A few weeks ago, I kicked over a hornet’s nest with regard to worship in the wider church and why Anglicans shouldn’t copy it. However, the Rev. Mark Perkins made some trenchant, concerned observations, which I think boil down to the fact that traditionalist Anglicans rarely have their own house in order. As such, we cannot triumphantly condemn Big-Box evangelicals for their various disorders, for we also live in a proverbial (stained) glasshouse. I agree. It’s an easy thing to curse the darkness; it’s quite another to strike a light. Far too many of our congregations aren’t shining the light of Christ as they should. This leads to the following question: if we’re going to reject industrialized-enthusiastic-therapeutic approaches to worship and the rest of Church life (which we should), what do we need to practice? After all, we must commit ourselves to the Great Commission, which includes an evangelistic mandate to proclaim the Gospel, baptize, and disciple. The great commission wasn’t a recommendation from our Lord at His Ascension; it’s the Prime Directive.
In an insufficient attempt to answer this, I’ve put a few thoughts to paper, offered in a scatter-shot manner. Some are do’s; some are don’t’s.
1. Large numbers aren’t a sign of Christian faithfulness.
But small numbers aren’t necessarily the sign of it, either. A parish doesn’t need to be a mega-congregation (and almost assuredly shouldn’t), but if we aren’t planting networks of smaller churches that really are incorporating people into the Body of Christ, there’s a problem. If our church is on the verge of shuttering, we probably aren’t healthy. Healthy things grow. That includes a growth in spiritual maturity, but it also means fruitfulness in terms of membership.
This means having children, raising them in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and having them continue to carry the torch of Christian faith to the coming generations and to their own neighbors. Obviously, some will fall away, regardless of background. But some leave the church in part because the church didn’t do her job. It also means evangelizing the lost, converting people from false religions to the truth. Of course, we should ask, do “our people” know the essentials of the Christian faith? Can they talk about them readily? Are they willing to? If not, why not? Do they have a reason for the hope that is in them, or is church membership and Christian ritual activity an identity marker, a therapeutic-emotional crutch, or merely part of an identity that is significantly more important to them (which means Christianity will be subordinated to whatever is held in higher esteem)? Some of this is a sort of unthinking laziness or carelessness; some of this is outright idolatry. All of it needs to be addressed forthrightly.
For example, parents can prioritize school, sports, health-crazes, social causes, and other matters over and against church attendance and other matters of Christian duty, which usually means college attendance and an ensuing career are of ultimate value for them. This idolatry needs to be attacked for its insubstantial vanity, even while the basics of biblical child-rearing are outlined and celebrated. Such sins and errors need to be condemned in the pulpit, at the teacher’s lectern, and in times of pastoral counsel. And the way forward—the prescription for what needs to be done—needs to also be laid out. Break it down “Barney-style,” if necessary (and it often is).
Small numbers aren’t something to gloat about. They are warning signs that something is wrong. Part of the “what’s wrong” is out in the wider culture that has turned against biblical and traditional Christianity, but another big part is probably very much present in the congregation and the lives of its members.
2. The way we downplay this grim state of affairs is playing negative.
Playing negative produces diminishing returns, for love is stronger than hate, though hatreds will occur based upon real loves. Cranks like to bewail how everyone has gone wrong while avoiding even a hint of healthy introspection and self-knowledge. Beating up on others only goes so far, for it is easy and deeply self-deceptive to think that all the problems are “out there.” Are our own children and grandchildren walking in the faith, having remained in the fold? Did we catechize and disciple them as parents and clergymen, praying with them, talking about our faith with them, and reading the Bible with them? Are we addicted to pornography, gossip, a bitter spirit, bullying, and busybodiness? Are we mortifying our sins through Christ and fulfilling our Christian duties? If not, cursing the foolishness of others isn’t going to address those problems.
