I have been an ordained minister for more than forty years. I have actually been ordained three times in three different theological communions: first as a Baptist in 1970, then as a Mennonite in 1982, and finally (and I do mean finally) as an Anglican priest just over a year ago.
As a minister in three communions who has served in a variety of ministry settings and in several different ministry roles (as a pastor, a broadcaster, a parachurch executive, and a college professor), I’ve seen it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly of evangelical church life in America. In fact, I have very few colleagues in ministry whose experiences within and among the American evangelical community are as varied and touch as many different traditions as mine. There are both assets and liabilities associated with that, but they are not the subject of this post.
What is the point of this post? I’m glad you asked.
My wife is away for a week or so, visiting her family in another state, and on those rare occasions when we are separated for more than a day or two at a time, in addition to missing her like crazy, I always seem to wax nostalgic and spend some time thinking back over the course of our life together.
I am writing this on a Sunday evening, at the cIose of a day in which I preached in the worship service of the church we attend, sat in on a meeting of the church’s leadership team in the afternoon, then came home and fell asleep while nursing a pounding headache (altogether unrelated to the earlier events of the day… I think). All of those elements have contributed to the direction my thoughts are taking me tonight as I reflect on where God has brought me after four decades of vocational Christian ministry.
I am a teacher. That is my primary ministry gift. As a pastor, my preaching ministry was marked by a distinctive teaching style. As a broadcaster and a parachurch exec, much of my ministry consisted of carefully prepared public presentations in which I was explaining something or advocating on behalf of something or issuing some sort of challenge—and all of this made use of my strengths as a teacher and communicator.
I am also an introvert. When I was in seminary, my faculty advisor looked at the results of some personality type-indicator test I had taken, sort of shook his head a bit, looked at me over the top of his glasses, and said, “Hmmm. An introvert in an extravert’s job.”
“Should I look for another line of work?” I asked. (Of course he knew I had no intention of forsaking my very clear call to vocational ministry.) “Not at all,” he replied. “Just be prepared for the toll that your ministry will take—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” He was right.
Because I am an introvert, and because I have gifts that are more suited to a classroom or some other context where the environment is conducive to thoughtful interaction without a lot of fanfare or excitement, I have never looked seriously at a ministry like church planting, which, I have always believed, requires a more outgoing, aggressive personality than mine and involves the use of entrepreneurial gifts which I don’t possess.
Ever so slowly, however, I am observing an evolution in my thinking and my perception of my own gifts as well as the possible shape of the final chapter of my active ministry.
Much of this new thinking is the product of simply facing reality. I am entering the Anglican priesthood at the very moment that the orthodox Anglican communion with which I am identifying is coming into existence. While the leadership of the Anglican Church in North America wants to highlight the proactive character of its mission, and rightly so, it cannot be denied that most of the parishes which comprise the new communion were formerly associated with the Episcopal Church.
I applaud the courage and fortitude which leaders at every level have shown as they have undertaken this necessary, but often gut-wrenching, act of conscience. I fully support and endorse the vision and program of the ACNA. Among the consequences of this decision, however, is the unavoidable reality that numerous parishes have been forced to abandon buildings they had paid for and assume new financial obligations which are made more substantial by the fact that, in the move from TEC to ACNA, most parishes retained all their clergy but not all their members. So the heavy costs are being borne by a smaller giving base. Thus, the hard fact is that there are almost no opportunities for ministry in established parishes to which people like me, new to the communion and with gifts not traditionally associated with church planting, can be called.
So far as the future health and vitality of the new communion is concerned, this is not a bad thing at all. Christianity has always thrived under pressure. It has been said, in fact, that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” Evangelical Christianity, especially, is marked by a pioneering spirit that flourishes when it is required to face new challenges, break new ground, blaze new trails, or move into uncharted territory (pick the analogy you prefer).
That’s precisely where orthodox Anglicanism is at the moment. Mainline churches in the liturgical tradition are in steep decline. As painful as the experience of separation has been for ACNA, the liturgical tradition in the United States and Canada has actually been given an opportunity for spiritual renewal. The rich heritage of this communion proved irresistible to me, and I believe it can do the same for many others.
This post was sparked by an email from the rector of the church I am currently attending. In it he forwarded an email he had received from the pastor of one of the largest evangelical churches in central Ohio, if not the nation. The subject was church planting. The association of churches to which that large super-church belongs comprises about 550 congregations nationwide. That group of churches has taken up the challenge of establishing 750 new churches within the next decade.
In order to reach their goal, the national leadership of that association of churches is calling on each of their current member churches to assume a portion of the responsibility, commensurate with their size and setting. The large local church in our community has taken upon itself the task of planting twenty new churches as its contribution to the overall goal. They are marshalling resources, both human and material, and unapologetically calling for the kind of commitment and sacrifice that a venture of that magnitude will require. I applaud their zeal, and I wish them well in that endeavor.
The vision for church planting which is energizing this network of churches is not simply a desire to increase their numbers or enlarge their influence. Their vision was prompted by facing some disheartening, even disturbing, facts about the state of Christian faith in contemporary America. Here is a quote from this prominent church leader’s email.
It may seem odd, at first glance, to spend much time or money planting new churches in the U.S. when it seems to the casual observer that “there is a church on every street corner in America.” But when one scratches below the surface, one discovers some very troubling trends in American church life. Four out of five churches are either plateaued or are in steep decline. Put another way, research reveals that 80-85% of churches in America are on the down-side of the growth cycle, moving from plateau to decline to death.
The decline is particularly steep among Anglo-Roman Catholics and among mainline Protestants. Research demonstrates that just about the only thing that is keeping Roman Catholicism afloat in America right now is the massive influx of Latino Catholics. In terms of actual people in the pews, the Catholic Church has lost roughly one-quarter of its strength over the last 35 years. And attendance at mainline Protestant churches has simply fallen off the table. Whereas about 11% of Americans attended a mainline Protestant church service in 1973, today there are only about 4% (and the majority of these are over 65 years old).
But there is still more depressing news on the American church front. When researchers examined the World War II generation, they found that only about 5% of that generation claimed no religious affiliation when they were young adults. That doubled to more than 10% among the Boomers (those who came of age in the late 1960’s through early 1980’s). But it doubled again to about 20-30% among post-Boomers (those who came of age in the 1990’s and 2000’s). In other words, with each succeeding generation, Americans are becoming less attached to organized religion (primarily Christianity), and less inclined to attend church.
So why do we need to plant new churches in the United States? Simply put, we need to plant new churches in order to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission. Churches that are in decline or are dying are not likely to fulfill the Great Commission, and there is an increasing number of people (primarily young) who are utterly detached from church. There is a desperate need, therefore, to plant innovative, entrepreneurial, highly evangelistic, and Christ-centered churches to reach the increasingly unchurched population of the U.S.
I wish every church leader at every level of the ACNA, from the Archbishop to the parish priests, could read this email. This is a vision and a challenge which we orthodox Anglicans can and must embrace. And we need to do it with the same kind of sacrificial commitment of resources which this nationwide network (the Vineyard churches) recognizes will be required to see the vision become reality.
I’m going to stop there… for now. But I have much more to say on this important subject. Stay tuned.