Making Christians, Then and Now: Reinventing the Wheel?

Reflection 24-2-13

 

Being back in Australia on holidays, gave me the opportunity to catch up on what was happening in the Church there, through reading the Diocese of Melbourne’s newspaper, ‘The Melbourne Anglican’. The Archbishop of Melbourne has appointed a type of ‘Development’ officer whose job it is to help congregations to become more effective at mission.

 

He wrote an article in the ‘Melbourne Anglican’ which said words to the following effect “There are lots of parishes doing ‘mission style’ things that represent an engagement with the community, but there are not many yet who are thinking about how to turn these engagements into opportunities for becoming Christian, or making disciples.

 

This I thought was a very good observation. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Ian Mobsby in London when I went to visit him at St. Matthews Westminster. He said ‘With our events and so on, we are aiming to turn ‘spiritual tourists’ in to ‘pilgrims.’ This is also a great image.

 

You notice that both of these comments concentrate on the point of transition from the condition a person who is making enquiry, or just ‘hanging around’ to the state of a person who is actively following a process of formation in the Christian way.

 

This kind of thinking represents a step up in awareness for many. The most common thing I used to hear was ‘Well I’m not an evangelist. I’m more of a pastor. You know, one person sows and another reaps.’

 

Being a pastor is very good, and not everyone can do everything, as the proverb says. But given the amount of reaping that the Church is doing, there doesn’t seem to be much sowing going on either. Since my last congregation was in a rural area, I often said to the people ‘There is not landholder who does not know the whole process from tilling the soil to harvesting the corn.’

 

That is what I think is happening in these statements that have captured my attention. People are beginning to look at the ‘whole arc’ of movement from not even knowing about Jesus to becoming a follower of Him, and exercising a ministry afterward.

 

This idea of a whole ‘arc’ is what we are working on too here in Montreux. The Annual General Meeting is coming up soon, so it is worthwhile to give you an overview of the plan to which we are working. To spell it out again might help you to get an idea about why we are making the changes that we are.

 

The main thing that decided me to say ‘Yes’ to being here was that when I was meeting with the small committee, they asked the question ‘how can we become a mission parish?’ That is my thing!

 

The steps in this process follow St. Paul’s in Athens when he preaches in the Areopagus. (Acts 17:16ff) He engages with the people, and collects a crowd. Some of them want to hear more, so he hires a hall and teaches them for three years. Then he baptizes them, and goes and does it over again somewhere else.

So the idea behind making disciples is ‘Gather  a crowd’, ‘Call out some disciples’ ‘train them up’ and ‘let them go with ministry.’ WE are in the process of ‘Getting a crowd.’ The changes to the worship are designed to make our ‘Front Door’ a very welcoming space. This is not an easy thing to do, because like many families we have ‘our ways of doing things.’ The Eucharist is not really meant for welcoming newcomers, but none the less, it is a fact that many newcomers try us out by coming to our Church on a Sunday. If we are dull and sullen and only seem interested in ourselves, then no one is going to feel welcomed. But if we make an effort to engage with people as much as we can to welcome them when they come through our front door, then they are more likely to take another step along their journey. That is why we have the ‘warm up’ and welcome of visitors at the beginning.

 

The second part to our ‘gather a crowd’ programme, has to do with our hospitality area. Here we are working to make it truly ‘hospitable’. We have done something about lighting, (more to come) and the curtains, and put ‘the bar’ in place. We will soon be doing something about carpeting in that area. Once that is done, we will begin putting on ‘crowd gathering’ events (forums, movie nights) in that place. There are other ‘crwod gathering activities’ that we can do. Our Evensong and Sunday Night Discussions in Villars are other kinds of ‘Front door’ for people who appreciate those approaches. I am hoping to begin a Taizé style worship on the Second Sunday night of the month to attract another kind of ‘crowd’. The way we do our ‘Sales’ is also another kind of ‘crowd gathering’ where we demonstrate what kind of people we are to those who come through our ‘front door.’

 

The second step is the ‘training up’ phase. You will know that Doina and Neil (a new member and an old member) have been meeting regularly to renew and deepen their faith. They will renew their baptismal promises at the Great Service of Easter at 11.30 pm on Easter Eve. Each year I will invite all the people we know (fringe groups, people I have married etc.) to a series of meetings to see if they too are ready to ‘take the next step’ for them. So we are in the swing. We are working toward ‘Gathering a Crowd’, we invite everyone who is in ‘the crowd’ to take the next step for them.

 

I have only one disappointment about this development officer’s suggestion. It is this. In the early 1990’s I attended a series of conferences which was designed to introduce a process of Christian Initiation to Anglicans. It had been borrowed from the Episcopalians, who borrowed it from the Catholics, who in fact borrowed it from the way that the Church used to make Christians in the very early days if its life. This process was a kind of regularising of what St. Paul did in Athens, except that the process was tied up with the Church year and the baptisms were designed to happen around Easter, with Lent being a period of intense instruction prior to the Baptisms. This method was known as the ‘Way of the Echo’ because the candidates were learning to ‘echo’ God’s word in their lives. We know it as ‘the Catechumenate’ from which we get our words ‘Catechism’ and ‘Catechesis.’

 

So in the 1990s we tried to do this way as priests, and to commend it to congregations. Sadly, it was not taken up very much. But my Doctoral studies were about the processes of initiation. I came to the conclusion that ‘Even if people don’t know about or use the catechumenate as we have come to know it, they will have to do something like it if people’s conversions or renewals of faith are going to stick.’ I  feel like having an ‘I told you so’ moment, saying ‘You are re-inventing a wheel that is very old! Couldn’t you have listened in the 1990s? Still, better late than never, and ‘I must not let the best be the enemy of the good. But there is always more.

 

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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