All posts by Adam

Tweet…tweet…tweet…by Adam Trambley

Over the past few days, I’ve seen Christianity and technology meet in some interesting ways.  A colleague and friend related a story about being told that he “wasn’t a Christian” for tweeting during a church event.  Meanwhile, various leaders of Episcopal Church Commissions are hosting tweetups (or tweets-up for aficionados of Rite I), while looking at rules for when and how social media is allowable.  Many people are all a-“twitter” about how and when churches should use what technology to communicate with current and future members of the Body of Christ.

This week I also re-read a very interesting chapter on technology in Jim Collins book Good to Great .  He said that great organizations have a very different view of technology than many other organizations.  They don’t try to be on the bandwagon with the newest fad.  Instead, they use technology competently in areas that are helpful and are relentless about creating innovation in ways that really matter.  Great companies also tend to crawl, walk and run with new technology, rather than run, trip, fall and then crawl before finally dying. Most importantly, they weren’t afraid of new technology, either of using it or of being passed by while they figured out how to use it effectively.

All of this made me think about technology use in the church.  Social media is the mark of the day, but many other technologies in church life have come and gone. At St. John’s, for instance, we have a card catalog of members that is decades old — a powerful database before UNIVACs ate punchcards.  If I need to find information about members going back a couple generations, it is at all my fingertips.  The church could track family relationships, baptisms, confirmations, weddings and all the other information necessary for excellence in sacramental record-keeping and follow-up.

Think, too, about worship technologies and how they have been used.  Some churches took to electric instruments and projection screens in all the right ways and grew thriving congregations.  Others bought every bell and whistle imaginable — along with the smoke machine to replace an antiquated thurible — and it didn’t go so well.  Some parishes passed on those opportunities, but put in quality microphones, speakers, and hearing impaired devices to go with their organ, but are still doing just fine.  Others didn’t change a thing and died.  The moral for me is that church health and growth has less to do with what technology is used than how well the church is being church.  If a church is thriving, technology will be used to further mission and ministry.  If mission and ministry are confused, if people in the church don’t deeply love each other, if the place is lukewarm about prayer and worship, then even the trendiest technology doesn’t help.

In recent months, I know there have been times when Twitter and Facebook have been the essential media for the communication, and that our newest members wouldn’t have found us without our simple but updated website.  At the same time, parishioners with rotary phones are still important members of the Body of Christ and we are called to meet their needs.  I am also aware that a handwritten note delivered by a post office employee can often be the most effective “thank you” I can send.  A wise pastor once said something about being all things to all people so we can win some of them to Christ.

Instead of fighting “technology wars”, I think as a church we need to do a couple of things:

1. Relentlessly focus on mission and ministry.

2. Let people who use social media and other newer technologies use it when and how they want and show the rest of the church how it can be useful.

3. Use our mission and ministry goals to see what gaps technology can fill, on local and national levels.  In some places, it might be taking mp3 players of sermons and choir anthems to shut-ins.  In others, a cutting edge social media presence.  In some, a way to communicate cheaply with missionaries sent on projects around the globe.  In others, just adding color photos to the parish newsletters that help identify and welcome new members.  Urban and college ministries may lead the by innovating so that a few years down the line the small town pastor will know what works and can inexpensively implement it.  People on twitter may know what happens at a CCAB meeting before people who read it in the monthly newsletter, but both media can be effective at spreading the gospel.

4. Refuse to be afraid — either of using new technology when it can help or of not using new technologies where they don’t advance mission and ministry in that particular context, however cool they might seem.

5. Have the grace to allow people to build their communities using the technologies they are comfortable with.  They will probably be most effective with them, and any medium can still reach segments of unchurched people.

Quantity Prayer…by Adam Trambley

To me one of the most compelling, and indicting, quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict is in Chapter 18.  This chapter lays out which psalms are to be said at what times during the week.  The chapter ends with:

For those monastics show themselves too lazy in the service to which they are vowed, who chant less than the Psalter with the customary canticles in the course of the week, whereas we read that our holy Fathers, strenuously fulfilled that task in a single day.  May we, lukewarm as we are, perform it at least in a whole week!

