Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Come help shape what area ministry will become as a resource for being church beyond congregation boundaries. Join clergy and laity from Episcopal communities in the northern part of San Francisco as we plan our fall calendar.
A caravan will depart following this event to attend our former Area Missioners, Merry Chan Ong’s installation as Rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Oakland.
Saturday, September 25
8 a.m. -10:00 a.m.
St. James Episcopal Church
For more information email email@example.com
Saturday, June 5, 2010
9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church
2097 Turk Street (at Lyon)
San Francisco, CA 94115
For more Information contact Mary Balmana,
Friday, November 20, 2009
Storytelling as Discernment:
Discerning God’s New Work in Loss and Challenge
NOMA Area Ministry Meeting
October 31, 2009
The following article is a reflection on the significance of storytelling as a practice of discernment offered at the North of Market Area Ministry gathering on October 31 at Christ Church Sei Ko Kai. The NOMA team has organized seven meetings from September to May during which congregation representatives will meet to share communal and personal stories of faith and learn about our respective parish neighborhoods.
I. Storytelling in Christian community
In the last chapter of Luke’s gospel, two disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus and talking to each other about the recent events that had occurred in Jerusalem. These recent events were of course the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. As they speak, Luke tells us that the resurrected Jesus draws near them. These two, however, are kept from recognizing him. When Jesus asks what they are talking about, the disciples tell him how the priests and leaders killed Jesus, how they hoped he would redeem Israel, and how some women in the community were claiming that he has been raised from the dead. At this point, Jesus (still incognito) rebukes them for their slowness in believing and offers them a retelling of the history of Israel and prophecy starting from Moses. The trio reach a village and Jesus accepts the disciples’ invitation to join them for the night. When at table Jesus reenacts his actions at the last supper by taking bread, blessing, breaking, and giving it to them, their eyes are suddenly opened and they recognize Jesus. In that instant, Luke tells us to great dramatic effect, Jesus vanishes from their sight. The two disciples are then compelled to take action. They go running back to Jerusalem to the unbelieving community to tell them that the Christ has risen indeed.
This story captures all the essential points about the power and importance of storytelling in the Christian community.
1.) Storytelling reveals who we are. The story of my life reveals who I am. The story of who we are as a community reveals how we have come to be who we are.
2.) But storytelling in Christian community is not simply a recreational activity. It has a specific purpose. The purpose is to discern our identity in light of God’s presence and activity in the now. It is driven by at least three questions:
A. Where are we?
B. Where is God?
C. What is our call?
The community and its individual members tell stories in order to discern the nature of our situation (theological meaning), what God is doing, and finally what God is calling us to do in the present moment.
3.) There are multiple stories told in the community. The Emmaus story begins with the two companions talking to each other about the traumatic and enigmatic events that have recently taken place. We find out more of the content of their conversation when Jesus joins them. They share with him what happened and how it has affected them personally and their community (“but we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” Luke 24:21). They are telling their story in light of the hope that Jesus would redeem Israel, a hope shattered by the crucifixion. It is evident that their story is fragmented because it is an account of a traumatic loss. We feel that they are groping for coherence and meaning in their storytelling in light of the trauma. The underlying question is, “What does all this mean?” Their storytelling is an attempt at discernment, but their only conclusion seems to be devastating disappointment and shocked disbelief.
What is Jesus’ response to their despondence? He gives a retelling of the story of the Bible: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).” Here he is doing three things: first, he is connecting their personal and communal stories with the greater story of the Bible, the shared story of faith; second, he is interpreting the meaning of the present situation through this connection between the stories; third, he is enacting how the resurrected Christ has now become the key to understanding the meaning of both the disciples’ story and the Biblical story for the community and its individual members.
4.) Storytelling in Christian community can (there is no guarantee that it will) lead to the recognition of Jesus in the present moment, remind us again of our inseparable union with Christ, and deepen our understanding of who Christ is for us. This is how I understand the moment in the story when Jesus breaks the bread and the disciples discover Christ again.
