14 August 2005

Membership

Last week I was chatting with the priest at my church in charge of Mission and Evangelism (Fr. Lou), and we discussed a "newcomer/about our church" brochure that followed the general format of a four-part series of classes we're kicking off this year. The four parts are titled "Membership", "Maturity", "Ministry", and "Mission". The rest of this post is my first draft of my idea of the section on "Membership". If anything like this is used in any way, shape, or form by my church, it will probably be very much changed from this version, but everything else I post here is a rough draft, so here you go. It's undoubtedly way too long and would need to be edited to be used in a brochure, particularly given that it's part 1 of 4, but maybe we could have a booklet or something.

It's in the form of a Q&A, and I envision the whole brochure to be sort of an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) list, like you find all over the web. Also, if you happen to have read Brian McLaren's book The Story We Find Ourselves In, you'll note that it blatantly owes a major, almost plagiaristic debt to that book. (Though I haven't opened that book in a couple of months and therefore hope I haven't literally plagiarized it.) Anyway, if it seems to make sense, I'll follow up with the other three sections, though they become increasingly about my specific church, so they may not be of much interest. So without further ado, my "Membership" Q&A:

Why are we here?

Why are we here in this church? Or why are we here on this earth? Never mind; we’ll take a crack at answering the first question, and maybe it’ll shed light on the second one.

We’re here in this church because we’ve heard a story—a story so compelling that we can’t resist joining our own life stories to this larger story: God’s story. We’re here in this particular place because we’ve personally connected with one tradition of tellers and doers of this story known as “Anglicans” (which means “from England”), who in this country are known as “Episcopalians” (which means “Bishop people”), and we’ve especially connected with the folks here at this church. More on all of that later.

So how does this story go?

Well, like we said, it’s the story of God, so it starts out with God’s Creation of everything we see and experience—the universe, the earth, plants and animals, and each one of us human beings. (At this point, the story of God becomes the story of God and human beings.) This creation is ongoing, and God created you and me just as surely as God created the first microscopic amoeba.

That sounds nice. Then what happened?

As in any good story, there has to be a Crisis. This one’s no exception. Human beings made bad choices: they didn’t honor and care for God, the natural world, and their fellow humans the way God intended them to. The sad truth is that we all make the same kinds of choices every day. You’ll hear these bad choices referred to as “sin.” These bad choices can make (and have made) the world a sometimes difficult, sometimes horrible place to live.

I’ve noticed that we’ve got some problems. What did God do next?

One striking way in which God chose to deal with this problem was to Call a particular family from among all the peoples of the earth, and commission them with a special responsibility: to do their best to tell this story the way God originally intended it, to bless (that is, benefit) all the other families of the world, and to guide them toward healthy relationships with God, nature, and each other. This family was the descendents of a couple named Abraham and Sarah, and they became known as the Israelites, the Hebrews, or the Jews. Both Judaism and Christianity grew out of the culture that this family developed into.

How did that work out?

Humans being humans, results were mixed. On the up side, Hebrew culture produced many shining stars in the form of Prophets, Priests, Poets, and Philosophers (as well as regular folks) who kept up a lively Conversation with God, and who lived out their calling to tell God’s story and to guide others toward good relationships with God and creation. On the down side, the Israelites kept right on making bad choices, just like everybody else, so in the grand scheme of things, not much progress was made toward resolving the crisis.

Hmm. Is there any hope, then?

Human beings always hope, and after hundreds of years of persecution due to their own bad choices and those of others, the Hebrew people had developed lots of specific expectations regarding God’s next move to resolve this crisis. Most of them revolved around a figure known as the “Messiah” in Hebrew or the “Christ” in Greek. (Both words mean “made holy using oil,” since the Israelites used to set people apart for a holy purpose by a ceremony in which oil was dabbed on their heads.) Many people expected the Messiah to be a great military leader who would free them from their current oppressors, the Roman Empire.

What actually happened was something that no-one expected. A boy was born to a poor family of carpenters who lived in a place called Galilee, out in the hinterlands of the Jewish territory. When this boy, named Jesus, grew up, he began preaching that something called the “Kingdom of God” had arrived, so people had better kiss those bad choices goodbye and get right with God and the world.

He spent three years walking around the Jewish lands, hanging out with outcasts, caring for and healing people, and telling stories about this Kingdom of God and what it was like. Although he was completely peaceful, people began to catch on that this guy might be the “Messiah” they’d been waiting for, and some folks were afraid he’d upset the political applecart. He was already upsetting the religious establishment by welcoming outcasts and telling people that love for God and people, not strict religious observance, was the most important thing.

