. Yet the hyper-busyness of modern day often interrupts our celebration of the Eucharist. This is understandable, and maybe unavoidable. Still, as a Lenten observance, what would it look like for you to devote yourself to taking communion every week during the season of Lent? Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t have to be on Sunday morning. Many churches have several communion services per week. If you cannot make it to church on Sunday morning you may choose to attend the mid-week service. Or perhaps you could call the church to arrange for someone to bring you communion in your home. (FYI: you don’t have to be a shut in to request this!). Now, if you do not yet take communion, perhaps this is the opportunity for you to engage in discussions with your local clergy about the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.

Prayer: The community’s devotion to prayer probably sounds the easiest. However, this is not just about having a personal prayer-life. Devotion to prayer for the early Christian community was about devotion to communal prayer. The community gathered together to pray for one another, and to pray with one another. Prayer was both personal and liturgical. This is completely contrary to the privatised and individualistic way that we sometimes view prayer today. There are many different ways that you could cultivate communal prayer during Lent. You could say the liturgy of Morning Prayer (or Evening Prayer) using the BAS or BCP rites; take your bulletin home and pray the collect before bed each evening; ask someone to join you in prayer — either in grace before a meal, or in saying The Lord’s Prayer; seek out a Christian you trust and look up to, and ask him or her to pray with you. Options are limitless and opportunities to join in prayer with others abound. All it takes is a little creativity and boldness.

None of these practices are overly complicated. Each are fairly strait forward. So simple are they, in fact, that we often overlook the transformative power of them. The fact is, each of these practices opens the door for us to creatively engage in our life with God in a unique way. So, if you want the season of Lent to be a time of spiritual renewal, this is perhaps one of the simplest (and most biblically based) ways to go about it. May we all have a blessed Lent.

When Words Speak: 5 books that formed my faith and brought me closer to Jesus (besides the Bible).

Recently, our bishop asked us clergy to provide a list of three books that we have found influential to our lives or our ministry. These books didn’t have to be necessarily theological in nature, just books that we would recommend to others.  For me, this proved to be a difficult task.  I love my books and so the idea of reducing my library to only three influential titles seemed overly problematic.  But, exercising my vow of canonical obedience, I presented my three choices at the clergy day.

Since then, I have thought a lot about the books that I chose for presentation.  Why did I pick these books over others? What made me gravitate to those titles over other books I enjoyed?  I also felt that my presentation to my colleagues did not do justice to some of the influential books I have read. I also feel that, if asked to do this again, I would pick different titles than the ones I initially presented.

Given all of this, I present to you my revised list.  Instead of three influential titles, I list five titles that have helped me deepen my love for Christ.  My criteria for choosing these texts are fairly simple: these five texts are ones I seem to return to again and again.  They inform how I understand my life with Christ.  They encourage me.  They challenge me. They inspire me.  Simply put, they are the works that began, and seem to sustain, my spiritual life.

  1. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster This book tops my list because it began my journey into the area of spiritual formation. Funnily enough, I attempted to read this book early on, but only managed a few pages before pushing it back onto my shelf.  Years later, I picked it up again on a whim. This time, however, Foster’s words seemed to speak to my desire to find practices and habits to sustain my life with Christ.  It is an accessible read, but rich in content and insight. This is a wonderful work for anyone wanting to know how to live a more intentionally Christian life.
  2. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. If you have read any Foster’s books, you will recognise this book. Foster quotes Kelly often. After gobbling up all of Foster’s works, I turned to this small work strongly rooted in the Quaker tradition.  Never have I read anything, where from the first sentence, i found it speaking to my innermost desires.  I find Kelly to be uncanny in his ability to describe the inner cries of the heart, our longing to be centred in Christ.  Kelly’s words seemed to sum-up an increasing depth of faith that I yearned for, but didn’t know how to describe.
  3. You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. This was recommended by a friend of mine after learning I had enrolled in a doctorate program focused on Spiritual Formation. Smith’s book is a wonderful entrance into theological anthropology.  Instead of being merely thinking-things, Smith advocates that we are ruled by our passions – that which our hearts cry for.  Smith’s offers insightful words regarding the danger of being a “bobble-head Christian”, and his discussion of the “liturgy of the mall” is perhaps the best description I have found of the “spirituality” of contemporary society.  These are concepts and images I have passed on to many, and directly informed my final doctoral project.
  4. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Full discloser: my congregation has been hearing a lot about Bonhoeffer as of late.  Life Together is probably the one book on this list that I have read most often.  I return to it year after year, and when asked to lead retreats for new clergy, I base everything on this work.  I find Bonhoeffer’s words profoundly prophetic in our highly individualistic time.  Furthermore, his radical willingness to centre the Christian life within the context of community is something, I believe, we would do well to recover.
  5. Introduction to the Holy Life by St. Francis deSales. Honestly, I struggled with what text to include as my last selection.  I initially had A Serious Call to the Devout and Holy Life by the good old Anglican, William Law.  That is a work that was important for me in doctoral studies. I chose deSales, however, simply because I read him first.  Introduction was the first book I picked up after realising I wanted  to hear what Christians centuries ago had to say about nurturing the life of faith.  How has Christian’s throughout the ages managed an authentic spiritual life?  Are they any truths that seem to transcend time.  deSales did not disappoint.  His care for the student he writes to is evident, and his spiritual wisdom is applicable today as when he first penned his work.

