Why is it so hard? Why do we resist so strenuously when we are faced with unpleasant truths? Why do men find it so hard to admit error? To acknowledge fault. To repent of sin?
Of course we know the answer. We are sinners. We are fallen creatures. We prefer to pretend that all is well, rather than admit we are lost. We lead without knowing where we are going, or how to get there, and we dare not admit it. We have salaries, and offices, and pensions that would be thrown into jeopardy. So we paint buildings, and redesign liturgical spaces, we add new wings onto old buildings, we revise our liturgies.
In 1977 I first asked the question of my seniors; “Why has the church declined so much since 1965?” The question was universally met with some version of this response: “We are interested in quality, not quantity.” I heard this from the Presiding Bishop and the Diocesan Bishop. I heard it from the senior clergy of my diocese. I heard it from Standing Committee members and Vestry members. It was puzzling to me since the clear teaching of Jesus seemed to presume numerical growth among his followers. A tree was to be judged by its fruit. Was I wrong?
I was a young Curate when I first asked those questions. When I was finally trusted to lead a parish I learned a lot. Growing an Anglican Parish was not easy. Many traditions and patterns of organization militated against any significant growth. But with effort and focus it was possible I found. With significant teaching, preaching, and much hard work we could gain a few percentage points each year. A few more in average attendance, a slightly higher budget figure. An increase in the number of adults confirmed.
And then a day came when the wider church called for us all to rethink our ministry. In that year (1988) the entire Anglican Communion was called to a Decade of Evangelism. I thought it was a call from God. I gave myself to it. I thought our parish had some good lessons to share with others. I wanted to see the whole Anglican Family grow. And then God confronted me with the truth.
It came in the form of two questions and a statement while I was at prayer. First I believe the Lord asked me: “How many adults have been added to the parish?” We had spent several million dollars and had seventeen adults net. Then he asked me: “Would any of them die for me?” I began to weep in a deep repentance. Next came this statement: “I called you to make disciples, and you are making Episcopalians.”
I have never recovered. I have been trying to realign my life and ministry in the light of that day ever since. I have become passionately convinced that to make disciples is the most central of all ministries. When this is prioritized everything else begins to change. When this is neglected, everything else begins to decline. Facing this truth is essential.
Next Week: Two Altars