Many people are searching for a good church in this time of spiritual confusion in mainline churches. As an Anglican priest I have a preference for traditional Bible teachings and sacramental worship - but have also fought a thirty-year war against non-biblical teachings in the Anglican Church. Like many seekers I have bumped around and discovered the power of more charismatic music and worship in Messianic Jewish, Roman Catholic and evangelical churches. During the Covid lockdowns we have all had a wonderful opportunity to church shop online and discover new options. I have had the wonderful opportunity to train for and do "interim ministry" in over a dozen churches and share what I have learned in the resources below. The short answer to "where's a good church" is one that scores a high balance among "Orthodoxy, Community, Relevance and Outreach" as explained in the questionnaire below. Best practice would be to print the questionaire and fill it out after you visit a church and see its strengths and weaknesses. The other resources below will help you understand what it is you are looking for. I will respond to comments and emails - email@example.com.
Thriving Church Questionnaire
1. Orthodoxy – How in touch with the truth is this church?
2. Community – How in touch with your personal needs is this church?
3. Relevance – How in touch with the times is this church?
4. Outreach – How in touch with the needs of the community is this church?
5. Circle the number on the scale below from your average scores above - see any areas for growth?
- The Interim Ministry Opportunity
- St. Georges, Calgarys New Visioning Process
- Vision # 1: A Spirit Led Church
- Vision # 2: A Forgiving Church
- Vision # 3: A Healing Church
- Vision # 4: A Loving, Transforming and Serving Church
- Vision # 5: A Christ-centred Church
- Vision # 6: A Praying and Proclaiming Church
1. The Interim Ministry Opportunity
The alternative is to size the interim opportunity for healing and re-thinking direction. Most parishes tend to be moving in the direction chosen by their clergy, so a change of clergy is the best time for a review of direction - before the new priest is interviewed. The good news is that there are clergy who have been specially trained and who have experience in several other parishes doing interim ministry. The standard 80 hour course provided by the Interim Ministry Network teaches priests how to minimize tension by developing a contract with a parish and diocese, how to smoothly enter and exit the scene, and how to help the parish move through the five key interim tasks:
The following materials include a link to the Interim Ministry Network which provides excellent training and educational support for clergy, a description of a the Bandy visioning process at St. George's, Calgary and five sermons on alternative Biblical visions.
2. St. Georges, Calgarys Visioning Process
1. Determining “Core Values”
- Spiritual Growth
- Church Family
- Prayer and Praise
Then it got interesting. Most Anglicans have never thought about what they really believe - we tend to ’leave that to the Minister’. The Focus Groups met again to discern a list of seven “Basic Beliefs”. All existing Parish groups became Focus Groups. St. George’s started three additional groups to include anyone else. Part A was easy - we started with a sheet that included the Apostles Creed, Lord’s Prayer and Eucharistic Prayer 3 (BAS). Each person underlined the words they wanted to discuss and circled the phrases that were most important to them. To move this from a head exercise to a heart exercise we then asked each person to take five minutes to record a traumatic incident in their life and the three beliefs that had helped them at that time. Then we came to the hard part. Most groups had to have two meetings. We were asked to imagine ourselves as a group of Christians meeting in a home when the neighbours who are not Christian come over obviously distraught. The tell the group that their daughter has just phoned and is contemplating suicide. They are asking for help. “What would we as Christians have to say to the daughter to give her a reason to live”? This is a terrible question, but it helps us know what we should say to the person sitting beside us on the bus.
- Life is God’s gift.
- Gods’ love is unconditional.
- Jesus died so that God will always forgive us.
- In the power of prayer.
- God has a plan for our lives.
- In the guidance, comfort and healing of the Holy Spirit.
Our next step was a number of visioning services where has sermons on alternative visions (posted below) based on the readings for the Sunday. These were prayed about and discussed in small groups which came to a consensus on the following vision for St. Georges:
- St. George’s is a Christ-centred community that equips and empowers people by praising God, praying, studying Scripture and participating in the Sacraments.
- We take Christ to the spiritually oppressed so that they will receive the victory of wholeness and hope.
