Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Uniqueness of Christ

This was given to the Christian Formation Conference at Camp Allen in September, 2010.  The theme of the conference was the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation.

Let me begin very clearly with some thoughts about what our work as a Christian Church is… in general.

"The Gospel testifies to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in God's plan for the salvation of the world.”

“There can be no greater theme - no higher calling for the church to bear witness to salvation in and through Christ." (Sharing the Gospel of Salvation, GS Misc 956, Report to General Synod Church of England, 2010, from forward, SGS)

"...The Christian story is, quite simply, the most attractive account of the world and the human condition.”

“Theology, [how we believe, how we communicate about God] is not an adjunct to the social sciences - on the contrary, Christian theology is the prism through which the social sciences make the most sense.”

“The task of Christians is not to persuade others of the truth of the gospel story through propositional argument (which, John Milbanks - Anglican theologian - claims, always carries undertones of violence) but to "out narrate" other, rival and less attractive narratives.”

“Christians must so live out their faith, in communities which embody the gospel (especially in practices of worship) that others are attracted by the sublime beauty of God reflected in the Church." (SGS, 72)

"The called to be a "community of character", embodying "the peaceable kingdom."

“It is not called to prop up other social institutions, such as democracy or capitalism, however useful they may be, but to exhibit in its corporate life the radically alternative life of those who follow Christ.”

“Others will wish to join this community, not because they are convinced intellectually of its argument but because they are captivated by its example of virtuous living.”(SGS, 73)

I have taken these opening thoughts, these foundational beliefs about our work from a profound work on Evangelism which was received at the English Annual Synod meeting in 2010.

The Episcopal Church is a missionary society.

We are as our Book of Common Prayer says, "The family of God" and the "Temple of the Holy Spirit."

Every leader and every member has a story to share. Communally and individually we have the very best story of spiritual transformation to share with the world around us.

We are invited and charged with the proclamation of nothing less than the very best story that there is -- the story of Jesus Christ and the salvation of the world.

We are challenged to "out narrate" and to communicate our work of "virtuous" living to the world around us. Specifically we are called to do this work in our given mission context.

We are to be working hand in hand with Jesus Christ to transform the world around us. We are as the Charter for Life Long Formation says:

Carrying out God’s work of reconciliation, love, forgiveness, healing, justice and peace.

Faithfully confronting the tensions in the church and the world as we struggle to live God’s will.

Engage in prophetic action, evangelism, advocacy and collaboration in our contemporary global context.

Lift every voice and reconcile oppressed and oppressor to the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the area of Christian Formation we are at work helping to form individuals through the sharing of story, knowledge, experience, teachings, tradition, history, and the scriptures imparting from one seeker to another the sacred story of Jesus Christ and the salvation of the world.

The essential work for congregations is to “out narrate” the world around us. And, to provide the solid foundation upon which the individual and the community rests that it may at once live life within the sacred community and make the profane world around it sacred through its virtuous action.

The Uniqueness of Jesus

Central to our work is the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the prime actor in our sacred narrative.

This uniqueness rests solidly in our faith’s affirmation that God is one.

Deuteronomy 4.35: “To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.”

Nehemiah 9.6: “And, Ezra said: ‘You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, will all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you.’”

Isaiah 45:5-6: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God; I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

Throughout the narrative of the Old Testament [As Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel: the law and the prophets and the proclamation of John the baptizer] the central theme is that the Lord, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah is unique because God is the one living and true God.

We proclaim this truth in the first article of the Creed and it is the response to the first question of our baptismal covenant. It is this God who upholds the universe and everything that exists within it and he is the sole sovereign of history. (Adapted SGC, 10)

From the Venerable Bede to Juroslav Pelikan, from Abelard to Justo Gonzales, from Wayne Meeks to N. T. Wright, from Augustine of Hippo to Michael Ramsey, wise men and women, theologians, desert mothers and desert fathers…regardless of who you read Christians have come to believe and proclaim that “in accordance with the promises that God had made to his people, the God of Israel, in the person of Jesus, ‘took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance’ in order to proclaim God’s kingdom and to bring it in by reconciling the whole universe through his life, death and resurrection.” (SGC 11)

Each one has passed the narrative to us. Over the centuries the proclamation of this Good News of Salvation has out narrated the secular world’s story of hopelessness. Each held “that after his resurrection Jesus ascended into heaven and at the end of the age he will come in glory to judge the living and the dead and to finally and fully manifest the kingly rule of God over all creation…” (SGC, 11)
John 1.14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

Colossians 1.19: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”

Hebrews 1:2-2: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, who he appointed heir to all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”

“On the same grounds they further believed that God exists as the Holy Spirit, the one who had dwelt in Jesus and empowered his mission and whom Jesus had poured out on his followers on the day of Pentecost.” (SGC, 13)

This is the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. These are the faith responses of every Christian that has come before us. This is the truth proclaimed in faith responses of the second and third questions of our Baptismal Covenant and are rooted deep in our creed.