3. Similarly, don’t dismiss a person’s spiritual odyssey.
One of the more insightful classes in my life was on cults and spiritually-abusive groups. A survivor of an abusive cult who is now a Christian shared some of his own testimony and offered some Q&A. This man had every reason (at least by way of painful personal experience) to abandon any sort of organized religion, and yet he was an active member of an orthodox church. One of the key elements that helped buoy him spiritually was the fact that a trusted counselor (helping him break free of the cult) validated God’s work and faithfulness to this survivor. While this man once held deeply erroneous theology and was under the sway of wicked men, he was trying to serve the Lord and please Him. And God did indeed work in the man’s life, even in those sad chapters. If that truth of God’s graciousness had been denied or invalidated, I think it is unlikely that that survivor would be calling himself a Christian today.
In our criticisms of other groups, we cannot allow our venting to invalidate the spiritual struggles, changes, and growth that others go through. We can beat up on the megachurch, but many people first hear any notion of God’s love and purpose for them at a megachurch. Others first heard the Scripture’s truth under the care of a deeply weird Dispensationalist Fundamentalist. In other words, our criticisms can result in unnecessary friendly fire and misunderstanding. People will get the wrong idea that they aren’t welcomed or qualified to become members if they weren’t “cradle Anglicans” or don’t adequately despise their raising. One can be grateful for his past. Plenty of folks in the Mainlines, the evangelical world, and more have gotten certain things right, and God calls out to us even in our ignorance and error. Recognizing and validating that in our own lives and in the lives of others proves an important aspect of our love of neighbor and gratitude toward God. Again, negativity provides diminishing returns.
4. On the unglamorous side of things, parishes need clear and honest thinking about pay for the clergy and tent-making expectations.
Very often, really growing a parish in terms of outreach and onboarding new members takes a lot of time and energy. Effective ministry to the sick, dying, or despondent rarely meshes with a full-time or part-time job. Parishes should want to grow, but sometimes a priest needs to be bivocational to get things off the ground. On the other hand, maybe a parish should expect her clergy to be bivocational, while also having several such ordained ministers active in the congregation. Such an arrangement could be anti-fragile, allowing the clergy to sustain themselves when the parish’s members suffer economic hardship or ostracism due to religious persecution or an economic depression. Regardless, parishes need to be thinking seriously about what life in a decade or two should look like, without indulging in magical thinking. Many parishioners won’t tithe, which means that material resources are unavailable for paying a pastor or other needs.
Similarly, too many parishes just buy into a life-support or decline script, and reaching the lost (whether unchurched or dechurched) in their own neighborhood (and making the changes and steps necessary to do so) seem to be the farthest things from their mind. Therefore, a parish never grows to an extent where they can properly provide for their clergy, and yet the clergy aren’t afforded the resources necessary to help grow the Church via the exercise of their gifts. There’s a tension here. Nearly every successful mission and church plant is an exercise in faith—that God will provide what is necessary to sustain a congregation’s efforts and ministry. And yet godly pastors and their families can be put through the proverbial ringer by parishes unwilling or unable to sustain them, oftentimes in a most shameless manner. If a parish is on the decline, and if they want to call a new pastor, they also need to be open to changes prescribed by that new pastor to encourage a more effective reaching of the lost in that parish’s neighborhood.
5. In terms of the worship service itself, are we doing it well, to the very best of our ability?
Are deacons, priests, and bishops loud enough when they preach and lead prayers? Do they enunciate well? Are they of slovenly bearing or appearance? Are they strong preachers? There are few things worse than anemic preaching and praying from a priest. Are they eager and effective teachers, leading their congregants in serious study of God’s Word? Do they break out into “fits of teaching,” where the doctrine of the faith once delivered is of deep, abiding, and ultimate interest? Recently, Dr. Meeks had some helpful thoughts he posted on the subject. If preaching and anemic worship is a problem for you as a clergyman, I think you may find Meeks’s book on preaching to be helpful. As someone given to over-mild, over-nuanced speech, I found that book to be a needed, bracing corrective, particularly in its efforts to establish what a preacher truly is. Also, look up and listen to good preachers—make an effort to find out who they are (they are probably a variant of a Protestant that is also not in the Mainlines). You might not always agree with their doctrine, but you will benefit from their sustained exegesis and substantial bearing in the pulpit. While we can’t help but be ourselves, imitation of good habits and continued pursuit of excellence are a must.