So for those reasons, the religious and political powers of the time put Jesus to death by hanging him on two crossed beams of wood (a “cross”) until he died. (This was a common Roman method of execution.)

Three days later, Jesus came back. This is known as the “resurrection.” He showed up again and again and showed his followers, who had been grieving and frightened for their own lives, that God was more powerful than the oppressive powers, and he was living proof. He told them that he had a job for them to do: to bring the good news about Jesus and the Kingdom he ushered in to the entire world, and invite them into the sort of relationship with God, nature, and other people that God had in mind from the beginning. He also promised them that he would always be with them, and they called their experience of the empowering presence of God within them the “Spirit” or “Breath” of God.

Really??

Those first followers of Jesus were pretty surprised too. But looking back at Jesus’ life, death, and especially his resurrection, they couldn’t escape the conclusion that in seeing Jesus, they had seen God in a way that had never been possible before on this earth. Since Jesus always called God by the name “Father”, they spoke of Jesus as the “Son” of God. By trying to follow in the footsteps of this Jesus, people could finally become free of their bad choices, and enter into a new relationship with God and people that Jesus had referred to as the Kingdom of God. Jesus also called this relationship “eternal life”, because it meant living life to the fullest, the way it was meant to be lived, with such confidence in God that there was no need to fear that it would ever end.

So they got busy with the mission Jesus had given them, and started telling people this good news (another word for “good news” is “gospel”). They came to be called the Church. This building is “a church”, but The Church is the community of all the people who follow Jesus, past and present. The Church carries on Jesus mission of welcoming everyone (including outcasts), caring for and healing people, and telling this story and the good news about the Kingdom of God and eternal life.

OK, but is that the whole story? Because I think we’ve still got a crisis here.

That’s not quite the whole story. Although the Kingdom Jesus talked about had arrived when Jesus walked the earth, it still hasn’t fully arrived. But Jesus spoke of a Kingdom that was both “now” and “not yet”, but which is coming, fully and completely. We have confidence that God is bringing this whole story to final Consummation, that the Kingdom will be fully present on earth, and that God will wipe away every tear and everyone will experience the sort of life that Jesus called “eternal”. We want to play some small part in helping to bring that about, which is why we’re here in this church, and maybe also why we’re here on this earth.

Wow. So where did all this come from?

The story you just read is the story told by a book called the Bible, also known as Scripture, which is actually a collection of books written over a period of a millennium or two by the people experiencing the story. Christians believe that these writings were “inspired” by God, which means that God’s Spirit was intimately involved in their composition. In our Anglican heritage, we interpret Scripture using two other gifts from God: Tradition, or the collective wisdom of the Church, in its rich and varied forms, over the last 2000 years; and Reason, or the exercise of our own God-given minds and hearts. These three, Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, are sometimes referred to as the “three-legged stool” on which the Anglican tradition sits.

OK, so this was supposed to be about membership. I’m intrigued, but do I need to buy every word of that before I can join in?

Nope, not at all. Now you know the basics of our story. If you’re intrigued, or even curious, we’d love to have you. Join us as we go about trying to live a good relationship with God and our fellow human beings, and try us on for size. To further explore, please consider attending our regularly scheduled class on “Discovering Membership”. Following Jesus is an adventure; grab a safari hat, hop aboard, and journey with us for a while!

2 comments:

Jessica Monte said...

This is user friendly and not over-my-head as I said at Nutley park. The voice is inviting and though easy-to-read, is not condescending. The content is very Christian though with an appropriate openness that I've only experienced at one Catholic Church here in VA. If I were a new Church comer interested in a more open minded Episcopal church (as opposed to something looser, like the Unitarian church), I'd probably feel comfortable with the environment described or projected in this brochure.

By the way, the writing isn't too shabby either. I'd like to read some of your fiction if you still have some lying around.

Nice, Mike. Liked it much.

Mike Croghan said...

Hi Jessica,

Thanks for your feedback. I really do appreciate your taking the time to check this out.

Re: fiction...er, well, I actually haven't written much fiction since college, during which I also wrote not much fiction. When I sit down to write something, what comes out usually is an essay--or maybe a sermon. However, you can read something very, very silly that I started to write here:

http://tinyurl.com/9nz2m

If you explore the rest of that site a bit, you might figure out why I started to write something so remarkably silly. Some day maybe I'll write chapters 3-10.

Peace,
Mike