Sermon for 8.23.15

Scriptures for today are here.

Victor Frankl was a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna – but in 1942, he was arrested, along with most of his family, and sent to a concentration camp. The rest of his family died, but Frankl survived, and in 9 days in 1946, he wrote a book that the Library of Congress in 1991 called one of the 10 most influential books in America: Man’s Search for Meaning. In the book, Frankl wrote about his experiences in the camps and his work counseling other prisoners there.

Frankl concluded that the difference between those who lived and those who died in the camps didn’t have so much to do with their physical condition or the things they suffered: it had to do with whether they had meaning in their lives. Those who believed their lives had meaning and purpose were far more able to bear suffering, had a far greater will to live, than those who didn’t. He told about two people he had counseled in the camps, who in the miserable conditions were both considering suicide. Neither saw much reason to live, because like everyone would be there, they were deeply unhappy.

But Frankl helped them both to see that they had something to live for, a deeper meaning to their lives than what they were suffering right then. One was a scientist and wanted to finish a series of books to help the cause of science. One had a child who had escaped and was living in another country, and wanted to find him after the war. “In both cases,” Frankl wrote, ‘it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in future was expected of them.” Both of those men – and presumably all the prisoners – were deeply unhappy, yet for those who found meaning, there was a reason to live. They survived.

An article in the Atlantic in 2013 talked about this idea of happiness versus meaning. Six out of 10 Americans say they are happy, but 4 out of 10 say they haven’t found a satisfying life purpose. A major psychological study explored this difference. Happiness arises when you are well fed, maybe you are sitting in a comfortable chair, you’re watching a good movie, you have no complaints. Your immediate physical needs are met. Animals can be happy just as much as humans can. So happiness comes from external factors – it’s associated with getting what you want, receiving, taking.

But having meaning and purpose in life, the study found, is associated with giving. And what humans can have that animals don’t have is meaning. The study said: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.”

And ironically, just pursuit of happiness, just spending one’s life making sure you get what you want, makes people in the long-term lead a less happy, less satisfied life. According to the study: “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

For instance, parents of small children aren’t as happy as those without – they get less sleep, they don’t get to eat what they like all the time, they don’t get to go out as much, they have their attention diverted from what they want to be reading or watching or doing to what is good for their kids – endlessly reading Goodnight Moon, for instance. I wonder how many hours I’ve spent reading that book – bored to tears by the book itself, but it was worth it, because to those kids snuggled up in their pajamas, the lesson it taught was not just the book. It was the lesson that I love them, a lesson of infinite value.

And parents of small children unsurprisingly report that despite the inconvenience, they see the children they are pouring themselves into as a big part of their life’s meaning. Raising children is an exercise in giving, not taking.

The study participants in general said they got meaning from sacrificing on behalf of others and being a part of a group. Martin Seligman, one of authors, wrote that in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”

People who have great meaning in life will actively seek out challenges that will bring short-term decreases in happiness – for instance, going on mission trips even though you might be uncomfortable. Having meaning in life brings us joy, as opposed to happiness. Joy means a deep satisfaction that can arise even in the most difficult circumstances. Joy means a person in a concentration camp, or in a hospital, or suffering grief from the death of a loved one, or without enough money to live comfortably, or sacrificing her own comfort for the good of others, has a real sense that her life is worth living, or that he is giving himself to something important.

This difference between meaning and happiness, I think, helps explain what is going on in today’s gospel. Today we finally come to end of Bread of Life story that we’ve been reading for 5 weeks. Remember how it started – Jesus fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. He satisfied their physical needs, he made them happy.

But it turns out that giving happiness is not the reason he has fed them. It turns out that Jesus wants to give them a deeper meaning and purpose: called eternal life, that starts now and goes to eternity. And that that deeper meaning and purpose will involve sacrifice, it will demand giving of themselves, it will require them to open their minds to uncomfortable truths.

Jesus talks about the bread he gives the people as being “bread from heaven,” like manna in the wilderness. Giving manna to feed the people of Israel as they were escaping from slavery in Egypt was not just God’s way of giving happiness, meeting their immediate physical needs. It was God’s way of giving meaning – leading them to freedom. They had to learn to trust God.

But nevertheless, they grumbled, they complained, they failed to trust. They kept yearning for their old lives in slavery, where they weren’t free, but they knew where their next meal was coming from and where they would sleep each night. God didn’t listen to their complaints, but kept on leading them to freedom instead – which is much bigger than happiness.

In the gospel today we find something similar happening. The people around Jesus hear the teaching about Jesus being bread from heaven, they hear him say to eat his flesh and drink his blood. They hear him demand that they begin to live with his essence as part of their very selves, part of the blood running in their veins. They hear him asking them to abide with him, to take him in as a very part of their lives, flesh and blood, body and soul, in a bond of love that can’t be broken. They hear him offering them meaning and purpose – in this life and to eternal life.

And they want to run back to the simple, the predictable, the known. They have the same basic problem the Israelites had – they don’t trust God. When Jesus says to “believe” – he doesn’t mean believe with your head, adopt a set of beliefs, but believe with your heart. It’s like saying to someone, “I believe in you” – you’re not saying I believe you exist, but rather: I believe in what you are doing, I put my trust in you. The kind of belief Jesus wants from us is an “I believe in you “ belief – a willingness to put our hearts on the line, follow where Jesus leads, no matter how difficult or unlikely his words and his promises seem.

Believing in Jesus means doing things that bring meaning to life – sacrificing yourself, giving to others, devoting yourself to a cause that’s bigger than you. It means I believe in you, Jesus, I put my trust in you, or as Peter says, Where else would we go? I am going to follow wherever you lead because you have the words of eternal life. You have the words of love that bring meaning and purpose to my life.