5.) Finally, storytelling compels the disciples to act. They go back to the disciples and proclaim the resurrection to an unbelieving, grieving community (confirming the women’s testimony). This last scene prefigures the ministry of the early church in moving from trauma to witness, silence to proclamation.
To summarize, the story of the Road to Emmaus illustrates how storytelling is a process of revelation and an act of discernment:
1. The Christian community tells stories not simply for recreation but in order to discern the nature of its situation in light of its faith in a sovereign, loving, and just God.
2. It does this by seeking a connection between its own story and the larger story of the Bible.
3. Christ is the interpretive key to the meaning of the personal, communal, and Biblical stories.
4. When the community discerns the presence and activity of Christ, it discovers its calling and takes action through ministry.
II. Storytelling and Area Ministry
What does this have to do with Area Ministry? Simply put, Area Ministry is a new way of being church. It is based on the claims that 1) our call to share the good news is just as vital and relevant today as it was for the first Christians; 2) the present situation of our church in today’s particular social and cultural context demands an innovative way to live out this mission. The first claim is about our identity as Christians. The second part is about our calling. Both claims require reflection on where we are, where God is, and what we must do. We ask these questions, of course, under the illumination of our faith in a God who is present and active in our lives and the world. We get to the answers by doing what Christians have always done: telling stories.
The task of discernment is urgent for the church. Take the first question, “Where are we?” In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which interviewed more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older. The findings show that religious affiliation in the U.S. is “both very diverse and extremely fluid,” characterized by constant movement between and out of religious affiliation. The survey confirms that the Protestant denominations (broadly defined) are on the cusp of becoming a minority with only 51% of the overall adult population claiming affiliation. Mainline Protestant churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, etc.) make up 18.1% of this total, and the Episcopal Church constitutes 1.0 % of the 18.1%. By far the largest growing group in America is the non-religious affiliated group (16.1%), especially for those in the 18-49 age category.
For the Episcopal Church, the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church reported its survey findings to the General Convention this past summer. The report includes data on church demographics between the years 2003 – 2007. It shows that we are losing an equivalent of 1 diocese per year in terms of membership. The factors are many, including the disproportionate number of aging members (65+ largest at 27%) and the lack of young people; low birth-rate in the U.S.; recent controversies (not that the stance is wrong, but it has an impact on numbers); and lack of emphasis on evangelism and new member recruitment in congregations.
The numbers are open to interpretation, but both reports indicate that the Church is experiencing significant decline in membership; that this trend, if continued, will lead to greater financial burdens for churches and its institutions; and will require different structures, leveraging of resources, and different ways of carrying out the church’s ministry.
What these surveys show us is in keeping with the larger societal changes that have taken place in the last 50 years. The larger shifts in culture and politics have displaced Christianity and the Church as the center of American society (1963 – Greenville, SC). Post-colonialism, new patterns of immigration, and globalization are some of the phenomena that have created the unprecedented diversity of postmodern America today. Not everyone is Christian, many people are not even interested in the church, and the Western Christian story is not the main narrative anymore (nor should it be).
In 1991, Loren Mead, an Episcopal priest and long time church consultant, wrote that the old paradigm of Christendom where everyone took for granted that the church was the center of society and its values seamlessly translated into the society’s values was dead. We stand in the ruins of this old paradigm, looking for the new. “The crisis,” he writes, “is that the outlines of the new paradigm are not yet clear. Tested landmarks have disappeared, but we still lack enough clarity to know what new landmarks we need, much less how to find or fashion them.” After 18 years, his words are still relevant.
Although these numbers and observations borrowed from outside sources do not tell our shared understanding of where we are, they provide some solid indicators of loss (in terms of number and status in mainstream society) and confront us with the challenges of the present situation.