- We equip ourselves for ministry to the sick and wounded using prayer, study and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to identify needs, discover our calling and be Gods’ love in action.
- We proclaim the truth of Gods’ love and forgiveness to everyone, especially to the vulnerable and to the oppressed, by advocating for justice, praying for righteousness and feeding the whole person.
The last step was to synthesize this all down into 15 words that we include on our bulletin and use in our dismissal every Sunday.
“We proclaim Gods’ grace, love, forgiveness and
3. Vision # 1: A Spirit Led Church
1. Jesus is founding a new Church
In a parallel to Jesus own Baptismal anointing, He breaths on them and they all receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is to replace Jesus as the 'leader' of the new church. Notice how in the Gospel reading (John 20.19 - 31) Jesus also passes what is essentially divine authority on to the community of Disciples.. In a startling sentence he tells them that "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them they are not forgiven." (20.23). This is very clear. It is very exclusive. It is also not very politically correct. It means that only those who are part of this particular group - not the Jews, Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists; can be given forgiveness in Jesus name. This is not to say God may not have an alternative for these groups. He may, it's just that we do not know about it. This is why membership in the Church is so important. This is why we define membership so carefully as being 'in Communion' and why the Church has had such a long history of battles over who is in Communion with who. We are facing an example of this in the Diocese of New Westminster where seven parishes have rejected the authority of the Synod and Bishop and formed the "Anglican Communion of New Westminster". Our salvation hinges on forgiveness in Christ. Inclusion is a critical issue.
2. The Holy Spirit replaces The Hebrew Law as the source of authority
Following the Covenant with Moses and the Ten Commandments, Hebrew scholars and teachers had developed a very detailed set of rules to govern their religious life. The problem was that they spent so much time arguing the details and substituting human wisdom, that many began to ignore God and loose their connection through prayer and prophecy. Logic and argument had replaced the Holy Spirit and prophets as the source of wisdom and authority. In today's Gospel Jesus corrects this by anointing the Disciples with the Holy Spirit as a sign that this is the source of authority that they are to listen to. This was prophesied in Joel (2.28) who said "I will pour out my Spirit on all people.." Christians are Baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The church Jesus founded is to be Holy Spirit led.
3. The Church is to be a community
Notice that Jesus comes twice and stands "among them". He is not reaching out to individuals sitting anonymously at home in front of a TV. Jesus is reaching out to those who come together in faith. The community tests our love and models our forgiveness. The Church is not to be 'me and my Bible' as many people who have not learned to love claim
We are to be a Holy Spirit led Church
We are not to be led by the 'smart guys' or people with agendas. We are not to be led by people without love who have only studied the Bible - particularly the 'evangelicals' who often tend to turn the Bible into a new set of rules similar to the Hebrew "Law". We are not to be led by managers and politicians. We are to be led by people who pray and listen to the Holy Spirit on a daily basis. These are the people that Jesus comes and stands among.
4. Vision # 2: A Forgiving Church
This is the second vision of the Church that we are looking at as we try to discern what the Bible and the Holy Spirit are saying to us now about our own mission as a particular church with a particular history and situation. Last week we looked at how the Disciples adjusted to the departure of Jesus and His replacement as leader by the Holy Spirit. This week we are looking at forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity. Forgiveness is the reason Jesus had to come and give His life to defeat the power of the evil One. The correct translation of the Lord's Prayer is "deliver us from the evil one". Jesus sacrificial death - if we claim it; pays the spiritual price and makes forgiveness possible.
1. We grow spiritually as we forgive.
Anger and bitterness are the poison of non-forgiveness. This poison blocks our joy and prevents us from being in a right relationship with God through Jesus. Many people are not even aware that they have been hurt - often long ago, and are still are angry at God, angry at other people or angry at the Church. We do not like to face this reality. In fact many people are in deep denial about their anger or bitterness. The good news of Jesus is that now there is a way to forgive, to be forgiven and to free ourselves from the bondage of un-forgiveness.
