Yesterday, I was reflecting on the lessons appointed for Morning Prayer from Psalms 63, I Kings 4 and Hebrews 3 and two stories in Anglican news this week. I found three remarkable contrasts that bear upon the ways that we lead wherever God has called us to lead.
The first has to do with our “flesh” or the physical bodies we inhabit. I remember Dallas Willard sharing with on a pastors’ retreat that we are “embodied spirits” as human beings made in the image of God. He said that our physical bodies are the “power pack” that God has given us and the very first place that God has granted us the freedom to exercise good and Godly stewardship and dominion. No wonder the enemy targets this area of our lives first. Paul describes this repeatedly in his letters where he points out that hearts and minds hardened to God, and suppressing even the truth that can be known of God from creation alone, turn us “to the degrading of our bodies,” “shameful lusts” and “indecent acts” (Romans 1:24-27), sensuality, and indulgence in “every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Sometimes as leaders we abuse the very bodies God has given us to steward. Often it is through overwork, stress and anxiety that we are led to “medicate” symptoms through habits that are neither healthy nor Godly. As leaders seeking to follow the Lord with all our heart, we are painfully aware of the ways we are dealing (or not dealing) with our bodies. We carry around a weight of shame and guilt that further undermines our leadership and our witness.
This misuse of our bodies, this indulgence of the flesh, is also at the heart of our culture’s rebellion against God, in the name of individual autonomy, and leads to terminal narcissism and the loss of both common good and community. But did you read the lesson from Psalm 63, the Biblical contrast to such misuse of our bodies? “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh also longs after you…” (Ps. 63:2, Coverdale, BCP 2019 at 346). Can you imagine what it would be like to have our physical bodies, our “flesh,” longing for God rather than the temptations we feel every day? If we take seriously the words of the Psalmist, it is possible! Imagine what it would be like for us as followers of Jesus Christ to exercise such good and Godly stewardship over our physical bodies. What impact would that have upon our own health, our own witness and those we lead?
Those are among the very questions we will be addressing in “Foundations for Leadership” at The American Anglican Council Clergy Leadership Institute on October 22-24 in Thomasville GA. If you are in the ordination process or a leader in your first five years of ministry, you can find out more and register here.
The second contrast is around the answer to the question “who is truly well off”—one of the four questions every person must address that we are examining in our new Anglican Perspective Video series on “questions for the Global Anglicans in the 21st century”. Specifically, we are looking at the contrast between the secular worldview—which has invaded and captured many Western Anglican churches and leaders—and the Biblical worldview. According to the secular worldview—apart from God—the person who is truly well off is the one who is simultaneously exercising unlimited freedom to define reality any way they want while overcoming anyone who is oppressing or victimizing them. In addition to the logical impossibility of harmonizing these values, the result of this world view is what we read every day in the headlines: strife, violence, poverty, hunger and war.
By contrast, did you read the Biblical worldview on who is truly well off in God’s kingdom, in the Old Testament lesson from I Kings 4:
“The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy… During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree…” (I Ki. 4:20, 25)
What a wonderful vision of what our own societies and cultures could look like under the gracious and anointed rule of God. No hunger or thirst or want. No homelessness. No violence. A people who are able to pursue and experience happiness to their heart’s content, living in safety. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of such pictures of what a good and Godly society can become, under God’s justice and provision.
The third contrast is between the reports of the decline in The Episcopal Church (TEC) membership and the dedication of the new worship space for The Falls Church Anglican (TFC) Sunday September 8. You can find photos of their new space and Rector Sam Ferguson’s sermon on their webpage here. I was especially blessed by the 7 minutes video of the Wednesday night “ascending to the temple mount” service of the TFC family as they entered that new, second story sanctuary for the first time! You will be blessed by the faithfulness of God and his people at The Falls Church, their worship and the sheer encouragement of what they have received from the LORD as you watch this video.
So, it would be easy to move into an “I told you so—serves you right!” with regards to the decline of membership in TEC, especially after years of ongoing litigation in which Anglicans like those at The Falls Church lost their buildings. But I am chastened by the fact that many of the same forces at work in TEC are also at work in our own ACNA congregations. Let’s be honest—we came out of that house, just as the Israelites came out of Egypt. It took 40 years of wandering in the desert and the death of almost an entire generation before Israel got “Egypt” out of themselves. One of the reasons the American Anglican Council has shifted our focus to mission—developing faithful leaders and renewing congregations—is precisely because we do not want our Anglican Church in North America to wander in the wilderness for forty years!
One of my favorite bloggers within TEC is The Crusty Old Dean. He is a former Academic Dean of the Bexley Seabury Seminary who speaks with candor about TEC (even though we disagree theologically) He wrote a very penetrating article, “The collapse is here” in response to TEC’s release of its declining membership. He identifies a number of factors that have contributed to the decline in membership: failure to keep up with population growth and change in our communities, “we are older and whiter than the society as a whole” (demographics), conflict, secularization (we have become a largely post-Christian culture), the perceived toxicity of Christianity to the largely unchurched population and the end of denominationalism, to name but a few. He then concludes with this observation:
“So we actually don’t need a lot of think pieces: members are dying and we are not replacing them. It’s pretty straightforward.”
Let’s be honest: isn’t that also true for a lot of Anglican congregations in dioceses and communities across North America?
That’s the challenge we address fearlessly and compassionately in our ReVive!, ReNew and ReFrame workshops in Church Revitalization, in our upcoming pre-conference workshop on “Moving your Parish from Maintenance to Mission—together!” at New Wineskins September 26 and in the new video series on personal and relational evangelism by canon Mark Eldredge that we will be releasing next week.
I have many friends at The Falls Church Anglican, and a daughter who was privileged to serve there as a youth ministry intern and then as a fellow. I’ve watched and listened over the last ten years how they have faced all of the forces the Crusty Old Dean cited, prayed through them, trusted the LORD, and gave themselves away in mission. Under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. John Yates II, at great cost and with great faith they sent hundreds of their best leaders (and tithing members!) off to plant new churches in Washington DC, the Beltway and Winchester, VA. They are focusing now on how to serve the diverse community in which they are now relocated along Route 50. They “joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property,” (Heb. 10:34) by baking and leaving a cake with a warm welcome for those from the TEC Diocese of Virginia who took possession of the buildings. On Sunday July 14, I listened to their new Rector, the Rev. Dr. Sam Ferguson, proclaim from Colossians 2:1-10, 16-23, unwavering and continued commitment to the clarity, authority and truth of the Bible in shaping their worldview, their vision and mission in the years to come. Without a doubt, the leadership and people of the Falls Church Anglican have embraced an Anglicanism that is fully confessional, Biblical, apostolic, evangelistic and generously missional. They are conservative, they are leading people to Jesus Christ, they are ministering to the needs of the community—and they are growing and planting.
The Falls Church has a new house. It’s amazing and you can’t miss it from Route 50. I’m reminded of the second lesson, from Hebrews 3:
“And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” (3:6)
As the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but God’s word stands forever.” (Isa. 40:8). As Anglican leaders and as followers of Jesus Christ, may we always find our hope, our vision and our courage in God’s word!
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council.