St. Mark's Is Joining God in the Neighborhood: Building the World We Want to See

State of the Church Address
January 24, 2016
St. Mark's Episcopal Church - Evanston, IL

It seems like just yesterday that I could respond to most questions with, “I don’t know, I’m new here!” and get away with it.  Now, nearly five years later (can you believe it?!), that go-to response doesn’t work anymore.  Nonetheless, I still don’t always have the answer but I can say that I continue to delight in walking alongside you as we seek answers together – and, perhaps more importantly, as we frame questions together.  Framing the questions seems to be the work of the Church these days – in a time when survey after survey shows only doom and gloom in mainline denominations we have to ask ourselves some tough questions: What is the role of a 21st century church community? What does it mean to be a vibrant church community?  How are we as community and as individuals being invited to walk alongside God in our daily lives as we strive to live out our baptismal covenant – or, as this year’s stewardship team has framed the question, as we strive to build the world we want to see?

Over the past 5 years – and probably longer – St. Mark’s has been about the business of becoming a missional church.  In church circles this is often called being “externally focused” or being a “neighborhood church.”  This is in contrast to another way of being church – the attractional model – in which the focus is primarily on the internal dynamics and inner workings of the church as reflected in our anxiety over average Sunday attendance, number of pledging units and number of children in Christian formation classes.  Don’t get me wrong, these things do still matter – and they are measurements that are still required by our annual parochial report. But, when these things become the focal point of our assessment of effectiveness we have lost sight of our reason for being.  After all, Jesus came to bring about God’s kingdom in the world, not to build a church!

So just what is a “missional” or “externally focused” church? Missional churches ask not “how can we be the best church in the community” but “how can we be the best church for the community?”  Missional churches dare to ask the tough question - “if we were to close our doors tomorrow, would anyone in the community notice?” Would we be missed?  Missional churches measure not how many come to worship on Sunday mornings but how many people live differently as a result of having been here.  Church life is about a journey – following Jesus, not a destination – going to church.

St. Mark’s is becoming a missional church. Yes, we still carry the baggage of the attractional model (nearly all churches do).  What this means is that I still worry when I see attendance down on a Sunday morning or on Christmas Eve, I still think about what “perfect program” we might offer to get more people into our pews.  This time of year as we focus on the annual campaign, I get excited about number of pledging units and dollars pledged.  But then I read something like this morning’s Gospel reading and it brings me right back to what really matters:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." – Luke 4:18-19

Bringing good news to the poor --- yes, and elsewhere in Scripture, we are reminded that Jesus was about healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, clothing the naked --- Yes! I can imagine this new way of being church – a new old way of being followers of Jesus – and I can celebrate with you that St. Mark’s is indeed about this work!   We are working with God to build the world we want to see – partnering with God to bring about the kingdom in this place at this time.  We’ve become a church that we can be certain the neighborhood would miss if we closed our doors, the community would notice.  Our homeless neighbors would notice as they would need to find a new place to go for warmth, for breakfast, for job coaching and computer training each weekday morning; our hungry neighbors would notice because there would be no lunch program on Wednesday mornings; Interfaith Action of Evanston would notice because 20% of their monthly Producemobile volunteers would no longer come from St. Mark’s; Albany Care residents would notice because we would not be there to sing Christmas carols with residents; Revive Center for Housing and Healing would notice because a dozen households would not have received Christmas gifts this year; and Y.O.U., Brownie Troup #45446, Cathedral Counseling, Evanston English Country Dancers and 22 other organizations and individuals who utilize our space during the year would notice because they’d all need another place to engage in their work and ministry.  St. Mark’s is becoming a missional church by Being in Place in and for our community. 

Every Sunday morning when we gather, we are steeped in the stories of our faith through readings from Scripture.  But what is the story that we are telling through our lives? What is the story St. Mark’s is telling through its ministries?  According to The Externally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community, authors Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw point out that “the word church is mentioned just three times in the Gospels” versus the “word kingdom [which] is mentioned . . . 116 times in the Gospels (NIV),” the authors suggest that perhaps we need to take a closer look at whether the story we are telling in our churches – in our prayers, from the pulpit, in our publications – is the story of a church or the story of God’s kingdom (75).  Because again, Jesus didn’t come to build a church, Jesus came to bring about God’s kingdom in the world!

Why does this distinction between church and kingdom matter?  Because the church’s mission is not the church.  The church’s mission is outside our doors - it is in the relationships you already have with colleagues, classmates and neighbors and it is in the new relationships we build when we seek out others who share a commitment to common causes.  In 2015, this took a variety of forms including being advocates for the amendments to the inclusionary housing ordinance in Evanston and standing alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters in Fountain Square or lining Ridge Avenue with dozens of neighbors to take a Stand Against Racism.  It also looked like individual members of St. Mark’s volunteering their time and talent to countless organizations in the community from the Foster Reading Center to the YWCA, from the hospital to area schools.  St. Mark’s is becoming a missional church by Living from the Center – rooted in God’s love, God’s justice and God’s mercy – and allowing that center to transform the way we live our lives.
So if missional churches are all about what goes on outside our doors, why do we gather at all?  Many of us decided with the start of the New Year to resolve (again!) to return to the gym, to get stronger and more physically fit.  For most of us our goal is not to become a bodybuilder but rather to be a healthier person.  Our worship is a bit like that.  For missional churches, we come together to get stronger and healthier in our relationship with God so that we will be better able to minister in the world.  The purpose of our worship, the purpose of our prayer, the purpose of our ongoing spiritual formation is to be more prepared and more able to serve the community outside the church’s walls.  We come together to worship because we are continually Growing in Faith – remember it’s a journey, not a destination – becoming more spiritually fit so that we can return to the world and continue partnering with God.

How will we know if St. Mark’s is successful? How will we know if St. Mark’s is an effective community of faith?  We will know by our answer to these questions:  “How is God using St. Mark’s to build a better world?”  “How is God using each of us, in ways great or small, to change the world?”  Now that’s a story I’d love to tell. And that’s a story St. Mark’s is beginning to tell.  You’ll see it in some of the enclosed reports.  You’ll see articles about it posted on the bulletin board in the hallway.  And, I hope that you’ll hear about it in conversations you have with one another over coffee.  I want everyone at St. Mark’s to have at least one story by the end of the year about how you changed your neighborhood, your office, your school, your home, our world because of St. Mark’s.