There you have it, my (current) list of the five works that influenced my spiritual life.  I commend them to you.  If you haven’t read these works, I highly recommend them to you; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

 

Individualism: The scourge of the Church.

We all know that the church today is getting smaller.  Denominations are dwindling; churches around the country are closing their doors; more and more people live without any discernible church connection.  Sure, there is a rise of spirituality, but that rarely translates into involvement in a faith community.  When someone describes themselves as ‘spiritual not religious’ it usually means their spirituality does not involve anyone else (and rarely does it involve any spiritual practices).

There are many ideas about why this happening and how we are to address this decline.  Some say we should jettison the traditional church in favour for a new, contemporary, and relevant expression of faith.  Old practices and ancient rhythms simply do not speak to the more modern tempered.  Yet this does not actually solve the problem.  Opting for a more contemporary skin does not actually address what lies behind the decline in the church.  Underneath much of the experience of church decline today is the problem of individualism.

Case in point: For the past 10 years, my church has experienced decline.  Some of this is because of natural occurrences in the life of a community.  Parishioners have died, some of have moved away.  However, what is most intriguing is that, while the active congregation has declined over the past decade, the parish list has remained the same.  We haven’t actually lost members. So what is going on?  The reality that we face, and that I assume many of us face, is that people simply do not attend church as regularly as before.  Those who used to come three Sundays per month now come one, and those who attended only once per month now only show up every other month.  The lack of attendance by those who belong to the church, I think, is one of the key reasons for church decline.

Importantly, this lack of attendance by once-active parishioners is not based on the church style.  Rather, it illustrates a particular view of the church; namely, that church is a voluntary activity that one can choose to engage or disengage in at any time.  The rise of language speaking to the church needing to ‘feed me’ is symptomatic of this individualist lens through which we view the church.   When we view the church individualistically, we base our involvement with church on personal preferences.  Likes and dislikes become the basis for how we value participation in the community of faith.  Thus, when something better comes along, whether that be a sporting event or another community, one feels free to step away from the community of faith.  It is precisely because of this individualism that simply replacing the traditional expression of church with a more contemporary one will ultimately fail to effect widespread growth.  The different ‘flavours’ of church aside, we still live in a time when church is seen as a voluntary engagement.  What we need to do is begin addressing what we actually believe the church to be.

Writing in the 1930’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has some challenging words to say about this.

“Only when an individualistic outlook began to transform this obvious necessity into a psychological one did it ask about the meaning of the assembly [of worship] in terms of its usefulness and necessity for the individual.  This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the church-community.  It is therefore also completely useless to attempt to respond to it by listing a whole host of internal or external advantages, or moral obligations, which might lead the individual into the church. . . Indeed, we submit that the very question is inappropriate to the subject matter. To justify this position we can only point to the concept of the church-community itself.   Thus, a justification for the purpose of the assembly is not lacking altogether; it is not simply an entrenched traditional habit, as one might assume.  However, the justification simply lies on a completely different plain . . . Since I belong to the church-community, I come to the assembly; this is the simple rationale of those who are assembled.  This act is not based on utilitarian considerations, or a sense of duty, but is ‘organic’ and obvious behaviour.

