Adopting a mission mindset for taking God's mercy and delight into the neighborhood
by David Skidmore
For Carrie Headington, the impact of an outward focused, welcoming church hit home in 2003 while watching Canon Michael Green rekindle hope and a mission-mindset in struggling Church of England parishes. Green at the time was evangelism staff officer for the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of evangelism and apologetics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.
Often just a handful of people attended these churches and Headington assumed they were on the brink of closure, but Green showed her they just needed help in recognizing God's call and taking that invitation to their neighborhood.
"I got absolutely hooked. I said this is what I want to do for the rest of my life," said Headington in her opening presentation to the Diocese of Fond du Lac's May 13 conference Taking God's Mercy and Delight into the Neighborhood. Seeing life restored and the joy that follows were a powerful endorsement for the call to evangelism. "What I saw was people coming absolutely alive. I couldn't wait to be part of doing this work."
Headington has been doing this work since becoming canon missioner for evangelism in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas in 2004 after earning degrees in theology, and evangelism at Oxford University. Along with giving workshops and consultations on personal and congregational evangelism for Episcopal dioceses and parishes and churches of other denominations, she has recently partnered with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in leading awakenings and revivals across the country.
On the Kentucky Derby weekend in May, she and the presiding bishop were in Kansas City for the Awakening the Spirit event, a revival that touched thousands touring the Power and Light district, and over 20,000 viewing the web stream.
"God is at work in our midst," said Headington "and it is a movement of the Holy Spirit."
Using the Book of Acts as a framework, Headington traced the rise of what Bishop Curry calls "the Jesus movement" from the encounter between two disciples and the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus to the days following Pentecost when Peter and Johns' preaching at the temple brought thousands into the faith.
The lesson here, particularly for those from small or rural churches, is that numbers aren't critical to effective evangelism, she said. "God plus one equals a majority," born out, she noted, in Christianity's rapid expansion from 12 disciples to 1.7 billion believers today.
Drawing from the Episcopal Evangelism Initiatives resource she developed with the church's evangelism officer, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Headington outlined three areas that congregations need to explore for forming and equipping its members to take God's mercy and delight into their neighborhoods.
"We need to be churches that are communities of Good News," said Headington. "We need to be churches that are communities for others. And we need to be churches that are communities of blessing."
The first ingredient in powering the Jesus movement in its first weeks was the awe and wonder that infused the disciples. "They were absolutely, positively overflowing with his love by their encounter with him," said Headington. And we need to cultivate that same spirit and passion, she said. "We can't give what we don't have."
The motivation that comes out of an encounter with the Risen Christ can be kindled through the richness of our worship, she said, as well as through renewal movements like Faith Alive and Cursillo, as well as retreats and Bible study.
Prayer is absolutely crucial, she said, to powering the mission to spread the Good News. In the Book of Acts, prayer is at the center of the gathered community; and in the Gospels Jesus often sought quiet space for prayer.
In the Diocese of Dallas they have the Harvest Intercessory Prayer Network which involves the community praying over evangelists before they are sent out, "and then we pray for the harvest," she noted.
Martha Grace Reese, Disciples of Christ minister, president of GraceNet, and author of Unbinding the Gospel, conducted a Lily Foundation funded study of 30,000 of the fastest growing churches, and found one common denominator, said Headington: Prayer.
Another example, she said, is Holy Trinity Church, Brompton in London, which was a dying church until a member started a Tuesday morning prayer meeting that slowly attracted a following, and grew into the Alpha Course.
The followers of the early church also knew their call to mission. Many of them were present when Christ gave his great commission, charging the disciples to baptize and to teach. We are all called to be ambassadors for Christ, said Headington, to be his hands and feet. The evangelism initiative handout, she noted, has resources to help congregations cultivate community outreach: mapping the sphere of influence, which radiates out from family and friends to social groups and civic organizations.
What we must remember and take to heart, said Headington, is that we have the most amazing news to share in God's unconditional love and total forgiveness and acceptance. Studies have shown that for 80 percent of Americans, loneliness is the primary source for their pain, she said. And the church has an answer.
