Posts Tagged ‘evangelism’

The Bell Tolls

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

Yesterday, I officiated at a memorial service at Yale as part of my class’s 50th reunion.

During the service, I read the name of every classmate who had died in the past five years. After the name was read, a bell was sounded and people present could offer remarks and remembrances of the deceased.

While it was a somber occasion, the mood was uplifted by humorous reminiscences of our college years. Yet the service couldn’t help being serious. As our class secretary remarked to me, eventually the bell will toll for each of us.

And that reminder of our mortality is also a reminder that religion is still needed by people–however secular they think they can be. Church bells are a sign that this life is not the end. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.–J. Douglas Ousley


Sinking or Swimming

Monday, April 8th, 2019

At his meeting with our Vestry yesterday, the Bishop of New York was asked what his personal priorities were in his work in the diocese. He replied that he was particularly concerned about churches that were in serious decline.

Bishop Andrew Dietsche told a hopeful story of a parish upstate that was down to 12 members and weren’t able to support a full-time rector. He warned the remaining parishioners that they were at the point where they could either sink or swim. They decided to swim.

That meant that each of the members gave sacrificially of their time and money. They found a new part-time rector, and following a fortuitous influx of weekend residents from Manhattan, the church now has a full-time rector and plenty of members.

Most Episcopal parishes need to make this choice at one time or another. May we resolve to swim! —J. Douglas Ousley


Confirming the Faith

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

As our latest Confirmation/Inquirers’ Class draws to a conclusion, I happily notice that once again we have a highly diverse group of adults eager to be confirmed at Episcopalians, to be received from the Roman Catholic Church, or to reaffirm their baptismal vows.

They range in age from the thirties to near-seventy. We have a psychiatrist and an architect and a martial arts instructor among other occupations. They come from very different religious backgrounds and from unique spiritual journeys.

But it is the latter quality that they have in common. For their spiritual journeys have led them to the Church of the Incarnation. They have all come to profess their decision to follow the same Savior.

Together, by the grace of God, they are taking their first steps on a new journey in Christ. —J. Douglas Ousley


Showing Up

Monday, August 6th, 2018

A recent article in the Church Times of London noted that many recent marketing schemes for the Church of England have failed. The author, Richard Nicholl suggested that instead of trying to attract new members with gimmicky campaigns, they should learn from companies like Facebook and Amazon–which never need to advertise.

First, like these companies, the church needs to show that “everyone else is in on it.” That means, says Nicholl, that those who are already members have to show up “every week, preferably without fail…It is existential. Just as ‘everyone else’ is on Facebook, ‘everyone else’ should be at church. We have an obligation to the Church and to one another…” The least we can do is show up.

Second, the Church “must, above all, be somewhere that people feel obliged to go, but do not resent attending.” As Nicholl sees it, this is not the same thing as being a place people want to go. Churches are so diverse that people will always find them a bit difficult. But if the liturgy is regular and familiar and there are other attractive programs, we will be able to participate regularly and faithfully–as Nicholl says, to “do what you know in your heart that you have to do.” —J. Douglas Ousley


Rebranding Jesus

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

The recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church enthusiastically endorsed the Presiding Bishop’s priorities of evangelism, racial reconciliation, and care for the earth.

While these priorities are uncontroversial, they are very different. Dealing with racism and the environment will take years of effort and are social issues for non-Christians as well as Christians. Evangelism, on the other hand, is a pressing need specifically for Episcopalians whose ranks have been declining for decades. And if our evangelism isn’t successful, there won’t be any church to care for the environment or work for racial harmony.

Episcopalians have always found it easier to start a social program than to convince people to join their church. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is pushing the idea that we are members of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. Whether that rebranding will help us to add to our rolls remains to be seen. —J. Douglas Ousley


Near-Terminal Decline?

Monday, June 11th, 2018

In a recent interview, New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat discussed liberalizing trends in the Roman Catholic Church. (A Catholic himself, Douthat has just published a book on Pope Francis.)

