All posts by Susan

Fearless Evangelism, Part VI … by Charles LaFond

This is the sixth in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond.  See links to earlier posts in the series below.

VI. The functions of the Come and See Campaign

There are six simple functions of a Come and See membership Growth Campaign:

  1. The direct mail event -which raises awareness
  2. The training -as to how one tells one’s story
  3. The pledge card -so that everyone is working and accountable
  4. The living room conversations -in which an invitation is made to “come and see” where Jesus is at work among a group of people
  5. The examination –a self-critical examination of what people will find when they come to see (Is the building painted? Are the liturgies dull? Is the church clean and well cared-for?)
  6. The welcoming – of those who “come and see.”

These things are essential for membership growth, and if we do not grow, there is no point to managing the Koinonia program – no need to work to retain and involve a membership which never came in the first place.

Next: Can Christians Learn from our Mistakes?

The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond is the Canon for Congregational Life in the Diocese of New Hampshire.  The Come and See Membership Growth Campaign Manual is online and the 7 minute video summary can be found here.  

This is the sixth in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond.  Click for earlier installments:  Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5.  Check out Charles’ blog for the full text. And check out the Diocese of New Hampshire’s Evangelism Toolkit, on its website.

Fearless Evangelism, Part V … by Charles LaFond

This is the fifth in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond.  The links to earlier posts in the series are below.  

V.  Conflict

There will be conflict over the work of evangelism or it is probably not being done.

Luke 9:51
: When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.


The Gospel passage says: “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Some translations say that he “strengthened his face.” – was determined. In the first century, the face was a place of communication and intimacy. The face is also a place of extreme vulnerability. Humans react differently to a baseball heading for their face than they do to a baseball heading for their leg. But also, the face leads the body. Who walks anywhere but towards where their face points? 
In the Vulgate Latin and Ethiopic versions, the translation is “he set his face like a flint to go to Jerusalem.”
 Now, what we know about flint, is that when flint is struck with the right material, it creates sparks which light fires.

This passage comes when Jesus is warning his followers that by going to Jerusalem, at that specific point in time, there would be conflict. The word “conflict” comes from the word “confligare” – to make sparks and fire. All of our English words around conflict involve creating fire (as a priest, “hot under the collar” is my personal favorite!)
.

This gospel is a source of comfort to us as we do work which, if done well and effectively, will create some conflict in all but the most centered congregations.

  • Asking people to work together with accountability by using Come and See Pledge cards
  • Asking people to use precious free time for Come and See trainings
  • Asking people to set appointments with friends and neighbors to visit them for Come and See living room good-news-telling
  • Asking people to risk a “no”
  • Inviting the vulnerability which clergy and laity will feel if people come and see only to then leave and not come back…

…these are all hard things. You will face resistance as leaders. You will probably feel your own resistance. You may be feeling it today. But we always go back to where we began: prayer and centered leadership. If we are deep and constant like that river we were discussing in Part II, then we will have the ballast to manage the rapids of leadership in storms and passages of many river-rocks.

But we must do hard things as leaders or we abdicate our responsibility. Leadership is a privilege and should be removed from those who abdicate the responsibility of their leadership. The question is not IF we lead, but HOW we lead. We must work as hard at reaching out to preach the good news as we work hard at reaching in to care for those whose life situations require tender care. And we will face conflict if we set our face like flint on Jerusalem. There will be sparks.

Next: The Functions of the Come and See Campaign

The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond is the Canon for Congregational Life in the Diocese of New Hampshire.  The Come and See Membership Growth Campaign Manual is online and the 7 minute video summary can be found here.  

This is the fifth in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond.  Click for earlier installments:  Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.  Check out Charles’ blog for the full text. And check out the Diocese of New Hampshire’s Evangelism Toolkit, on its website.

