February 23, 2010
I have enjoyed the chance to visit a number of Episcopal parishes and congregations of other Christian traditions in recent months. Recently I led a workshop for two parishes in Eastern North Carolina. St. Andrew's, Morehead City and St. Paul's, Beaufort both appeared to be healthy and growing in the faith at least to this outsider. Fifty people came together on a Friday night to consider Christian Community after some of them had taken on some fairly serious reading (Raymond Brown’s Community of the Beloved Disciple and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together). A snow storm Saturday Morning caused our sessions to be rescheduled for Saturday afternoon and about forty people were able to change their [pans and get through the snow to St. Paul’s to continue our work together. I tried to imagine being able to reschedule something at All Saints’ at such short notice and wondered whether we would be able to identify everyone who attended on an Friday and find their contact information and have that many of them willing and able to change their plans at such short notice. We may be spoiled with the opportunities we enjoy here, but in Beaufort they were hungry enough and enough of a community to make the change happen. They appeared to love and appreciate their clergy and one another and it was good for me to be reminded of the fidelity of the church in a rather different set of circumstances than mid-town Atlanta.
On another front I have been teaching a section of contextual education for students at the Candler School of Theology, most of whom are preparing for or exploring congregational ministry. I have been to a number of communities including Baptist, AME, United Methodist, and the Church of Christ. These congregations have been all over the metro area. Some are large and thriving, while others appear to be in a season of decline. Only one is in deep conflict with the presenting issue being the style of music and the deeper issues being wider societal change with some embracing change and others resisting it. I have a general impression that the further out from the city center we get, the more churches seem to be thriving with fairly traditional models of ministry of the kind implied in our course curriculum that looks at preaching, worship, service, education, pastoral care and the like, almost as separate disciplines from each other. One notable exception is the North Atlanta Church of Christ, a ‘progressive’ example in an American separatist, ‘Christ against Culture’ type of denomination. They have made some serious and intentional decisions to become racially diverse under the leadership of their current preaching minister and they seem to be growing in that direction as a result. This is in stark contrast to one congregation who are dealing with the aftermath of what could be described politely as a ministry of ‘dysfunctional helping’.
I am increasingly sure that the way toward some kind of Christian Unity today must be through addressing the reality of ‘difference’ and moving toward embracing such differences around the Lord’s Table rather than seeing to make that table a place of agreement or unanimity. On one hand this could be a recipe for cheap grace and chaos. It is also possible however that it could be a way of beginning to grasp the much greater unity of all creation in the ‘mind and heart’ of the Creator. It certainly means being intentional and conscious about what is going on when we ‘engage God and neighbor’ as our strategic thinking group has put it. I will be working with our newly appointed All Saints’ 2020 steering committee to think about ways in which we can become conscious of how to recognize, understand and even appreciate difference as spiritual work that serves to deepen both our faith and our common cause with all of creation.