So where is Jesus going to lead us? Well, Jesus sometimes leads in some difficult directions. Jesus isn’t easy to follow. Jesus will sometimes lead us into unjust situations and call on us to change them. Jesus will say astonishing things like, Forgive others as you have been forgiven. Love your enemies. Don’t judge other people, because you might be judged too. Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.

Jesus might give us a mission and ministry that could transform lives. Following Jesus might be difficult. But it could also be amazing, it could be fulfilling, it could change us, from the inside out, and it could change the world.

Which brings us back to Victor Frankl and the search for meaning versus the pursuit of happiness. Where is it that you find meaning in your life? Many of us might say in our family, or our work. But something brought you here this morning – even though you had other options. Maybe something said, God, just give me one more hour of sleep, maybe you wanted to linger over breakfast and the paper, maybe it was hard getting the kids dressed and in the car. But you left behind short-term happiness, and came here in search of meaning.

(Not that you won’t find happiness here! Maybe you’ll hear some beautiful music, maybe you’ll hear an interesting sermon – or maybe not – maybe you’ll see people you enjoy.)

But at heart, I believe that the reason people are part of Christ’s church is because as human beings, we need a deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.

So perhaps you came here wondering how Jesus would feed you today, body and soul; perhaps you came hoping that your children would learn the great truth that Jesus loves them, that lesson of infinite value; perhaps you came looking for whatever healing God might bring; perhaps you came seeking a word Christ might speak into your life; perhaps you came listening for a call from the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps you come here because every now and then, there’s a moment when the blazing presence of God is gloriously apparent, and then it fades, but it brings inexplicable tears to your eyes because you have fleetingly touched the divine. And when that happens, when you hear that call or experience that presence or feel that healing or know that Jesus truly, deeply loves you, and abides in you, then you have the deepest, most meaningful, most true thing to believe in, in the world.

That God, our Christ, our beloved Jesus, has the words of eternal life. And in him, we find our life’s truest meaning and purpose.

Episcopal Resurrection and the 78th General Convention

IMG_1740“We are one together, yo, yo, yo,” we sang in the House of Deputies. Our chaplain, the Rev. Lester Mackenzie of Los Angeles, taught us this chant as part of our prayers, and at times, the song would break out spontaneously.

For me, nothing could describe better the feeling I had throughout this Convention. With a few exceptions, our discussions were courteous and thoughtful, with care given for those who disagreed. We made momentous decisions, on marriage equality, church structure, and evangelism initiatives. We elected a new Presiding Bishop who will be an amazing, inspiring Chief Evangelism Officer for our church. And for my group of friends who worked together on Episcopal Resurrection (friends who first came together around the Acts 8 Moment), the whole experience brought us closer together in friendship and united us in our dedication to God’s mission in the church. We are one together, yo, yo, yo!

For me, the whole experience of Convention was intertwined with my personal experience of Episcopal Resurrection and Acts 8 – a group of folks that I spent this Convention planning, strategizing, and socializing with.

Episcopal Resurrection

Back in April, six friends and I got together in Columbus, Ohio, and talked about what we believed the church needed to accomplish at this Convention. That meeting resulted in A Memorial to the Church, a kind of open letter that launched publicly on Ascension Day. We called on Convention to engage deeply in prayer and discernment about where the church is called to go, to fund evangelism initiatives extravagantly, and to release our hold on old structures and conflicts that do not serve the church well. We invited anyone who was inspired by the Memorial to sign on, and about 500 people did, including 33 bishops.

I believe the Memorial, and the discussion and excitement it generated, helped to set a tone for this Convention. This is the third Convention I have attended as a deputy, and in contrast to the other two, I saw far more focus on Jesus’ call to proclaim the good news this time, and far less focus on conflict.

ER folks

Some of our Episcopal Resurrection friends. though we’re missing a few.

At the bottom of this post, I’ll give a summary of how Episcopal Resurrection’s resolutions did in Convention. Most of them passed, some with enthusiastic support. I think is safe to say that Episcopal Resurrection had a measurable effect on Convention this year. To me, that fact goes to show that our polity in the Episcopal Church truly is democratic. A determined minority of folks who capture others’ attention and imagination can influence the course of the church. We had no church-wide funding (we paid ourselves for our plane tickets to Columbus, our advertising on social media, our buttons and cards, and our meeting rooms for our two gatherings at Convention). We had no official authorization to do the work we did. But we were deputies to Convention, we made proposals, and we made a difference.

There were many inspiring moments at this Convention for me. The election of +Michael Curry as our new Presiding Bishop (and he is going to be a great PB!), his closing sermon, the moment we passed the church planting initiative and the other resolutions I worked with others to draft, the tears of joy shed by many when the marriage equality resolutions passed, and many more moments inspired me.

But of all the amazing moments of this Convention, my favorite, stunning moment was when the budget amendment passed that allowed additional funds for church planting and Latino/Hispanic ministries.

Let’s be clear – this budget amendment did not make some folks happy, including some folks on PB&F. I like and admire the members of PB&F, with whom I worked as the leader of Council’s budget process. But without apology, I will say that I believe that the most vital, essential, strategic move our church can make at this moment in our history is to plant new churches, including among Latinos. We have to do this, and we have to do it now. For too long, our church has been timid, acting as though we believe that we don’t have any particular good news to share. It’s time to break out of that kind of conservatism. It’s time to take a risk for the gospel. It’s time to plant new churches.

