Friday, December 16, 2011

Practical approaches

One of the helpful ideas we heard from the Rector and pastoral staff of Saint Matthew's Anglican Catholic Church, presented at the Provincial Synod, is their use of an Inquirer's Class for potential members. People who show interest in finding a new church, and who want to join their congregation as members are asked to attend the Inquirer's Class, and afterward come into the services of the Holy Communion or Mass. From the reports, it works better than simply having people jump into the Eucharist from the start.

Why not? The idea may seem revolutionary because we have long used our own modern paradigm; but, it is ancient. It is in keeping with the practice of having people come in as catechumens, something we have lost in modern times. Indeed, we can trace the new approach back into the twentieth century, and as an American I can look at what happened in the Episcopal Church.

Once upon a time it was accepted and understood that becoming a member of a church could require steps, including education. In Anglicanism we have always had at least some amount of catechesis, generally enough to take a person into Confirmation by a bishop in Apostolic Succession as a sacrament that furthers and continues what began in Baptism. That period of Instruction was not burdensome, and in an age when people respected authority more it was considered perfectly appropriate.

Somewhere, back in the twentieth century, it seems that the Episcopal Church slowly began to see catechesis as somehow less than polite, something that is less than friendly or welcoming. The result was a denomination filled with people who joined, but very few who converted to anything. In time, most Episcopalians were not of the cradle variety, but rather those who joined in adult years. This included even most of its clergy. These adult "joiners" brought all their ideas with them, including many that had no place in a church body that was supposed to be truly catholic and reformed. We all know the results, and it continues to get worse.

Furthermore, many people today, if they have any church background, have no experience with liturgy. They think of services as something made up during the week, or perhaps as entertainment like a concert with "spiritual" or emotional content meant to be "inspiring" or "uplifting." The ridiculous and wholly (not holy) "Seeker "Sensitive" movement is almost a caricature of the worst of the worst of it, with no references to sin, repentance or the cross, just as the Episcopal Church is a caricature of the worst thing that can happen where liturgy of any kind sort of remains. 

The truth is, we have come to a time when most people have never experienced liturgical worship. Effective Evangelism may require, therefore, other opportunities for people to come into parish churches and both meet the people and learn the meaning of the Faith. I am trying to see how to put together Bible Studies that are informal enough to be both spiritual and social occasions, the sort of thing one may invite friends, neighbors or family to. Fr. John Roddy told us, at our 2011 Diocesan Synod (Diocese of the South, ACC-OP) that this proved quite effective in building up a congregation in Atlanta, Georgia (before his move to Alexandria, Virginia). Our liturgy is powerful, but to the uninitiated it may be like tongues without an interpretation, thus ruling out a sincere "amen."* Some people visit our churches and instantly take to it all; but many go away because they "feel stupid," as, in fact, some have related (and those who instantly take to it still need catechesis).

Teaching people the meaning of what we do and why we do it has to include making sure that they understand the most important truth of all, the Gospel. Yes, the service of Holy Communion preaches the Gospel and prevents us from forgetting it.** But, to many new people it seems difficult to keep up and really pay attention. Having ways to ease some people into our churches, and grounding them in the Faith, has to be part of what we are giving serious thought to; and with churches that are making it work, considering a model to learn from. 

*     I Corinthians 14:16
**   I Corinthians 15:1-11


Anonymous said...

In your second-to-last paragraph you (perhaps inadvertently) raised an important point: our service is very confusing to the uninitiated.

This is why at my church I have completely done away with the missal service and gone to a straight BCP service (with the exception of Benedictus and adding "holy" to the Creed).

Our service needs to be as simple as possible. The BCP is that rarest of things: that is, a simple service that is both beautiful and profound.


Anonymous said...

In my Orthodox church, I've had people email out of the blue, and say "I saw you were doing an inquirers class, may I come?" They are not ready to come on a Sunday yet, so this gives them a safe way to learn more about us. More often than not, they stay around and eventually become members.

Fr Theodore

Fr. Robert Hart said...


That may have a lot to do with location. I have found some people equally confused who come earlier when it is straight BCP here.

Fr Richard Sutter said...

The biggest problem with using the liturgy for evangelism is that visitors simply don't understand that just showing up for the Mass isn't the only requirement to receive the Sacrament; they view any rules about reception as overly restrictive and resent them.

A better solution I've found, in places where the laity will cooperate, is to offer Evensong. Our target demographic is more likely to show up on an evening, Saturday or Sunday, and the liturgy will attract without repelling them with what they see as "silly rules." This time of year, Lessons and Carols can perform a similar function. All you really need is a musician and a choir willing to attract new people.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Excellent point Father, and good suggestions too.