Acts 8 at Arizona’s Diocesan Convention … by Susan Brown Snook

Last Friday, Oct. 19, Megan Castellan and I led an Acts 8 workshop at Arizona’s Diocesan Convention.  Of course we had experienced transformation at the General Convention Acts 8 workshop, but I wondered whether the same experience would happen at the diocesan level.  After all, the lead-up to General Convention featured lots of blogging, anxiety, and concern over the direction of the church and seemingly arcane issues like the budget.  Arizona’s diocesan convention is a much tamer affair.

But, it’s clear that if Acts 8 is going to do what we hope to do and spark a true renewal movement in the church, we have to take it to the local level.  So Megan and I asked Bishop Kirk Smith for permission to bring it to Arizona.  He had attended our gathering at General Convention, and agreed enthusiastically.  Perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, the theme of our convention was “Realizing God’s Dream: Scripture, Spirituality, Stewardship” – a perfect tie-in to what we are doing in Acts 8.

We had 50 or 60 people at our workshop.  We ordered Acts 8 buttons to pass out, which you can find at this link.  (Megan motivated people to come by promising them swag!)  We lined up one of Megan’s Canterbury students to video the “I Dream of a Church” segment (I imagine Megan will be posting that video soon).  We had the Bible passage, Acts 8:26-40, printed out.

Other than that, the beauty of doing an Acts 8 workshop is that it requires minimal preparation.  The workshop leads itself.  It draws insight out of the people attending, rather than creating insights in which the attendees are to be instructed.  It depends on the Holy Spirit to show up – but the Holy Spirit is pretty dependable!

If you attended the General Convention gathering, you know the basic elements.  At our Arizona gathering, we added one more element, because now that we are moving down to the local level, we wanted people not just to be inspired, but also to think of concrete ways to act on that inspiration.  So the final element of our gathering was, “What is one step you could take in your local parish to help make that dream a reality?”

I was amazed by the response of the people attending, but I guess that’s what happens when the Holy Spirit shows up.  They were excited, energized, engaged.  They had great insights about evangelism and how we need to be out there in the world chasing down the chariots, not waiting for the chariots to come to us.  They had concrete suggestions for ways our churches could reach new people.  Their comments afterwards were along the lines of “This was the best workshop I’ve ever been to at Diocesan Convention” and “How can we bring this to our church?”  One person asked me apologetically if she might be allowed to borrow and use some of the elements in her local parish.  The answer is an enthusiastic YES!  Use any or all of it.  It is completely designed for use in any venue anyone wants.  It’s not even all that original with us, so please do use it!

Here’s how we did our gathering in our one-hour time frame.  Feel free to use any or all of this, expand or contract some elements, adapt it to your local situation, add elements of your own design, etc.  If you do a gathering, let us know how it went!

2:30 p.m.    Convene, Welcome, Introductions

2:35 p.m.     History of Acts 8 – What it is, how it started, what its mission is

2:40 p.m.     Generational Perspective (this was Megan on the Millennials)

2:45 p.m.     Prayer and Bible Study on Acts 8:26-40  Pray meditatively for guidance of Holy Spirit.  Read passage out loud, slowly, ask group to divide into small groups of 3 or 4 and discuss, what one element stood out for you? What would you like to ask a Bible expert about? If you had Philip or the Ethiopian eunuch in the room, what question would you like to ask them?

2:50 p.m.     Ask volunteers to report back to full group, leader unpacks their responses, points out interesting common themes, etc.  (This is casual reporting with raised hands, not the more structured “appoint one leader from each group to come to the flip chart” type reporting.)

2:55 p.m.      Pray for Holy Spirit’s guidance again.  Read the same passage again, slowly.  Ask group to divide again and discuss: what does this passage have to do with our church and our communities today?

3:00 p.m.     Again, report back to full group (casually).  Have leader unpack responses and bring themes together.

3:10 p.m.     Pray again.  Ask people to come forward to the microphone and share how they would complete the sentence “I Dream of a Church that ….”

