Vine and Branches

I am the vine; you are the branches!

There is an old African saying:

If you want to go fast – go alone; if you want to go far – go together.

In these weeks following Easter we have opened again for in-person worship alongside our continued livestream. We are all experiencing the joy of moving tentatively, yet assuredly forward together – moving into a time when not everything is defined solely by the pandemic. Despite our in-person worship still having some restriction – the biggest of which is still no congregational singing – everyone who has the experience of returning says how good it is to be back!

The experience of pandemic restrictions on our church and social lives has paradoxically expanded our sense of virtual connection. This alone will not be enough. We must rise to the increasing challenge to give an account for why we exist. In a world increasingly moving away from institutional church affiliation this is the most important question of all and will dictate the contours of our future.

As more and more of us return to in-person presence in worship – our livestream worship becomes an additional long range arrow in our quiver. Virtual worship enables participation from those among us who for reasons of age or infirmity, temporary sickness, or other reasons – cannot be physically present in worship.  What it is not, is a permission to stay away from in-person worship!

I see our livestream worship as an outreach channel connecting us with the spiritually curious – whose curiosity about faith might be encouraged through their exposure to our online worship – those who might one day risk the counter cultural action of walking through our red doors for an in-person experience on Sunday morning.

The church’s institutional decline in our time mirrors the disaffection with institutions across the Western World. Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z’ders raised in a time when many of our hallowed institutions have increasingly failed to deliver on their promises, automatic loyalty of previous generations to institutions is being seriously challenged. This is compelling us all to question beyond our experience of church as an institution. If no longer as an institution, how might Christian communities redefine themselves?

Jesus focused on relationships not religion. He certainly had little interest in forming a new religion with an institutional product. Jesus projected his experience of being in relationship with God into the relationships he built with his followers. By extension he taught them how to make their connection to him into relationships with one another.

In the 1st letter of John, Jesus says:

No one has seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.

This is a later echo of Jesus Great Commandment recorded in John’s gospel:

Love one another – by this the world know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.

His teaching points to a way of life that seems simple enough! Well at least clear enough though not necessarily simple to live.

Elsewhere, Jesus paints word pictures of what relationship with God looks like through the use of arresting metaphors that draw their power from being taken from every day and the familiar aspects of life. Last week’s gospel portion from John 10 Jesus uses the metaphor of the good shepherd whose love for the flock has a very intimate and self-sacrificing intensity. In today’s gospel – He continues in John 15 with another powerful metaphor – that of the vine and its branches. This is a metaphor that speaks of the organic life of relationship.

It seems to me that the future of the church in our own century lies in a return to Christian communities defined as vision movements putting core spiritual values into concrete practice. This will require letting go of our investment in church as an institution. I don’t mean we should abandon the institution but allow the nature of our identity and sense of purpose to shift with and not fight against institutional decline. In other words, to take advantage of institutional decline to be freed and renewed by the presence of the risen Christ in the world.

Such a shift in orientation will go to the heart of our evangelism. Is our evangelism aimed at shoring up the flagging membership of the institution, or is our evangelism focused on winning hearts and changing lives? Do we want to revive our flagging enculturated institution – or will we take a new opportunity to put into practice Christ’s counter-cultural message of love – and in the words of St Paul –  give a good account of the faith that is within us?

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

Through cracks in the institution of the church –  a new vision movement emerges – inevitably setting in motion the cycle from movement- to institution – to decline in motion once more.

Historically, we find ourselves in the scary but also exciting institutional decline stage of the cycle. As we contemplate the overall cycle of larger decline – at local levels we continue to celebrate signs of vitality. For instance we are moving to celebrate the success of our recent capital campaign. For some, this is a sign of the revival of the institutional St Martin’s fondly remembered. For most of us, we are not so sure. We grope our way forward – somehow sensing that our recent campaign success must be used to transition us into a different kind of future – the contours of which have yet to fully emerge.

I’m a member of a small parish working party that is currently participating in a five-week stewardship seminar series involving a wide range of attendees from across the Episcopal Church. The first question we have been asked to address  why we exist?

Simon Sinek in a video called Getting to the Why, addresses the question: why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, they have proved themselves more innovative than the competition yet like their competitors, they are just computer company, operating in the same business climate and conditions as every other computer company.

Sinek drawing three concentric circles on the board wrote why in the center of the three circles – then how in the middle circle, and finally what in the outermost circle. He noted that every single person in an organization will know what the organization does. Some will know how the organization achieves what it does. But he claims very few will know why the organization does what it does.

By the why – Sinek is referring to purpose not product. What is the cause or belief that explains not only why an organization exists but also the paramount question – why should anyone else care? Most organizations begin at the outer circle and move inwards. They will tell us what they do and maybe how they do it but are silent on why they do it. Making a profit or a product is not a why – it’s a result or a goal. In contrast, innovative and inspired organizations move from the center circle outwards – telling us why they exist before moving onto what they do and how they do it.

Sticking with Apple he gives an example. (If you click on the link here or above – listen from 2:17- 4:02.)

Following Sinek’s approach compare the following two pitches:

We have a beautiful church and an active community. We marry progressive theology to traditional worship. We have fun and do good– want to join us?

and..

Everything we do strives to give an account of the faith within us to become better equipped for the purpose God has for us. We are a community on a journey together in the belief that if you want to go fast journey alone but if you want to go far journey together. We will be greatly strengthened by your presence with us. Will you join us?

Jesus said

I am the vine; my father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes and makes it bear more fruit. … I am the vine; you are the branches … because apart from me you can do nothing.

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