Bonhoeffer does well to get in pointing to the individualism that plagues the church today.  To argue why one is to go to church instead of another activity is to reinforce that the church exists to solely to meet the whims and likes of the individual.   This does nothing to address the problem of individualism, nor does it aid in informing the person about the true nature of the church.  Bonhoeffer is clear; one comes to church because one belongs to the church.  There is a plain and simple truth that we assert: one’s lives out his/her faith amid the community of believers.  Therefore, active, ongoing, and regular involvement in the worshipping community is simply a call we cannot ignore.  There is, in actuality, no way to get around this.

This post is the first in (probably) many wherein I will try to tease out what it means for us to move away from an individualistic understanding of the church-community.  However, for now, let me say this: I believe that we have to start combating the lie that says it is ok to miss church. I think we should start telling people that ‘liking’ the church is no basis for one’s involvement in church-community.  I think we need to start addressing the harm done to the church-community, and to people’s own spiritual livelihood, when other commitments regularly trump involvement in the community of faith.

These may be fighting words today, as they speak directly against the priority of the self in one’s faith-life.  Yet I believe this is necessary if we wish to go forward as the church which God ordains, equips, and empowers.

 

Bonhoeffer quote taken fromBonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Sanctum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church; from “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 1”; Minneapolis, First Fortress Press, 2009. Pg. 227.

Bad Fruit and Bobble-Heads

One of the most engaging books I read recently was J.K Smith’s You Are What You Love.  It was in reading Smith that I first came across the term “Bobble-Head Christians.”  A Bobble-Head Christian is someone who has a head full of information about God but an underdeveloped body.  That is, while the individual may know a lot about the bible, faith, or points of theology, he or she does not live out those truths in their lives.  Their bodily existence, or witness, does not match up with what they say they profess.  Smith’s overall point in this is that our actions point to our primary love – that which we value above anything else.   Right knowledge makes no difference if it does not trickle down into right living.

Jesus says something like this in the gospel of Matthew.  Jesus points to the discrepancy that can exist in some people between what that person says and what that person does.  Jesus illustrates this point by pointing to the connection between a tree and its fruit.  He says;

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit, you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.”  (Matthew 7:15-20)

Here, Jesus highlights the fundamental truth that our actions point to who we are.  Like a bad tree producing bad fruit, our actions testify to our inner nature.  While Jesus begins by singling out the ‘false prophets’, his point is more generalized.  You are what you love, and your actions point to that upon which your soul is set.  Thus, all of us should take care to ensure that our actions are in line with our Christian values.  The gospel has no room for Bobble-Heads.

However, is that all Jesus is saying?  Is Jesus’ message above, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, akin to a call to smarten up?  Often, when commenting or preaching on the above passage, this is usually the point made.  Our actions count, we preach.  Thus, if our actions do not line-up with what we say we believe, we should all just smarten up and make sure that we living rightly.  This is not a bad message, per se; but it does not address the deeper issue to which Jesus is speaking.

See, Jesus is speaking about the tree, not about the fruit.  Yes, bad fruit is bad, but more than that, it points to that which is faulty about the tree itself.  The fruit of the tree reflects the inner nature of the tree.  Thus, if one wants to produce good fruit one must address the heath of the tree itself.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of this again when he says “I am the Vine, you are the Branches . . . Apart from me you can do nothing.”  We abide with Jesus so that we can be healthy inwardly.  As the Spirit of God in the inner selves nourishes us, the fruit of our lives (our outward actions) will naturally reflect that deeper reality.  If the tree is healthy, the fruit will take care of it self.

You are what you love.

The question posed in this passage, therefore, is not ‘How do we address the fruit of our actions?’ but ‘How do we address our inner health?”  We are to allow Christ to shape us, to form us, to become that overwhelming reservoir of love in our souls.  We are to be people formed in the love of Jesus above all else.  Only as we abide in Christ can we make sure that we will be bearing the healthy fruit produced from spiritually healthy lives.

How do we go about this?  A portion of Psalm 119 contains a perfect prayer for the deepening of our faith.