3:20 p.m.    Last element:  Invite people to divide into small groups, ask them to discuss: “What is one step your local congregation could take to help make that dream a reality?”  (We actually were running low on time and didn’t divide into small groups for this step, but just invited responses to the full group.)

3:25 p.m.    Report back responses to full group.  Close with prayer.  Pass out Acts 8 buttons.

Let’s take it to the streets!  I would love to hear about other Acts 8 workshops happening in other dioceses, parishes, and gatherings.  And by the way, I am considering doing it for my parish’s annual meeting this year.

 

 

Fearless Evangelism, Part IV … by Charles LaFond

This is the fourth in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond.  The links to earlier posts are below.  

IV. Campaign


The word “campaign” comes from the late Middle Ages. It was a military term from the days of villages, village greens and castles. The word comes from the reality that – to organize an effort like a battle– lots of people have to leave the safety of their individual huts and hovels. They gather on a field and while out in the open field, they get organized into lines and columns in order to move forward together, under strong leadership. This is the way towns and villages have worked for hundreds of years – gather, organize, let a leader lead.

The power of lots of people being organized is an ancient and effective reality in getting a job done.  This is hard for Episcopalians and for Americans because of the way we have fetishized doing things alone and doing it “my way,” as the old Frank Sinatra song goes. We consider our churches to be pathologically unique, wincing at anything which works elsewhere.

Some will say about evangelism what they say about prayer – “we are doing it all the time – why organize it?”  Recommended programs from ivory tower executives is not in our ethos. But as the society in which we live becomes further and further distracted and dispersed by over-stimulation, over-work, and exhaustion, we must work harder and in new and effective ways to get the good news out to a culture which craves what our church has to offer.

That we are always engaged in and open to God’s Eros and that we are telling people our story of how Jesus has changed our lives – may be the case. Or we may be engaged in conscious or sub-conscious spiritual maneuvering to get out of doing what we have been commanded to do – to preach the good news. Who am I to judge? But since we gather together and follow a program to do our worship, I am wondering why we can’t gather together and follow a program to do our evangelism. And if the term “evangelism” freaks us out, then we might try using the term “membership growth.”

We do a Come and See Campaign together because it provides support in an activity which is emotionally, psychically and culturally challenging. We do it together for support, for encouragement and for accountability of leadership. It is the same reason we gather to say the creed – being together supports those for whom – from time to time – believing can be hard to do. And if you think it is hard to sign a pledge card saying you will speak to a few people about Jesus and the church in which you find Jesus doing things – then try being the clergy person or warden asking you to use those pledge cards. It can be hard – alone – to stay the course – to do the job – to engage in accomplishing measurable objectives. We all need to do hard work together. That is what Come and See Campaigns and this encouragement are all about.

Next:  Conflict

The Rev. Canon Charles LaFond is the Canon for Congregational Life in the Diocese of New Hampshire.  The Come and See Membership Growth Campaign Manual is online and the 7 minute video summary can be found here.  

This is the third in a series on evangelism by Charles LaFond.  Click for earlier installments:  Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.  Check out Charles’ blog for the full text. And check out the Diocese of New Hampshire’s Evangelism Toolkit, on its website.

The Dream … by Bishop Wesley Frensdorff

Written by Bishop Wesley Frensdorff, Former Bishop of Nevada in the Episcopal Church, and a pioneer in the development of the vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission.

Let us dream of a church …

in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love, and each is certain that in the divine heart we are all known by name.

In which Jesus is very Word, our window into the Father’s heart; the sign of God’s hope and his design for all humankind.

In which the Spirit is not a party symbol, but wind and fire in everyone; gracing the church with a kaleidoscope of gifts and constant renewal for all.

A church in which …

worship is lively and fun as well as reverent and holy; and we might be moved to dance and laugh; to be solemn, cry or beat the breast.

People know how to pray and enjoy it – frequently and regularly, privately and corporately, in silence and in word and song.

