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After One Year at The Falls Church, thoughts on Seven Characteristics of a Christ-centered Church

It was exactly one year ago I joined The Falls Church Episcopal as its Rector, and what a true joy and pleasure these past 12 months have been for me.

I knew coming into this position that The Falls Church Episcopal is a congregation that is welcoming, gracious, dedicated, and generous. And yet I have been surprised - repeatedly stunned, actually - by how much so.

"Welcoming" has meant embracing; "gracious" has meant forbearing and future-focused; "dedicated" has meant untiring devotion to our new story, and "generous" has mean giving the way God gives: abundantly and without condition. What a joy to be grafted into this faith community.
 

It is also a congregation - at least for the "continuing congregation" of folks who chose not to leave the Episcopal Church in the 2006-2007 time frame -- that has been through a tough and tumultuous (but also richly rewarding) time, having been exiled from their property and financial resources for years as the legal battles carried on. That long, sad chapter is (we hope and pray) shortly coming to an end, which will free both sides to move on and write new chapters.

As I reflect on the past year, I remember one of the first things I did at one of our first vestry meetings, and that was to share something from The Rt. Reverend Mark Dyer, what he called "seven marks (characteristics) of a Christ-centered congregation.

And so, with thanks to Bishop Dyer, here, as a way of reporting on the past year and looking forward to upcoming ones, are seven characteristics of a Christ-centered congregation:

One: a vital prayer life. Prayer sustains us, as individuals and as a church. Crafted prayer shaped our 3-5 year common vision, nourishes our lay and clergy leadership, and propels each of us to "do the work God gives us to do." We want to encourage every member of this church to have a vital prayer life. And we want to marinate - not just glaze, but marinate - all our decisions, as a church, in prayer.

Two: inspiring teaching. It's not a coincidence that one of our 3-5 year goals is to grow spiritually: we have a responsibility (and the privilege) to pass the faith onto our children, and we take that seriously.

When we think of Christian Education, we often equate that with Sunday School and Youth Group. And educating children and youth in the faith is important. That's part of the reason I'm thrilled to say that while last year, 15 children and youth were registered for Sunday School, this Sunday, we're anticipating that number will be 60. I don't know if that number will hold, but the arrow is pointed in the right direction, and that's an indication that something profound is happening.

But we should also remember that the primary location for Christian Education is the home.  Church has children and youth what, a couple hours a week? Parents have them the other 166 hours of the week.

Parents are the well from which children drink, and the air which they breathe. And so the hard truth is, if we want our children to have a strong faith, then we as adults need to have a strong faith.

That's part of the reason I'm thrilled that so many of the 13 (thirteen!) new, lay-led ministries represented at our Ministry Fair this Sunday are focused on adult Christian formation: namely, Christian Chevruta, Wednesday Night Bible Study, Adult Christian Formation Hour, 20's/30's, Life Changes, the Library Ministry, and Centering Prayer.

The third characteristic Bishop Dyer names is uplifting worship. The strength, beauty, and holiness of worship services is a major reason people choose to belong to a church. We are so fortunate to have Julie Huang leading our music, and we are so fortunate to have a dedicated corps of Altar Guild members, ushers and greeters, Lay Eucharistic Ministers, readers, Hospitality hosts, and others who are focused on making Sunday mornings relevant, interesting, and enriching.

Members of The Falls Church Episcopal rightfully expect excellence in preaching and liturgy, but such excellence does not happen automatically. It comes at the price of study, reflection, and preparation. That is why being "fully staffed" administrative wise is so important, and that is why we are so fortunate to have Jim Councilor as our Director of Administration and Finance, and now (as of last Tuesday) Rachel Cilladi as our Office Manager. I feel that we will now be able to fire on all pistons administratively, and as one result, worship will be all the more uplifting.

Four: strong pastoral care. Bishop Dyer points out that "the early Christians were known for how they loved one another in their diversity, and how Paul treated the 'profound diversity' of the church in Corinth with love as an example of how to act."

They say a fundamental need of every parishioner is to be "known, needed, and loved." Thanks be to God for the Rev. Cathy Tibbetts as your Vicar and primary pastoral care person, and to her and Rachel Woodson as they reactivate Stephen Ministry here. And as the "senior pastor" of this church (it's not the term we use, and I'm not suggesting we change, but there are times I like that title better than the mysterious title of "Rector"), I do what I can in the realm of pastoral care - providing crisis, hospital, marriage, spiritual, and other counseling as requested, and sometimes even proactively.

But most importantly, we have many vibrant small groups - again a plug for Sunday's Ministry Fair where there will be 25 ministries represented - who meet members' needs to be "known, needed, and wanted." In fact, in a church the size of The Falls Church Episcopal already is, if you are going to be "known, needed, and wanted," chances are it will be through involvement in a ministry or small group outside of Sunday morning. And so again, the need for connection, involvement, and engagement in activities that are in addition to and outside of Sunday morning worship.

Five: reaching out in mission. The church, as they say, is one of the few organizations which exists not for itself, but for others. We are very excited to "pay forward" the hospitality that the Falls Church Presbyterian extended us during our time of exile by welcoming the Rev. Denise Wilson and The Rock Christian Center, who will be making use of our Main Sanctuary from 10:45 to noon on Sundays beginning this week for their worship services. This - as well as the launch of the Lazarus Ministry and the Thrift Store - is a way we seek to fulfill our vision to have our buildings and grounds be good news to the wider community.

And thanks be to God for Kathi Dutilh for steering the outreach efforts of our parishioners, and thanks be to God that many of our members are leaders in the wider community in serving others. There is no substitute for hands-on service to the poor, because in serving the poor (and prisoners and the lonely - check out The Falls Church Episcopal Friends of Offender Aid and Restoration, and "Life Changes" and again Lazarus Ministry) we are serving Christ himself, and the person who gains the most from such service - the person who is transformed the most - is us.

Six: strong stewardship. Sorry, folks (well...actually, I'm not...I'm unapologetic about this), but you cannot get very far into any of the Gospels before you realize that Jesus cared and talked a lot about money.

Contrary to the way we have grown accustomed to think, God does not think that "what we do with our money" is a private matter. In fact, from God's point of view, "our" money is a misnomer: like "our" life, and "our" children, and "our" historic church buildings and this earth itself, we do not "own" a thing. Rather, our life, children, buildings, things, and money are on loan to us for a time. We are stewards, or care-takers of them, for a while.

Here's the thing: in healthy churches, money is always tight. Not because people aren't being generous, but because new ministries are always outpacing new money. And we have many new ministries blossoming. And so later this Fall, we will invite everyone to participate in an Annual Pledge Campaign, to give people a chance to give back to God in thanksgiving and in so doing, fund what we're called to do and be over the next three to five years.

Seventh, and finally: evangelism. I love the way Bishop Dyer summarizes evangelism, partly because it captures what I have long believed about evangelism: If all the above characteristics are present in your church - if you, and your church have a vital prayer life, inspiring teaching, uplifting worship, strong pastoral care, an outreach mentality, and strong stewardship - "then I guarantee you won't be able to keep your mouth shut about what is happening in your congregation."

Such congregations will "have the face of Jesus Christ" while being diverse; such individuals and such congregations will act like living steams or generous buffets, drawing people in who are thirsty and hungry for God.

So there you have it: a kind of one-year report, and a peek at our future.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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