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,
that I may follow it to the end.
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,
so that you may be feared.
Take away the disgrace I dread,
for your laws are good.
How I long for your precepts!
In your righteousness preserve my life. (Psalm 119:33-40)

What would it look like for you to pray this prayer every day for a month?  How could this prayer help you open up the inner part of your self to Jesus?  How is Jesus calling you to produce good fruit through addressing the deeper formation of your heart and your soul?

Toward a Common Spiritual Life: Morning Prayer

The English poet and Anglican priest, John Donne, once penned that ‘No man [sic] is an island, entire unto itself; every man [sic] is piece of the continent.’  In this phrase, Donne is highlight an important reality for our lives; we exist amid a myriad of relationships.  In fact, if we look at scripture, we see this even more profoundly.  We are created to be a people, and our Christian lives are to be lived amid the tapestry of relationships and structures of the Body of Christ.  Yes, I can point to myself and say, “I am a Christian”, or” I am an Anglican”. These statements may be true in some respects, but it would be more appropriate to say, “I belong to the body of Christ”, or “I belong to the Anglican community”.  My faith is not an isolated island in which I reside alone; it is a part of a wider body.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that as we are bound to Christ, we are necessarily bound to each other.

We sometimes forget this reality.  In a ‘me-first’ society such as the one in which we reside, it becomes easy to centre our faith solely within ourselves.  Yet this sometimes creates an uneasy reality for us.  As we try to mediate an individual spiritual life, as opposed to a common spiritual life, we may find this creates questions that we feel ill equipped to answer.   For example, have you ever yearned for a deeper connection with God, but have struggled to figure out how to accomplish that?  Have you ever questioned why others seem to be ‘closer’ to God than you feel?  Have you ever felt disconnected with the life of the Church, even though you sit surrounded by other people?  How can these things be?

What if your life of faith is not just about you?  What if our Christian life is not just about ‘me + Jesus’?  What if God created you not to be a Christian person, but to part of a Christian people?  This necessarily changes how we view ourselves, our spiritual heritage, and the spiritual habits we engage in. In fact, this communal emphasis lies at the heart of scriptural witness.  For example, in his article titled “Salvation; Individual or Communal”, Lloyd Ratzlaff argues “It is unthinkable that a Jew then would have appealed to his personal justification as having some meaning unrelated to his being a member of the covenant community” (Ratzlaff 1976, 111).   Life with God mean life in the community of faith.  Within my own tradition, I imagine that it was for specific reason that Thomas Cranmer named his liturgical opus ‘The Book of Common Prayer.’  Since our beginning, and fundamental to all our liturgical texts, Anglican have mediated their spirituality through participation in a joint –common – spiritual life.

So how do we live out this common spiritual life?  How can you participate in the life and activity of the Church as you go through the regular routines of your week?  Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Common life under the Word begins with common worship at the beginning of each day” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 42).  The recitation of Morning Prayer is a prime example of our common spiritual life.  Rather than a mere form of personal prayer, the office of Morning Prayer is an ecclesial activity; one engages in an activity occurring in the church throughout all time and space.  I may sit alone in my office as I say Morning Prayer, but this does not discount the deeper reality; I participate in the prayers of the church, and I add my voice to the company of the faithful.  I do not say Morning Prayer, I join the prayers of the Church, and we say Morning Prayer together.

So, if those yearnings above – for a deeper connection with God, a desire to be ‘closer’ to God, a stronger connection to the church – have ever been something that you have experienced, I would encourage you to take up the discipline of Morning Prayer.  Lend your voice to the church’s prayer by allowing the language of the church to form your prayers.  You just may find that your own faith and prayer life begins to flourish as you participate in common prayer.

7 Habits of Effective Churches – A Rebuttal

Every once and while, I read a blog or article that demands I write a response.  This is one of those occasions.  The blog in question was posted on the MINISTRY MATTERS forum (The blog-arm of the Anglican Church of Canada), entitled ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective Churches.’ (https://medium.com/ministrymatters/the-seven-habits-of-highly-effective-parishes-5dee9709fdce).   Before I go further, let me say this; I don’t know the author, Peter Misiaszek.  I am sure that he is a lovely, intelligent, and godly man.  I am confident that he loves Jesus, has a strong desire to see the church flourish and thrive. That is, after all, why he wrote the article.  Unfortunately, there are several reasons why I believe that his article not only misses the mark, but unwittingly endorses a detrimental view of church and ministry.