In a similar vein, is there a hearty singing of hymns, psalms, canticles, and more? Or are we quiet and somnolent, forgetting that worship is a means of spiritual warfare and deep contemplation? Do we need to practice with the organist? Do we need to pick up the tempo? Do congregants need to learn how to sing more loudly? Do they need very basic instruction on how notes work? Can they be taught how to sing parts? Are they unfamiliar with the tunes and in need of practicing the hymns, perhaps in a hymn-sing format?
6. Do we behave in ways that push out or chase away newcomers?
How do we treat crying babies, disruptive small children, and young parents? Do we understand that there are mutual obligations in which little ones are welcomed in the Lord’s presence, while those disrupting the service with a temper tantrum or gymnastic routines on the kneelers need to be taken outside to cool off? That older members are to model right behavior in worship, that younger ones are to imitate? That young parents work hard to get their children to church on time, feel deeply isolated and threatened by an anti-Christian/anti-family culture, probably have low morale, and have made Sunday worship a priority regardless? Do they need passive-aggressive—or outright aggressive—commentary from church members? What do we talk about at coffee hour—are we making the most of our time together as Christians on the Lord’s Day? What’s the “on-ramp” to membership look like—would a visitor be able to find that out easily? Do we mention what page we’re on in the Prayer Book for folks who get lost, or do we provide visitors with a pamphlet or bulletin with the whole service printed on it? Do we have a glossary of older Prayer Book terms and/or an annotated bulletin with the service? Do we frequently explain what important-yet-unfamiliar devotional and theological words mean in our preaching and teaching? Do we welcome basic questions, even when they’re asked over and over again? Are we warm and friendly with newcomers, or are we weird or cold toward them? Do we invite people to our houses to share a meal? Or do we give off the ethos that our parish is a country club for eccentrics?
Speaking of eccentricity, are we given to moribund ecclesiastical partisanship? Are our complaints and criticisms well past their “sell-by” date in terms of relevance to the day-to-day believer? Nearly every breakaway Anglican group has a variant of this. We do need to be able to give a very short history of how our jurisdiction (whatever it is) came to be. Such matters of history are often important, but they aren’t the “on-ramp” for folks who are strangers to Anglicanism or even just basic Christianity.
7. We must stick to the basics.
Most Christians probably don’t attend to the basics of discipleship, which include not only assembled worship but also reading (or listening to) the Scriptures, personal prayer and devotions, various forms of mentoring, acts of love toward others, apologizing for specific sins committed against others while offering to make reparations, and forgiving the sins of others. Many parents don’t know that they’re supposed to talk about and teach the faith to their children, day-in and day-out. They don’t know how to talk about spiritual problems or issues, oftentimes because they cannot give what they themselves do not have. Therefore, teaching the basics, particularly via catechisms, Bible study, and various forms of effectual preaching (often of the expositional variety) will not return void.
When it comes to young people, it is infinitely better to help them rather than complain about them. They aren’t what’s wrong with the world; sin is. How can we help young people know God, grow in wisdom, and persevere in faithfulness? Many parishes have answered this need with classical schools of various kinds, and it is a great investment to make. Solid education is a dire need at the moment, Anglicans often have the personnel and pattern of life to bolster a classical approach to learning, and congregations make connections with concerned parents in the area, many of whom are Christians or sympathetic to the Gospel. Then, the parish—through the school—has the rich opportunity to teach young students the immeasurable riches of the Christian faith and God’s world.
Schools aren’t the only means by which to meet and minister to folks in one’s community. Parishes do well to find many ways to meet people—to get to know them and become known by them. In time, members of the parish become “their people,” which provides a basis or foundational relationship with which to share the Christian faith. This protects the integrity of the church’s worship while also establishing substantial contact with those outside the congregation. Of course, in this, I have simply rehashed the strategy of the REC100 initiative and its emphasis on “front porch ministries.”
But why reinvent the wheel? We’re traditionalists, after all.