The Eucharist is the centre of life and servanthood the centre of mission: the servant Lord truly known in the breaking of the bread. With service flowing from worship, and everyone understanding why a worship is called a service.

Let us dream of a church …

in which the sacraments, free from captivity by a professional elite, are available in every congregation regardless of size, culture, location or budget.

In which every congregation is free to call forth from its midst priests and deacons, sure in the knowledge that training and support services are available to back them up.

In which the Word is sacrament too, as dynamically present as bread and wine; members, not dependent on professionals, know what’s what and who’s who in the Bible, and all sheep share in the shepherding.

In which discipline is a means, not to self-justification, but to discipleship and law, is known to be a good servant but a poor master.

A church …

affirming life over death as much as life after death, unafraid of change, able to recognize God’s hand in the revolutions, affirming the beauty of diversity, abhorring the imprisonment of uniformity, as concerned about love in all relationships as it is about chastity, and affirming the personal in all expressions of sexuality;

denying the separation between secular and sacred, world and church, since it is the world Christ came to and died for.

A church …

without the answers, but asking the right questions; holding law and grace, freedom and authority, faith and works together in tension, by the Holy Spirit, pointing to the glorious mystery who is God.

So deeply rooted in gospel and tradition that, like a living tree, it can swing in the wind and continually surprise us with new blossoms.

Let us dream of a church …

with a radically renewed concept and practice of ministry and a primitive understanding of the ordained offices.

Where there is no clerical status and no classes of Christians, but all together know themselves to be part of the laos – the holy people of God.

A ministering community rather than a community gathered around a minister.

Where ordained people, professional or not, employed or not, are present for the sake of ordering and signing the church’s life and mission, not as signs of authority or dependency, nor of spiritual or intellectual superiority, but with Pauline patterns of “ministry supporting church” instead of the common pattern of “church supporting ministry.”

Where bishops are signs and animators of the church’s unity, catholicity and apostolic mission, priests are signs and animators of her Eucharistic life and the sacramental presence of her Great High Priest, and deacons are signs and animators – living reminders – of the church’s servanthood as the body of Christ who came as, and is, the servant slave of all God’s beloved children.

Let us dream of a church …

so salty and so yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around; where there is wild sowing of seeds and much rejoicing when they take root, but little concern for success, comparative statistics, growth or even survival.

A church so evangelical that its worship, its quality of caring, its eagerness to reach out to those in need cannot be contained.

A church …

in which every congregation is in a process of becoming free – autonomous – self-reliant – interdependent, none has special status: the distinction between parish and mission gone.

But each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.

Peacemakers and healers abhorring violence in all forms (maybe even football), as concerned with societal healing as with individual healing; with justice as with freedom, prophetically confronting the root causes of social, political and economic ills.

A community: an open, caring, sharing household of faith where all find embrace, acceptance and affirmation.

A community: under judgment, seeking to live with its own proclamation, therefore, truly loving what the Lord commands and desiring His promise.

And finally, let us dream of a people called to recognize all the absurdities in ourselves and in one another, including the absurdity that is LOVE, serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves,

who, in the company of our Clown Redeemer can dance and sing and laugh and cry in worship, in ministry and even in conflict.

Strategic Discernment, Not Strategic Planning … by Susan Brown Snook

I have participated in four separate strategic planning processes in various churches.  They each followed a different methodology, and each had similar results:

A group of dedicated people got together and worked very hard over several long meetings to create a plan.

  • A facilitator led us through a well-organized set of exercises to encourage everyone to contribute her or his ideas for the future.
  • With the facilitator’s help, we took a world of information and reshaped it into a set of goals and priorities, with timelines and responsibility assignments.
  • A beautifully packaged plan was created, summarized, presented, and affirmed by vestry vote.
  • In each case, we looked at the final product and felt in some unidentifiable way that something vital was missing.
  • The plan went onto the shelf and, after some initial attempts to follow up on identified action steps, was never seen again.

