It’s no secret that the Episcopal Church has historically been associated with a particular stratum of society—white, educated, socially connected, middle- to upper-class. The Presiding Bishop used to live in Greenwich, Connecticut—and now lives (or could live) in a Manhattan penthouse. We are a church that can count the number of presidents who have been members and can cite the large number of elected officials who belong. There has always been a number of African-Americans in the Episcopal Church but by and large in majority-black congregations. Power—thanks to the church’s abysmal history of race relations—has remained with the church’s white (and usually male) members.
In recent years and decades, this has begun to change. There are now several African-American bishops, including two of dioceses south of the Mason-Dixon line. There is a growing interest in Spanish-language ministry. We ordain priests from immigrant and Native American communities. Above all, there is the recognition that simply being the church of the white elite is no longer an option—not if we are serious about thriving in the wonderful hetereogeneity of 21st-century America nor, for that matter, if we are serious about being the body of Christ.
At the same time, the church has come to be dominated by a theology that centres on the “mission of God.” There is much to admire about this emphasis—indeed, I wrote a book about it. But I want to highlight one aspect of this emphasis. In the current theology of the church, the word mission is, as I have written at length elsewhere, often associated with a constellation of other words: task, job, do, work, labour, obligation. I once called this the Nike theology of mission: just do it. Get out there and do the work of God.
It is a truism that all theology is contextual and emerges from a particular community. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders found a powerful parallel in Exodus and God’s deliverance from oppression. During a catastrophic civil war in southern Sudan, it is not surprising that people were drawn to Christianity in part because of the promise of eternal life. When your friends are dying, you begin to think about what comes after life.
The current emphasis on mission in the Episcopal Church can be seen in a similar way. It may not always feel like this but Episcopalians are, by and large, people who tend to have disposable time and disposable income. When we hear calls to volunteer at soup kitchens, start homeless shelters, donate to food banks, or whatever, it is not unreasonable for us to think about responding. In my experience of the Episcopal Church, Episcopalians are people who come from an action-oriented stratum of society that is used to exercising its own agency. When we hear calls to “mend the world,” we might think it’s a tall order but we might also think it’s not unreasonable to start making plans.
All of this came to mind while reading a lengthy investigation in the New York Times recently about modern labour practices. The article focused on a young, single-mother who has no certainty in her work schedule from Starbucks and so ends up living a life of constant chaos, torn between child care, work, transit between the two, and with barely any time for any of her major life goals, like education or a driver’s license.
The article doesn’t say but I’d guess that this young woman is not a member of the Episcopal church. She may not be a member of any church, in fact. But let’s imagine she walks into her local Episcopal church on a Sunday morning and hears a sermon exhorting her to join in the mission of God, to get out there and build the kingdom, to do, to labour, to work. It’s not unreasonable to think that her response might be, “I can barely keep my head above water as it is. Why would I want to join a church that tells me I need to do more work?”
There’s a picture I once took on a weekday afternoon in a Nigerian church. There was a young woman, praying with her head bowed in a side pew. Over her was a sign that read, “The steadfastness of the Lord never ceaseth.” I was reminded in that moment of the deep well that is Christian theology with its themes of mercy, reconciliation, peace, redemption, truth, and so much more. This woman (I’m guessing) found her faith expressed at a moment of Christian consolation. You don’t have to do anything—just dwell in the love of God.
(As I write this, I am recalling a sermon I once preached on Matthew 11.28-30—”come to me, all you that are weary…”—and focused on how we were being called to take up the yoke of mission. All work, little consolation.)
The truth is, I can only tell you about what draws me to Christianity and to the Episcopal Church in particular. I can’t see inside the head of a Starbucks barista or a Nigerian church-goer. It is decidedly not the case that people from a lower socioeconomic background cannot mend the world or that they don’t want to try. Mission theology is not inherently misguided. But mission theology is, as all theologies are, particular to a particular community.
As Episcopalians think about our future as a church, one common theme seems to be that the main problem we face is that our message is not being heard broadly enough. We need to be better at evangelism, at church planting, and at communicating in the fractured media world of this era. All true. (And all steps that are action-oriented.) But I wonder if we might not stop and question not just how we communicate but what we communicate as well.
As Episcopalians look to transcend our historic membership patterns, we need also to think about the theology—or, more likely, theologies—that will be at the root of our new, broader community.