Another year of Episcopal decline

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Jeffrey Walton reports on another year of decline for the Episcopal church.

The 2013 reporting year saw a continuation of the downward trend, with a membership drop of 27,423 to 1,866,758 (1.4 percent) while attendance dropped 16,451 to 623,691 (2.6 percent). A net 45 parishes were closed, and the denomination has largely ceased to plant new congregations.

The new numbers do not factor in the departure of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, of which the church continues to report over 28,000 members and over 12,000 attendees, despite the majority of South Carolina congregations severing their relationship with the Episcopal Church at the end of 2012. If South Carolina departures were factored in, the membership loss would be closer to 50,000 persons.

The decline offers contrast with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which reported growth in membership, attendance and number of congregations in its 2013 statistics this June. ACNA was formed in 2009 by departing Episcopalians who disagreed with the liberalizing direction of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church.

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What’s the goal of apostolic (=missional) ministry?

I’m working through Romans with the help of Douglas Moo. Moo does a great job of unpacking the importance of Paul’s phrase, “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). He argues that “the obedience of faith” captures the full dimension of Paul’s apostolic task. Paul was not just an evangelist making converts, he was an apostle making disciples and forming communities.

The obedience of faith is the goal of Paul’s apostolic task. A lot of people are running around these days using the term “apostolic,” a term that is functionally equivalent to “missional”. It means different things to different people. How does Paul use the term? According to Moo, 

Paul saw his task as calling men and women to submission to the lordship of Christ (Rom 1:4b and 7b), a submission that began with conversion but which was to continue in a deepening, lifelong commitment.

The obedience of faith begins and ends with submission to the Lordship of Christ. You can’t have the kingdom without the King.

Obedience alone is just another form of legalism. Paul works for “the obedience of faith” among people who were far from God. Moo again,

This obedience to Christ as Lord is always closely related to faith, both as an initial, decisive step of faith and as a continuing “faith” relationship with Christ. In light of this, we understand the words “obedience” and “faith” to be mutually interpreting: obedience always involves faith, and faith always involves obedience. They should not be equated, compartmentalized, or made into separate stages of Christian experience.

The obedience of faith is not a second level of Christian experience post conversion. You can’t separate faith and obedience, obedience and faith.

Paul called men and women to a faith that was always inseparable from obedience — for the Savior in whom we believe is nothing less than our Lord — and to an obedience that could never be divorced from faith — for we can obey Jesus as Lord only when we have given ourselves to him in faith.

Evangelists might feel that their work is done when someone believes. Not an apostle. Paul won individuals to faith in Christ, then he always formed them into disciple-making communities. No discipleship without church formation. 

Viewed in this light, the phrase captures the full dimension of Paul’s apostolic task, a task that was not confined to initial evangelization but that included also the building up and firm establishment of churches.

“The Epistle to the Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament)” (Douglas J. Moo)

A church in exile

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Over at First Things, Andrew Walker responded to the reports on the Hillsong press conference in New York in which the church leadership has decided not to take a public position on LGBT issues.

Brian Houston has since clarified his position and explained that he was misunderstood. Andrew Walker’s response is still worth reading. Some good insights from a movements perspective.

First, if I were writing the Art of Cultural War, this is the strategy I’d use to bring the opposing side to heel. The steps look something like this: Relativize the issue with other issues. Be uncertain about the issue. Refuse to speak publicly on the issue. Be indifferent toward the issue. Accept the issue. Affirm the issue. Require the issue. Hillsong is currently on step three. I don’t think they’ll stay there.

Second, a non-answer is an answer. Let’s be very clear on that. It’s also a very vapid answer. What we’re seeing in many corners of evangelicalism is a pliability that makes Christianity an obsequious servant to whatever the reigning zeitgeist (spirit of the age) is. With non-answers like this, it isn’t Jesus who is sitting at the right hand of the Father. Culture is. Perhaps Hillsong would rather abide by a “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” policy on matters of orthodoxy. That’s their prerogative. But let’s be clear that this is not the route of faithfulness.

Third, this isn’t an issue over whether gays and lesbians should or should not be welcomed in church. This also isn’t an issue over whether young individuals within the LGBT community have faced bullying. Bullying of all sorts is deplorable and should be condemned, and not because the Human Rights Campaign says so, but because Jesus says so (Matthew 7:12). What this issue is about is whether the church models faithful obedience to Christ in a way that both honors Scripture and loves its neighbor. Hillsong thinks it’s doing both; but is actually doing neither.

Fourth, Hillsong thinks itself a contemporary and culturally relevant church. Perhaps it is. But as Christians, we don’t get to define what “relevant” means in terms that are unquestioning of what our culture means by “relevant.” I submit that Hillsong is a church in retreat. A church in retreat doesn’t give answers. It doesn’t storm the gates of Hell. It settles and makes peace where there is no peace (Ezekiel 13:10). A church in exile . . . is one that is faithful amidst the culture, regardless of whether that culture looks more like America or more like Babylon. It knows that it may lose the culture, but that it cannot lose the Gospel. So be it.

