by the Rev. Susan Daughtry, Missioner for Formation
What is a church supposed to be?
Is it supposed to be a place of worship that offers spiritual practice and identity?
A place of refuge from the world?
A base camp for those working for God’s kingdom in their daily lives?
A place of direct response to human need?
As the shape of faith communities continues to change with respect to financial resources, physical plant, and leadership models, we’re forced to grapple with this question. And sometimes there’s a sense of shame about it: “If we had been living the way of Jesus the right way, our church wouldn’t be so small now.” That shame, of course, only gets in the way of listening to how the Holy Spirit is calling us, in this new day, to show up for the Kingdom of God.
Let’s be clear: there is not one right way to be a faith community. There’s so much that depends on identity, context, and assets. The church in Rome was not the same as the church in Ephesus or in Corinth. The church in Ely is not the same as the cathedral in Minneapolis or the school in Faribault. As our bishop-elect Craig Loya said in one of the tour stops, a ‘diverse church ecology’ is a strength, not a weakness, of our network. There’s room for many different approaches and methods of being church.
But there is something all of those models have in common: apprenticing people into the Way of Jesus. You can call it ‘formation’ or ‘discipleship’ if you want – both of those words point to helping people see their lives grafted into God’s story, and making choices with their lives that help them show up for Kingdom of God.
Our worship is a vehicle for that apprenticeship. But so is the coffee hour. And the website, engagement with neighbors, social justice work, pastoral care, small groups, knitting circle, vestry, children’s choir, finance committee, team meeting, and buildings and grounds committee. All of it is discipleship, all of it is formation, all of it is apprenticing people into something. There is a message in your method, whether you intend it or not.
So the question becomes, What is it that all those experiences are teaching? What active (or implied) messages are you communicating and reinforcing? We’ve all heard about experiences in faith communities where the implied message was ‘God loves you as long as you stay in line.’ Or ‘People like us do things like this.’ (An effective marketing tool, but not Good News.)
Neither of those two messages are the Good News of Jesus Christ, which might sound something more like these:
‘You belong, you are beloved, you are called to show up for the Kingdom of God.’
‘The Way of Jesus is about turning, learning, praying, worshipping, blessing, going, resting.’
‘Death is no match for the resurrecting power of God.’
What is the message your faith community communicates about the Way of Jesus? What life are you apprenticing people into? This question is far more important than how you operate – what ministry model you use or what concept of church you’re working in – because this question is the why underneath all of it.
And if it isn’t clear to you – how might you work with others in your faith community to discover it, and make that message less implicit and more explicit?
Some resources you might engage for this work:
- ECMN Convention 2019: What is the Way of Love? https://creatingbelovedcommunity.org/resources/
- More Way of Love resources https://creatingbelovedcommunity.org/way-of-love-learning/
- Evangelism resources https://episcopalchurch.org/evangelism-initiatives
- On-Demand training you can access also includes courses like ‘The Episcopal Way’ with Stephanie Spellers and Eric Law, and the ‘Walk in Love’ series with Melody Shobe and Scott Gunn. Click here to get started: https://ecmn.pathwright.com/library/
This theological work is at the heart of formation, mission, and evangelism. It’s good work for leaders and faith communities at any stage in a congregation’s life cycle, for individuals and families too. What’s the story we tell about God? And how does that drive our choices? What energy, hope, and freedom might we discover in embracing that message?