2. The Church is to preach repentance
There can be no forgiveness without repentance. Repentance means we have exposed and renounced our secret guilt and broken its power over us. Our repentance and turning to Jesus for forgiveness opens the gate to grace. The grace of Christ flows down over us, washing away the shame of our guilt and restoring us to a 'right relationship' with Jesus and with each other. The writer of 1 John (1.3) tells us that "Everyone who has this hope in him (Jesus) purifies himself." This is the power and good news of faith in Jesus. This grace is free. We can not earn it by promising to be good or doing good works. It is a free gift to us only as a consequence of having this hope in Jesus. Our forgiveness is not cheap - it cost Jesus His life. We have to remember that there are no "Cross-less Christians". In our Baptism we are spiritually connected to Jesus death on the Cross. We celebrate this good news every Sunday. As a Church we try to be a people who have gone through repentance to joy. We are not to be a "happy clappy" Church that denies the continuing reality of sin. We are not to be a Church stuck in the guilt and shame of personal piety. We are all to be always on the move, facing our guilt but moving through forgiveness to joy. The joy of our spiritual life comes out of the ashes of repentance.
3. The Church is to proclaim forgiveness in Jesus name
We do not do this in our own name - that would be Psychology. We are proclaiming a much deeper forgiveness in the spiritual realm. The spiritual realm has laws which we barely understand. One of them seems to be that rebellion or sin must be paid for. The good news we proclaim is that Jesus has paid the price for all human sin. There is nothing we can do that God will not forgive, as long as we repent and plead the blood of Christ. The challenge is that many people have trouble believing believe this. They do not believe that God could forgive them. Their God is very small. Our job is to help people come to Jesus for forgiveness.
We are to be a forgiving church
We are in the forgiveness business. This is what we do. Unfortunately many people have been hurt by judgementalism in churches. Insecure people in churches tend to judge and look down on others. Our challenge is to be so diligent in self examination, repentance and forgiveness; that we clean out our own spiritual garbage, become secure in Christ's love and radiate joy. This will give others the confidence they need to come to us, go through the self-examination and repentance process and receive forgiveness. We are to be a forgiving Church.
5. Vision # 3: A Healing Church
6. Vision # 4: A Loving, Transforming and Serving Church
We are examining Scripture to see what the Bible says about what we are to be and do as a church. What we are to be is our motivating vision. What we are to do is our key mission. It is critical to define these very precisely and gain a consensus. If a church does this well, it will save its vestry and leadership a huge amount of time in repeating long arguments over priorities. In the ideal thriving church; issues are decided not by long leadership meetings that focus on control; but by checking the idea against the vision and mission. These are the boundaries. Anyone may do anything within these boundaries without having to seek approval. The job of the leadership is to maintain and interpret the vision and mission. So what do we really mean by being a 'loving. transforming and serving church'?
1. Love is a verb
Love is an action word. It means someone is doing something. M. Scott Peck defined love as "extending yourself for the other". The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8.26-40) illustrates this. Philip is led by an angel. Notice it does not say 'vestry had a meeting' or the Committee on Evangelism had a meeting and decided'. This is how declining churches work. In the church of the New Testament, individuals are operating freely withing a mission statement (to preach and heal) under the guidance of angels or the Holy Spirit. Philip doesn't need permission, control or supervision. Philip goes out - here is the verb. He runs up to the chariot and engages the Ethiopian in conversation. Philip is motivated. He is on fire with the love of Jesus. He loves Jesus and loves all of humanity. He is exploding with the good news of God's love in Jesus. This love gives him the energy he need to run up to a complete stranger and meet him where he is. This is what the Prayer Triads at St. George's have been learning how to do in coffee shops in the North East. Philip can only do this ministry of preaching because he knows the story, is following the guidance of the Holy Spirit and is motivated by love.
2. Love drives out fear
Love and fear are two sides of a coin. We are all in a tension between being motivated by our love and controlled and bound by our fear. Fear is what is behind the judgementalism and control that can paralyse a church community. My quote of the week is "Religion is for those who are going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there." Love moves us beyond friendship to 'intimacy'. Thomas Bandy, author of "Kicking Habits", my favourite Church Growth book, compares two churches. "St. Friendlies" is declining while "New Hope In The Heart" church is thriving. One offers a very friendly community, the other an intimate personal relationship of transforming love with the risen Jesus.