The urgency of discernment in this situation invites us to make the connection between the present situation and the larger Biblical story. I would like to offer some suggestions.
One possible point of connection between our story and the Biblical story is the year 587 BCE. The entire Old Testament is a product of a long editorial process that brought together very diverse materials and formed them into an accepted canon of Scripture. This process was shaped by a single experience in the life of the Jewish people, the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in the year 587 BCE and the following exile to Babylon.
The trauma of this event destroyed the known world of Israel. Public life came to an end. The monarchy was terminated. The leaders were deported to Babylon. All the main institutions and the heart of the nation, the Temple, were destroyed. Israel had a long tradition of holding the Temple and the Davidic Monarchy as being inviolable, protected forever by God. Their destruction, therefore, was a radical rupture that catapulted Israel into a period of profound questioning of their identity and that of God. It is this event that the Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel address in their oracles. Their message can basically be summed up in the passage from Isaiah:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
( Isaiah 43:18-19)
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that the task of the prophets was twofold: 1) To help the people relinquish the old world ruled by kings and to receive the new world defined by God. They were the ones who discerned that the destruction was not a sign of God’s absence but actually the very work of God’s judgment on Israel’s injustice and disobedience. Reconnecting to the story of Moses and Israel’s covenant in Sinai, they also discerned that God would bring forth a new and just Israel through this destruction and use Israel to bless all the nations of the world.
Drawing on Brueggemann’s insights, the year 587 can serve as a metaphor for our own time. The date can be “a way of speaking about the end of any known world, about the dismantling of any system of meaning and power.” This may be a bit too dramatic to completely fit our situation. Yet it is analogous to the present situation in that the old world of Christendom is in ruins and we as Christians have to ask, “What is the new thing that God is doing?”
The prophetic message that God was creating a new Israel in the ashes of destruction naturally leads Christians to remember the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. The message of relinquishment of the old and reception of the new is central to both the story of Israel after 587 and that of the community founded by Christ’s death and resurrection. For Christians, Christ is the definitive revelation of this work of grace in history and provides the key to discerning its shape in the life of the community.
III. Discernment to Action
There is wide consensus that we as the Church are facing profound changes that demand an authentic and innovative response. We are in a clear crisis in terms of membership, finances, and institutional life. We are in a social and cultural context where we are once again returning to minority status (which may be a good thing from the perspective of the gospel), and where former assumptions about church life no longer hold true. As Mead points out, the mission field once again lies right outside of our church doors. Where is God in this situation? What is our call? We are faced with the challenge of rediscovering the source of our vitality and our calling as the Body of Christ.
Area Ministry is intended to be one response to the present challenges in the particular context of the Bay Area. Yet, if Area Ministry is to be real, if it is not to be just a slogan of empty rhetoric or a fad with only pretensions to relevance, if it is to touch on the real concerns of God and God’s people, it will require us to do the deeper and challenging work of discernment. We have to take seriously our own faith claim that God is alive and active and take the time to listen to the voice of God speaking through the story of the wider community, our story, and the story of the Bible.
The Christian community has always undertaken this work as a community through storytelling and the practice of common prayer. This is what Luke shows us in the story of the Road to Emmaus. It is what the prophets were doing in their critical dialog with the people. It is what Peter did at Pentecost when he preached his first sermon. The end of discernment is not only the discovery of our and God’s identity. The end of discernment is the wholehearted response of the community in action: the church bearing Christ’s presence, the church being Christ’s presence in the world.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 29.
 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 2008. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Washington D.C.: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Retrieved October 28, 2009 (http://religions.pewforum.org/).
 The General Convention of the Episcopal Church. 2009. Report to the 76th General Convention. Retrieved October 28, 2009 (http://www.episcopalchurch.org/gc2009_106480_ENG_HTM.htm).
 Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier (VA: Alban Institute, 1991), p. 25.
 Isaiah 43:18-19. Biblical quotations are taken from the Newly Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
 Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 4.