This is our story. This is the unique story of our faith. It is profound and it is the rock upon which my faith rests. It is the particular story which gives meaning the world of chaos proclaimed by the powers all around.

You and I are purveyors of a sacred narrative. You are not volunteers. You are not Sunday School teachers. You are not educators. You and I are disciples of the one God.

Like the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are bearers of the sacred truth of God, the Living Word.

We are marked on our foreheads with this sacred story; we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Hands are laid upon us by a bishop that we may be empowered by the same Holy Spirit for a life lived in discovery, a life lived in formation, a life lived out in the world as a missionary of God’s Holy narrative.

Anyone can carry out reconciliation, love, forgiveness, healing, justice and peace. But we understand it is God’s work.

Anyone can confront the tensions in the world. But we do so faithfully trying to live out the life of God’s will and sacred narrative.

Anyone can engage in prophetic action, advocacy and collaboration in our contemporary global context. But only we can engage through the unique prophetic witness of the Good News of Salvation.

Anyone can lift every voice and reconcile oppressed and oppressor. But only we can do the work out of the particular understanding that it is the love expressed through God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Uniqueness of Episcopalians

We have a sacred story. We are called to out narrate the world. Yet we must also understand that we undertake this work with a particular and unique perspective within the body of Christ and the catholic or universal witness which is Christianity.

You and I must reclaim our unique Episcopal witness. We must be at work inside and outside of our church helping individuals to understand a very unique narrative. We are Christians but we are specifically and unambiguously Anglicans and more precise still, we are uniquely Episcopalians.

We must be about the business of forming people who are Episcopalians.

Yes, we are interested in formation of Christians. But we are Episcopalians and we have a unique and important version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is articulated as our charter says, through scripture, tradition and reason.

This unique Episcopal witness is articulated through the words of our Baptismal Covenant:

• our particular manner of Sacramental ministry

• our understanding of Mission

• our fellowship

• our reading of scripture

• in worship, throughout the day, and at home

• our understanding of the importance of our monastic inheritance and spiritual formation

• our proclamation of the Gospel

• our treatment of every human being

• our particular gift for reconciliation and peace

• our work in social and cultural advocacy and just action

• our understanding of creation and the work of sustainable stewardship

• our understanding of service and virtuous citizenship

These are the themes of our story. These are the chapters of our narrative as Episcopalians.

The work…no the art of story telling…which is Christian Formation is specifically to tell the story, to tell our community’s story, to tell our story, and to teach others to tell their story.

Parker Palmer might offer us this reflection: Formation “is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life.” (Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach)

He also said, “I now understand what Nelle Morton [Nelle Morton was a 20th century church activist for racial justice, and later a teacher of Christian educators] meant when she said that one of the great tasks in our time is to ‘hear people to speech.’ Behind their fearful silence, our students want to find their voices, speak their voices, have their voices heard. A good teacher is one who can listen to those voices even before they are spoken—so that someday they can speak with truth and confidence. (Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach)

You and I must reclaim our mission and ministry and tell the story in such a way that when those who retell it and those who hear it reshape the world into the reign of God.

Are we “out narrating” the world?

“Robert Raikes (1735-1811) is remembered as a pioneer of Sunday Schools. He was not; however, the first person to set up a Sunday school, but rather his work pioneered Sunday Schools as a national institution.

“He became aware of the needs of those children whose parents could not provide schooling for them. In 1780 he was dismayed at the sight of children running wild around the city on Sundays and began to consider the possibility of a School. There were other schools being developed by Hannah Ball and Thomas King – all followers like Raikes of the great evangelists George Whitefield and John Wesley.

“In July 1780 a Sunday School was established in the parish of St Mary de Crypt in Gloucester. There were to be two sessions every Sunday and four women were paid to teach children to read and to learn the Prayer Book Catechism. Raikes became actively involved. He visited the children in their homes, examined their progress in reading and gave prizes for good progress.

“While Raikes wanted to provide basic Christian teaching, the first challenge was that of teaching children to read. In 1784, John Wesley noted in his Journal, ‘I find these schools springing up wherever I go. Perhaps God may have some deeper end therein than men are aware of. Who knows but some of them may become nurseries for Christians?’ (Article from Grace online Magazine,

The great Awakening and the Sunday school movement went hand in hand and over the centuries has become exactly what John Wesley thought: a “nursery for Christians.” That is until recently.

The Episcopal Church has reported that in 1965, there were 880,000 children in our Sunday school programs. In 2001, that number had declined to 297,000. Thus in 35 years Sunday school attendance dropped by close to 600,000 students.