Such a prayer challenge may seem well and good for 1500 years ago, but we might easily dismiss it as out of step with modern life.  After all, if we do both Morning and Evening Prayer according to the Episcopal lectionary, we get through the psalms every seven weeks.  But Christian Schwarz of Natural Church Development, in his very rigorous research on church health and growth, found that when church leaders prayed 90 minutes or more a day, their groups grew twice as often as those whose leaders prayed 30 minutes or less a day.  Prayer didn’t guarantee results, but people who took prayer seriously found whatever they were leading growing more often, whether a congregation, a Bible study, or an outreach project.  Really, this power in prayer shouldn’t surprise us.

Benedictine monks were steeped daily in God’s promises found in the psalms, expressed in the language of deepest human emotion.  They were led to preserve Western learning, improve farming, and re-evangelize Europe.  If we harbor similar hopes for ourselves and our communities, our prayer life needs to have a similar quality and quantity.

We need to look at what we want to God to accomplish around us.  Turn around dying congregations.  Plant new churches.  Revitalize mainline denominations.  See the lame run, the blind see, and the good news preached to the poor.  Preach the gospel in Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, including the ends of the earth down the street from us.  With these dreams, we need to challenge ourselves honestly with the quantity and quality of prayer needed to open the floodgates of heaven, and be together with one another in prayer at that level.  As this prayer is happening in various communities, God is showing up and amazing things are happening.  May we, lukewarm as we are, do the same, and see God do more than we can ask or imagine in us, around us, and through us.

Building Acts 8 Community … by Adam Trambley

Recently a number of us from Acts 8 were talking about how monasticism and the neo-monastic movements might inform and strengthen our work in building up ourselves and our church.  Monastic habits are making a comeback, both as Benedictine virtues are applied to home and parish life, and as small groups of people form new, intentional communities.

In coming weeks, I hope to put together a few posts on aspects of monastic spirituality that might be relevant for our conversations in Acts 8.  These ideas come from my own experiences as an oblate for more than twenty years with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and time spent with the ecumenical community of Richmond Hill.  Today, I want to talk about the monastic commitment to a specific community of people.

When people enter a monastery, they pledge their lives to a specific group of people in a specific place that has a particular manner of life, a particular focus of ministry, and the unique quirks of human relationships the call forth a full gamut of emotion from joy to exacerbation.  The closest analog most people experience is marriage, and monastics often referred to each other as brothers and sisters not just out of Christian piety, but because of a loving kinship forged between them.  In a good monastery, the love and intimacy among its members is palpable, and such love is compelling to newcomers, life-giving to members, and a true gospel witness to the world.

This love is not easy to attain.  While prayer and common purpose are essential, so too is what the Benedictines call stability.  We can only get to that level of love if we pledge ourselves to be together with this same group of people, doing what God calls us to do, until we grow into the people God has made us to be.  We can only be challenged to grow by people we are close to who we have agreed to stay close to even when they call us on our own failings and character defects and require us to grow up.  Without a commitment to stay with people we would sometimes rather leave, love cannot reach the depths necessary to transform our own hardened hearts, much less the church or the world.  Any talk of monastic spirituality that does not ground us deeply with particular, flawed, sometimes difficult individuals may be helpful development, but will not be able to call us to God when we need it most.

A key question before the Acts 8 Movement is, I think, whether we are willing to make the kind of significant commitment to one another that will allow us form such a community of love.  If so, then we need to figure out how to do so when we are scattered geographically and already have other commitments to families, parishes and dioceses.  Yet if we can make such commitments, or even a small core of us can in a way that grounds the rest of us, we could have an amazing calling.  Instead of working to change the church into the vision God has given us for it, we will change ourselves into such a loving household of God that the rest of the church will drop everything to join us.

I end here with a question and a quote.  The question is what you think about Acts 8 trying to become a community of deep personal relationships at a near monastic level and how that might be accomplished.  (Please comment below.)  The quote comes from Thomas Merton, and is a good reminder to all of us when we decide we are going to go out and do great things on behalf of God and the church:

Do not depend on the hope of results.  You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even acheive no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.  You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people.  In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.  –Thomas Merton

Less Licensing and More Permission…by Adam Trambley

As we think about equipping our  church to equip the saints for ministry, here is a small suggestion.  Eliminate as much licensing as possible in our canons.  By licensing, I am not referring to the wide assortment of “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” merchandise available by your finer purveyors of ecclesiastical goods.  I’m referring to the licenses given by bishops to lay people for certain ministries, a list made significantly longer in 2009.  I think reducing these licenses is important for at least two reasons.