Our Episcopal Resurrection group was ecstatic when D005, our church planting resolution, passed both houses. The House of Bishops actually burst into applause when the initiative passed there. But later that same day, we heard that PB&F’s budget proposal (which would be presented in a joint session the next day, and voted on the day after) would have no additional funding for church planting beyond what was in Executive Council’s budget, nor any additional funding for Latino/Hispanic ministries – an area closely allied with church planting, in our view. Immediately, we began to consider what we could do to remedy this neglect of the very areas of ministry that we believed could lead our church into a new era of growth and vitality.

Very soon, we came up with the idea of proposing an amendment to the budget, to be funded by an additional 0.5% draw on the church’s endowment. (The endowment has earned over 8% for a number of years, and we have drawn only 5% per year.) Now, we had all been to Conventions before, and we knew that amendments to PB&F’s budget proposals NEVER pass. NEVER. This proposed budget amendment was a “futile and stupid gesture,” in the immortal words of John Belushi in Animal House. But if a futile and stupid gesture would bring attention to this vital area of ministry, we were willing to do it.

So we started planning, the day before PB&F’s budget came up for a vote. Frank Logue, who served on PB&F, came up with the idea of funding D005 and A086 with an additional 0.5% draw on the endowment, and drafted the proposed amendment. The rest of us carefully planned how we would get to the microphones and propose, and then speak to, the amendment. On the day of the budget debate, many of our group queued in to propose or speak to the amendment. Frank was the first to get to the mike, and proposed the amendment. I was the third speaker, and had the honor of supporting it on the floor. The amendment passed the House of Deputies by a wide margin. Our group sat in amazed disbelief – for the first time in memory, a budget amendment had passed. And that budget amendment was to fund evangelism: church planting and Latino/Hispanic ministries. We were in awe. A new day had come to the church.

Later that same day, folks who were able to attend the budget debate in the House of Bishops kept those of us who were waiting in the House of Deputies informed about what was going on. After several speakers urged fiscal conservatism, bishop after bishop spoke in favor of our proposal. Bishop Hahn of Lexington was reported to have said, “I’d rather not be part of a church with a growing endowment and declining membership.” That sentiment carried the day in the House of Bishops, and our Episcopal Resurrection group rejoiced as texts from the observers there let us know that the amended budget had passed.

As an Executive Council member, and for the past triennium as a member of its Finances for Mission committee, I do have sympathy for those who want to be careful with our resources. And I do have hope that we can find ways to fund the evangelism initiatives without drawing as much from the endowment earnings as we voted to do at Convention. But I have to agree with Bishop Hahn – a growing endowment means little if we aren’t doing the mission Jesus calls us to do. And that mission means going out, doing the scary thing, taking a risk to reach new people and new populations. That mission means evangelism and church planting – and I am grateful to be part of a church that decided to take a risk for the sake of the gospel.

We are one together, yo, yo, yo!

By the way: by all means leave a comment. However, basically the moment I press “publish” on this post, I am leaving for China for a long-anticipated family vacation, and won’t have access to my blog to approve comments till I return. If your comment doesn’t appear for a while, that’s why. 

Footnote: How did the Episcopal Resurrection Proposals Do? Here’s a summary of how our proposals ended up. I think it’s safe to say that Episcopal Resurrection changed the conversation at Convention in a number of ways – around evangelism, and around the structure conversation.

The Memorial: Was commended to Convention, and all bishops and deputies were urged to share it with their communities and congregations, in resolution A179. I believe the Memorial had an effect far beyond A179, however; it helped set the tone for a Convention that would vote to include evangelism initiatives in the budget.

We also drafted nine resolutions for Convention, and signed on to a tenth. Here is the scorecard on how our resolutions did. (Note: you can see our original proposals here, and you can see the final proposals that were passed here.)

ER resolutions

D005: Creating a Capacity to Plant Churches: This is a very bold and strategic initiative, not only to provide grants for church planting, but also to train church planting leaders, including lay and ordained leaders for Latino/Hispanic church plants. This initiative passed with enthusiastic support in both houses – the House of Bishops reportedly broke into applause when it passed. It was NOT funded in PB&F’s proposed budget, but with some legislative work, our Episcopal Resurrection group managed to propose and get passed a $2.8 million addition to the budget that will help fund D005 and also A086, a resolution on Latino/Hispanic ministries. In addition, the Development Office is asked to raise money for this initiative.

D009: Revitalization of Congregations: This resolution also passed both houses with wide support, but it received no funding. However, the resolution still calls on the Development Office to raise money to fund this initiative, so it may yet see the light of day.

B009: Conducting an Online Digital Evangelism Test: This resolution passed with wide support, especially on The Twitters. It also received significant funding. Watch for the Episcopal Church to start developing a much stronger social media presence, including ways to connect with people who are searching online for answers to life’s questions, and helping connect them with local communities of faith.

D007: Permit Dioceses to Explore Shared Ministry and Collaboration: Passed. This resolution loosens up the requirements for dioceses to have separate Commissions on Ministry so that they can explore ways of sharing resources. Our original resolution allowed a diocesan bishop to reside outside his/her diocese if the bishop living in another diocese where he/she also serves, but this provision was struck.

D003: Amend Article V of the Constitution: Passed. This is the first reading of a constitutional amendment, which must be approved at two consecutive General Conventions to become effective. This provision allows two dioceses to merge when one is without a diocesan bishop – the precise time that may be most attractive for a merger.

D004: Create a Task Force to Study Episcopal Elections: Passed. Apparently there was some anxiety in some places about whether this task force would impose church-approved candidates on dioceses. That was certainly not our intent. While the hope for more diversity in the House of Bishops was the part of this resolution that received the most attention, we also hoped that a set of best practices would be created that would be electronically available, to help bishop search processes become more transparent. The next question is whether the funding allocated to this task force by Executive Council (out of Convention’s total budget for CCABs) will be adequate to the task.

