How Have We Sinned?    (by Jon Shuler​​)

I long ago learned that nobody looks forward to being confronted with their sin. Except for the grace of God going before them, no-one turns to the Lord in repentance and true faith. What is true for individuals is even more true for institutions. Because they are made up of fallen human beings, they generally manifest all the same sins seen in the human family. They are prideful, arrogant, self-serving, greedy, hurtful to the weak, covetous, family destroyers, amoral if not immoral, and deceitful. Then there is the church.

Of course the church is supposed to be different. In its very nature in the sight of God it is of course holy. Sunday by Sunday those who recite the creed say they believe her to be so. Theologically, as set apart for God, that is true. But institutionally, as an organization, she is a fallen creature. She is only ever able to be and do what is right momentarily, and always by God’s grace. At times the favor of God’s blessing is manifest and lasts for a long season, but sometimes decades – even centuries – go by with very little evidence that the church is any different than the world. Then God’s judgment falls.

If, as I believe, the Church Universal has entered a time of reformation, the only way she can receive what God has for her is first to recognize that she has come under judgment. Reformation does not begin when things are going well, but when they have gone badly wrong. If the congregations and communities we live in are heading down destructive roads, it is because the voice of those who know better has been silenced. Most particularly, the Word of God has been silenced. And many of us, if not all, are guilty.

The responsibility of the church is to speak the truth of the Word of God. It is why her minsters were first set apart. Their shepherding function was secondary from the beginning. It would be better to say their shepherding function was determined by the fidelity of their speaking the truth of God’s Word. It is in this area, most especially, that the community of God’s people has sinned. We have turned from the truth of God’s Word. But how did this happen in a community constituted in and on that Word?

For much of my adult life I have pondered that question. How can things be as they are in the church if we are called to follow Jesus and his teaching? How can things be as they are if we are submitted to Christ? How can things be as they are if we are abiding in the words of Jesus? If we are devoted to the apostle’s teaching?

It has become more and more clear to me that the answers to those last four questions are indeed one. The church has abandoned fidelity to the Word of God. And the set apart ordained leaders of the church have led the way. The deconstruction began in the secular academy, spread to the theological seminaries, took over critical institutional leadership, globally and nationally, and then reached the local pulpits of this country.

 

Next Week: Specifics

When the Foundations are Destroyed    (by Jon Shuler​​)

History has been one of my great passions. Early in my ministry I did post graduate studies in Church History, imagining that I would one day teach that subject in an academic setting. That was never to be my principle vocation as God unfolded my life, but it has remained an interest to this day. Because of my general love of the subject I have always known how rapidly a culture or civilization could fall. I just never imagined I would live through such a cataclysm. In the year AD 2020 I now know that I am alive to see just such an event.

With ever increasing regularity the events of our day are showing that the historic American Culture, which was built upon Christian presuppositions, is unraveling. This decline is following the same trajectory already seen in Europe, but with a pace that is breathtaking. Things morally unimaginable just a few decades ago are now becoming not only normal but are increasingly demanded to be believed if one is to be included in the dominant society. The changes that are occurring in politics, law, education, economics, the military, and in the religious life of our country are sweeping away centuries of consensus. It seems that “the foundations are being destroyed.” Yet as  distressing as those changes are to a traditional believing Christian, the even more pressing concern must now be, “what can the righteous do?” This question must be answered.

When King David penned Psalm 11, what was he facing? What led him to think that the very foundations were being destroyed? We do not know with any certainty, but we do know what the Spirit of God spoke into his heart. There was not a crisis from God’s point of view! He was still reigning! His righteousness and truth were not effected by the turmoil among his people. He remained their only refuge. This is still so today, and it must be the very first truth we speak to our souls. God is in charge, and he will never forsake those who are truly his.

That same truth must be embraced by the faithful church as well. It is not just an individual truth, it is also a corporate reality. We trust in the living God alone. And because the faithful people of God are submitted to God’s Word, we must turn to that source to find guidance for our own day. And when we do we are soon face to face with this truth: “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.”