First, licenses are primarily used to curtail activities, not promote them.  Does anyone think that drivers’ licenses are there to get more people to drive?  If we think that we need more evangelists, a licensing system is not the right solution to that problem.  Trainings may help.  Exposing people to effective evangelists might help.  Networks like the Episcopal Evangelism Network would almost certainly help.  Prayer for laborers into the harvest is a definite must.  Licenses — not so much.  Are we really so worried about spreading the good news the wrong way that we need to regulate who does it and how?

Second, a licensing process is not nearly as helpful in most situations as a mentoring process, especially for adults in ministry.  The best way to develop effective ministers in any sphere is to give them a little bit of ministry to do, have a mentor or coach reflect with them and provide the next piece of instruction, then send them out again.  If we want to develop lay preachers, we need to let people preach, give them feedback, and schedule the next time in the pulpit.  At some point, some folks will rise to the level that a bishop may send their name to the parishes in the diocese as a potential supply preacher.  This would achieve the same positives as a license, without hindering folks in a parish who might have something useful to say once or twice a year but really don’t need to take four semesters of a Bible class.

The fewer requirements for lay ministry coming from outside the parish, the easier it is for pastors to unleash people’s spiritual gifts in fruitful ministry. In an Acts 8 moment where the Spirit is leading us into very interesting new opportunities, we can either provide lay leaders with requirements to be met, or ask how we can help them do what God is calling them to do.  I prefer the latter.

Opening the Door for Non-Episcopalian Congregations…by Adam Trambley

As we look at structural changes in the Episcopal Church during the next three years, we need to develop some way to allow non-Episcopal/Anglican congregations to affiliate with our church.  This idea may seem odd, or even threatening.  But as we do God’s work more effectively as a national church, we should expect to attract congregations who want to join us but may not want identify as Episcopalian.

We know this happens with people in our pews.  On any given Sunday, our churches are filled with people from a variety of backgrounds.  Some have formally become Episcopalian, some may in the future, and some never will.  But all are part of our ministry and important for our mission.  In the same way, we should expect non-Episcopalian congregations (and even networks of congregations) to play a similar role in the life of our diocesan and national church.

Two sets of experiences have made me realize just how important our flexibility in this area could be.  The first is that a group of congregations from a number of mainline churches have hired a part-time missionary for our county.  A portion of his ministry is being out where people gather, like a downtown restaurant and a college student center, to build relationships with pre-Christians.  If he is successful, as he has been in the past, within a few months there will probably be prayer, Bible studies, one-on-one discipleship, and other ministry taking place in those sites.  They could also develop a group that wanted to worship together and form the core of a new church plant.  When they do, I hope they will be able to have an affiliation with the Episcopal Church, even if they don’t want to use the BCP at every worship service or have every lay worship leader certified by the local Episcopal bishop or sign up their very part-time clergy with the Church Pension Fund.  But we may be doing things at a deanery or diocesan level that could benefit them and that their participation could benefit us.  Maybe they want to be a multi-denominational church (as opposed to a non-denominational one) that maintained close bonds with PCUSA and the Episcopal Church.    We will want to include such communities in the life of our church, even if they aren’t necessarily “Episcopalian” congregations. We won’t need these mechanisms until creative church planting initiatives are successful, but we should assume such efforts will create thriving Christian communities.

My second experience is being part of a prayer group with a number of non-denominational, independent, and congregationally-governed churches.  As I listen to some of their struggles, I find that the Episcopal Church has figured out some things that give them fits.  The Clergy Tax Guide sent out by the Church Pension Fund would be a huge benefit to many independent church pastors.  Safeguarding God’s Children and Safeguarding God’s People would help them address difficult questions all churches face.  Our structured outreach programs from local food pantries to Episcopal Relief and Development can provide a way for smaller congregations to connect to those in need.  Any number of such efforts can lead local congregations into deeper relationships with the Episcopal Church.  These churches may not be interested in giving up their own backgrounds, but they may benefit from being regular participants in discussions we are having at the local or diocesan level about theology, ministry, mission and outreach.   We should be looking for ways to welcome voices of our Christian brothers and sisters as we serve our local communities together.  As our Diocesan and national church programs become less “command performances” and more helpful and life-giving, we should expect them to want to join us.

