I recently attended a course on Church Revitalization at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in order to learn more about Revitalization. As the American Anglican Council’s (AAC) Director of Church Revitalization, it just made sense! One of the presenters, Jim Singleton, gave a very good, succinct summary of the challenge our churches are facing in America. He described how we are living in a time of transition in the Christian culture that requires a different response from the church. We’ve moved from a “Christendom” time in the mid 1900’s where most of the culture was Christian or at least knew Christian morality. Many of the people in our churches experienced this and loved it. We are now in a “Missional” time where the culture is not mostly Christian. This is new to many of us and we don’t like it.
As I pondered this reality and how it relates to our vital need for revitalization in our Anglican churches in North America, I thought of the classic statement, “The Church is supposed to be a hospital for Sinners, not a hotel for saints.” Even though we all probably agree with that concept, the reality is that for those of us who grew up in “Christendom”, the church being a hotel for Saints actually worked just fine. Now, in these “Missional” times, we have to shift to actually being a hospital for Sinners. Making that shift is hard. We know how to be a hotel. We know how to set up things to look nice for existing Christians to come in, be comfortable, and enjoy our churches. We don’t know how to set up an emergency room where we help hurting, unchurched non-Christians who have no idea how to behave in church. We don’t know how to set up surgical wings and long term rehabilitation centers to help people become mature followers of Christ. We just didn’t have to before.
As I said, in the “Christendom” culture that many of us grew up in, most people were Christians and learned how to be a “good” Christian primarily in the home. It was just part of the culture to learn how to be like Christ. The church was just a place for the gathering of existing Christians for worship and fellowship but not much else. Like choosing between hotels, Christians would just pick a church that suited their preferences, and price, to stay in. Our “hotel” has stained glass and theirs doesn’t or ours has guitar music and theirs only organ. If some believers liked their “hotel” better that was fine. Those days are gone. The reality is that our culture is no longer mostly Christian. If you’re honest with yourself, you already know that, even if you don’t want to believe it.
So, part of revitalizing our churches today will require that we learn to become “Sinners’ General Hospital”. Revitalization will require becoming the “Missional” church that our times call for and our culture desperately needs. The word mission means to be “sent” or better, “propelled out.” We must learn how to go outside our church walls and connect with “sinners.” And like first responders, bring them into the Church (hospital) to find the healing only Jesus can provide. This is actually the kind of church Jesus calls us to be anyway. In John 20:21 when Jesus first appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, he said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” As He was sent out from Heaven on a mission to save us, even so we are sent out from our churches on a mission to unsaved “sinners.”
If you remember, Jesus’ mission style was a change for the people then too. The already religious people of the day preferred the hotel for saints model also. In Mark 2 when Jesus was spending his time building relationships with sinners outside of the temple, the scribes of the Pharisees reacted wondering why he was with “those people.” It says:
Many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Mark 2:15-16 (ESV)
And do you remember Jesus answer to their question? In essence, it was that the church is supposed to be a hospital for sinners not a hotel for saints! It says:
And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17 (ESV)
His mission was outward to sinners in order to bring them into his kingdom as his followers forever.
I will write much more on how our congregations can become better at going out and bringing in “sinners” to make them disciples. The AAC’s REVIVE! workshop addresses this but for now, here is a good question to honestly ask yourself:
Is my church more of a hotel for saints or a hospital for sinners? If your answer is more “hotel,” then know that you are not alone. Many Anglican churches are unconsciously hanging on to the “Christendom” times, wanting the way we’ve always done things to still work. If we were still in “Christendom” then it would be working. We’re not. I’ve done a lot of ministry over the years in the world of recovery and learned that the first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem. The first step to revitalization is admitting “Christendom” is over and we have a problem. Admitting being more of a hotel for saints that just hopes existing Anglican/liturgically minded people will choose your church is not a strategy that works anymore, is a key step in bringing new life into your church.
Now I’m sure there is someone reading this right now who is thinking that to become more of a hospital or missional means we have to give up what we love about being Anglican. That’s not true. You can be both Anglican and Missional! I don’t just believe it, I’ve seen it. You can have an Anglican church for the unchurched. Here are three steps to begin:
- Admit that “Christendom” times are gone and wishing they’d come back won’t work.
- Believe that it is possible to be Missional and still be Anglican.
- Commit to doing whatever it takes for your church to become a hospital for sinners.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching for the American Anglican Council.