D008: Amend Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution: Passed. This is the first reading of a constitutional change. If passed on the second reading, it would allow the two houses of General Convention to hold joint sessions and deliberate and vote together. While TREC proposed an immediate move to a unicameral Convention, this intermediate step allows us more flexibility to experiment with joint sessions and see how we like them.

D013: Budget Process for the Episcopal Church: Passed with some significant modifications. Our proposal clarified the budget process so the canons conform to actual practice (we haven’t actually followed our canons on the budget in years). We made the diocesan “asking” into a mandatory assessment, with waivers to be granted by Executive Council for dioceses that cannot pay the full amount; this provision becomes effective in 2019. Thank God for this change, which I believe will contribute greatly to the spiritual health of the church, as all dioceses participate equally in paying their fair share. My hope is that the assessment could even fall below 15% as this provision takes effect.

The most significant change to our original resolution was that we proposed that the President of the House of Deputies should receive a salary, a proposal that seemed self-evident to us since it is a full-time, unpaid position. Keeping it as an unpaid position means that only independently wealthy or retired people can serve, and as the Bible says, the laborer deserves her/his pay.

However, this provision caused significant controversy in the House of Bishops, which reportedly complained about the increasing scope of the PHoD position (apparently without irony, given the corresponding increasing scope of the Presiding Bishop position). This sniping at the PHoD by the bishops seemed petty and mean-spirited to many deputies. The people in the purple shirts would not dream of working for no pay – why would they demand it of others? In the end, after significant work by a conference committee (the first since 1997), the two houses compromised on this issue by agreeing to form a task force to explore issues of leadership and compensation for the PHoD. The whole conflict seemed indicative of the deep divide that has opened between bishops and deputies over the last several years. I hope that over the next three years, reconciliation will come, and  the full scope of the PHoD’s position will be recognized and honored. And I certainly hope that we can build trust and work together productively – after all, in God’s kingdom, we are all on the same team.

D010: Clarify Officers of the Episcopal Church: Discharged, but some provisions from this proposal were folded into A004, which clarified the roles of the Presiding Officers, Executive Council, and staff. One of Episcopal Resurrection’s contributions to A004 was to propose the position of Chief Legal Officer. Resolution A004 was the subject of some intense debate and compromise, but in the end, it passed both houses.

D011: Eliminate Provinces: Substitute resolution passed. Our original resolution, which would have eliminated provinces altogether, was re-written to establish a task force to study provinces and report back to the next General Convention with ideas for what might take their place if they were eliminated. On the Governance & Structure committee, on which I served, testimony on the provinces resolution clearly fell along age lines. Older folks testified to the meaningful contributions of provinces and the networks they support; younger folks wondered why networks should be organized geographically and involve required governance structures, when electronic communications make organizing along interest lines much easier. As I listened to the testimony, it became evident to me that though the time for eliminating provinces may not be now, that time is coming. And the networks we form in the future will be right for that time, just as the Provinces were the right networks for their time.

Overall Episcopal Resurrection scorecard: 6 resolutions passed essentially unchanged; 2 resolutions passed with modifications; one resolution discharged, but with significant provisions combined into another resolution; one resolution caused intense conversation and was referred to a study committee. One Memorial changed the conversation around the church. A pretty good record, overall.

Gilton & Michie: Realities of Church Planting

This is a guest post by Michael Gilton and Mike Michie, church planters in the Diocese of Dallas. Michael Gilton recently wrote a guest post about myths of church planting – now here are the realities. 

images In response to proposed General Convention legislation supporting church planting in The Episcopal Church, Frank Logue and Ken Howard recently posted excellent articles on myths and truths about church planting. Hopefully church planting will gain greater priority and visibility in The Episcopal Church.

Now, you may be thinking, “I want some of that; I want to plant a church.” Great! TEC desperately needs more church planters. So, to prepare those considering planting, I (Michael Gilton) grabbed friend and fellow-planter, the incomparable Mike Michie, and we generated “ten realities” of church planting. These realities come from our over nineteen combined years of experience as church planters, so we have stories, laughter and scars, and, of course, data behind them all.

Holler at either of us if you want to hear more:

Michael Gilton, founding planter and Vicar, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Prosper, Texas; michael@stpaulsprosper.org.

Mike Michie, founding planter and Rector, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, McKinney, Texas; mikem@standrewsonline.net.

Reality #1 – Church planting is hard. Sure, all jobs are hard (unless you are the third string quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys), but church planting brings a unique set of challenges, and if you aren’t prepared for those challenges, planting a church will crush you. So, think twice (or three times) about your skills and gifts and calling before planting a church.

Reality #2 – Church planting is simple. The basic formula for a successful church plant isn’t that complex: get the right planter, assemble a good team, work hard and go for it. Much of our success has been grounded on the simple tasks of preaching the Gospel and loving people when they show up (and even when they don’t!). Don’t be afraid to step out in faith and start a new work, especially in an area where you discern God is already in motion.

Reality #3 – Church planting is unbelievably rewarding. The blessing of seeing God at work, taking a small group of faithful pioneers and growing them into a Body that is transforming the mission field in the name of Christ; is unique, humbling, and profoundly inspiring.

Reality #4 – You can’t plant a church alone. You’ll hurt yourself trying. Thankfully, you never have to. You have the support of those on the launch team, sure; and you also have support from your family, clergy colleagues and Diocese; but you have to seek out that support and accept it. If you prefer to work alone or are naturally reticent to ask for help, do yourself and your family a favor: don’t try to plant a church.

