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?

Can a Parish Be Reborn?     (by Jon Shuler​​)

Seventeen blog posts ago, I asserted that “the organized, visible, historic church” needs “to be reborn.” I dared to say “God wills it.” Over the succeeding weeks I first pondered the willingness of ordinary English men and women to die for their faith at the time of the Great Reformation, and then the strange and sad separation that came into the church in England at the time of the Great Awakening. That led to a discussion of what might once more lead to a time of new life and revival in the church the West? Next I told the story of one localized example of a time and place where the Lord graciously brought revival in my own lifetime. I pray to see it agin.

I write, week by week, also praying that those who read may be stirred by the Spirit of God to a renewed sense of commitment and purpose in our own time. I write hoping that there will be a move of God so significant that some day it will have a name, if the Lord tarries. I write as a Christian, who believes that the mission the Risen Lord Jesus gave to his church, to “make disciples of all nations,” is THE mission. I am persuaded beyond turning that there is only one mission. And I write hoping to be a blessing to Christians, of whatever secondary description or denomination. Lastly I write as a lifelong Anglican.

It is this latter reality that has repeatedly led to interesting challenges for my ministry. The Anglican world is largely defined by a system that the reformers in sixteenth century England never questioned. It is called the parochial system, and means that the work of the church is geographically bounded by defined territories – locally called parishes, and more widely called diocese. One bishop overseas a diocese, and one priest oversees a parish. The wider church would call a parish a congregation, but the inner reality in the Anglican Family is still territorial oversight.

In America, and most other nations besides England, the parish in modern times is more commonly a gathered community. It exists side by side with other gathered congregations of other denominational families. Yet its inner reality is still deeply rooted in the idea of a geographical responsibility, and of authority and control over the life of that jurisdiction. That life is normally governed by the diocesan bishop, within the constraints of a constitution and canons. But day by day the heart of the Anglican world is lived within parishes. What might it mean if the parish was reborn?

There were no parishes, in the modern sense, in the early centuries of the church. Nor were there diocese. But there was a pattern of oversight and care, always centered on the believing life of a gathered people under godly leadership. The pastoral charge that was normal was called in Greek a “parochia.” But what it signified was a single community in which a people had been gathered by the Spirit of God through the preaching of the gospel. It was a pattern of caring for people who had become believers, but it was not meant to impede the spread of the kingdom of God. It was meant to further it.

 

Next Week: Organized for the Spread of the Kingdom of God?

Lasting Lessons?      (by Jon Shuler​​)

Many of the lessons that were learned in the season of renewal that came to the church in Durham, England, in the period we have been surveying (1972 – 1987), have only gradually proven themselves to those whose lives were changed by God in those days.

The things that were an authentic work of the Holy Spirit have consistently been revealed in the subsequent years, and things that were dross have been shone to be so. Looking back what are some of the central lessons, the lasting ones?

Over all must be this: the church belongs to Jesus Christ. It is has been organized by men through history, and has many venerable traditions and customs, but it belongs to only one Lord. The church is meant to be submitted to him. When the will of God and the will of man clash, the word of the Lord Jesus must prevail. Unless the word of the Lord Jesus is central, and the community abides in it and in him, all else will fall apart.

Secondly, the church is the body of Christ, the community of the redeemed, the household of God, not merely an institution. The church is a people gathered by grace, sustained by faith, and constituted in obedience to the will of God. The organic nature of the called community must never be allowed to sink under the weight of man made institutional burdens.

Thirdly, the life of Christ Jesus is demonstrably present when the Spirit of God  is welcomed. No one who draws near can miss the living presence of the Spirit of God. There is faithful life in abundance. But the Holy Spirit is given, not to create spectacles, but to manifest the life of the Risen Lord in the people of God. Signs and wonders may be a part of the beginning of a time of revival, but they are not to be the focus. The focus is to be Jesus Christ and life lived in him. And that life, if authentic, will be seen principally in two arenas: the corporate worship of the believing community, and the homes and lives of believing people.

The latter evidence leads to the fourth lesson, and one that is often hardest for historic churches to embrace. The church is a community of believers. A people who have heard the word of God, believed the word of God, and been sealed in the truth of the gospel. They are not baptized externally alone, they are baptized in the heart. They have been converted. They are born anew by the Spirit of God to a new and living hope.

And those who are alive in Christ are called to help others come alive as well. Believers beget new believers.

And fifthly, there must be godly leadership, united in the mission that Christ Jesus has given the church. There are not multiple missions for the church of God, there is only one. The leadership of a local congregation can not flourish with rival understandings of the purpose of God. Unity in God’s truth is not optional, it is essential. It is the principle calling of the leaders to equip all the people of God to take their assigned place in the life of the church, but in a harmonious cooperation that brings glory to God.

 

Next Week: Can a Parish Be Reborn?