1: A Focus on Numbers.  Misiaszek is obviously riffing on Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  This is nothing new.  A cursory google search will yield a plethora of blogs and articles taking up this language.  For Misiaszek, the context of effectiveness is clear; an effective church is a church with a lot of people and a large bank account.  Effectiveness is narrowly defined as an yearly increase in the rank of numbers through which we look at congregational life.  Consider, for example, that Bosco Peters begins his blog of the same name (http://liturgy.co.nz/seven-habits-of-highly-effective-churches-1), by stating that  effective churches “Focus on God.”  Misiaszek’s first point?  “Giving to church ministry is exceptional.”  Interestingly, Misiaszek’s second point also deals with financial giving.  The message comes across loud and clear.  The number of people and the size of your bank account is of utmost importance.  The spiritual life of the parish plays no part in the equation.

Is this really the case? Does more numbers actually equal effectiveness?   Possibly not.  Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken’s The Renovation of the Church; Graham Standish’s Becoming a Blessed Church’ and Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson’s Move: What 1000 churches reveal about Spiritual Growth all argue that ‘largeness’ does not equal effectiveness.  Misiaszek’s blog, however, promotes the dangerous idea that larger churches are better churches.

2: Little Mention of Prayer or Spiritual Disciplines.  As I read the blog, I kept waiting for the Misiaszek to speak about the prayerfulness of the church.  It was my hope to read that an ‘effective church’ would be one that had active spiritual life, or that people were growing in their relationship with Jesus.   To be fair, Misiaszek gives a nod to these things.  For example, his last point is that ‘Healthy churches experiment with liturgy styles, music, missional engagement, giving vehicles and roles to volunteers.’  Yet Misiaszek’s point seems to be more about the right management of these things, and not about the activity themselves.  It appears that creativity is the salient point – not worship.  Misiaszek isn’t claiming that healthy churches are rooted in prayer, or that the fundamental nature of the church is to seek God’s face, and hear God’s word; his point is that the effective churches are creative.

Misiaszek’s point on discipleship falls into the same trap.  Stating that effective churches have priest’s who ‘promote’ discipleship is not the same thing as saying that the church engages in discipleship.  Talking about evangelism is not the same thing as evangelism, and learning about prayer is not the same as actually praying.  Again, the blog seems to suggest that the spiritual heartbeat of a parish is less important than the structural or programmatic boxes it can tick.

3. The Role of God is Absent. Perhaps my biggest peeve with the blog was that it seems to ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the community. There is no talk of ‘responding to God’s leading’, or ‘enjoying the Spirit’s presence.’  Effectiveness in the church is solely linked to human activity.  Of course, we are called to embody our faith n the world, but as I mentioned above, this embodiment has little to do with prayer or any other spiritual discipline.  Effectiveness and health are about communication strategies, financial giving structures, and creative programming. Not one of the 7 habits mentioned in the blog speak of God’s activity in the life of the people of faith.

The message of the blog is that we create an effective church.  It is about the effort we put in and the structures we create.  Jesus just kind of comes along for the ride.  Yet who are we if we are not the body of Christ?  What is the church if it is not a body of people gathered in the presence of God?  Creative programming and a slick website do not make a church.  The church is created through baptism; by which we are immersed in the reality of the God’s kingdom.  We gather in the presence of the risen Lord, proclaiming that the grace of Jesus is present, real, and is active in our very midst.  If our goal is to be an ‘effective church’ – then we must recognise that effectiveness comes only from being open to the power of God ‘working in us [to do] infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.’

4. A singular Vision. Peter Misiaszek works for the diocese of Toronto, and as such, his vision of an effective church is very much an affluent, urban, congregation. A steady stream of new comers; a plethora of young-people; money for creative programming and liturgy, mission trips to the developing world – all suggest that an effective church looks like the downtown mega church.  Within the blog, there is no consideration for churches that do not have the same physical, or financial resources available to them.

But what does this vision of effectiveness say for the small country parish, rooted in the BCP, and enthusiastically singing hymns from the hymn book?  Can they be effective, even though they may never grow beyond 60 people?  According to Misiaszek, no.  He writes “We have seen that while there is a place for traditional ways of doing church, those that are thriving are doing things differently — they must.”  Well that’s a pretty damning statement.  By suggesting that small, traditional, churches are not ‘effective’, one is stating that they are essentially failing in who they are called to be as a church, and as Christian people.