We have spent decades formulating various ecumenical agreements, and these are all good things.  Yet, not all churches have an ecumenical affairs officer or the desire to spend years in theological discussions.  But they do want to be the best Christians they can be, and the Episcopal Church has many important gifts to give.  What we don’t have now are good structural mechanisms (or the openness) to allow non-Episcopalian congregations to have a role in our diocesan life.  Some of those congregations will be new missions becoming Episcopalian.  Some may be multi-denominational missions.  Some may be churches resembling us who are the only congregation of their denomination in the area that need our support and fellowship.  Some may have structures with very different strengths that need our strengths to succeed.  Some may just discover incense and sanctus bells for the first time and want to learn more about us.  Just as healthy congregations attract new members, a healthy denomination will attract new congregations.  When they show up, we should be prepared.

The Blood of the Martyrs… by Adam Trambley

Acts 8 has proven a fertile launching pad for blessed dreamings of where God may be leading the church.  If we look at the beginning of Acts 8, as much of the church is scattering, the Apostles stay in Jerusalem.  Stephen has just been stoned and more stonings are threatened.  Apparently, the Apostles are ready to be die for their faith in Jesus and, if we can trust tradition, all but one eventually did (and John seemed spared to write Revelation while in exile).

In thinking about church restructure and the role of bishops (and other church leaders), Acts 8 might be a very important text to consider.  Perhaps our bishops need to have the expectation that they will be martyred for their faith.

If Tertullian was correct, and “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” perhaps our harvest is so meager because we have planted so few seeds.  In some area of the world, Christianity is growing by huge numbers, and many of those churches are being led into eternal life by the witness of their martyred leaders.

Imagine what walk-abouts would be like for episcopal elections if people really expected that their next bishop might not survive the term, and not merely because of a sugar-induced coma after too many visitation receptions.  Instead of trying to figure out whether deanery-wide confirmations will be required or exactly how “inclusive” a new administration will be toward left-handed acolytes, a whole different set of questions might be asked of both sides.  Imagine a candidate asking a diocese, “Who are the people you are ministering to that you love so much that we would give our lives so that they might hear the good news of Jesus Christ?”   Or, “Who have you been praying and fasting for, and how much, that they would have their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit in preparation for the mission we will begin together?”  Imagine a diocese that would rather answer those questions than prepare a chamber-of-commerce-esque profile listing the area’s golf clubs and major league sports franchises.  Such a diocese would most certainly be growing, whoever they elected.

Our own difficulty in even conceiving of how a 21st century leader in the Episcopal Church could die for the faith is one of the most significant issues we face in re-imagining our church.  The fact that so few of our current leaders would seem particularly prepared for the few ways we might think someone could be martyred is even more troubling.  (By dying, I mean dying, not feeling badly that recalcitrant parishioners in a failing congregation where insufferably rude when told they had no one under 60 because they refused to welcome in, minister to, or pray and fast for visitors, new members, or their surrounding community.)    If the convention wisdom is right that says that churches get the preaching they deserve, then we need to look squarely in the mirror and think about where we are and where we want our leaders to take us.

I think many people want the kind of church where we really learn how to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel so we can find them. But we are scared out of our minds and don’t know how to do it.  However, the more we demand those kind of leaders in our prayers to God and our church councils with each other, the more we will begin to find them.  In such a Church, we will be less concerned with how things were for people way back when, and more concerned with how they need to be for those we are about to welcome to the household of God.  We will be less concerned with details of health care and pension funds (what do martyrs need with a pension fund?), and more concerned with the discernment of exactly where the lost are in our community.  And we will be less concerned with what we can build for our churches and more concerned with what we can give away for the sake of Jesus and the good news, including our very lives.