Reality #5 – You will see the miraculous. We’re convinced the Lord gives a double portion of miracles to keep church planters going. Why? Otherwise, you’d quit. Expect miracles and keep your eyes open for them.

Reality #6 – You will want to quit. You will. Which is why you need others supporting you and why you need to keep looking for confirmation that God is at working building his church.

Reality #7 – It’s all in the family. There’s no getting around the fact that others will expect your family to be involved in the plant. Your family will share in the blessings and challenges of planting, so guard your family and pray for them daily. And do not neglect them – they need pastoral care as much or more than you do.

Reality #8 – Church planting costs a lot of money. It does. Which means you need to be comfortable talking about money and understanding basic financial information. If money makes you timid and the word “budget” gives you hives, then planting is going to be very difficult for you.

Reality #9 – You can’t be afraid to ask. You’ll have to ask people to join your launch team, you’ll have to ask your launch team to join the vision, you’ll have to ask people to support you financially, and you’ll have to ask people to support you in many, many other ways. Again, if the idea of asking make you break out into a cold sweat, you should reconsider planting.

Reality #10 – Preaching brings them in and keeps them. Your ability to preach the Good News of God in Christ will be a primary draw. Your members will invite others to “come hear our preacher.” Those who join your church will say, more often than not, we joined because of the preaching. No amount of great music or inspiring visuals or technology will take the place of preaching Christ and him crucified.

Fact or Fiction: Michael Gilton on Church Planting

The Rev. Michael Gilton, church planter and priest at St. Paul’s, Prosper, Texas (Diocese of Dallas), recently made some comments about church planting on my Facebook page. Since he doesn’t have a blog (and since, gentle reader, you know that I am interested in church planting), I asked him to expand on his comments for a post on my blog. So here is a guest post from Michael Gilton, offered with my thanks!

Frank Logue recently posted an excellent article sharing his take on myths and truths about church planting. Ken Howard helpfully added on to these with more myths and facts (here and here). As I was reading through Ken’s list I found myself cheering him on: Preach it brother!

Being who I am, I also shared with my computer screen, “Data, we need more data to establish the fact of these assertions!”

(full disclosure: I’m a numbers geek, and I do talk like that. For those concerned, no, my computer screen never answers back).

So, using the church plant I lead (St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Prosper, Texas), I offer the following in support of Fr. Howard’s facts:

Fact 1: Church plants tend to show more vitality than other churches – ASA has settled in reliably at 67% of membership. I believe the national average is around 30%.

Fact 2: Church plants tend to be more effective at outreach – 80% of our first time visitors return for a second visit. 50% of our membership is “de-churched” people.

Fact 3 : Church plants tend to be more effective in reaching newcomers to church life– 85% of our adults are “active” in one or more ministries.

Fact 4: Church plants tend to more effective reach younger people – our average age is 30, younger than the surrounding mission field. This is mainly because we have a lot of children.

Fact 5: Church plants are more likely to reach more non-Whites and non-Anglos  – While we look like our mission field, we’re “very white.” We’ve done a poor job of reaching African Americans. We’re decent with reaching Latinos.

Fact 6: Church plants are more likely to grow – Our ASA is steadily 1% of the population of our mission field. As our Town has grown, so have we. Based on a simple survey of eight other parishes in our Diocese, the average attendance of established parishes is 0.35% of their mission field.

Fact 7: Church plants may be the only strategy with the growth capacity to reverse the decline in TEC membership – I disagree with this fact (you knew I’d argue with at least one). I’m a “both/and” kinda guy, with strong optimism of TEC’s future, so I resist the word “only.”

Fact 8: Church plants are good for their dioceses – I don’t have much evidence in this area. Our diocese has a good mix of planters and missionally minded leaders of established parishes. For what it’s worth, our four clergy deputies to General Convention are all church planters.

Fact 9: Church plants are good for the established churches around them – The seven churches in our geographic area are all growing at a rate greater than the area’s population growth. Of the seven churches, three are plants.

Fact 10: Church plants are good for the established churches that plant them – Would that there were more established churches willing to plant churches! Our plant was support by the diocese and two other church plants. I’m not sure we could have done what we did without the support of the other two plants, both of which gave money, missional and theological support, administrative support, and people; and both of which are growing.

Fact 11: Church plants tend to be more nimble and adaptable to change – Change or die! The list of what we’ve tried and failed and tried again is long. Four example, we’re on our fifth version of our process of bringing visitors into membership. We can’t find the perfect process, but each of our iterations is better than the pervious version.

Fact 12: Church plants tend to be more vision guided, mission focused, and purpose driven –Without strong vision and a crystal clear focus on the mission field, churches are unlikely to grow. Church plants start with vision and know only mission; they grow because vision are mission are not after thoughts, vision and mission are essentials.

Fact 13: Church plants tend to be more context sensitive and context responsive – Any missional church is both. The church plants in our area are leaders in outreach to local schools and in direct ministry to “the least of these.”

Fact 14: Church plants are more risky but also more rewarding – In our mission field, seven other churches (Baptist, non-denomination, Pentecostal, Disciples of Christ) were planted after ours. Of the eight, four remain. To God be the glory; hallelujah!

Holler if you want to chat about any of these or about the stunning things the Lord is doing through church planting in the Diocese of Dallas.

michael@stpaulsprosper.org

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2015

At St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nogales, AZ, once a month, miracles happen. Once a month, the church hosts the St. Andrew’s Children’s Clinic, where American doctors and nurses and health care professionals of all kinds come and give free medical care to handicapped children from Mexico. These children are the poorest of the poor, unable to afford the kind of lifesaving treatments that could give them new hope. But once a month they get a day pass to come into the US, their families come with them, and they get the care they need.