I know that the “shelf” is a common destination point for strategic plans in all kinds of organizations, not just the church.  But after the last time I experienced this life-draining process, I started thinking: maybe the church, of all places, is not the place to be doing strategic planning.

This is not to say that the church should just drift along and let happen whatever may.  That’s how we fall into bad habits and start believing that the church exists for the benefit of its members, and everyone who should be a member already is a member.  Our natural human tendency is to serve ourselves before we serve others; it takes vision and planning to remember that we have a broader mission to accomplish.

But the church is uniquely a Spirit-led organization, or should be.  And the Spirit is full of surprises we can’t anticipate or plan for.  It would be difficult to imagine the apostles in Acts 7 sitting down for a strategic planning session and determining that the next logical step would be to go out to the Gaza Road and wait for an Ethiopian eunuch to come along.  Who would ever think to do that?  Who would imagine that that young man holding the coats while Stephen was stoned in Acts 7 would turn into the greatest evangelist in world history in Acts 9?  Who would have suggested that Peter go to sleep and arrange for a dream involving unclean animals on a sheet descending from heaven in Acts 10?

In my church experience, most of the great steps forward I have seen weren’t planned.  They happened: the right person came along, the right location became available, someone heard a call from God they couldn’t ignore.  Yes, we channeled those outpourings of the Spirit in organized and planned directions, but they came to us as gifts from God.

This is why, as the church plant I lead is entering into a vitally important new phase (a move to our first permanent building), we are not doing strategic planning.  We are doing strategic discernment.  Where is God leading us? is the question we are asking.  We are not asking for a list of ideas, or a list of problems to solve, or a list of good stories that highlight the strengths we want to build on.  We are praying and discerning.

The process that we have designed starts with an extended period of meditative prayer (as opposed to what I have often experienced before – a perfunctory one-paragraph petition for God’s guidance before we get down to the real business of the meeting).  It continues with an extended “African” Bible study of Luke 10:1-12 (one of the classic passages on evangelism).  It then proceeds with some creative exercises to encourage people to use right-brain powers to envision God’s plan for the future.  Only after all those exercises do we start working on goals, priorities, and problems.

In other words, this process is our attempt to let our own thoughts and plans take a step back, and ask God to open our minds to God’s thoughts and plans.  It is a process of strategic discernment, not strategic planning.

You can see details of the process we have followed on my blog.

I am not saying that this process is the best possible way to do visioning in the church.  But we have had good results so far.  The group leaders (who are ministry leaders working with their ministry groups) report terrific, Spirit-filled visioning sessions.  The groups have come up with amazingly coherent plans that, without much effort on the part of the vestry, naturally highlight three or four clear, over-arching priorities.  Every group has, in one way or another, identified evangelism and discipleship growth as a clear strategic priority.

How have you done strategic discernment in your congregation?

How should we do it churchwide?

The Rev. Susan Brown Snook is Church Planter and Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, Arizona.

The First Mark of Mission, by Susan Snook

If you had asked me after the 2009 General Convention what I thought of the church’s chances of surviving more than another 50 years, I would have sighed deeply and asked you to pray for a miracle.  If you had asked me the same question after the 2012 General Convention, I would have said that maybe, just maybe, a miracle is starting to occur.

The Omnibus Resolution on Restructuring was a truly hopeful development, passing both houses unanimously, to great rejoicing.  But if restructuring is only about creating a different framework to contain the same arguments, it’s not going to take us where we need to go.  What we need in the church is a reawakening.

At Convention, I saw movements beginning to spring up, often among younger clergy and lay people, eager to jump start evangelism and mission in our church.  The Acts 8 Moment was one; Episcopal Evangelism Network is a second.  But these are movements on the fringes – do we have a hope of bringing them to the center?