I could go on.  Obviously, there are many things that I take umbrage with in this article.  I write this not to be nasty or negative – nor to discredit the ministry of one of my Christian brother’s.  I, too, want the church to thrive.  I just see the matter of a thriving from a different viewpoint.  For me, church effectiveness is more about being an intentionally prayerful, worshipful, and loving body.  Whenever the church gathers together to seek Christ’s, to be formed by His presence, and to be empowered for His work, then we will be living our Christian life effectively.  What our numbers say is really a secondary issue.

In Praise of the Church

When was the last time that we praised our congregations?  When have we communicated that participation in our local church has been a blessing to us?  How often do we thank God for the community in which we are surrounded?  When was the last time that we rejoiced because we belong to this church?

As a priest, I am on several clergy forums.  This means that on a daily basis, my social media feed will inevitably involve the latest article about the church.  Much of these blogs reposted, stories told, or articles shared, attempt to decipher the reasoning behind the numerical decline in the church today.  Each takes a different slant; for some the culprit is the lack of Millennials; some mention the lower number of volunteers; others highlight music, or the over-all structure of the church today.

Most recently I came across a post related to church-planting.  One would think that a post related to the ins-and-outs of planting new congregations would focus on the blessing of community, and the power of God.  Sadly, the post began with a detailed discussion of how the ‘older’ church has lost its way.  “We need a new church for a new people.”  Instead of a hope-fueled declaration of God’s activity, there was a slight against church as it is most commonly experienced.   Thanks for informing me that God has moved on from my church.

I don’t mean to be snarky . . . although that can be a bit difficult at times.  Much of these articles and blogs highlight many important issues.  The problems that I see is that taken as a corpus, these voices leave quite a depressing taste in our mouths.  Time and time again, through story after story and blog after blog, we read that the church is not doing what it should do . . .the church is reaching the wrong people . . . the church has lost its mission . . .the church has wrong theology. . .bad, bad, bad . . . .wrong, wrong, wrong . . .decline, decline, decline.

I am not suggesting that there are not things that the church needs to address.  Every generation, with every emerging cultural paradigm, must navigate the particularities of the gospel.  This is part of what we see in Paul’s letters.  Paul wrote to the churches with a need to address certain issues that needed to be addressed in the church.  But do you know what he also did?  He praised the congregation.  Paul begins every letter by lifting up the people he is writing to, and thanking God for them.  “I give thanks for you”, “I rejoice for you”, “I thank God every time I remember you in my prayers”, “I long to see you.”

We sometimes see these statements as Paul ‘buttering up’ his audience.  Or we go back to our Intro-to-New-Testament class wherein we had a fascinating lesson about typical Greek letter writing formats.  Either way we breeze past these statements so we can get to the important part of Paul’s letters.  But what if Paul isn’t being sly?  What if these are not statements of social epistleography.  What if Paul is expressing something very important?  Despite all the flaws, despite all the struggles that come with any community, Paul actually praises God for the church.  Paul bases every single letter, even the ones where he tackles some difficult issues, in a spirit of thanksgiving.  He edifies the church so that, together, they can address what needs to be addressed.

Could it be that simple?  Could unlocking growth, and health, and power, in the church be found in changing the constant narrative that we hear and read?  Studies have shown that both children and adults who undergo relentless verbal abuse will inevitably begin to believe the lies.  A child who is constantly told that he or she is ‘bad’, or ‘wrong’, or ‘stupid’ will eventually begin to internalize those messages.  Tell someone something long enough and it begins to form how they understand themselves, and the world around them.  Have we been doing this to the church?

The narrative we immerse ourselves in is of incredible importance.  How long have we been telling the church that it is wrong?  How long have we been saying that the mainline denominations are ‘missing the target’, or ‘backward’ or ‘out-of-touch.’  Could it be that we have fed ourselves on this message to such a degree that we are now living out this narrative?