"We offer that acceptance, not only the truth that our Lord is with them, but his body—the family of God—will come and wrap their arms around you."
Understandably, said Headington, many of us are reticent about inviting others to experience the Good News; or we see our weaknesses and shortcomings as compromising the message. We need to remember that God is the great evangelist, she said. "We don't convert anybody. This is not about our work and trying to twist people's arms to come to our church. This is about offering them an invitation to come to the feast."
Planned and coordinated by the diocese's Commission on Congregational Vitality, the May 13 conference in Waupaca drew over 110 clergy and lay members for a day-long conversation on discipleship, visioning, faith story-telling, and responding to adaptive challenge. Four workshops were offered in two installments, morning and afternoon, to ensure the widest opportunity for congregational teams. Sharing faith experiences was the subject of Bishop Matthew Gunter's workshop, Telling Our Story. In some traditions, such as the Presbyterian church in which he was raised, faith stories are known as testimony, which is simply bearing witness to a faith experience. As rector of St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn in the Diocese of Chicago, he introduced this practice, inviting members to share their experiences during the Sunday worship.
"It was powerful because partly it validated that person's experience," he said "but it also shared with the rest of the congregation that God was active in the world, active in the lives of their neighbors and fellow members."
Understanding the life cycle of congregations and how it effects vision and mission planning was the focus of a workshop with the catchy title, We Were Headed for Aruba; How Did We End Up in Anchorage?, led by CCV members the Rev. Joanne Skidmore and Cathy Cowling.
Congregations, like individuals and societies, have a life cycle, pointed out Cowling. "There is a moment in time when the congregation is born, when it is formed, and then there is a period of growth," and eventually stability, she said.
Congregations may find contentment there, which then risks stagnation. "If that is not addressed," said Cowling "then the congregation over time slips into decline. And if that isn't addressed it slips further into decline and will eventually die."
Two illusions can hamper the visioning process, noted Cowling: thinking that growth can happen without change, and that congregations can change without conflict. Parish leadership needs to be aware of this dynamic and prepare members to engage the challenge.
Central to discernment and visioning is being attentive to God's call through prayer. "It is important to remember that vision comes from God," said Cowling. "It is not something we create, but we welcome it."
Expecting people to find faith or renew their commitment to Christ by walking through the doors of a church is increasingly unlikely when nearly a quarter of the population is without religious affiliation. In a workshop led by the Rev. Jane Johnson of Intercession, Stevens Point and Joe Thompson of St. John's, Wausau, participants learned that traditional structures of a faith community, whether it be the building or how ministry is organized and exercised, may no longer be effective channels for spreading the Good News. With fewer than 10 percent of millennials attending a church, parishes are facing an adaptive challenge.
"If the church is no longer just getting into the buildings on Sunday mornings, and you are being asked by God to go out into the world and be the church out in the world, that is an adaptive challenge," pointed out Johnson.
While a congregation may be aware of the adaptive challenge, it may have difficulty addressing the solution, which goes beyond a technical fix, be it a change in worship times or the introduction of new formation or stewardship programs. The path to addressing adaptive challenge, said Johnson, moves the congregation from asking church-centered questions to God-centered questions.
"We have to stop asking the question: how do we fix the church. And we have to start asking how do we invest in the kingdom. How do we live out the kingdom?"
The day's focus on mission and evangelism was underscored in the closing liturgy built around prayers of supplication and the anointing and commissioning of the assembly for mission. The anointing happened at the tables with each person anointing another, and all laying hands on the person being anointed. In the prayers of supplication, Bishop Gunter led the assembly in praying: "We pray that in this new life we may call others into new life; that light may shine and salt may flavor; that with hearts and minds and souls and wills we may so love you, Lord, that your love may be incarnated among us and to all whom you give us as neighbors."
Handouts with resources dealing with communication, demographics, evangelism and mission, hospitality and welcoming, leadership and planning, and scripture reflection can be found here.
Videos of the keynote presentation and the workshops can be found here.
More about the Commission on Congregational Vitality here.