3. Love transforms us into servants
St. Friendlies could easily describe a typical Anglican church that offers people a chance to serve on committees that talk about and control ministry. New Hope In The Heart, the thriving church; offers people a chance to be personally transformed by love, gifted, called, equipped and sent out to do ministry. They have found the 'Alpha secret' - many people are not happy with their lives, want intimacy and meaning and are willing to be transformed to get this intimacy and meaning. It is this new hope, this motivating vision that energizes people and leads to church growth. The church becomes a place where people want to be.
Churches need a motivating vision of love, transformation and servant-hood
It is important to understand the radical nature of this love. It is easy to confuse what the Bible means by "love" with 'niceness' or "friendliness". There seems to be almost an unspoken assumption in some churches that if we can just get a 'nice minister' everything will be ok. By "ok" we might suspect they really mean they won't have to actually do anything - like risking change or being personally transformed. Thriving churches are places where most of the people are on a personal journey of transformation, energized by the healing power of love. This means letting go of our fear. It means letting go of "my way" and allowing us to try your way - particularly when we feel certain your way is particularly silly. Love teaches us and gives us the courage to refocus from 'my needs' to 'your needs'. This is the process of being transformed into a servant. A servant who dies to self with Christ so they can be raised with Him.
As more and more people die to their fear of the future and are raised with new hope in their hearts, we build a church that loves, transforms and serves.
7. Vision # 5 - A Christ-centred Church
The readings specially chosen for today all point to the importance of Jesus as the central focus of our vision of who we are as a church. Habakkuk tells us to wait for Jesus. John tells us to believe in Jesus. Luke tells us to watch for an experience of the risen Jesus. If we were to think of ourselves as in the business of marketing, then Jesus - the real Jesus who died and rose from the dead, would be our 'product'. Jesus is what separates us from the many other religions and forms of spirituality that float around us in the world. Our motivating vision as a church is not centred on being a good person, doing good works, keeping the Ten Commandments, obeying the Church or experiencing the Holy Spirit. We may do all of these things. They may be very important to us. But the central focus must be on Jesus as the one who saves us. Jesus is the one we are Baptized into a relationship with. Our motivating vision as a church is how we describe our experience of Jesus in this particular church family.
1. "We believe that Jesus died so that God would always forgive us."
These stunning words have come out of a visioning process at St. George's Anglican Church in Calgary. They were discerned by ordinary people meeting in focus groups to determine their "basic beliefs" in contemporary language. These words capture the essential difference of Christianity in one sentence. No other religion offers the hope of complete forgiveness from wrongdoing before death. No other religion offers such a self-sacrificing, loving image of God. All we are required to do is believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that we are connected to His death and resurrection through our own Baptism. It is this belief in the uniqueness of Jesus that defines us as a Christian community and includes us in the covenant of forgiveness. We begin a lifelong and eternal spiritual relationship with Jesus as we believe in Him. This means that we do not depend on, or believe in, our self or our own goodness for our salvation.
2. We are all on the road with Jesus
Many Christians have their own Emmaus story. We may meet Jesus during a crisis in our life. We may meet Him in the Eucharist as we celebrate another opportunity to be forgiven and re-energize our Baptismal relationship. Like the travellers on the road, we know it is Jesus because our hearts burn with joy inside us. We also experience the risen Jesus as our hearts warm while we are in our personal prayer time, singing praise songs or in public worship. Some of us are privileged to see the risen Jesus working with us as we pray for healing or walk with people in spiritual direction. Two of the words that begin to describe us best as a church family are "Christ centred".
Our motivating vision is a description of our shared experience of Jesus
For each of us this experience will be a little different. Some people have recently become serious Christians and are still waiting, like Habakkuk, for a personal experience of Jesus. Others are still like the travellers on the road, who were kept from recognizing Jesus while He was right there with them. It is up to those who have had a personal experience of the risen Jesus to take the lead and share their knowledge with others. We do not determine a vision by majority vote. We discern it using spiritual principles. One of the spiritual principles is that the Holy Spirit will reveal the same idea or image to more than one person. When one person speaks it, others will catch the excitement and agree. Our community is like an 'engine' of truth. The question to ask and consider in discerning our motivating vision is "what is it about various experiences of Jesus that excites people in their spirit, and draws them into the community?" It may be a song that reaches deep inside us to light a fire. For some people it may be an image or a picture. For others it may be a Bible verse or word of knowledge given in prophecy. As with all issues of spiritual discernment, each person's contribution must be tested by the spiritual reaction of others. Does it excite everyone, or just a few people with a particular agenda?
