Being a Christian today – who just happens to also be an Anglican Priest – feels weird. Yes, weird! And I don’t say that lightly. The really weird thing about feeling weird is I feel this way both inside the Church and outside where I’m trying to live a faithful Christian life in today’s culture. Feeling weird as a Christian outside the Church probably makes more sense to most Christians too. So, let me start there.
There has been a significant cultural shift (at least here in Canada), that has left us Christians struggling to even be noticed, let alone relevant, in our society. We’re clearly a minority group, especially as Anglican Christians. A recent statistic shared by Revd Dr Peter Robinson at a recent conference at my church told us that between 2002 and 2007 attendance in the Anglican Church of Canada has dropped 50% and one article suggests that by 2061 there will be no Anglicans left in Canada. Increasingly, we feel like, as Stanley Hauerwas has said, ‘resident aliens’ in a culture whose imagination has lost its once Christian understanding of the world.
But not everyone can relate to feeling weird inside the Anglican Church. Isn’t this supposed to be the place where we feel safe and comfortable? Now don’t get me wrong. I do not particularly feel weird about being the priest and incumbent at St. John’s, Portsmouth. I love my ministry here and the people. But I do feel weird belonging to the institutional called the ‘Anglican Church of Canada’. Why? Because from what I see the things we’re doing and ‘we think’ are important to our mission and ministry is not connecting with many people.
For instance, we’ve spent a lot of time fighting about same-sex marriage as if once we figure things out people will flood into our churches. I don’t see any evidence of that happening. In fact, I really don’t think society in general cares about what we decide as a Church to do on this issue, including LGBTQU people. Or, it’s increasingly popular to talk about being environmentally responsible in the Anglican Church. Every time you open up the Anglican Journal there is an article about how environmentally responsible, we should be. Yet, I don’t see us having any impact on the culture in this regard. Or, social justice issues continue to be a hot topic issue at parish council, diocesan and national meetings. Yet, again, nobody is noticing. But what I find really weird inside the church are the clergy (including myself). We act as if we still live in the 19th century, when clergymen (that’s because we were all men back then!), were put on societal pedestals. We walk around with our dog collars on and parade around in our flowing robes thinking people will notice us. But, in reality, most people couldn’t care less about us clergy and just think we’re weird. Besides if they did pay attention to clergy, peoples’ heads would spin listening to our different opinions on what Christianity is all about. It’s pretty hard these days finding two Anglican clergy who believe in the same thing.
Now, again, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that all the things I’ve listed that we do in the Church are not important. They are. Yet, I believe it’s weird that many of us THINK these thinks are noticed by the culture and somehow on their own will attract people into our church. Even though there is no evidence that they are, we keep on doing them. Now, that’s weird, doing the same thing over and over again even though it doesn’t work!
So, what does need to be done so that – at least if we can’t stop feeling weird – we feel weird for good reasons? I don’t think we can change the fact that we feel like resident aliens in our secular age. And, I don’t think giving up our Anglican traditions is the answer. But, at least, we should take a step back and rethink why are we doing what we’re doing and remind ourselves of who is God and what He is doing in this world. What makes the church weird is that it often assumes it knows who God is and what He is up to in His world. I emphasize His world because it is His world. He is the creator and we are His creatures. But, like the culture around us, we as a Church act like it’s our world and assume we can just invite God to join in on what we’re doing. We assume we know what the world needs and it’s our job to convince everyone else of that.
For instance, this is how we tend to approach our worship. We come to Church on Sunday mornings for a top up on our spiritual life and with a list of things we need from God, instead of coming to see what God is up to and has in mind for us. American novelist Anne Dillard says in one of her books
We have this idea that when we come to worship it’s a nice, safe and comfortable place. But instead, we should be coming prepared to have our world turned upside down. We should come expecting that to happen. If worship is just a nice, feel good thing, then we do not really know what’s going on when we gather together.