I think we do, for the most prosaic of reasons: the budget.  Unlike the disaster of the 2009 budget, the disaster of the 2012 budget led to … wait for it … new hope.  Each of the Five Marks of Mission received a pool of money to pay for new mission initiatives.

My special area of interest is the First Mark of Mission (on which all the others depend, according to the official statement on the Anglican Communion website):  To proclaim the good news of the kingdom.  This Mark could be interpreted in a number of ways, but it assuredly includes ministries of evangelism.  The budget allocated $2 million over three years to this Mark, which is intended to include:

  • The “Mission Enterprise Zones” of Resolution A073
  • Church Planting
  • Funding for the Latino/Hispanic Strategic Plan which was passed with overwhelming support in 2009

The budget left it to Executive Council to decide how the money was to be allocated.  At the invitation of Bishop Stacy Sauls, I attended a gathering last week of church leaders who were convened to advise Church Center management in creating a proposal to bring to the Executive Council meeting in October.  The meeting included:

  • Two members of Executive Council (Stephanie Cheney and me);
  • Three former or new members of Program, Budget, and Finance (Bishop Alan Scarfe, Frank Logue, and Victoria Heard)
  • Five members of Church Center staff (Bishop Stacy Sauls, Sam McDonald, Tom Brackett, Kirk Hadaway, and Anthony Guillen;
  • Five current or former church planters (Victoria Heard, Frank Logue, Stephanie Spellers, Lang Lowrey, and me – some of us fall into two categories);
  • A representative from the church planting office of the ELCA (Mary Frances).

The group was clear that it was Executive Council’s job to decide how to allocate the funds, and this group was simply there to advise management on a proposal to bring to Executive Council.

I don’t want to go into details about the proposal we came up with, partly because Executive Council might decide to go in a different direction, and partly because we left a few issues unresolved (to be addressed via email).  However, you can read some highlights of our gathering on my personal blog, here.

A small thing that was of some personal interest to me: I really enjoyed getting to know Bishop Alan Scarfe.  He told some inspiring stories of mission during his young-adult days in England and Romania.  He also said that he had never been in a room with church planters before, and he found it very inspiring.  What a revelation!  I guess we church planters are unusual creatures, at that.  But I wonder how it’s different to be in a room with us!

We spent some time “dreaming” about how to start a movement in the church.  One of the fears we share is that there just won’t be enough novel and exciting projects out there to fund, which have sufficient diocesan buy-in to provide matching funds.  We didn’t figure out this question – how to start a missional movement.  Acts 8 folks: what do you think?  How do we start the church dreaming?  How do we midwife a new missional movement in the church?  How do we respond to our Acts 8 Moment?

Can You Hear Me Now? by Susan Snook

“Can you hear me now?” was the theme of an advertising campaign a few years ago.  If I recall correctly, it was a campaign for a cell phone company, showing people standing on their heads, leaning out of windows, hopping on one foot, etc., trying to get better cell phone reception.

Cell phone service is a bit better these days, but I think we are hearing each other less and less.  The image of an aging movie star talking to an empty chair at a political convention is perhaps emblematic of the age we live in, no matter which political party you sympathize with.  You can talk all you want to an empty chair, but you never have to listen to anything it says in return.  In fact, if you want to, you can put your own words in its, umm, mouth, and have a conversation with yourself.  God forbid you should have a conversation with someone you disagree with.

The gospel lesson we had on Sunday, Sept. 9 (Mark 7:24-37) surely has to be on every preacher’s list of her/his least favorite gospels to preach on.  Yet surely, if we open our ears the way Jesus opened the ears of the deaf man, surely this gospel has something very important to say to our age of closed ears and closed hearts.

I’ve read various excuses for the way Jesus behaves in this passage – calling a poor, desperate woman seeking healing for her beloved daughter a “dog.”  And I’m not satisfied with any of them.  I don’t think he was justified in testing her – I don’t find that any more attractive than calling her names.  I don’t think he was conspiring with her, winking at her as he called her a dog, while he tested the disciples to see what they would do.  I don’t think he was calling her a cute little fluffy puppy.  I don’t think he was telling her just to wait a little while and her turn would come.

