The Anglican Mission: An Interview with Fr. Lee Nelson

Father Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a chair of the Committee of Catechesis of the Anglican Church in North America and the founding rector of Christ Church, Waco, a parish church of the diocese of Fort Worth. The Committee for Catechesis has led the charge for the work of evangelism and catechesis, most recently publishing To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism with Crossway in 2020. As rector of Christ Church, Father Nelson has engaged in the work of catechesis to build up a parish culture of excellence in worship and teaching, and the parish has grown consistently. A graduate of Nashotah House and Texas A&M University, he was ordained as a priest in 2005. He and his wife, Ela, have seven children. Father Nelson was so kind as to agree to join us for an interview and answer our questions about catechesis, evangelism, and Anglican mission work. 


What was your first experience in an Anglican mission?


When I was a teenager, I remember visiting an Anglican church plant that was meeting in a strip mall. Since my home parish had a beautiful and well-developed brick building, I remember it was very intriguing to me that a parish could meet in a temporary space.


How did you decide to join the mission at Christ Church Waco?


A friend from my Nashotah House days, Father Christopher Culpepper, had been driving one-and-a-half hours from Fort Worth twice a month to serve the people of Christ Church. It was a labor of love, and I remember asking him about it over coffee at the Anglican Cathedral in Nairobi, Kenya of all places! Within a few months, I was visiting the congregation and sat down with them to talk about how I might volunteer to serve. There wasn’t a “job” on offer, and my initial plan was to get some kind of gig to make ends meet, especially since we were expecting our fifth child. Due to the generosity of our Bishop, Jack Iker, and the people of the congregation, I never had to do that! In essence, I asked the Bishop to assign me, and he graciously did so! As a side-benefit, he also appointed me to be the chaplain for our students in College Station at my alma mater, Texas A&M University. To my surprise, we started planting in College Station as well, which has now been handed over to the leadership of Father Greg Crosthwait, and that’s growing steadily as well.


What are the unique opportunities that come with ministering in a college town?


First, there’s the unique needs of an intellectual community. Not only is Anglicanism attractive to such a community, but we’re uniquely equipped to proclaim the Gospel among intellectuals. Above all though, there are the students. Today’s university students are searching for a compelling and beautiful faith, liturgically rich and faithful to the Gospel. College campuses are the 21st Century equivalent of the Areopagus, a place where truth is under deep inspection. The problem is, modernism and its rejection of all things invisible, has come to reign supreme in the American academy, not only in the sciences, but in the humanities as well. We have a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the Gospel in these days to students.


If someone is discerning a call to start a mission or join one, what sort of advice would you give them as they discern?


The first bit of advice is that every Christian has the duty to die daily to self and take up the Cross. The work of planting new missions is tiring and costly. If you do it to serve your own ends, you’ll burn out. Secondly, the church planting community exists in numerous networks (like the ACNA’s Always Forward) who are happy to help. Every potential church planter needs to undergo what we call an assessment which helps to discern how that calling is playing out and to advise potential planters as they go forward. The bigger advice is to start slowly. Church planters go slowly so that later they can go fast. We didn’t make the jump to every Sunday morning celebrations of the Eucharist until I had been in Waco eighteen months. By that point, the congregation had existed for over six years. This is a reminder that the work of mission planting is not focused on Sunday communion. Instead, its focused on building up the Body of Christ in a particular place and among a particular people, who will later, flowing forth from their identity as a community of disciples, start to worship publicly.


Catechesis has played a significant role in your ministry at Christ Church. What role do you think that catechesis should play in Anglican missions throughout the province?


Catechesis has been part of my work at Christ Church from day one. In essence, I had done my homework as a member of the ACNA Committee for Catechesis and knew that most American Christians are severely under-catechized. I had also served as a parish priest for over eight years at that point, and knew that a well-catechized parish is a healthy parish. We started in on teaching To Be a Christian: an Anglican Catechism immediately and we go through it every year with those new to our parish.

When it comes to the life of the province, and particularly in the work of planting, we need people who are willing to stake everything on the Apostolic witness and the work of evangelism. If all we’re trying to do is launch new local worship services and gathering like-minded people, we’ll reap what we sow, which is, to be blunt, decline, decline, and more decline. But, if we sow the teaching of the Apostolic faith of the undivided Church, as testified to in Holy Scripture, and are careful to teach others to obey all that the Lord has commanded – in short, if we make disciples, we’ll grow and thrive.


I have met a few people at St. Mary’s divinity school here in St. Andrews who are discerning a call to return to the states and enter the ministry as mission priests in the Anglican Church in North America. What sort of steps do you recommend that they take to move forward toward that goal?


The first thing is to get connected to a bishop in the ACNA and work with their Canon for Church Planting to discern a way forward. They should know that funding isn’t widely available, and they’ll have to “beg, borrow, and steal” (well, not steal!) to make things work. They should be very comfortable with the work of raising support for their work, with partner parishes, family, and friends. They’ll have to put skin in the game. They should also start praying about what kind of planting they’d like to enter. There are a variety of plants: suburban, urban, multi-cultural, university-campus based, and rural with everything in between. Above all – prospective planters should put great energy as they study into practicing communicating the Gospel to normal, everyday people and leading them in the life of discipleship. If you can’t communicate the Faith to others, you won’t be an effective planter. It requires more than just knowing how to be a priest. It requires deep competency in teaching, preaching, and leading.


What are some of the most effective ways of going about making disciples and evangelizing that you have seen during your time at Christ Church?


We believe that “hook and sinker” fishing is not the biblical way of evangelism. Effective evangelists and disciple-makers operate as members of the local Body of Christ, which is like the net which “gathers many kinds of fish.” (Matt. 13:47) The Church has a way of getting hold of people where she is powerfully present. I can always tell when people are caught up in the net of our parish. There’s a kind of magnetic witness which draws them into the life of our parish and various relationships which will aid in evangelizing, catechizing, and ultimately, winning them over to the abundant life of holiness in Christ.


Many church planters are tempted to make the church look more like the culture in order to help people to feel comfortable. Christ Church, on the other hand, maintains traditional teaching and worship. How do you, by the grace of God, pull this off? How can missions maintain the great tradition without becoming liturgy snobs?


The Scot Prime Minister of Canada, John Buchan, once said that “the true definition of a snob is one who craves for what separates men rather than for what unites them.” We believe in the power of the Catholic Faith and the liturgy of the Church to unite all people under the banner of Christ, across cultures, ethnic identities, incomes, and educations. The truth is, when novelty is pursued in liturgy and teaching, the Church becomes the very definition of snobbish, and winds up becoming idiosyncratic in a way that alienates the very people God is calling into His Kingdom. So yes, we strive to be unoriginal in both our worship and doctrine because the Church has a calling to preach the Risen Christ to the ends of the earth.


What are a couple essential books for folks starting an Anglican mission?


This is a tough question, because many of the most pragmatic and helpful texts for planting are not unique to Anglicans. There isn’t really a manual for church planting anyway. Having said that, I’d recommend the following:

Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer

The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting by Aubrey Malphurs

Apostolic Church Planting by J.D. Payne

The Church as Movement by JR Woodward and Don White

Some great books to help you think theologically about the core of planting:

For the Life of the World, Schmemman

Liturgical Theology, Simon Chan

On Catechesis:

Evangelical Hospitality, Tory Baucum

Resilient Faith, Gerry Sittser

I’d also recommend listening to the Always Forward Podcast

Clinton Collister

Poetry Editor of The North American Anglican

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