Monday, September 26, 2011

Welcoming and Working Parishes

I'm glad to see that my "stand out" friend and blogger The Rev. Scott Gunn is back to blogging again. I've missed his work while coincidentally understanding how difficult it is to keep writing ingenuous posts while beginning a new vocational undertaking. Scott+ has been very busy, I think, getting settled at Forward Movement. Godspeed and blessings for him and his staff as they strive to transform that organization into a vibrant evangelistic 21st Century Episcopalian publisher. Their transformational mission is to "reinvigorate the life of the church and to rehabilitate its general, diocesan, and parochial work.” Scott+ possesses a much grander mission to accomplish in comparison to mine as the new Rector of St. James Episcopal Church - Westwood. He's nonetheless found the time to crank up his worthwhile blog: Seven Whole Days. He's consequently inspired me to get back to continuing my virtual quandary of the Christian life here.

I've missed my writing. I find blogging to be a cathartic and contemplative spiritual practice even as I ponder what it means to be a faithful Christian disciple, leader, preacher, and teacher. I infer that Scott+ and I both are interested in seeing that The Episcopal Church and its parishes that we serve and love will not continue to decline in membership and missionary influence in local neighborhoods and across the broader Anglican Communion. C. Kirk Hadaway suggests that there are some factors such as where our parishes are located and the demographic makeup of the neighborhoods where our churches reside that we have little control over as we accomplish the work that God has given us to do in our ministries and programmatic vineyards. (Image by Matt Glover) Nonetheless, as Scott+ points out in his most recent post; there's plenty that we do have a great deal of control and influence over as we "welcome" new and reluctant members to join us in worshipping God and proclaiming Christ's Gospel in innovative and life-giving ways. We can ensure that we indeed welcome guests when they come to visit our churches to worship with us. We can (re)learn how to practice hospitality and the care for newcomers in our midst. Scott+ wrote: "I’m not breaking new ground when I say that most congregations simply aren’t welcoming. Sure, the current members feel welcome, but that’s because they’re already in the club. If you show up as a new face, there’s often a distinct lack of warmth. When I visit congregations, I’m usually not wearing a clerical collar, so I get the same welcome that they’d give any guest. It’s usually not much of a welcome at all." Those are disquieting words but they are indicative of my previous visits to many Episcopal Churches around the country. These communities aren't unusual - it's human nature to form communities that are comfortable and often exclusionary. The truth is though, our parishes and our work as stewards apostolic Anglican stewards will indeed die if we don't embrace a different way of "being church."

I'll be honest. I've been so busy focusing on making sure that my microphone works and the acolytes are vested that I haven't placed as much emphasis on our hospitality as I should. I did do a couple of things yesterday though. I went out to the curb before our 8:00 am services and waved to drivers-by - just to say hello. I almost immediately noticed that someone had written graffiti on our church sign. That event led me to consider whether or not signs on the lawns outside of our churches are value-added. That thought led me to more ponder an even deeper question: What are the living "signs" of a "successful parish. I didn't have to look very far. They are symbolically there on the side of our buildings and inside our chancel. The cross, the altar, and the presence of Christ in communion with us and one another are the visible and "living" signs of who Jesus Christ is calling us to be.

I agree with everything that Scott is writing about in his blog and I think that there is even more for us to consider. We aren't only welcoming people to come and be with us so that our churches don't close and our dioceses decline. We're proclaiming a message that's counter-cultural to the people around us and to ourselves. One of our primary goals is to obediently and humbly follow Christ to the Cross and beyond. We don't live for our own well-being. We live for the benefit and Grace of others and the world that we live in.

Paul in the Second Chapter of Philippians writes: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus," (Philippians 2: 3-5). The Cross is a symbol for our death-defying acts of compassion that we share with our guests. The altar is the symbolic and "real world" place where Christians offer their time, talents, and treasures to their faith community and The Lord they follow and serve. The fact that there are few East-facing and standing altars in Episcopal Churches expresses the fact that our altars are not only about some sort of mysterious consecratory, ritualistic acts. We now welcome younger and older people alike to share in the sacramental and liturgical work that we are doing with one another. Lastly, communion unites us with Christ and one another. Jesus the Christ is present with us every time we meet one another at the altar rail. We are fed there so that we can feed others.

Each and all of these living symbols are the basis for our hospitality and, still more, the reasons for proclaiming the faith that we share with our guests in our parishes as well as in all of the other hospitable work that Jesus Christ is calling us to do.

I will be spending more time thinking, writing (blogging), and preaching about Paul's Letter to the Philippians over the course of the next couple of weeks. I'll get to that right after tending to the graffiti. Truthfully, I'm thinking that the manner in which Paul shared Christ's Gospel with the people of Philippi is still true and "value-added" for us. The Church at Philippi began as a small prayer meeting house and grew over time until it became a large cathedral. Paul's ministry in that place to Gentiles from Italy and Greece thrived over time. It also thrived because there were active gold mines there too. Nonetheless Paul implored the Philippians (and us) to imitate Christ by pouring ourselves and our churches out for the people nearby. That's an alternative yet apostolic message that I believe will resonate with people who are searching for God as well as welcoming opportunities to make a difference in the neighborhoods, suburbs, downtown locations, and rural settings where our Episcopal parishes are established and yet to come into being.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+

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