I think he meant what he said – he believed that his mission was only to the Jews.

But then she spoke, and he listened.  Jesus changed his mind.

And yes, lots of us have trouble with the idea that Jesus might have changed his mind.  We want him to be all-perfect and all-knowing, from the very beginning.  We want him to have sprung full-grown from the womb of his blessed mother, reciting the complete works of Shakespeare (which hadn’t been written yet, but that wouldn’t matter to the Son of God).

But Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, so what if he needed to go through life learning and discerning his mission, just like we do?  What if he relied on the same cues we rely on to learn what God is calling us to do?  What if he had to worship, and pray, and read the Bible, and spend time talking with the people of God, and work to listen to the surprising insights brought by other people, in order to understand his mission, bit by bit?

He would be like us.  Because that’s what we have to do.  We have to worship, and pray, and read the Bible, and spend time in Christian community, and work to listen to the surprising insights of the people around us, in order to understand the mission of our church.

Why are we restructuring the church?  Why are our attendance and finances in decline?  Why is everything around us changing, and why are we failing to change alongside it all?  Why are we in an Acts 8 Moment?

Maybe we haven’t been listening to the people around us.  Maybe we’ve been answering questions they haven’t been asking.  Maybe we’ve been fighting battles they’ve already settled.  Maybe they have been listening to the sheer deafening volume of noise coming from the church, and they have just gotten tired of our shouting.

So what if we tried listening for a change?  What if we went to our neighborhoods and the people we serve and asked them what problems and issues are on their hearts and minds?  What if we sat down with community leaders and asked them what are the biggest problems in our cities, and what could we do to serve the people in them?  What if we asked our non-Christian neighbor where she finds God, or spirituality, or ultimate meaning, and truly listened to what she had to say?  I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, but evangelism begins by meeting people where they are.   What if we tried to listen and then discern what kind of emptiness God is calling the church to fill?

If Jesus listened to someone and changed the way he understood his mission, so can we.  Can we hear them now?

Standing in the Presence of God, by Susan Snook

In the sanctuary of Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, where I serve, one of our most cherished items is our icon of the Annunciation.  This is a true icon, written by Laura Fisher Smith, a noted iconographer (as well as the wife of +Kirk Smith, our diocesan bishop).

This Annunciation is different from most traditional depictions of this event, because we don’t see the angel. We see Mary, a simple peasant girl, at the moment when the angel comes to her.  Eyes closed, hands uplifted in an attitude of prayer, we see her experiencing God’s call to her.

Laura created this icon after a great deal of prayer, and after she and I had discussed our vision for this Annunciation icon.  We made the conscious decision not to depict the angel Gabriel, for who can really say what an angel looks like?  Surely all the gold and halos in the world cannot depict the sheer power and terror of standing in the presence of an angel.

But if we cannot imagine the appearance of an angel, surely we can imagine what a human being looks like who is open to the news an angel brings.  Mary, in our icon, is praying, open, humble.  She seems to be bathed in light from above.  She is preparing herself to say, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

I thought of this icon last week as our diocesan clergy attended a seminar on preaching as spiritual direction.  Our keynote speaker, Kay Northcutt, has written a book called Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction, in which she says that the true task of the preacher is not to explain, counsel, or entertain, but to act as spiritual director to the congregation.  In this role, we should help people who are yearning for God’s presence to begin to experience it.

Northcutt says that in our over-busy world, people are hungry for an experience of God.  How do we provide that in worship?  How do we help our congregations to learn spiritual disciplines that will open their hearts and minds to God’s voice?    I interpreted Kay’s model of the preacher as spiritual director as meaning that in preaching, we help people to ask questions about real-life experience like, where is God in this?  How is God calling to me right here and now?  The preacher then becomes the one who teaches spiritual disciplines to open our minds and hearts, and who calls the congregation to a life of noticing God’s presence and handiwork.

