In October 2009, the Rector and Vestry agreed to work with the Reverends Randy Ferebee and Alan Akridge in a year-long process that would replenish and renew the energy and sense of excitement in the parish about the mission God has given to us.This process consists of a series of five exercises for the whole parish that began with the “Thin Place Exercise” in Lent 2010. Over 350 Good Shepherd members met in fellow parishioner’s homes to share their best experiences of God at Good Shepherd. This fall, this process resumes – with the four remaining exercises, one scheduled for each of the months of August, September, October, and November.
The purpose of this series is to communicate, in greater detail, the context, goals and hopes for this work and the promise in Christ that it offers to Good Shepherd.
“The times they are a-changin’”
When I was a boy, men and women wore hats in public. Even the small town I grew up in had several hat stores. Not anymore! Somewhere about 1960 fashion changed and the demand for millinery collapsed. One can only hope that hatters saw this coming and were prepared.
People in business know how essential it is to keep a keen eye on how the wind blows with respect to their particular enterprise. Staying on top of, or better yet, ahead of trends can pay dividends. Failing to discern the signs of the times (Luke 12:54-56) can cause problems, even catastrophe.
Although Good Shepherd is certainly not a business, the analogy still applies to the Rector and Vestry as leaders of the parish, tasked with keeping an eye on the life and ministry of the parish. Part of this shared oversight means paying attention to what is going on in the parish, the local community, and the world around us. Part of this involves understanding the culture that surrounds us so that we might engage with it and share with it the Good News of God made real in Jesus Christ.
Most importantly, the Rector and Vestry must seek and listen for God’s particular call to Christ’s people in this particular parish at this particular moment. Once that purpose is discerned, we pray for the grace and courage to respond with trust and obedience to what God has for us.
We believe the wind has shifted for the church in North America and it’s time to adjust our sails.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”
When Dorothy and Toto were blown into the Land of Oz, it was clearly apparent to her that they were no longer in the familiar landscape of Kansas, but had entered an entirely different world. If this was lost on anybody viewing the movie, the shift from black and white to color film dramatically emphasized the changed reality. Her famous observation to her little dog is a classic understatement.
Something like that has happened to the Christian church in North America. Those of us who are of a certain age recognize just how much America’s deference to Christian sensibilities has changed. We attended schools, where prayers or devotions were often a part of each morning. Friday night football games began with an invocation by a student member of the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes.) Many stores and movies were closed on Sundays. It was assumed that almost everyone was a Christian and went to church. Many laws and morals had biblical basis. You could “catch” the Christian perspective from the culture whether you attended church or not. TV and radio were free of sexual innuendo and profanity.
However you choose to characterize it, Christianity has lost that privileged place in American culture and people are increasingly uncomfortable with any references to religious, and particularly Christian, points of view in the public square.
Church historians and other religious observers of the culture have noted and commented on this shift for several decades. Loren Mead, an Episcopal priest, wrote a book in 1992 that has become a classic on the subject titled The Once and Future Church. He argues that the social and communal shifts which are changing the nature of how the church relates to the surrounding culture are real, profound and lasting changes. He offers three models or paradigms, to help us organize and bring 2000 years of Christian experience into useful focus and application to this new situation.
The Apostolic Era
The first model that Mead identifies is commonly called the Apostolic Era. This covers the period of time from the resurrection of Jesus to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 314.
In this era, the church understood itself as existing in a hostile, antagonistic, and persecuting world. Early Christians saw themselves as following the “way” of Jesus which offered very different values for behaving and believing, making Christians distinct from others in the world with them. The marketplace of ideas was chock full of competing ideologies, religions, and philosophies.
Life in the early Christian communities was intense and personal with each of its members aware that they were called to witness to God’s love in Christ to that hostile world. The early church saw its mission as right outside its front door. Every member was a missionary. The mission of communicating the Gospel was a task for every member. The congregation sought to build up and equip its individual members to engage in that mission.
The Christendom Era
As Christianity became, in both name and law, the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church and the western world became virtually one and the same. The church no longer existed in a hostile and antagonistic environment, but one which supported the work of the church and at times, regrettably, co-opted it for the purposes of the state. Mission now took place at the boundaries of the Empire and was engaged in by missionary specialists sent out to convert barbaric tribes and nations.
The congregation became a parish, the church in a geographic area, and everybody born in that area was a member of the parish by birth. Being a Christian meant being a good citizen and law and government described and enforced Christian values. The differences between the secular elements of the society were not easily distinguished from the religious elements.
Christendom, a term that refers to the global community of Christians and is also used to describe the informal cultural hegemony that Christianity has enjoyed in the world for nearly 20 centuries, is the word used to describe this long time period which dates from the year 314 to the mid-twentieth century, over 1600 years!
The New Apostolic Era
The old Christendom paradigm is not working. Something new is needed and is emerging. What that will finally look like is not yet clear and may take some time to finally emerge. What is known, is that in the new paradigm, no longer can it be assumed that all people are Christians or know much about following Jesus. Sometimes negative stereotypes are all that people know of Christians and consequently they reject the church as having any interest or value for them.
The congregation is no longer a geographical area and the front door of the church once again marks the boundary of the mission frontier. Some have suggested that the dearth of biblical or theological understanding inside the Christian community means that the congregation itself may be the area of mission!
Clergy do not hold high status roles as chaplains in the community. Lay people are once again missionaries, not members, and everyone is called to ministry beyond the congregation.
Loren Mead refers to this last model as the Emerging Paradigm. Others call it the Post-Christendom or Post-Modern Era. Several of my colleagues have taken to naming it the New Apostolic Era because there are many similarities between the world of the first century and the twenty-first, and there is the opportunity for a new and vital Christianity to emerge that has much in common with the first century of Christian believers.
Mark Twain has famously said, “Nobody likes change, except a baby with a wet diaper.” Once we Christians are past the grief of what has changed or been lost; or the frustration about being marginalized in the large culture; or the anxieties of what is to come for our children and grandchildren; or realize that Christendom cannot be restored in America by political means; perhaps then, we can begin to look around the larger world and see that God is on the move; that amazing things are happening in other places and that through the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of God they may happen here too!
Many of us have grown up shaped and formed by the Christendom paradigm of being and doing church. Most congregational, denominational, and even ecumenical structures assume a Christendom reality. While many can see the clear evidence of the shift in culture and context that Loren Mead describes, conceptualizing a new model of how the church communicates the Gospel in this context is very difficult. It is clearly a work in progress!
Look to Part Two for a description of some other dynamics at work in Good Shepherd.