On the one day a month when this happens, the whole church is set up as a clinic. In the sanctuary there are pediatricians, in the narthex are physical and occupational therapists. In the chapel are teachers for visually impaired kids. In a mobile home out back is a clinic for hearing-impaired kids. In the sacristy they have clinics set up for prosthetic limbs and orthopedic shoes.

Every square inch of the church is converted to a medical clinic, and it takes an army of people to run it – people to set up and take down all the equipment, people to give the medical care, people to donate supplies, people to interpret, people to make lunch for all the workers.

And they see miracles – oh, they see miracles. I’ve gone there several times with our youth group and others, and the first time, I heard a story from Deacon Mike Meyers. His day job is as the owner of an orthopedic shoe store. Someone invited him to come down and see the clinic, so he brought some shoes along and went. So he was set up in the sacristy, and a family wheeled a little girl in, in a wheelchair. He looked at her, said, I think I have some shoes that will fit you, he put them on her. He felt her toes, and said, yes, I think those fit you. Now stand up and let’s see. She stood up, and he said, that’s good, now walk a couple of steps and we’ll check the fit. She walked a couple of steps, and he said, yes, I think those shoes will do.

And then he looked up and realized that everyone in the room was crying. That little girl had never walked before.

It was a miracle – God’s love in action – the simple gifts of a variety of people made that miracle happen. It wasn’t a supernatural miracle (though I have seen supernatural miracles), it was the church in action.

And when you think about it, that miracle was way bigger than Mike Meyers. It took all those folks to make this miracle happen – the cooks, the setup crew, the church, the people who raise the money, people who serve on the board. And more than that, it took the family of this little girl, who never gave up, who made the difficult and harrowing trip each month to get her the care she needed. And it took the little girl herself, who accepted a gift and had the courage to willingly try what she had never tried before. Every single person in that story was an agent of God’s kingdom, working together to give their different gifts, coming together as one to make God’s love manifest in this world by making a miracle happen. All had different roles, all had different gifts to give – and because of them all, a little girl learned to walk, and you and I are here to know about it and file it away and remember that God is truly present here on this earth with us.

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the church contemplates the mystery of Holy Trinity – God who has revealed self to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You may wonder what that has to do with the clinic in Nogales – well, we’ll get to that.

Now if you’re like me, this is a doctrine you don’t, can’t possibly understand. It takes a lot of very careful language to understand the Trinity, and even then we can only come close. If you want to see the best explanation, you can look at the Athanasian Creed on page 864 of the prayer book. But if you come away from reading it telling me that you have a complete understanding of the Trinity, I won’t believe you. None of us humans, with our finite minds, can understand the infinite. How can something be one in three and three in one? People have tried many different ways to understand it, and have offered lots of bad analogies: like the idea of water, that could appear as ice or liquid or steam, but it’s all still water. Or the idea that I’m one person, but some people see me as a priest and two people see me as a mother and one person sees me as a wife, but I’m still the same person, just taking on different roles. Let’s be clear – those are not good analogies – those are both just examples of the same thing appearing in three different ways, as if God just goes around doing things and we give him a different name depending on what hat he happens to be wearing.

But the mystery of the Trinity is that it’s not about one-ness; it’s about three-ness, about diversity. But it’s also not just about diversity and three-ness; it’s also about unity and oneness. The doctrine of Trinity says there are three distinct persons in the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but they are one in substance, one in will. How can this make sense?

rublev-trinity2To give it a little context, let’s look at the beautiful picture on the screen – one of the most famous icons in Christian tradition – Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity. In this illustration, you see them at a table together, three persons who are distinct from each other, dressed differently, but you can’t really tell them apart, can’t imagine that one is more important than others; they are all distinct but equal. They’re neither male nor female – they’re either, or both. They sit at the table and look at each other with gazes of love – each one looking at another, no duo any stronger than any other – all three love each other intensely.

This illustration tells us something important about the Trinity: it tells us that God is a community of love. If there were only one figure, this would not be a picture of love. If there were two figures, this might be a picture of a relationship, but a relationship that no one else could participate in. Because there are three figures, you can see that they love each other, equally, and their love binds them together as a unity out of diversity.

With me so far? Here’s why this is important.

We say that God is love. But love is not an abstraction. There is no such thing as love that just floats around in the air without someone doing the loving and someone being loved. Love is active, love is specific, love is not a feeling but an exercise of the will, love is a decision to care about someone so intensely you will do anything for them. Love requires a Lover and a Beloved. Without persons loving, there is no love. Because there are three figures here, love flows between them.

What I’m describing to you is the Social Doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine championed by great contemporary theologians like Juergen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf. It tries to explain not what the Trinity is, but why it matters to us.

To me, the Social Doctrine of the Trinity tells me why Trinity is not an abstraction, but actually incredibly important to us as Christians and as human beings. What’s important is that God encompasses a community of pure love.

If you’re going to make the argument that God is Love, that means that from before time began, there was a community in God, a community of Lovers and those Beloved. But not a community of three Gods; a community of three persons united in substance and will so that the love that flows between them is perfect, eternal. When we say that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, we are saying that Jesus the Son was born out of love, that he existed from before time because God is Love; and when we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, we are saying that the love of God is more than a duality of mutual admiration; the love of God is a community of love. It is love that respects the individuality of each person at this table in this icon, but it is love that binds them together in a unity of will, a unity of substance.

