By Peggy Eastman
Likening today’s increasingly unchurched culture to the days of the early apostles, the Rev. Dwight Zscheile has challenged members of the Diocese of Washington Feb. 2 to leave the comfort of their church buildings and go into the surrounding neighborhoods to bring people to Christ.
“Our future, if we have one, lies outside our doors,” said Zscheile, keynote speaker at the diocese’s 118th convention, which met Feb. 1 and 2 at Washington National Cathedral.
An Episcopal priest, he is assistant professor of congregational mission and leadership and co-director of the Center for Missional Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a part-time associate priest at St. Matthew’s Church in St. Paul.
Because the current era is so secular, it is time to treat it as a new apostolic age that offers “incredible promise” for mission work, Zscheile said. Indeed, the age gives Episcopalians “an opportunity to rediscover our identity as people of the way of Jesus.”
“The mission field is all around us in our neighborhoods,” he added. “Today our church does not make Christians for us.”
Zscheile noted that times have changed radically from the period when the Episcopal Church — with its colonial, Anglican roots and strong, historical worship tradition — was considered a unifying church for the nation. In fact, he said, the towering gothic cathedral in which the convention was held “was a bit of a grandiose idea” and a symbol that that “we saw ourselves at the center.”
“No other church would build a structure like this in this place,” he said. Washington National cathedral is built on the highest spot in the nation’s capital.
“God is a missionary God,” Zscheile said. “Our identity lies in our participation in God’s missional life. … This pushes us out from our buildings into a posture of risk-taking.” That is how the early Christian church grew, he noted: through ordinary people in daily spheres of influence living as a compassionate community and, yes, taking risks.
In a convention workshop she led on overcoming barriers to congregational growth, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Bishop of Washington, emphasized related themes drawn from her 22 years of parish ministry. Comparing churches to living organisms, Budde said, “Churches are created to grow — numerically, spiritually. When they are healthy, they naturally grow.”
She urged workshop participants to think about their churches from the perspective of a visitor who might not know much about the history and culture of the Episcopal Church.
“Most people walking through our doors are not thinking about pledge cards,” Budde said. “They’re looking to be fed. … What can we do to be hospitable?”
Is the visitor warmly welcomed? Is the language of the church’s publications accessible to the visitor who may not know what a collect is or may not know the word Eucharist? Budde suggested that churches looking to grow should develop cell groups of eight to ten people who gather regularly for Bible study or prayer.