UPDATE: Some more wisdom from Andrew Walker following Brian Houston’s clarification. Every Christian leader who wants to remain both faithful to the teaching of scripture and engaged with the culture should take note.

Brian Houston issues a clarification

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Brian Houston has put out a clarification regarding his comments on homosexuality at a New York press conference.

He  explained:

Nowhere in my answer did I diminish biblical truth or suggest that I or Hillsong Church supported gay marriage. I challenge people to read what I actually said, rather than what was reported that I said. My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject.

I was asked a question on how the church can stay relevant in the context of gay marriage being legal in the two states of the USA where we have campuses. My answer was simply an admission of reality – no more and no less. I explained that this struggle for relevance was vexing as we did not want to become ostracized by a world that needs Christ.

He urged people to read the full tex of what he said not just the newspaper headlines.

Good to have the clarification. Even better to be clear from the start. This issue is not going away.

The sound of silence at Hillsong

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According to Jonathan Merritt

At a press conference for the Hillsong Conference in New York City today, Michael Paulson of The New York Times asked Houston to clarify their church’s position on same sex marriage. But Houston would not offer a definitive answer, instead saying that it was “an ongoing conversation” among church leaders and they were “on the journey with it.”

Houston says that he considers three things when evaluating the topic: “There’s the world we live in, there’s the weight we live with, and there’s the word we live by.”

He notes that the Western world is shifting its thinking on this issue, and churches are struggling to stay relevant. The weight we live in (sic), he added, refers to a context where LGBT young people may feel rejected or shunned by churches, often leading to depression and suicide. But when Houston began speaking about the word we live by or “what the Bible says,” he refused to offer a concrete position.

Merritt adds

Carl Lentz, pastor of Hillsong’s New York City location, made similar statements on CNN in June, saying Hillsong in New York City has “a lot of gay men and women” and he hopes it stays that way. But he declines to address the matter in public because, in part, Jesus never did.

“Jesus was in the thick of an era where homosexuality, just like it is today, was widely prevalent,” Lentz told CNN. “And I’m still waiting for someone to show me the quote where Jesus addressed it on the record in front of people. You won’t find it because he never did.”

Lentz’s wife, Laura, chimed in: “It’s not our place to tell anyone how they should live. That’s their journey.

Have Hillsong decided to go all Brian McLaren on us?

I hope I’m wrong, but it doesn’t look good.

What I learned from Peter

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When I catch up with someone like Peter Roennfeldt I expect to learning something.

Our coffee by the lake the other day was no exception. Here are a few insights. . .

Many of us are working hard hoping that somehow that what we do will result in making disciples. It doesn’t and we don’t know why.

Often it’s the “tweaks” that make all the difference. But we can’t see it without input from another practitioner outside our situation.

The couple in Bosnia signed up to make disciples and plant a church. They established many relationships. Yet no one had come to faith and gone onto discipleship. The couple were disappointed.

Many of us are well connected in our communities, but we’re silent witnesses. There are people out there ready to learn more about Jesus, but we’ll never find them if we don’t ask. We need simple methods like Discovery Bible Study, sharing our story, sharing God’s story, praying for needs. Someone like Peter needs to train us and help get us started.

Peter will no doubt circle back with an email, a Skype call or another visit and find out how the new groups are going? He’ll want to know are people coming to faith in Christ? Are any groups reproducing? How will you help the groups form into churches? How can you train others to do what you are doing?

Get some basic training. Start reaching out. But don’t go the journey alone. Make sure you have other practitioners and mentors like Peter speaking into your life and ministry.

Coffee with Peter Ronnefeldt

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Peter Roennfeldt was in town yesterday so came out to see me. We took a walk in rain around the lovely Victoria Park and then sat down for coffee at the Pavillion by the lake.

Peter has been in Bosnia encouraging church planters. As he does all over the world.

He met up with one couple who were well connected in their region but had see very little fruit. He asked them what do you do once you’ve established a relationship? How do share with them?

They weren’t too sure. It’s a common problem. We think presence is enough. Somehow by osmosis people will come to faith. Say nothing and let your life speak. No one comes to faith, but at least we’re being faithful.

So Peter taught them a simple method of Discovery Bible reading groups. Then they hit the road and started visiting the contacts the couple had established.

They went from household to household throughout the district visiting 40 homes.

After two weeks the couple had started 30 Discovery Bible reading groups.

A must read

I’ve just received my advance copy of Contagious Disciple Making by David and Paul Watson.

I’ll have more to say once I’ve read it. I first met David Watson six years ago. His method of Discovery Bible study as the key building block of a disciple making movement has made all the difference in so many contexts around the world.

What can I say? Get this book and read it!

“Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery” (David Watson, Paul Watson)

New edition of the Four Fields manual

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Nathan and Kari Shank have released a new edition of their Four Fields manual.

From church to movement: Nathan Shank [podcast]

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Trekking on the Nepal-India border with Nathan (2nd on left). I’m 3rd right.

Following the theme of helping existing churches fuel disciple making movements, Nathan Shank talks to Steve about his experience in North India.

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