Here’s what else is important about that. Take another look at the icon. There are three persons sitting around a four-sided table. There is room at the table for one more. In this picture, the open side is our side. We are standing here, this table open to us, receiving an invitation to join the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at their table of perfect community, perfect love. This community of love that exists within the heart of God encompasses us too. In fact, Christian theology says that because God is love, God is entirely love, that creation happened because God’s love spilled over. God created us and this world and the planets and the stars out of an excess of love, and the love that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is so big that it can’t be contained within them – it extends to us too.

God can’t help but love us, God can’t help but invite us to this table, God yearns for us to be part of that community of love, that’s why Jesus came to find us when we were lost and bring us home, that’s why the Holy Spirit is still present and active in this church, that’s why we are adopted as God’s children through the sacrament of Holy Baptism that gives us new birth from above; it is all because of God’s eternal love.

And one more thing. Because God is a unity of love out of a community of diversity, that’s what we are called to be too. We are made in the image of God, and that means we are made for relationship, we are made for love. When Jesus commanded us to love God and love our neighbors, he wasn’t just imposing new rules on us. He was saying, be who you are created to be. Become who you are.

We are born out of love and we are brought together in love, and as a church we too are called to be a unity born out of diversity. We are called to respect and honor each other’s differences – that’s our diversity. At the same time that we exist because of, and for the sake of love. That’s our unity.

That clinic in Nogales, where one day a miracle of love became manifest? That miracle was born out of a community of diverse talents and gifts. Doctors, accountants, cooks, shoe store owners, interpreters, people who do setup and take down – every single member of that community was valued and essential – every single member of that community helped that miracle of love become manifest. Out of that community, love was created. Out of that community, love was given to one little girl, to the glory of God.

That is the church in action. Because we are made in the image of God, that is who we are called to be: a community of love, honoring each other, calling forth the best in each other, joining together in a unity of mission, bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit, unity in diversity, the many coming together as one. We are a Trinitarian community, going forth in mission, and reflecting the love that is the deepest truth and the eternal reality of the heart of God.

Treasure to Share: Why Plant New Churches?

Why should we plant churches? One of the most important resolutions proposed by Episcopal Resurrection, of which I am one of the authors, is an ambitious vision for planting new Episcopal churches. Adam Trambley has written a careful blog post outlining the vision behind this resolution – please go and read it.

If we are going to make a priority of planting churches, I believe that this is exactly the kind of large vision (and funding) we need. Diocesan resources and expertise aren’t sufficient – we are going to need to band together church-wide and make it happen.

God Gave the Growth full rgb 2 copy (1)But why should it happen? Why should we be planting churches at all? Don’t we have plenty of unused capacity in churches that are already in existence? Isn’t it more efficient to fill up the churches we have than to start new ones?

Well, no. Not really. Below, I’ll give you the seven best reasons to start new churches, based on the research I did for my upcoming book, God Gave the Growth: Church Planting in the Episcopal Church (you can find more details on these arguments there; it will be published in June 2015).

  1. Planting new churches is one of the best ways to reach new people with the good news of the gospel, because new churches are more likely to grow.

I don’t have to tell you that the Episcopal Church is in steep decline. From 1965 to 2012, the US population increased by a whopping 62%, while the numerical membership of TEC decreased by 39%. (TEC figures provided by Kirk Hadaway, TEC Director of Research; US figures found here.) The decline is bad enough in sheer numbers, but as a percentage of the population, our decline is staggering. TEC fell from 1.6% to a minuscule 0.6%, a 63% decline, over the same period.

The Episcopal Church is utterly failing at fishing for people.

Planting new churches is the best way I know of, not just to reverse this decline, but to answer Jesus’ call in the Great Commission to go and make disciples. How do I know this? Let’s do the numbers.

Based on figures Kirk Hadaway, the Director of Research at the Church Center, provided me, between 2000 and 2008, across TEC, we planted 99 new churches. (Two notes: first, that’s a terribly low number, especially since we closed 432 churches during the same period. Second, statistics actually showed 119 new churches during that time, but I have excluded churches planted or re-formed due to the sexuality conflict – I am considering only truly “new” churches.)

Of those 99 churches planted, 69 were still open in 2012, a 70% success rate over four or more years. The old trope that most new churches fail is absolutely not true. In fact, Episcopal churches have a far better chance of success than nondenominational churches, precisely because of the diocesan and denominational support (financial, leadership, training, prayer, and otherwise) that we provide.

Of those 69 new churches still open, average Sunday attendance in 2012 was 95 people, compared to ASA across the whole church of 65 people. In other words, newer churches were 48% larger, despite having much less time in which to grow, and in most cases, far fewer financial, building, and staff resources. The ten largest church plants from 2000 to 2008 (including my own church plant, Church of the Nativity, #10 on the list) had 2012 average attendance of 359 people.

In a publication on the Episcopal Church’s website, Hadaway discusses factors associated with church growth, and concluded that newer churches are more likely to be growing churches: 54% of churches founded between 1996-2009 were growing, vs. 17% of those founded before 1900.

If we want to reach many new people with the gospel through our beautiful Episcopal Church, one huge and necessary strategy is to take some risks and plant some churches.

  1. A new church is mission-focused.

People who plant new churches absolutely must ask questions of mission and purpose in order to survive. There can be no complacency in a new church. Craig van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile write:

It is often observed that starting new congregations with a missional imagination and posture is easier than reorienting existing ones. This is so in part because the process of planting a new church is inherently missiological and open ended. Leaders of new congregations must ask the key missional questions of identity and purpose that existing congregations often take for granted. These congregations must engage with those outside their doors in order to grow and thrive…. New missional congregations keep at the forefront of their minds and hearts the question of how they can give the gospel as well as their gifts to the community. (Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 161.)

