I’m Jim Campbell, a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Montesano, west of Olympia, on the way to Aberdeen and Grays Harbor.
Today in the church year is called Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a topic that many clergy are not excited to preach about. And there are reasons for this. Here are a few statements I found to describe the challenges of understanding the Trinity:
- “The Trinity is a mystery of faith revealed in scripture, historically being deemed unknowable by unaided human reason and not capable of logical demonstration once revealed, being above reason without being incompatible with the principles of rational thought.”
- Augustine once commented about the Trinity that “in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.”
- “When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, most Christians are poor in their understanding, poorer in their articulation, and poorest of all in seeing any way in which the doctrine matters in real life.”
I’m not clergy, so I can talk about things like the Trinity without fear of anyone checking on my seminary credentials. You won’t hear me try to explain it—just point out how we know about the parts of the Trinity. Clergy or not, though, for all of us to learn about the Trinity and other parts of our faith as Christians has everything to do with the future of the Church, and that is what I’m going to talk about.
I am part of a very small older, but outreach focused church community that has been going for over 100 years in Montesano--we celebrated our 100th anniversary in 2010. Our past is recorded in our history book; our future is being recorded on our church website and Facebook page, and by how we live and serve those in our local Montesano and Grays Harbor community. We operate in a non-traditional model of church called Total Common Ministry (TCM), where every member of our congregation has a valued role and we all support making our church community function, AND, no one is paid.
For the past 17 months I’ve been a member of a small group of “Bishop-selected” volunteers called Outside Church Walls. From our Diocesan website page: “Outside Church Walls is a group considering what is the intersection of faith and a rapidly-changing culture, and what is the response of God’s people in the community. Introduced at the 2012 Diocese of Olympia annual convention as the “Steering Team”, we represent the Diocese north to south, coast to sound, and twenties to retirement. Our work builds upon the Comprehensive Strategic Review conducted throughout the Diocese in 2012 under the direction of Russ Crabtree. After prayerful study, engagement and discernment, we will propose a faithful future for the Episcopal Church in Western Washington and steps to begin the journey.”
The original “Steering Team” title was one that confused many people, especially clergy and those sticklers for canon law. What we are NOT is an official elected body of the Diocese, organized to plan and implement changes to canons or policies of the Diocese, or to circumvent the three canonical governing bodies of the Diocese. We are simply advisory to and with the Bishop to the leadership of the Diocese.
Our Team Members Representation include:
Occupations—a Hospital Administrator who became a priest and now is our Bishop, an Entreprenier/Leader/Writer, a young College Student, a Lawyer/Grant Writer who serves on Non-Profit Boards, a Priest of a traditional mid-size congregation in the Diocese, one who builds Water Systems in rural communities in North Korea, a newly ordained Priest not leading a traditional congregation—instead is working with the homeless on the streets, a Priest/Rector of one of the largest and well-funded churches in our Diocese, a Priest/leader of a total startover project for a congregation that previously had left our Diocese, a Consultant/Board Member of Various Non-Profit Orgs, a Postulant for Holy Orders—a priest wannabe, a retired career Marine Corp vet, and a retired career Boeing Engineer (me!).
-Spread from early 20s to middle age and all the way to definitely retired (from traditional work, but not volunteer activities).
-Men and Women, Single and Married, With No Children and Several Children, Grandparents, Gay and Straight, White and Hispanic, Poor and Wealthy and In Between, Social Media conscious folks and those who barely can use their cell phones
Backgrounds in the Church—cradle Episcopalians, converts from other denominations-Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, probably others, too; newly formed Christians and long-time Episcopalians; those who have worked in the church for many, many years to others just getting their feet wet in the past few years
Where We’re From--Bellingham, Port Townsend, Ballard, West Seattle, Seattle, Kent, Vancouver, Long Beach, Aberdeen, and Montesano.
Where We Meet: We meet monthly (since January 2013) for about 4 hours in various locations around the Seattle area, but not at Diocesan House or in our churches. We’ve met in a restaurant in Renton started by the Lutheran Church trying a different way to be in the world, the Seattle Public Library (twice), the Kent Public Library, Seattle Community College, a business park in Bellevue, pubs with breweries in Ballard and Pike Place Market, a small religious college building in Seattle, at the Rainier Club along with visiting NW Harvest in Seattle, a low income apartment/activities building and a food kitchen in Ballard, and the YMCA in Seattle, to name several of them.
How We Communicate with the Diocese: We have a webpage on the Diocesan website that explains our existence, and also a Facebook page with blogs from our members about every 3 days (over 100 articles since the start), discussing all kinds of Church related issues, commenting on facts and data from the internet, and bringing in many opinions from around the Church and beyond. We also spoke at the last Diocesan Convention for about 45 minutes at the main session, and at a side session to inform people there of our work and how to try some new things.
