William Temple – an Archbishop of Canterbury in the ’40s – once famously remarked that the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members. Archbishop Temple’s words encourage the Church to make decisions, engage in activities and take up causes not with the objective of making those of us on the inside feel secure or good about ourselves, but instead in order to share the love of Christ with those from whom we expect nothing in return. To paraphrase my predecessor, Bishop Poole, God always wants us in the Church to be the ones with dirt under our fingernails.
Archbishop Temple’s statement can also remind us that the Church is called to exist for the benefit of those who are not “yet” its members. Individual parishes are invited to be continually asking themselves which of their practices will contribute most effectively towards drawing others into the love of God, and to discern what other practices might be better modified or discarded. Archbishop Temple’s observation suggests a framework for making decisions about where to spend our time and resources – a framework that prioritizes those currently outside our churches or those who are just starting to explore what Christian faith and community might look like for them.
Just as the nurturing of an outward focus is an ongoing priority for parishes, many individual Christians innately understand the importance of sharing the good news of God in Christ with those who have not yet heard it, or who have only experienced it in limited ways. In many cases, the easiest and most natural sphere for this is our own immediate families and dearest friends. Some of us might remember benefiting, as children, from hearing God’s stories in the Bible read to us, praying with our parents or helping to plan or participate in acts of service to others, and are now imagining how to translate those memories into our own present contexts.
I have found, during my years of ministry, that one of the most important questions that individual Christians can ask is how to create an environment in which they can encounter Jesus Christ, not just on their own, but together with their children, partners and friends. For example, what are the best ways to create a home environment, or friend network, where we and those closest to us can engage with scripture, ask questions, explore, and pray together while trying to grow into committed followers of Jesus Christ? How can we create opportunities to live out our faith, with acts of service and compassion?
Christians have for generations looked for ways to pass along their faith, heeding the words of Deuteronomy 6:5-7: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words that I give you today. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you’re at home or away, when you lie down or get up.” The shaping of others in the Christian faith is called discipleship, catechesis or – my personal favorite – the making of saints. Given that the Christian church is always one generation away from extinction, it is essential that our homes and parishes be effective disciple-making communities – places where the claims of Jesus Christ can be intelligently examined, tested and lived out.
Discipleship is a gradual process, neither linear nor predictable, and lasting over the course of a lifetime. People at all stages of their spiritual journeys need safe and non-judgmental communities where they can hear the Gospel and find other disciples who are willing to walk alongside them as they explore and grow. Forming someone in the faith of Christ can take many guises, some of which include one-to-one mentoring, learning through service in social justice ministries, small-group Bible studies, and structured programs such as Christian Foundations, Alpha, Road to Emmaus, the Pilgrim series and others.
Our beloved Anglican Church has enormous potential to be the kind of body that creates and supports such communities, where intentional discipleship for all ages is made a top priority. I am sure that many of us are aware of creative and winsome ways that people in our diocese are already being shaped and transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ, but we have room for many more. C.S. Lewis wrote that “if the Church is not making disciples, then all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible, are a waste of time.” As Anglicans, I believe we can both reach into our rich past, and learn from other traditions, as we reclaim the making of saints as being central to our life together and the continued, and exciting, revitalization of our Church.