Worship is not about us coming to God with our agendas, but God coming to us with His. God comes to us by the power of the Holy Spirit when we gather together to worship Him in the liturgy of the Word and Communion to inform and shape our hearts and minds so we may know how to live as followers of Jesus in a for the world. Worship is meant to be a formative experience so that we’re brought into line with what God wants us to be and do in His world.
Accordingly, we need to completely rethink how we, as a church, typically look at mission. First, God does not have a mission for the Church in the world. I bet you didn’t expect me to say that. What I mean is mission is not just another task on a list of things the church needs to do for God. Rather, mission is fundamental to who we are as Christians and the Church. Why? Because mission is fundamental to who God is and what He’s doing in His world (I say ‘His’ world because it’s His not ours!). In Jesus Christ, God is calling everyone in His world to be the people they were created to be, God’s beloved children. Since the Church was created and sustained by God to be one with Him and thus, participate in what He is doing, mission is fundamental to who we all are and do too.
That means everything we do as God’s people is about mission, everything! How we worship, how we pray, how we spend time with others, how we spend our money, how we orient our lives in general is based on being disciples of Jesus who are always learning how to reach out to the world on God’s behalf. How do we do this?
For the answer let’s consider what it says in Luke 10.1-10 where Jesus sends seventy of his disciples out in pairs to share His gospel. What do we learn about mission here? First, there needs to be a sense of urgency! When Jesus sent out the seventy, He says, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers or few. There is a sense of urgency in Jesus’ words. There are lots of people who haven’t heard about Jesus and His good news, yet is there anybody willing to tell them about Him? There are lots of people hurting and struggling at the physical, emotional and spiritual level at work, in our neighborhood and even in our families. Yet, how many of us are sharing the gospel with them? Do you feel this sense of urgency? If not, why not? Why did Jesus feel urgent about spreading His gospel? Answer, simply, compassion. And the only way you can have the same compassion for people is when you learn about and formed by Christ’s compassion for you.
Second, don’t expect it to be easy. You’re likely thinking, I don’t want to talk about my faith with my friends and neighbor? They’ll think I’m weird and reject me? You’re right, that might happen! And Jesus knows that. That’s why He says when Jesus sent out the 70, see, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. The disciples and Jesus Himself were rejected. So, it’s no surprise you will be too.
But, third, engaging in mission should be fun if we do it together. Notice that Jesus sent out the 70 in pairs and when they returned it says in v. 17, the seventy returned with joy … . When I was involved in various church missions – in Honduras, on Queen’s Campus, and when visiting another church with a team from my church, the result was always excitement. Why? First, you felt you were doing something important. Second, you became close with the others you were doing it with. And three, it deepened your own faith in Christ.
Fourth, don’t wait to be ready. When Jesus sent out the 70, he didn’t give them a handbook or lead them through an 8-week course on how to share the gospel with others. In fact, there is no evidence He prepared the 70 whatsoever for their task. Jesus says to them, carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, … . They were sent out with not manual or directions! It’s was clearly a bare bones mission! The point being made here is not that you shouldn’t think about what you’re going to say to people. The point is, the ultimate sharer of the Gospel is the Holy Spirit, not you or me. Our job is simply to witness to Jesus and the Gospel. It’s God’s job to convince and bring people to Himself. If Jesus could make use of a bunch of uneducated fishermen, He surely can make use of you too!
I now leave you with a few practical things you can do. First, pray for people you know that are not Christians. Put a list of people you want to regularly pray for on your fridge, and, of course, pray for them regularly. It’s amazing what a difference it will make on your level of compassion for someone and the opportunities that will open up for you to talk to someone about Christianity. Second, take some time and write what you would say to someone about why your faith in Christ is important to you. Make sure what you write is no longer than 1 page! It’s important that what you say to people is simple and concise. I think one of the main reasons we’re scared to talk to others about our faith is because we can’t articulate what we believe to ourselves. Well, the only way to change that is to work out what you believe and write it down. Once you do, you’re well on your mission way.