The final test of the motivating vision will be "Is it Christ-centred?
8. Vision # 6: A Praying and Proclaiming Church
We end this series of visioning homilies by re-examining what Jesus himself claimed as His mission. (Luke4:16-21) Notice that Jesus mission is very radical, not politically correct and created conflict. The religious authorities of His time decided they had to kill Jesus. Jesus clearly comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. Our own Motivating Vision as a church family must not be watered down to avoid controversy or be popular. Our "Motivating Vision" will be a song, image or statement that says how we plan to carry out this mission of Jesus. What are we going to do together to become anointed to proclaim the good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to prisoners and release to captives?
1. How are we going to ensure our mission is prayer based
Notice it does not say that Jesus went through Rabbi School and was selected by a committee. He did not work His way up through the religious hierarchy. Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit. His authority and authenticity was given directly by God. We can be sure there was a long life of prayer before this happened. The stories of the healing miracles authenticated what Jesus taught. Jesus was not just a smart, holy man. This was God intervening in human history in response to over a thousand years of prayer for a Saviour. The people at St. George's have been praying during our visioning services for "words of knowledge". We have been given these through a number of individuals and Prayer Triads. Our "Motivating Vision" itself is prayer based. It also needs to indicate how our work as a church will continue to be prayer based.
2. How are we going to proclaim the good news to the poor ?
The "poor" are any people that do no know the good news of Jesus love and forgiveness. Many of the people around us are spiritually impoverished. They do not really know or believe that Jesus loves them or that all their sins can be forgiven through Jesus sacrificial death on the Cross. Notice that "proclaim" is an active word. We are not to sit at home, respecting others religious freedom and their right to die in their sins and not have eternal life. We are to love them more. Our "Motivating Vision" must indicate how we are to love other people like Jesus and actively proclaim the good news.
3. How are we going to proclaim freedom to the prisoners ?
Many people are in the invisible prisons of false religion, guilt, shame and open mindedness. They are prisoners to wrong ideas about God. They can not believe that God loves them and wants to forgive them and heal them. Our vision must indicate exactly how we plan to free them by proclaiming the truth. We can not force them to believe. We must respect their freedom to choose. Our "Motivating Vision" needs to indicate how we plan to free those who are in these invisible prisons.
4. How are we going to proclaim recovery of sight for the blind ?
This is a further clarification of proclaiming the good news and freeing prisoners. Jesus has given us a very deep spiritual mission. In healing prayer, we literally "speak healing" to whatever is causing the blindness or illness. We pray for healing of the physically blind. We also, much more commonly, pray for the healing of the spiritually blind. This is how the "prisoners" are released. Healing is the other half of proclaiming. Healing is the consequence of proclaiming. The church is in the healing business.
5. How are we going to release the oppressed?
Again we are being even more specific on why we proclaim the good news. We are to take on both human and spiritual oppressors. Inactivity is not an option. Un-involvement in controversy is not an option. It does not say form a committee or encourage others. Jesus is saying to us - You, John, release George over there from whatever is oppressing him. If it is poverty, find him a job. If it is an employer go to the employer and confront him in person. If it is a demon or spirit of sickness, take authority over the it and command it to leave. All Martin Luther King said was that discrimination was wrong. He proclaimed.
Our mission is to make a difference - the visioning question is how ?
The mission is not to be good, civilize children or just keep the Ten Commandments. We are to first discover and then proclaim the good news of God's healing and forgiving love in Jesus. It is dangerous. We expect controversy, opposition and conflict. We are in the business of proclaiming truth, being changed and changing lives. Our "Motivating Vision" as a church tells us exactly how we plan to do this.