Again, please don’t misread me.  I am not suggesting that the church is perfect. Not by any means.  But our imperfection is not opposed to rejoicing in this body of faith in which we are blessed to be a part.  We need to begin our discussions about the church in a different place – a more positive place.  We need to recognise that this is a blessed church, regardless the form, the age of people, the model it adheres to.  This is a blessed church, a hope-filled church, because it is the church of the living God.   And so we can thank God for this church.  We can rejoice in God’s power seen through its witness.

I love my church.  I am blessed to be a part of it.  I thank God for the community that has held me, and loved me, and cared for me in far more ways than I can ever count.  I hope this is the case for you as well.

Many grapes or healthy grapes?

A few weeks back, my wife and I journeyed to BC wine country for a few days of rest and vacation.  For four days we lounged by the pool, walked amidst the vineyards, and visited wineries.  The highlight of our trip was a private tour of the winery where we were staying.  Our guide, Sophie, took us throughout the winery, explaining the process of hand harvesting, gravity-fed fermentation, and barrel toasting.  We saw the large steal fermentation tanks, the temperature controls, and the hundreds of barrels of wine lining the cellar walls.  Sophie was incredibly knowledgeable, filled with wisdom about the art of vinification.  As she spoke of the particular climate of the area, she mentioned how the vineyard will occasionally reduce the yield of the harvest in response to temperature of the season.  “We will green-harvest the grapes, thus allowing the nutrients of the vine and increase the health of the remaining grapes.”

So it is more important to have a healthy harvest than a large harvest?  Exactly.

I couldn’t’ help but wonder if this has any sort of application to the life of the church today.  We all know that denominational numbers are on the decline.  Studies have shown that less and less people are coming out to church these days.  Membership in mainline denominations, such as my own –The Anglican Church of Canada – tend to skew toward the middle to later in life, with a noticeable absence of the teenage through young adult years.  Sometimes this has been termed “The missing generation.”  When we talk about this reality in the church, it often comes with a tone of fear and anxiety.   We fear that we are losing the battle, or that we are failing at church.  “Who will be there after we are gone?”  “How will the church ‘survive?’”  Underlying these statements is a certain belief, never articulated but there nonetheless, that bigger equals better; a larger yield is a more blessed yield.  This keeps us focused on the number of individuals we have coming through our doors on a weekly basis.  And if our numbers today are not as large as yesterday then something is amiss.  Because the most important things is having more and more grapes, right?

But what if that’s not the case?  What if there are times where the yield of individual grapes within the church actually needs to go down in order to ensure the health of the entire vineyard?

Now I’m not suggesting that God, the true Gardner, is actively keeping people away from the church, or that we no longer have the mission to share the good news of Christ.  But it is an intriguing question isn’t it? Could this time of numerical decline, rather than speaking about a failure of the church, actually speak to a process of pruning?  For us who remain in the vine, could God be using this time to draw us more deeply into the richness of his life-giving spirit?   Remember, Jesus himself said “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2) The act of pruning is done so that the remaining grapes are able to receive more life, more health, more nutrients.  Sometimes we look to this verse and think that ‘fruitful’ means ‘more grapes!’  But what if fruitfulness speaks more to health than number?

What I am suggesting is that God desires us to be a healthy church rather than a large one.  After all, is it actually the case that God wishes every church to become a mega-church?  Like a wine-maker that is only interested in the number of individual grapes, could this understanding of the church’s mission actually work against the overall health of the entire vineyard?

I believe that we in the church today should shift our focus away from the primacy of numbers.  Just as knowledgeable winemakers cares more for the health of the vineyard rather than the number of grapes per yield, we need to stop looking to the size of individual churches as the testimony to overall healthy and stability.  Instead, we need to look to how we are engaged in the ongoing process of being formed in the image of Christ Jesus.  How are we being united to Jesus, through devotion to the Apostles teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers?  Do people actually read their Bible?  Are people’s lives being touched by the Spirit of God?  Are church members becoming more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, or more patient?  The answer to these questions cannot be found in an appeal to the number of people attending church on Sunday.  These questions expose what is really going on within the church and speaks to the church’s health and vitality.

For any winery, more important that the number of barrels it produces each years is the health of the wine within those barrels.  It is the health of the wine, not the number of grapes, that makes or breaks a vineyard.  Similarly, for any church, more important than the number of people lining the pews on Sunday morning is their spiritual health and Christ-likeness.  This is the heart of our mission, our witness, and our Christian life.