Our Work and Goals: To discuss various facets of the Christian Church (the Episcopal, and also other Christian varieties) as it presently exists, how “things” are with The Church, what are the issues facing The Church (there are many, including fighting with each other!), what the present culture and the “world” around us is doing, and what they are looking for (or not!) in a local church worship experience and community, or just from religion in general. This is very tough stuff to talk about—especially considering the last twenty years or so of national survey figures showing continual downward trends on the health of the Church—its attendance, members, baptisms, etc. I have some more information to share with you at your fellowship time for those who are interested in these figures.
In our Genesis reading today we look at the extreme past, the first creation story (Note: there are two stories of creation in Genesis!), we learn all about the Jewish people’s understanding of how everything came to be, including humans on this Earth. Passed down by word of mouth and written down a few thousand years ago, it shows at that time their limited understanding of many aspects of science--including astronomy, geology, horticulture, zoology, weather, biology, etc.--and how they believed God was responsible for all things that make up the universe. This is Part 1 of the Trinity—God the Father!
One of our first projects as the OCW group we sought to answer a pretty heavy and important question. How do people outside church walls view the church? Positively? Negatively? Other views?
The best way to answer this question, we decided, was to make a survey! For more than 4 months, we pushed a survey out to everybody we could reach. Baristas, hair dressers, friends, Facebook, Twitter, everybody who was willing to take it. We also sent it out into all of the churches in the Diocese, asking parish members to take it themselves and pass it along to those who don't attend church. We used both the internet and postcard, so that no one who wanted to participate was left out.
With the two different groups (churched and non-churched) answering, we could clearly see the differences between the groups. In total we got about 1300 responses. Of that, about 1000 answered as churched, and about 300 answered as non-churched. (Show the Wordles and some highlights.) [Community is the largest or near so, on both! God and Jesus are actually bigger on the unchurched side than the churched one. Spirit barely shows up on the churched side; I couldn’t even find it on the unchurched side.]
Speaking of Community, Paul speaks to one in our second reading from 2nd Corinthians. He writes to the community of believers in Corinth with perhaps the earliest written Biblical reference to all three parts of the Trinity, and some attributes associated with them. (The actual word for Trinity is not used anywhere in the Bible.) Paul talks of--The God of Love and Peace, the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit! He was giving his farewell to the Corinthian people, and he asks them to live in agreement and peace, and greet one another with a Holy kiss—showing Christian charity and caring for each other!
We received considerable time at the last Diocesan Convention to tell our OCW story to date, and to encourage those attending to meet with us in a side session where would discuss one possible way to connect with those in their communities outside the church, like Paul did. The side session was overwhelmed with about 150 folks attending in a room with about 100 capacity, and several others were turned away. The energy in the room felt like a Pentecost event, and everyone left excited to try out our Community Conversations project starting in Epiphany this year. Since then several churches have actually tried to work on this, and those who put any real focused time into it have found out some new and interesting things their church can focus on to connect with their communities around them.
This kind of activity outside church walls is driven by what we read in our short Gospel reading today completing the book of Matthew. We hear Jesus himself use all three parts of the Trinity and give instructions for those 11 disciples (and us!) on how to live as followers of Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And, Jesus reminds us of a very important thing: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are at a very critical time in the life of the entire Christian Church, and also in our own Episcopal churches. The report on our lengthy Diocesan survey completed in 2012 states that we definitely have the people and resources to change to a different way of being church in the world. But we will need to make a choice. We can either: 1) continue doing things the same way we have for the past 60 years, and I think you have all heard the saying—doing the same things over and over which do not work and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, or 2) recognize that we have a real problem and we must figure out new things to do, be positive knowing Christ is with us, and expect better results.
OCW has come to the conclusion that as far as our own group “proposing a future for the church and steps to begin”, it is now clear that we will not be doing this. The challenge is much more complicated than just producing a “magical” program or slogan or a certain way to conduct worship services that will somehow make everything great! There are some elements of change that we think are important, though: 1) to keep and use the best of our Episcopal (and Christian) traditions, 2) to claim and seriously re-learn/study the Bible, 3) to know and be able to tell others our mission from Jesus Christ (our so-called “elevator speech”), and 4) to be witnesses for Christ in the world—not just sit comfortably within our church walls!
Thomas Rainer said recently: “We know times are tough in many churches. We know congregations are dying, and that many church leaders are discouraged. But we serve the God of Hope. Decline in our churches does not have to be a reality.” We in the OCW group believe the worst thing that could come from trying new things is we fail—which is much better than just slowly dying away. And you know what—we might actually succeed, especially if we place our hope and trust in God to help and guide us.
Finally, a hymn we sang at our church a couple of weeks ago I think sums up what we hope for going forward with our churches and our work for Christ. I’m using the words today as a prayer:
O Breath of life, come sweeping through us,
revive your church with life and power,
O Breath of life, come, cleanse, renew us
And fit your church to meet this hour.
O Wind of God, come bend us, break us
Till humbly we confess our need,
Then, in your tenderness remake us,
Revive, restore—for this we plead.
O Breath of love, come breathe within us,
Renewing thought and will and heart,
Come, love of Christ, afresh to win us,
Revive your church in every part.