Douthat remarked that, “…a big part of the case for liberalization…is historicist; we’re constantly being told that these changes are what the Holy Spirit wants now, what this age demands, what the signs of the times are pointing toward. And so long as that rhetorical argument is being deployed, it seems pretty reasonable to ask, if this is all the will of the Holy Spirit, etc., why an all but fully liberalized body such as the Episcopal Church isn’t showing all the fruits of the Spirit right now and instead appears to be in near-terminal decline.”

Now I don’t agree that our church is in near-terminal decline. But I would agree that it has been declining in membership for decades, even though it has many gifted clergy and laypeople, and it continues to draw numerous adult converts from diverse backgrounds. The church also faces headwinds that are hard to resist, such as a very low birthrate.

That said, is it too much to ask that the upcoming General Convention of the Episcopal Church make evangelism and church-planting priorities in its work and in its budgetary decisions? —J. Douglas Ousley


GC 2018–Does Anyone Care?

Monday, March 12th, 2018

At a clergy luncheon today, I asked my colleagues what the issues were for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church that is having its triennial meeting this summer. My question was met with blank stares and a quick change of the topic.

Given the vast amounts of money spent on air fares, hotels, and meals for the Convention (16 delegates and alternates plus three bishops and staff just from the Diocese of New York alone), one would hope that the meeting would consider topics of importance to the Church. There will be some debate about liturgical revision, I know, and I’m sure there will be many political resolutions.

But it will be interesting to see if anything substantive is done to try to address the continuing decline in membership in the Church (and the resulting diminution in income and closing of churches.)

Outreach usually means service in our church. That’s to the good. But a shot of evangelism would be timely as well. —J. Douglas Ousley


Line Fishing

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

I’m not a fisherman, but I understand that there are two kinds of fishing: net fishing and line fishing.

According to the Dean of the General Theological Seminary, who recently gave a talk to a clergy group I’m a member of, our Episcopal Church does evangelism on the analogy of line fishing. That is, we don’t sweep in large quantities of converts as though we were fishing with a net. Instead, we hook people in, one-by-one.

This accords with my own experience of the church in Manhattan, where people come from such diverse backgrounds that you have to offer many different ways to introduce unbelievers to the way of Jesus Christ. Moreover, our denomination has a substantial intellectual and aesthetic component that has to be grasped over time, with each seeker proceeding at his or her own pace.

All this makes church growth come irregularly, in fits and starts. But it also means that new believers value what they have come to hold in their minds and hearts. —J. Douglas Ousley


Us v. Them

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

I recently participated in a forum on religious diversity that was held at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

I joined Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim leaders in discussing the major concerns our respective religious bodies had in this day and age. The FIT students present were respectful and asked good questions.

My own reflections that evening focused on what I think is a problem that the major religions share. We all have conservative and liberal factions, and those of us on the more progressive, non-fundamentalist end of the spectrum are constantly seeing the other side get the lion’s share of media attention. Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist fundamentalists–however different their beliefs–seem to always to present the outrageous beliefs that grab the headlines. Meanwhile, the calm and reasonable attempts at explaining our respective faiths that we mainstream clergy propose are ignored.

The solution to our problem eludes me. But it is certain that we will need to do a better job of getting our message out. —J. Douglas Ousley


More or Less Christian

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

A friend recently gave me a book of essays that he had edited on various early Church historical topics. One essay noted that in a homily, the church father Origen “distinguishes within Christ’s army the front-line troops who fight Satan hand to hand and the many camp followers who support the combat forces but do little or no fighting themselves.”

This is a useful distinction. Many “camp followers” simply don’t have the time to attend church every Sunday, serve on committees, observe feast and fast days, offer private prayers, and so on. They might be able to do some of these things, but they are more than willing to support the “front-line troops.” (We might call the latter, “the pillars of the church.”)

If all the camp followers went to church every Sunday, most of our churches would be packed! As it is, we should be grateful for whatever support we get, including support from those who have neither the time nor the inspiration to fight on the front lines. —J. Douglas Ousley