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

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