When judgment falls on God’s people it is always because they have decided that they do not want what he has revealed. They have determined to go their own way. Biblical judgment can truly be described as God giving people what they want. And what they want, apart from his revealed truth, will lead to chaos, destruction, and death. It is only a matter of time. When a blessed nation honors and worships the one true and living God, his grace upholds and sustains them. When the majority of its leaders and people do not do so, judgment falls. The terrible truth is that it is the believers of this nation who must first repent. We have not lived nor shared the gospel faithfully with our nation.

 

Next Week: How Have We Sinned?

On to Disciple-making University   (by Jon Shuler​​)

The Lord’s ways are mysterious. The sabbatical was only days old when the bishop with authority over me asked that I take up the Rectorship of a large parish that had lost its rector. I did not want to do it. The memory of my struggles in the last large parish and the desire I had to stay focused on new church planting work was uppermost in my mind. But prayer convinced my wife and I that we were to go. The leadership of the parish knew they were getting a missionary priest, not a pastoral one, but their need was acute, and they consented to the bishop’s wishes. The parish was averaging over five hundred on a Sunday, and they had had a succession of rectors who were theologically evangelical. The ground seemed to me ripe for bringing them to understand disciple-making discipleship, and disciple-making mission.

Five wonderful and fruitful years went by quickly. Changing the parish culture to a disciple-making one went slowly but steadily. My senior Associate was deeply committed to the principle, and he began to reshape many ministries to that biblical pattern. I was able to give attention to the global missions side of parish life. We reshaped our parish expectations for the missionaries supported by us, by making this question central: “Are you planting new Great Commission Congregations?” The leadership also embraced what had become the global church planting ministry of NAMS, at least so far as financial support was concerned. I concluded my season of ministry as agreed, and was delighted when they elected my young colleague to be their next rector.

During those years I had begun finally to realize how unhurried must be the ministry of making new disciples. A wise and loving older pastor in Colorado had become my discipling mentor, and we talked for an hour by phone each week. I was steadily applying the learning I was receiving from him to my work with men and women in the parish and the NAMS Community. Our new focus was beginning to reshape our global impact and our local one. At the center of the NAMS ministry was the continuing relationship with younger men that I had been discipling for many years, and soon it began to be very clear that it was time for them to take over the global work. At the end of five years Cynthia and I returned to the coastal town in South Carolina  where we had lived twelve years earlier, and a wonderful new phase of learning ensued.

My priestly ministry was not often needed in the principle parish, but the opportunity to disciple men was everywhere. With a dear friend who also was passionate about disciple-making, a new chapter unfolded. Soon I was working with several dozen men who wanted to learn to be disciple-making men, developing a regular retreat ministry associated with that effort, and helping to start a once a year ecumenical disciple-making gathering. I felt as though I was finally understanding the basics of being a disciple-making man, not as a teacher but as a doer. I seemed at long last to be about to graduate from my education begun in 1988. I could truly say that disciple-making had become my life, from which there would ever be a retirement.

 

 Next Week: When the Foundations are Destroyed.

A Rector is Sent to Boarding School   (by Jon Shuler​​)

My thinking went like this. We had made great progress in activating a large number of our people, and it was very gratifying. But in the larger community of the diocese, the region, and the country, there seemed to me to be a great shortage of similar work. Perhaps the parish should take up the work of planting new congregations as well?

I had first helped plant a new Anglican congregation as a young Curate, and had repeatedly spoken of that need and encouraged it through diocesan machinery. Now I started to speak of new work in our own city, and our own Metro Region with our parish as the initiator. The idea was almost universally unwelcome. No one could imagine themselves leaving the Ascension for a new work. I was discouraged, but had no thought of going anywhere. I would continue my work as Rector and build on the foundation we had pioneered. Then I was sent out. I still had much to learn.