Each one of us lives, and ministers, within a particular mission context.

We live in a different world: a world of Sunday sports, busy lives, busy jobs, and all with little time or space for God. We live in a world which is currently out narrating the church. The secular narrative teaches us that more is never enough. The secular narrative says technological relationships are enough. A secular narrative that promises Sabbath some day; maybe if you can afford retirement, if not after you work part-time at Wal-Mart or Starbucks.

We live in a context which largely expects us to do the work of formation as we have done it since the beginning of the Sunday school movement. But the world has changed.

I believe that the Charter’s most challenging words read, “We are to be doing the work Jesus Christ calls us to do… We are to be seeking out diverse and expansive ways to empower prophetic action.”

We have the most transformational message of hope in our culture. Moreover, the Episcopal Church offers a unique and much needed religious life of discipleship to a culture that is seeking spiritual meaning and meaningful action.

The challenge of Christian Formation today is to reinvent the manner in which we engage in the work Jesus has called us to do through entrepreneurial innovation.

I am using the word entrepreneurial to seeing before you, in your missionary context, greenfield potential.

I am using the word innovation to mean making a positive change in our current situation that brings about not only formation of the community and individual but transformation of the world through narration of our particular and sacred story.

We must renew the art of Christian Formation by reinventing, reconstructing, restructuring, restoring, remaking, re-establishing, and rebuilding what is now an outdated missionary system.

In the field of Christian Formation we must tap into our nature as Christian creatives for the health and well-being of our Episcopal Church and our local congregations.


There are six basic stages of innovation and I want to apply them here to the process of reinventing Christian Formation for the Episcopal Church. The stages are: generate new ideas, capture ideas, mission innovation, mission strategy, reflection and improvement, and decline. (From Vision to Reality: The Innovation Process,


I want to begin with the last stage first: Decline.

The sixth stage of innovation is decline. In time, it often becomes obvious that what was once an innovation no longer fits. I have made this argument already and we have seen the case of the Sunday school movements decline.

Once in the stage of decline it becomes obvious that continuous improvement of the existing process, product, or service is no longer of value. The reality is that the former innovation has now become outdated or outmoded.

In our case it isn’t that the rules have changed. We have always been responsible for the formation of disciples and the telling and retelling of our story. It is our culture that has changed.

In the sixth stage of innovation we see that it is time to let go of the past models and set new goals to start the innovation process once again. It is time for new innovations in response to external missionary context in which we the Episcopal Church find ourselves.

In fact as I travel around I see this innovation beginning to take shape in some of our congregations. In fact, it has been changing for about a decade. Nevertheless, I believe a more innovative and entrepreneurial approach is needed if we are to out narrate the culture in which we find ourselves.

Generate New Ideas

The having clearly reached the last stage first, we begin again. We must generate new ideas.  Always begin with bible study and reflection.  Each stage needs to be bathed in scripture and prayer.

I want to be very clear here. We are not generating a new story or a new narrative. We are not becoming Universalists. We are not becoming Buddhists. We can have a very healthy relationship with our ecumenical brothers and sisters. We can have healthy interreligious dialogs. These are essential in fact in the generation of ideas. However, we are Christians who call ourselves Episcopalians. And, I firmly believe that when a person enters into a relationship with us (either by coming to church or by meeting us out in the world) they want to know who we are. Remember, formation begins with the self-knowledge and understanding of the teacher according to Parker Palmer. We already know our narrative. We are looking to generate ideas that will help us provide a narrative within our churches and out in the world.

Begin by asking people you know, inside and outside the church, the following questions or questions similar to these:

• What has God called us to do? You might look at the Charter for Life Long Christian Formation as one source.

• What is impossible to do in our congregation, or in our formation ministry, today, but if it could be done, would fundamentally change the way in which we engage in the work of formation?

Answers to these questions will help you to see the boundaries of your new mission work.

An example is that I challenged the Examining Chaplains to evaluate our process of testing new priests. Is it working? What is missing? How can we improve it? They have developed a new proposed process that engages in conversation and discernment rather than testing, and takes shape within community and in the midst of prayer.
Capture the Ideas

Stage two is the Capturing of the ideas. There will be a lot of ideas. You will need a creative team of experts and ministers to discuss the possibilities of each idea through brainstorming.

For innovation to be successful in our culture today you are going to have to bring in people who are communicators, of different ages, creative people, strategic thinkers, doers, visionary leaders and followers.

It is good to brainstorm individually, then in smaller groups, and then as a team. Collectively organize and prioritize your results.

Not every congregation is going to have a large group. It can be as few as two and as many as eight. Remember though, the art of Christian Formation is a work that is undertaken within community. This is not the work of one individual and a team of teachers…that is the old model.