In our Acts 8 gatherings at General Convention, I think that many of us experienced an openness to God’s presence, through Bible study, prayer, and dreaming together about what the church could be.  Now that we are home, how can we call our congregations and our church into a practice of openness to God’s presence?  How can each of us act as spiritual directors to a yearning world?

Restructuring and Reawakening, by Susan Snook

I’ve been fairly silent since returning home from General Convention – partly because I came home, did my laundry, and headed out the next day on my family vacation.  We made it as far as St. Petersburg, Russia, this year – here’s a photo for you:

This is the interior of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.  We got there as a service was going on in a side chapel: incense burning, heavenly chant by the choir, priest arrayed in vestments of finest gold, people gathered, standing, silently bowing and crossing themselves and lighting candles as the service went on.  Of course the church in Russia was nearly dead during the Soviet years: 1,000 churches in St. Petersburg at the time of the czars had been reduced to about 5 or 6 still open by 1990.  Other church buildings were demolished, or turned into warehouses, military training facilities, or even (in one case) an indoor swimming pool.  Now, the church is coming back to life.  Five hundred churches are now open in the city, and in each one we entered (on weekdays), there were worshipers gathered for the Divine Liturgy in progress.  Christ is risen, indeed.

Which brings me to wonder why we are so concerned about the future of our church.  Amidst great anxiety about declining numbers and tight finances, The Episcopal Church gathered in General Convention this summer.  It was my second Convention, and after my first, in 2009, I wasn’t sure I would return.  The anxiety, conflict, and stuck-ness seemed hopeless.  We made some good decisions, but seemed unable to address the vital issue of how to reverse, or event confront, the church’s decline.

This year was different.  Not only did we address the issues before us, we did it with excitement and a sense of positive vision and hope for the future.  We created Enterprise Zones to encourage evangelism with new populations.  We agreed to move our church headquarters away from 815 Second Avenue.  We created a Task Force for Restructuring the Church. (By the way, if you haven’t yet applied to serve on the Task Force, the deadline is Thursday, Aug. 23, and the application is here.)

Like many people, I hope that “restructuring” is about more than, well, restructuring.  I hope this is not just another organizational quick-fix that changes a few lines of authority and re-draws our church’s flow chart.  I hope that instead, this “restructuring” becomes a reawakening.  I hope that we pray together, discuss together, gain insights from people not otherwise heard, and learn from each other.  I hope we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I hope this becomes a new beginning for our church, the start of an explosion of new energy, new ideas, and new people.

In the meantime, I have been elected, along with 37 other people, to serve on Executive Council, our church’s Board of Directors.  Members of Executive Council recently received a request to write a one-page introduction and name what we see as the three top priorities for us to address this triennium.  We also were invited to ask any questions we have about how Executive Council works.  For my priorities, see my blog post here.  I would welcome your comments and additions.

For Acts 8 folks – how should we be praying for this restructuring and reawakening to unfold?  How can we spark a renewal movement, through the kind of prayer and Bible study and vision for the future and dreaming that we shared at General Convention?  How can we begin to share what we have experienced, and what we long for, with people throughout the church?  It is my honest opinion that without prayer and reawakening, this restructuring will be simply a restructuring.  And that would be a loss for all of us.

I believe the most vital thing for us to discover is, how is the Holy Spirit leading us into a new era?  Difficult times have beset the church from the very beginning, and Holy Spirit has always led us into new possibilities we never would have imagined on our own.  Re-read Acts Chapter 8 if you have any doubts about this.  Or, if you still doubt that a declining church can be reawakened, maybe the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg will inspire you.  The refurbishing is almost complete.  The smell of incense fills the air.  The sound of heavenly chanting fills the hearts of the worshipers who gather to pray and hope and share the Eucharist together.

Christ is risen, indeed.  Alleluia.