For twenty years I had carried a “word” spoken into my spirit in 1973. “There needs to be an Anglican Order of Church Planters.” Every attempt I had made to discuss or act on it had faltered. Now I began to pray for the Lord to help me find the man who could do it. I was imagining hiring him onto my staff, and making the parish the center of the work. In the midst of this season events swept over me that made it clear that I was to do the work, and that remaining Rector would be impossible. The North American Missionary Society (NAMS) was born. I sincerely believed that I could hand the work of the parish off to another, and begin the work from Knoxville, but it was not to be.

Nonetheless, the work began in 1993 with the stated purpose of planting new Great Commission Congregations in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition. I brought all that I had learned about church growth and disciple-making to the effort, and soon NAMS was involved in helping to plant new churches all over North America. Everything I said or wrote emphasized “disciple-making discipleship” and “churches planting churches,“ but once again I did not understand the power of culture. What bishops and diocese wanted, and their people, was one more parish like they already knew. We taught multiplication, but what we got was serial church planting, one by one, with great effort and only by raising large resources.

Anglicans teach that where the gospel is preached and the sacraments duly administered the church is present. But I was determined that passing the Lord’s life  along to others was also necessary. The number of new congregations we were able to assist grew and grew, until by 2006 we could number over 200 new works NAMS had assisted. But were they multiplying? Then I took a much needed sabbatical.

I prayed over our data, while away, and it was clear that we had managed to assist only a tiny handful of churches that had themselves helped to start another. Painfully I realized that once again I had taught the principle of replication. As I should have known by then, teaching it does not make it happen. But I still did fully understand.

 

Next Week: On to Disciple-making University

A Rector Goes to Junior High School   (by Jon Shuler​​)

What was I doing wrong? I had nearly forty men and women serving faithfully in the new 2:42 Ministry. Could we not just keep growing the number of leaders and groups year by year in the same way we had started? I thought not, because that was taking all the energy of the paid staff. I wanted to see self replicating groups, and would not rest until we did. And so I taught more and more passionately. It was probably then that the saying began to circulate: “We liked Fr. Shuler when he first came, but now he has become a Baptist.” Of course I did not see it. I was trying harder and harder to get the results I believed God wanted, but did not understand that I had the perfect system to get the results I was getting. And I was building deep resistance in some quarters of the parish, a fact that would only become clear some years later.

What we did see, that is the staff and clergy, was that the new 2:42 Ministry was contributing to a revitalization in the parish that was encouraging to us all. We embarked on a plan to gradually bring the principles we were learning into every preexisting ministry. We wanted the youth leaders to disciple new youth leaders, the nursery team to disciple new nursery workers, the children’s ministry leaders to disciple new children’s ministry leaders, and so on. Soon the pattern began to emerge that if you were part of a ministry, you had a monthly meeting to grow in your understanding of how to multiply that ministry. Disciple-making discipleship was translated into leader-making leadership.

For a time we saw much new fruit. Some of the most effective of the leaders began to take up positions in older ministries. They brought with them the things they were learning in the monthly meetings of what we were calling the 2:42 Community. But there were pockets of resistance that could not be denied. The choral tradition of the parish was impervious to change. Its patterns were not going to change without blood on the floor. So too those of the Altar and Flower Guilds. One of the amusing memories I now have comes from the time I tried to bring the Altar Guild into the new reality.

I asked if I could present my ideas to their monthly meeting, and was warmly invited. Tea and cookies were served, and polite listeners indulged the rector. I asked again, and again the reception was polite. I then asked for the third visit, which once again went well on the surface. At the conclusion of that gathering the leader asked to speak with me in my office. When we had been seated this is what she said: “Fr Shuler you know we love you, but if you keep messing with the Altar Guild we will have to find a new rector.” I decided to leave well enough alone.

For five years trying to reshape an existing large parish into a disciple-making parish taught me much. The memory of the growth that we had experienced, and the faithfulness of the wonderful staff, remains a source of thanksgiving to this day. We saw many lives changed. But I was increasingly thinking secretly that leading such a parish transition was not satisfying the another part of my calling. How were we to be more effective in spreading the kingdom? We needed to plant new churches.