You will also need to remember your missionary context. You need to discover and think intentionally about those you are trying to reach. You also must be honest and transparent about what you can accomplish given the financial and human resources available to you and your congregation or team.

A good example of this is the team that has been put together to provide a curriculum to study the Anglican Covenant. It includes skilled individuals who know how to write curriculum. It also includes parish leaders and communicators.
Mission Innovation

The next stage is the actual innovation. Review the entire list of ideas and develop them into a series of clear and meaningful statements. The team will then need to agree on which ones to explore further. Quantify the benefits of each statement and discern through prayer and clarity which ones to pursue.

Be clear about your mandate. Are you working on Formation with adults or children? Are you working on Stewardship as a Formation program? What is your mandate?

Ask yourselves: how does this innovative idea fit with the strategy and mission of your church? Innovation can go wrong here. Good ideas which will not further the mission can take up space from essential ideas that will further the mission of formation.

What are the expected outcomes? How will you measure your success? What are the short term goals? Are they achievable? You are working now on the feasibility of your innovative idea. This is important to the whole process. We might remind ourselves of the story from our Gospels about the man who sets out to build a tower without counting the cost.

A good example here is of the process used by the Episcopal Foundation of Texas and the Quin Foundation to plan and structure the new Strategic Mission Grant process. They had to both figure out how to pool the money, design a process of giving the money away, communicating the application procedures, reviewing the grant requests, covenanting with the recipients, and how to do accountability visits.

Mission Strategy and Implementation

Mission strategy and implementation begins in the fourth stage. It usually means a re-think of an existing process and ministry. Once you have settled on the major innovation and even a basic strategy you must work with all those who will be involved in the change and figure out the details.

This is not the same as looking at an existing process and improving it. We don’t need a better Sunday school program. It is describing what a future process will look like and virtually walking it through to its conclusion.

The team will first develop this "picture of the future." You might begin by making a list of the basic assumptions about the way things are done now and begin to see how things will be different. This is the part where most innovative concepts die. They either get launched without fully thinking through this piece or the innovation looks too difficult and so is abandoned and a decision is made to simply repaint the rooms and add new carpet.

Writing or drawing a flow chart or using some other illustrations will enable your team you have to get a look at the entire "future process."

This part of the process is exemplified in the Executive Board’s Mission Subcommittee which reviewed and worked with me on the staff structure and development of the new office of Life Long Christian Formation. Their work with me looked at all the potential areas of conflict, overlap, budgeting, scope of the ministry, and in the end helped me with developing a process for searching for the new Canon.
Reflection and Improvement

Once the missionary innovation is in motion, it is necessary to continuously examine it for possible improvements.

I think a process of review and reflection needs to be in place before the roll out of the initiative. If it is not clear what the matrix of success is, who will evaluate, and when determinations about ongoing work and there is no clear time line given the innovation will have problems.

One of two problems will arise. The innovation will fail because it was not adaptive to either the changing process of delivery or the changing context within the setting. Or the process will go on forever with the assumption that it is still needed and necessary for the survival of the organization.

What are the gaps? What is missing? Where are we misfiring? What are the barriers and blockages that are making the innovation less effective? Are there changing benefits, costs, risks necessary to improve and refine the missionary innovation?

Then the team must recommend and apply the improvements.

A good example of this is the innovation of mission congregation reports. It was important during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century for the bishop to know what was going on in the mission congregations. Therefore, they were required to give reports on their ministry. The report was written and sent to the bishop on a semi-annual basis. This report evolved into a form and the form was required on a monthly basis. The process seemed to be improving, except that the form required too much information, was not turned in electronically and consequently wasn’t being used by most of the mission congregations. Moreover, the bishop and the staff knew what was going on because of new oversight responsibilities by the Canon for Congregational Development. When a new staff organization was developed in 2005, they weren’t being done at all. Today the diocese receives a brief email report with only a few questions from mission congregations receiving money from the diocese for their ministry. The process was reworked and improved based upon the changing nature of the context.


The Gospel testifies to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in God's plan for the salvation of the world.

You and I as Christians are challenged to "out narrate" and to communicate our work of "virtuous" living to the world around us. Specifically, we are called to do this work in our given mission context.

We are to be working hand in hand with Jesus Christ to transform the world around us.

You and I, as uniquely created Episcopalians, must reclaim our mission and ministry and tell the story in such a way that when those who retell it and those who hear it reshape the world into the reign of God.

The challenge of Christian Formation within the Episcopal Church today is to reinvent the manner in which we engage in the work Jesus has called us to do through entrepreneurial innovation.

I pray that God, who has given you the will to do these things, will give you both the grace, and the power to perform them in his name. Amen.

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