Many years ago a visiting minister had led a weekend of renewal in my friend’s congregation, and was meeting with him on the morning after. There had been much excitement and evidence of some lasting fruit, and they began to discuss the ministry of making disciples. “Do you want your ministry to be ‘making disciples,’” the visitor asked? “Yes,” said my friend (the Sunday School answer). “Then you are going to have to make a decision,” the visitor replied. “Are you going to worship at the altar of God or at the altar of the denomination?”
My friend began, in that long ago year, to seek to learn to be a disciple-making pastor. He continues on that course to this day, and he has been a dear brother to me. I have learned much from him, and I dare to believe that we have been “iron sharpening iron” in one another’s lives, though we are ordained in different families of the church. His story, shared with me over twenty-five years ago, has remained in my mind and on my heart. I think what that visiting minister told him was true.
There is no doubt in my mind that most of my brother Anglican clergy understand themselves to be serving at the altar of God, as I certainly did for many years. But I gradually realized that, in my own life, the best energy and effort I was making was to reinforce a particular way of serving God, not serving God. I was committed to seeing a particular pattern of religious life lived, and had become dull to focusing on the inner reality of the lives of many of my people. I presumed that the central reality for them was a desire to love and serve the Lord, if they conformed to Anglican norms. I had very little understanding of what it meant to be a faithful disciple of Jesus in any and every circumstance. And even further, I did not know how to make a disciple who would make a disciple.
When I asked God for forgiveness and began to reorient the pattern of my ministry I found that over and over my ecclesiastical superiors, and my brother clergy, stood apart from my understanding. When I left the parish I then served, after six subsequent years of ministry designed to make disciple-making central, the bishop of the diocese told the senior layman of the parish: ”We need to find a new rector who will bring this parish back into the Episcopal Church.”
That was twenty-seven years ago, and much has transpired to challenge business as usual in the various Anglican communities of the world, but the question about altars is still pressing. Are we worshipping at the one altar that matters, or at an altar of our own making?
Many of us are concluding Fall stewardship campaigns at this time, and developing budgets for the coming year. What do those budgets show that we really value? What do they show us we worship?
Next Week: Discipling ABC’s