Having a strong mission and purpose is strongly associated with growth, according to a research report on the Episcopal Church website.

  1. A new church can respond to population shifts.

In Stephen C. Compton’s book, Rekindling the Mainline: New Life Through New Churches (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2003), vii, he points out that mainline denominations’ major growth spurt in the 1950s and 1960s coincided with a large population shift from rural to urban areas. The denominations responded strategically with a corresponding surge in planting new churches in the areas people were moving to. That’s a big reason why they grew rapidly back then.

Population shifts are still happening today, without corresponding strategic moves. We need strategic action. New churches can and should locate in growing areas. New churches can also be planted to reach out to new demographic populations: new language and socioeconomic groups that are not TEC’s traditional strong points. We especially need to take immediate strategic action to plant Latino/Hispanic churches – that population is booming with growth, and our proposal includes significant money to create a training program for lay and clergy leaders for Latino/Hispanic ministries. In the Episcopal Church, only 18% of predominantly White congregations are growing; 43% of Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or Multi-racial congregations are growing. New churches can be strategically planned and located to reach these new folks.

  1. A new church can respond to generational shifts.

The Episcopal Church is much older on average than the US population as a whole. New churches can try new ways of reaching young adults and youth. The kind of gatherings that appeal to Baby Boomers may not be the same as those that appeal to Millennials (in fact, the Millennials may be much more traditional). New churches have the flexibility to try innovative ways to reach new populations.

  1. A new church can try new things.

Change is hard in an established church. A new church doesn’t have that problem – in a new church, you make it up as you go along. That means you can try all kinds of innovative experiments to reach the people in your neighborhood. This willingness to change is strongly associated with growth, according to Hadaway’s statistics.

  1. New churches benefit existing churches.

Established churches often oppose nearby church plants, and can be among the biggest barriers to new churches’ survival. But studies have shown that a new church in a community does not harm existing churches. In fact, new churches trying new things can actually serve as the “R&D Department” of the whole denomination. Established churches can learn from the experiments that succeed, and those that fail, in new churches.

  1. New churches are in a different part of the church life cycle.

Stephen Compton describes the life cycle of churches in five stages: Birth, Vitality, Equilibrium, Decline, and Death, and shows that most of a church’s growth happens during the Birth and Vitality stages, roughly the first ten to fifteen years of its existence. After that, a church can stay in Equilibrium for a very long time, maintaining roughly the same numbers, before it starts to decline. If we want to reverse decline in the Episcopal Church, we need to have far more churches in the Birth and Vitality stages than we have in the Decline and Death stages. That means planting new churches.

Mind you, planting new churches is not ultimately about reversing the institutional decline of the Episcopal Church. Jesus didn’t die so that the American landscape would be plastered with Episcopal Churches, lovely though they are. But Jesus did die – and was raised – and commissioned his disciples to share the good news of his resurrection and the kingdom of God with all nations. We are commanded by Jesus to share the treasure of the gospel with others. We can’t hoard this treasure – it is meant to be shared. That means, yes, revitalizing the congregations we have. And it means planting new ones, to reach new people with the love of Jesus Christ.

Pray a New Church into Being

church_plantingIf you were at General Convention 2012, you probably vividly remember the moment when the legislation to create the Taskforce to Re-imagine the Church passed the House of Deputies unanimously, and we all stood and sang, “Sing a New Church into Being.” Full of hope, we were looking toward a reborn Episcopal Church.

But each of us probably had different ideas about what that new church would look like. Somewhere in our hearts, we all knew that just restructuring our ways of organizing ourselves church-wide wouldn’t be enough. We needed a reawakening. We needed to rededicate ourselves to evangelism and mission. We needed to come to a new understanding of how to reach out to new people and new age and ethnic groups. We needed to leave tired conflicts and structures behind, and find better ways to answer God’s call in the twenty-first century.

Given all these hopes and needs, it was inevitable that TREC would disappoint. I’ve blogged about my mixed reaction to their proposals (here, here and here). Their prologue was inspiring and right on target, calling us to follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly. Terrific! But I and others have had mixed reactions to their specific recommendations. And I’ve been disappointed about what I believe was missing from their recommendations:

  • A concrete, achievable proposal for church planting, congregational revitalization, and evangelism;
  • A vision for what the church-wide structure is supposed to accomplish;
  • A mission statement for our staff, including its size and composition;
  • A vision for how we should spend our money and what kind of “headquarters” building we need, if any;
  • A way to structure ourselves in order to help heal factional rivalries and bring us together on the same team.

Well and good. Those things may be missing, but it was probably unrealistic ever to expect TREC to do everything – and there are many of us ready to take up the call and work on these priorities that remain before us.

That’s why I’ve been working with a group of friends – Scott Gunn, Tom Ferguson, Frank Logue, Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, Steve Pankey, and Adam Trambley – to write a Memorial to the Church. What’s a Memorial? It’s a letter to General Convention, calling the church to some broad actions. We believe that our Memorial names some of the larger issues that are posing challenges to the Episcopal Church today, and proposes concrete ways that our church can address them together.

You can find the Memorial here. If you like it, you can join as a signer by following the instructions given – and you can share it on social media or discuss it on your blog, too.

We’ve also proposed a set of resolutions – both about church revitalization and about church restructuring. We believe that these resolutions address some of the elements missing from the TREC report, and make the concrete proposals we’ve been needing to make. You can find the resolutions here. You don’t have to agree with the resolutions to sign onto the Memorial, of course.

It’s a movement we’d like to see grow – a movement that we’d like to see every Episcopalian get involved in, individually and as part of the wider church.

Together, we can sing, pray, worship, work, and love a new church into being.

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