Recently, I was asked how I would go about raising the profile of the Episcopal Church. It was a brief conversation and there was much I could have said that the time and context did not permit. There is much that can and should be said about the topic and I am certain much of it will apply to other churches just as well as the Episcopal Church. For starters...
Focus on the Mission. ~ This will require overcoming the tendency to dwell too much on internal issues. Differences over race, war, human sexuality, and the language of worship have consumed enormous amounts of time and spiritual energy for the last half-century. When those outside our Church think of us, what do you suppose comes to mind. If they are honest, they might tell us things that reflect an inward focus and a preoccupation with differences. What if, instead, they were to tell us about where they have seen us reaching out to others with the love of Christ? I encourage my congregation to turn facing the doors of the church at the end of the service. When the Deacon gives the dismissal near the Baptismal Font and the doors that lead out into the world, we are reminded of the Great Commission to "Go into all the world..." We came here today to be fed in Word and Sacrament so that we would be equipped and nourished to return to the good works God "has prepared for us to walk in." Those red doors we are so proud of open outward!
Stop apologizing, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. ~ Who wants to come to a Church whose members talk about how we don't have much Bible study, don't all look and think alike, or don't have many children or youth. We have much to offer! Our Church is grounded in a tradition that embraces diversity, exults in artistic expression, loves beautiful liturgy and music, encourages people to think and wonder, and regularly asks God to "make us faithful stewards of thy bounty." I once got so tired of hearing people apologize for being Episcopalians that I considered a campaign with bumper stickers and buttons that read "Unapologetically Episcopalian." Remember the Johnny Mercer song?
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene
Learn to live with change. ~ Here's how some people think of us. Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Four. One to change the bulb and three to sit around talking about how much we liked the old one. We are a Church that has high anxiety about and strong resistance to change. That is difficult to reconcile with a faith whose founder's core message was metanoeite! - repent! Turn your life around! Change! Inability to change interferes with life in the kingdom of God. We also live in an era of rapid change. Organizations and individuals who lack agility and are slow to change are left behind. The needs and opportunities around us change daily and if our response does not change we will fail in our mission.
Tell the story. ~ Don't be shy about it! It is the greatest story ever told and it must find expression in your life and mine "wherever we may be." We had a Discovery Class last weekend to prepare several people for the Laying on of Hands when the Bishop comes to visit. One man was raised in Nigeria near the border with Cameroon. When he came to America, he gave up on Christianity because the he felt that the missionaries had lied to him by not telling him about racism in this country. When he came to Lawrence, he felt called back to Christianity but was not able to find a community of faith that was right for him. So, one day, he was thinking about his friend, Garth. He said, "I want a faith like Garth's. So, I asked Garth where he went to Church and he told me about Trinity Episcopal Church. I've been coming here ever since and now I want to belong." How did Garth tell the story? He lived it! Perhaps his approach is an illustration of St. Francis' admonition, "Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words."
Be redundant. ~ In carrying out the mission and telling the story, we have to be redundant. That's not so hard to do when you realize the media available to us. Social networking, electronic newsletters, interactive blogs and websites, video recording, public appearances, interviews with broadcast and print media, and innovative use of our physical locations are but a few ways to spread the word. Some congregations with active environmental stewardship teams put the church emblem on reusable shopping bags with a message such as "Caring for God's Creation." We have to be more assertive about getting the message across. Jesus promised that we would do even greater works than he did. When we think of the abundance of resources at our disposal to do his work and deliver his redemptive and life giving message, we can see the truth of his promise.
Here's a video about "The Missional Church" that may help tie these thoughts together as we consider how to raise the profile of the Church.
One thing is for sure: no one of us can do it alone! The first thing Jesus did was to form a community and the last thing he did before his Ascension was to commission that community to continue his work in the world by involving others in it.