 

Next Week: A Rector is Sent to Boarding School

A Rector Goes Back to Elementary School      (by Jon Shuler​​)

It is one thing to learn a new thing, it is another thing altogether to change a behavior learned over a lifetime. I established the right purpose for the new ministry, I have no doubt, and set worthy standards and goals. But I had still to realize that to make a disciple means more than being a teacher. It means someone learns to imitate you as a disciple-maker. We created a wonderful profusion of little groups that largely imitated the life of the very system I was trying to escape from. How was this so?

The groups almost to a fault became microcosms of the bigger parish. I hoped for disciple-making small groups but we developed small fellowship and learning groups. This was not intentional, so how did this happen? I knew the new leaders and their apprentices needed to be coached into new behaviors, so I established another class! Once a month I met with all the leaders, and after songs of praise and prayer I taught a lesson focused on some skill necessary to be a good group leader. We then broke them into small “huddles” to discuss that week’s lesson and any other matter arising from the past month’s ministry in their groups. At first we developed another night for Apprentice Leaders to meet, but we soon were asked to fold them into the Leader’s night , and so we did. It felt so good to the rector to have multiple dozens of men and women coming on a Monday night and leading small groups. I did not see what was happening.

There is no way that I would wish to undo much of what transpired over the next several years. This new addition to parish life became the most dynamic and exciting ministry opportunity for our people. Good and godly activities sprouted everywhere for a season. But what I did not see, or understand, was that the small groups were becoming as limited in their understanding of disciple-making as the whole church had been. Leaders who excelled in the work established little groups who looked forward to their leading and teaching. They brought what I taught monthly to their groups, and they became  versions of the old saw: “We four and no more.” They did not multiply. They became “teaching and fellowship” gatherings, not kingdom spreading groups. And the reason was the limited understanding of the rector.

The content of my teaching was on target, but my understanding of the difference between teaching and training was still lacking. People who are trained begin to exercise the new behaviors, but those who are only taught become eager for more teaching. I did not see that there is no shortcut to making a disciple-making disciple. It requires time and persistence, and always presupposes a person wanting to learn the new behavior alongside someone who already is living it. Someone wanting to be a doer and not a hearer only, must spend time with someone who already is. We found it easy to gather those who would read another book, attend another fellowship meeting, even engage a new ministry task, but not learning to be disciple-making disciples. And why? The students become like the teacher.

 

Next Week: A Rector Goes to Junior High School

 

A Rector Goes Back to Nursery School      (by Jon Shuler​​)

The dear old friend I mentioned last week was puzzled when I asked him to forgive me, as he had nothing against me. But what I saw, in a flash, was that liturgical life in a strong, growing, and (what I thought was a) faithful parish was not equipping its people to be disciples who could make disciples. It had taught them that they needed to learn more to be faithful. And I saw that it was part of the very system that the Episcopal Church had taught me was the work of a priest. I became convinced that year that the whole of the Anglican Way, as I had learned it and taught it, was not producing the men that Jesus wanted. I made my friend say “I forgive you” on behalf of all ordained leaders in my family who were not making disciple-making disciples, not just myself. And I went back to Nursery School for disciples.

My first struggle was to ask why the pattern of spirituality that I loved, enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer, was not making such disciples? I became convinced, in time, that it was because it had become almost entirely irrelevant culturally to all but clergy. In effect it has become a way for priests, though it was once designed for all the members of the church. Given certain conditions of time, stability, and disciplined obedience, it can still make a true disciple out of a believing person. But for the average modern man or woman in America those conditions do not exist.

I began to ask myself, what are the most central characteristics that should define the life of a true believer? And further I began to ask the Lord to show me what – if I had oversight of someone for three years – would equip them for a lifetime of faithful discipleship? Not just keeping the faith, but helping to spread it wherever they lived? As I have often written, I came to the following: they were converted, that is born again of the Spirit of God, nurtured in the basics of the Christian life, equipped according to God’s purposes, and able to reproduce another disciple. That forced me to ask: “What are the basics of the Christian life?”

