The Acts 8 Moment is asking: what is the mission of the church-wide structure? Maybe the fact that we call this thing by an unwieldy name like “the church-wide structure” is some sort of clue that we have no idea what this thing is or what it’s supposed to be doing.
Since I have been involved in ministry at the church-wide level, I have noted several things: first, that there is a lot of talk about “mission.” Second, that “mission” means different things to different people, who often talk at cross-purposes, because two people can use the same word to mean completely different things. And third, that we in the Episcopal Church really don’t know what our church-wide structure’s mission is, except that it has some “Marks,” as defined by the Anglican Communion. According to its website, the Five Marks of Mission are:
- To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
The Book of Common Prayer, though, doesn’t talk about any Marks of Mission. Instead, it says the church’s mission is to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ – which, to me, is one of those mission statements that is so broad that it doesn’t give any direction at all.
So let’s look at what some of our leaders have said. The Chief Operating Officer of the DFMS, Bishop Stacy Sauls, recently said that he believes that “the church exists to do two things: to serve the poor and create servants of the poor.”
On the other hand, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently said this about the mission of the church: “First, the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ. Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration.”
I’m going to throw in my lot with Archbishop Welby here. I agree that worshiping God and making disciples of Jesus Christ are the primary missions of the church. Those committed disciples, nourished by Word and Sacrament, are the people who will serve the poor and accomplish all the other Marks of Mission. That’s the way the Great Commission is framed: Jesus tells the disciples to go and make more disciples, teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands, including the commands to serve the poor and to work toward reconciliation. The church must make disciples if it is going to accomplish anything else at all.
But Acts 8’s question wasn’t the mission of the church – the question was the mission of the church-wide structure. If we don’t know its mission, then we risk “mission creep” – letting it move into areas that are properly not its missions. This costs money and can be an unwelcome and inappropriate exercise of power. So we should know the church-wide structure’s missions. This is what I think they are:
- To support dioceses and local congregations in doing the mission of the church; in other words, to support the work of making disciples and putting those disciples to work serving God’s people and accomplishing the other Marks of Mission.
- To make decisions for the welfare of the whole church, including common prayer, clergy and leader discipline, ordination requirements, and so forth. (We do this decision-making in the Episcopal Church through our governance structures, which actually are fairly important structures supporting church-wide mission.)
- To coordinate the church’s relationship with outside groups (including affiliate groups such as ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, and relations with political entities), and to communicate about the church to the world. In this category belongs some work on Mark 4: transforming unjust structures does sometimes call for prominent church-wide voices to speak.
- To provide Spirit-led, strategic leadership in order to inspire dioceses and local congregations to accomplish church mission.
DFMS can support the local church in making disciples in a number of ways. It can provide staff persons who bring people together to share resources, and provide expert support to dioceses and congregations. It can provide funding for strategically important ministries. Most importantly and transformatively, I believe, the church-wide structure can support local mission by doing the fourth thing on my list: providing Spirit-led, inspirational, strategic leadership.
This last item, inspirational leadership, is where I believe the church-wide structure has not done well over the past couple of decades. I am not pointing fingers at any particular leader; rather, I am pointing to the fact that the church has not seemed to be able to focus on any strategic initiatives that would reverse its decline and support the whole church in making disciples. We haven’t planted churches in nearly the number we need; we haven’t made it a priority to reach out to the rapidly growing Latino population; we haven’t focused on ministries with children, youth, and young adults. We have created big concepts like the “Decade of Evangelism,” and then haven’t done anything about them other than agree that they might be good ideas. Leadership takes more than pretty words; it takes strategic focus and action.
We can declare all we want to that numbers don’t mean anything and that all mainline denominations are declining and that our birthrate is lower than other churches’ and that the world is changing and that kids play soccer on Sunday mornings. Those are all fine excuses. None of these assertions changes the fact that our church has not focused in a strategic way on making new disciples. Spirit-led, inspired, strategic leadership could change that. Not by doing the work of making disciples – this happens at the local level, led by Christians who understand their local contexts and are willing to try risky and creative ideas – but by repeatedly, strategically, and inspirationally calling the church’s attention to the vital necessity of doing this risky work.
That’s what I’m missing from our denominational structure – inspirational leadership. Let’s hope the changes coming at the next Convention – from the “restructuring” process to the PB election – focus us on our mission of making disciples and inspire us to start taking serious, strategic steps to accomplish it.