Most of us would probably agree that there was a time in this country when a large segment of the population just assumed that they would be part of a church. It was a time that, if your ancestors were Christians, it was just what you did. You may find this surprising coming from a priest, but I for one am glad those days are over. Why? Please don’t misunderstand me. I, more than anyone, would love the church in this country to grow by leaps and bounds, but I want more than just quantitative growth. I want the church to grow because people have discovered the wonder of being a part of God’s mission in the world, not just because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do.
For several years I have been a member of the Commission on Congregational Life. The mission of this committee in the Diocese of Southern Ohio is “to assist congregations to be viable Episcopal presences in their respective contexts…” My colleague Alex Martin is the co-chair of the committee. This committee spends a lot time working with congregations that are struggling to be viable. These are often congregations that 50 years ago had a few hundred members, adequate financial resources, and full-time clergy. Now they find themselves with a handful of members, buildings they can’t afford, and part-time clergy, if that. As we work with these congregations to find a viable way to move forward, the main issue is almost always a lack of clarity around their mission, or that their mission isn’t God’s mission. That is, at the end of the day these congregations either don’t know why they exist, or their reason for existing isn’t grounded in what God is doing in the world.
Our country is desperately in need of churches that have a compelling mission. This need is even more obvious after yesterday’s shooting at a baseball practice of Republican congressman who were practicing for today’s charitable game between Republicans and Democrats. It is fair to say that yesterday’s shootings are the fruit of at least two decades of partisan demonizing of the opposition. It is the fruit of some democrats accusing George W. Bush of planning the events of 9/11. It is the fruit of the “birther” movement. It is the fruit of Donald Trump’s endless belittling of all his opponents in the primaries and leading chants of “lock her up” during his campaign. It is the fruit of Hilary Clinton referring to some of her opposition as deplorable. It is the fruit of media coverage that makes lots of money by promoting hatred and demonization of the other.
In this divisive environment, the church has an opportunity to offer an audacious alternative. The church has the opportunity to proclaim that all human beings—not just people who agree with me—are children of God who deserve respect. In this environment, the church has the opportunity to say what St. Paul said to the Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” A church that proclaimed this and lived it out, and challenged our political leaders and others to serve in this Spirit, would be a church that is God’s transformative mission in the world.
The ultimate measure of a church is not it’s size, how many programs it has, the beauty of its music, or the quality of its preaching. The ultimate measure is whether or not it is participating in God’s mission. If it is not, the rest doesn’t matter.