Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Future Means Mission, Mission, Mission, Mission

It is now nearly a month since we finally managed to elect a new bishop in Tennessee. The result is that for the first time in thirty-eight years of ministry I now look forward to being led pastorally by an ordinary who is younger than myself. Indeed, we go from having a bishop who is a great-grandfather to one who still has a kid in elementary school!

The other day I was in a business meeting with Bishop-Elect John Bauerschmidt, and laughingly he casually pointed out that at forty-seven and if the canons remain unchanged, he could be bishop for the next quarter century -- leaving office somewhere around 2030-2031. As one of the youngest potential members of the House of Bishops it is possible that he could have quite an impact on Anglicanism as it works out its future in North America.

This got me thinking about what things might look like if Dr. Bauerschmidt remains here, like his predecessor, until he reaches the maximum canonical age for retirement.

For starters, the world will be a very different kind of place, global warming or not. If present trends continue then the USA is likely to be the declining superpower while China could possibly be the rising superpower -- and with their huge populations, it is difficult to tell what sort of influence in human affairs China and India will wield.

And what will the Christian scene be like in China? Will their present growth in both numbers and influence mean that they will be in a position to shape the policies and strategies of their government and nation, or will they still be the harassed and sometimes persecuted body that they presently are? There are many Chinese Christians whose vision is to evangelize westward toward Jerusalem, and if this starts happening in some kind of significant way, what will it mean for relationships between China and the Islamic nations that sit in the Chinese Christian path?

By that time Islam will have changed as well? Whatever the state of Islam in its traditional heartland, it will certainly be an increasingly important player in Europe where the Muslim population continues to proliferate. I have seen statistics that suggest there will be more active Muslim worshipers in Britain by 2028 than there are Christians...

While all this is going on, what will be happening in North America, for these things are bound to influence the American churches? It is hard to say what the implications are, but the shallowness of much Christianity on this continent today does not auger well as the future comes to meet us. Whether we are talking the mainline churches and Roman Catholicism, or the conservative churches and evangelicalism, in too many quarters depth is strangely lacking. This suggests that as postmodernity and whatever comes after it charges ahead, there will be little in the way of a strong Judeo-Christian response to its self-centered, radically individualistic tendency toward destructive and unbridled hedonism.

Neither do Christian demographics look particularly encouraging for almost anyone, because as we move from older age groups to younger, a smaller and smaller proportion of each generation has any Christian involvement. In the Episcopal Church we might be worrying about the lack of youngsters, but quite a few others are not far behind us.

Which brings me back to the challenges facing the Bishop-Elect of Tennessee. The first, obviously, is to work out how to steer the diocese through the mess created by the actions of the last couple of General Conventions. Having stuck together more or less until now, we are beginning to see the first cracks. What is very clear is that the Diocese of Tennessee, as most other dioceses will not look anything like it does now by 2030-2031 if it still exists.

I suspect that during the next few years we will see just how unworkable in today's world geographical dioceses are. The future shape of dioceses is tied to fundamental questions that have yet to be answered about what exactly it means to be part of the Episcopal Church, whether the Episcopal Church is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, and what the consequences at the grassroots all the way up the food chain will be if the Episcopal Church is not.

Besides, the Episcopal Church is going blithely on, totally ignoring the demographic realities that are rapidly catching up with it. It is an aging entity, and in many parts of the country seems incapable of adding new members by transfer, bringing in new converts to Christ, or where there are younger people increasing numbers by biological growth. Even without the defections that result from the actions of the General Conventions, this is a biggy that is being blatantly ignored despite statistics that scream out and plead for radical evangelistic and church growth action.

When I was on the 20/20 Task Force in 2000-2001, as we looked at the evidence in front of us it seemed that this attempt to create a mission-driven movement was the last great hope of the Episcopal Church of the USA. Our goal was to double the church by 2020. First, our proposals were pulled apart by the Executive Council, and then got lost beneath the sexuality agenda; right now ECUSA will be doing well if it has only shrunk in half by 2020. When the Episcopal Church effectively abandoned the 20/20 vision I realized even if it took a while, a huge question mark now hung over the future existence of this denomination.

I draw attention to this because if I was to be bishop of a diocese for the next twenty-five years in the midst of the present storm, I would concentrate every resource I had on mission, mission, mission -- and not and endless succession of social action projects, but working in every way to equip lay Christians to share their faith, to raise up young leaders who will work to guarantee a tomorrow, and to develop congregations with spiritual depth and theological integrity. If we did that the other stuff would follow.

Quite frankly, this is the only way any of us have any future. We can play church games but they don't bring people to faith in Christ and help them grow as pilgrims on the Christian way. Given what he is about to have thrust upon his plate, I do not envy our bishop-elect, although I pray for him every day. One thing I do envy, however, is that he has a quarter century in which he can make a difference for Jesus Christ, and a by-product of that will be the building up of a mission-driven and very different kind of diocese than the one he has inherited. If he does not do this, then he could have the sad task of being the one who puts the lights out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a lifelong Episcopalian who is fed up with both the liberals and conservatives within the church. The arrogance and absurd posturing would be comical if it were not so pathetic. If only humility were available in pill form and our bishops (and indeed all of us) would agree on such a perscription. As it is, I would argue that they (Episocopal -> governed by bishops) bear the primary responsibility for the sad state of the church today, which I feel is losing its integrity and spirituality. What is the Middle Way we should be following today? I used to know how to describe the Episcopal church to curious outsiders, but I no longer know quite what to say. It's sad because our tradition has so many great things to offer. Perhaps some day in the future our current controversies will seem as strange and beside-the-point as the passages about circumcision in the New Testament seem today (at least to me). But in the meantime, it's hard to know how a focus on mission can make sense if our own house is a bit of a mess. It's rather like inviting someone to dinner and then taking them to a cafeteria food fight. Actually, that might be rather fun, but it's not how I would want to eat on a regular basis.