My list may not be yours, but here it is. They become faithful in seven things: Sunday worship, daily prayer, daily time in the word of Jesus, exercising their gifts in service, generous in giving, accountable to the body of Christ, and able to make another disciple.

I embarked upon an earlier version of this list, this definition of Christian Basics, over thirty years ago. I prayed that God would let me discover how to make it likely that anyone who was active in my parish for three years would have become a beginner in those seven behaviors. I wanted men and women to become active in the spread of the kingdom of God wherever they lived, wherever they went.

So it was that the 2:42 Ministry began at the Church of the Ascension. In less than one year we had nearly two hundred adults engaged in this new beginning. Change was everywhere to be seen, much of it gospel transforming change. But not all.

 

Next Week: The Rector Goes to Elementary School

 

 

 

Making Discipleship Central     (by Jon Shuler​​)

I made it my priority to bring disciple-making to the center of my ministry in 1988. I had never imagined myself to be doing anything else as a priest before that, but in that year the Lord showed me by revelation that I was making Episcopalians. It was my deep conviction until then that good Episcopalians (think church people) were good disciples. I preached the gospel. I taught the Scriptures. People were invited into the liturgical life of the parish, and many came. The great feasts were celebrated, and the sacraments of the gospel honored and taught. The congregation was increasing every year. But the Lord showed me I was not accomplishing what he wanted. He wanted disciples, and he made it painfully clear to me that there were very few in my parish.

My first attempt to redress the error was from the pulpit. I began to regularly point out that the Final Command of the Risen Lord Jesus to his church was that she should “make disciples of all nations” and that meant beginning with our “Jerusalem” in Knoxville, TN. It was not long before I was being quietly spoken against as “having become a Baptist.” It makes me smile today, but then it was a tragic acknowledgment that many who lived the life of the parish I led were not biblical Christians.

My second plan was to reorganize the small group ministry so that the focus of all groups was on the task of “making disciples who could make disciples.” I recruited many of the most committed in the parish to join this new initiative, and I gave myself to training and launching it. After seven weeks of teaching I had eleven men and women willing to volunteer to lead new small groups (we called them 2:42 Groups, to focus on Acts 2:42-47) in a parish of over one thousand communicants.

One of those who went through the training, but did not volunteer to lead, was a former Senior Warden whom I admired greatly. I was so puzzled at his failure to volunteer that I went to him alone to ask: “Why?” His answer is seared in my memory: “I do not know enough to lead such a group.” This was a man who had served for twenty-seven years in the parish as a trusted and esteemed leader. He was a faithful worshipper and a praying man. He had been on the Vestry multiple times, had chaired a major building project, practiced tithing, and had served as Senior Warden. He had been a senior leader of one of the largest governmental organizations in the world. He had two degrees. He was a retired Colonel in the Army. What was it he lacked?

The responsibility of a 2:42 Leader was to gather up to six others who would meet weekly to “pray and share, study and care,” while learning to be disciple-making disciples. One of those gathered was to serve alongside the leader as an Apprentice Leader with a view to multiply and gather another group in time. My friend had no confidence, after twenty-seven years, that he could faithfully exercise this ministry.

I asked his forgiveness as priest of a church that had so failed him.

 

Next Week: A Rector Goes Back to Nursery School

Gospel Content or Cultural Form?    (by Jon Shuler​​)

To get a good perspective on our Anglican ways, it helps to become aware of what other movements of the gospel are doing. I first became aware that the North American Anglican community was in numerical decline in 1975. Having failed to find an explanation from leaders in our own household, I decided to travel to California to attend a three day workshop on Church Growth. Over forty years later the phrase will generally bring derisive comments from younger leaders, but that is a grave mistake. The focus of the movement, and the workshop, was on the spread of the kingdom of God. If it later became associated with error, it was not because the founders were misguided. They were trying to honor the commands of the Lord Jesus.

Three things became clear to me in that week. The growing congregations, of whatever denomination or movement, used their time, talent, and treasure differently than Anglicans.

Time. I most immediately saw that leaders of growing congregations focused on the equipping of others, not the doing of the ministry in all its details. I was serving where the clergy did almost everything. Preaching, teaching, counseling, training, visiting, writing, copying, and even set up and tear down in classrooms. It became utterly clear to me that the dominant model for ministry among us was “pastoral care.”

Talent. Leaders of growing congregations were excellent communicators of the gospel. They gave high quality time to preparation, not uncommonly two whole days a week. They were committed to getting better at it as well. They were concerned that their people not only hear the gospel, but that they were changed by it. In my experience rectors treated it as a chore to be done. If done well, the praise of the congregation was sufficient reward for the preacher, not observable change in the lives of people.

Treasure. Most startling of all was the allocation of their financial resources. In my diocese, the largest churches were expected to give 20% of their budget to the center. In the growing congregations I learned of, it was rare for more than 3% to be given to their system. Most of them budgeted to give 15-20% for direct funding of global mission, and almost all of them allocated resources to start new congregations. I became aware of one congregation that was giving more money to global mission than our entire denomination, and of another that helped to plant a new congregation every year.

I did not change my ministry habits immediately, but I was forever unsettled about the Anglican ways I had observed. Growing American congregations were doing some things so well that they were increasing the number of believing people.

What then should we be doing that we are not doing? Or not doing that we are doing? If the mission of the church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ,” as I believe it surely is, what is the evidence that this is central for us? Is it the gospel or our culture?

 

Next Week: Making Discipleship Central

Organized for the Spread of the Kingdom of God?    (by Jon Shuler​​)

When our Lord Jesus began his public ministry, he went about “proclaiming the kingdom of God.” The reign and rule of God was breaking in, and men and women were called to enter it. The first preachers of the gospel were given no other message than that the kingdom of God was drawing near in Jesus of Nazareth. To hear the gospel of the kingdom, and to receive it by faith, was to enter into the Family of God. From that moment, the will of God was to be central in their lives, as taught and exemplified by Jesus their Lord. As crowds gathered to hear Jesus he told them that they must “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

What would we expect to be true if our parishes were organized so as to spread the kingdom of God, not just keep alive the message of the kingdom? It seems beyond dispute it would mean more and more people would hear that message and receive it. Non believers would become believers. Parishes would normally grow. Reading the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates that fact on every page. It has been so in every time of renewed faith in Church History. There will be opposition to the gospel, Jesus said so, but the kingdom will spread like leaven in a lump. It is unstoppable.

Why then is the overwhelming evidence of parochial organization stasis? If not decline?

As one who has studied the parochial system, and lived in it and with it for a lifetime, I can say without a moments hesitation: in the modern Anglican world we place a premium on secondary things. The parochial system has widely degenerated among us from a tool for the spread of the kingdom to a means for maintaining a Christian cultural heritage. When healthy and rooted in biblical truth, in a culture that affirmed its presuppositions, it helped the spread of the kingdom of God. Today, most certainly in the West, it largely funnels the energy and resources of its people into maintaining a way of being Christian. Numerical growth, when it comes, almost always is because already churched people are embracing its culture and ethos. True, many of these are believing Christians, attracted to a deepening of their own spiritual  lives.

So what do I mean when I say we are maintaining a “cultural heritage”? I will grant to any objector that we are a community filled with people who love the Lord. Of this there is no doubt. But ask yourself this one question: How many people in any parish have ever participated in the conversion of one other person? Among those few, how many have been a part of participating in an adult conversion to faith since they became active as Anglicans? Rare indeed is a parish that can yield a two digit answer.

But what do we do? We teach people to love the liturgy. We introduce people to the Daily Office. Frequently we introduce them to Christian Literature, especially Anglican. We usually introduce them to Church History, especially English and Anglican History. Less often, we introduce them to our brand of serious theological study. Overwhelmingly we enculturate them to the ways of our parish, our Anglican system.

 

Next Week: Gospel Content or Cultural Form?