The Great Commission is Christ’s command to make disciples of the world. Reported in all four Gospels, it is the heart of a vibrant Christianity, a reflection of the kingdom of God at hand, and the source of a profound and remarkable paradox. The paradox is this: whenever Christians focus on sharing their spiritual experience with those outside their community, they find their own faith enriched, their own souls strengthened, and their own lives further transformed. The Great Commission is therefore both a goal and an expression of faith as well as a means through which that faith becomes transformative. The process of disciples making disciples, which is infused with the power of the Holy Spirit and which results in the transformation of both the disciple and the seeker, is as wondrous a phenomenon of the Christian faith as exists. Yet it is far too infrequently recognized.
The Episcopal Diocese of Texas has embraced a vision based on the Great Commission and, therefore, on the transformation of individual lives. Furthermore, these transformed lives become a catalyst to change and enrich society. Because disciples are made at the congregational level, the diocesan focus is on congregations, which, in the Diocese of Texas, are termed “missionary outposts.” Together, the 156 missionary outposts of the Diocese of Texas compose the “one church” of the diocese. That “one church,” like each of its congregations, has become a community of miraculous expectation in which the spiritual growth and glorious transformation of its members are an essential part of the Christian experience.
The concept of the congregation as a missionary outpost serves several purposes. In the increasingly secular world of America, congregations really are missionary outposts—spiritual settlements on the frontier of the unchurched—with the opportunity to share the divine power of transformation with the hunting souls who surround them. Those with no church home can be found in the school across the street, the office building down the road, or the house next door. The mission field in contemporary America is rich—tragically rich because of the failure of the mainline denominations and their congregations to teach and live evangelism as a critical element of the Christian faith. The term “missonary outpost” reinforces the need for evangelish, captures the energy of discipleship, and challenges larger congregations that can easily become complacent about disciple making and growth to continue to see their mission in evangelistic terms.
As a missionary outpost, a congregation leads to rely on other outposts for resources and on the judicatory for overall direction and coordination. As part of the “one church” of the diocese, different missionary outposts can focus on different segments of the unchurched and can, in combination with each other, enable the judicatory to minister to people of all ages, races, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Together, missionary outposts can take on large or complex outreach projects that would be daunting for them individually.
Christ Church, Matagorda
A striking example of the power of evangelish expressed through a missionary outpost is Christ Church, Matagorda, an Episcopal church founded in 1838 as the mother church of the Diocese of Texas. Matagorda is a tiny, unincorporated town of 750 people in an economically depressed area of the Gulf Coast. Christ Church was a chaplaincy mission with an average of 12 in attendance when Bishop Payne became the Seventh Bishop of Texas. For many years, the congregation had been subsidized by the diocese in order to support a resident, seminary-trained vicar. When the paid vicar of Christ Church left to assume another position, Bishop Payne appointed Harley Savage as lay vicar. Mr. Savage, a rice farmer and lifelong resident of Matagorda County whose great-grandfather had been married in Christ Church, agreed to serve without a salary. After training, he was ordained by the bishop under a special church provision that allowed him to serve as a priest for the locality of Christ Church only. The newly ordained Rev. Harley Savage embraced the diocesan vision of evangelism and the concept of congregations as missionary outposts.
The resurrection of Christ Church began with the vicar’s proposing an outreach lunch program to meet the hunger needs of the Matagorda community and to fulfill the diocesan vision of reaching those beyond the congregation. “The idea of the luncheon was not to grow the congregation, but to be an outreach to the community,” says the vicar. There was no assurance that anyone would come or that the tiny church could afford to sustain it for long. But the congregation stepped out in faith; and the outreach has been successful beyond anyone’s dreams.
What started as a small group of disciples offering food for the body and spirit has grown into a weekly gathering of more than 70 guests who settle in at family-style tables to see old friends and meet an ever-changing assortment of visitors. Wizened citizens of Matagorda, businessmen in town for a meeting, pipeline workers clad in the clothes of their trade, the homeless, and cowboys driving cattle through town mingle over home-cooked meals prepared by the people of the parish. When somebody suggested that an offering basket be placed next to the iced tea so that diners could make a freewill offering for their meal, the result was a basket overflowing. The lunch program is now self-supporting.
The energy, commitment, and faithfulness generated by the luncheon outreach program manifests itself in many ways within the congregation. Average Sunday attendance has increased from 12 to 60, young people have become involved in the life of the church, stewardship has increased dramatically, new educational and outreach programs have been initiated, and the congregation has just completed a $100,000 addition to the parish hall (paid for on the day it opened). The number of acolytes and lay readers continues to grow. The congregation has a new choir director (with a master’s degree in music education). Fundraising projects have enabled Christ Church to send five children to Episcopal camp in the summer and four senior high students on a home-repair mission trip to Colorado. Through a foundation grant, a new mobile medical clinic has been acquired to serve Matagorda County, providing much-needed free medical care that was previously nonexistent.
As remarkable as the statistics are, they don’t compare to the impact that the missionary outpost of the Diocese of Texas has had on the lives of its members, the unchurched in its area, and the citizens of its community. “We’re out of the ‘keep the church open’ stage to the ‘we have to spread the Gospel’ stage, and we can’t do that by keeping it in the building!” proclaims the vicar. These changes at Christ Church are examples of what can be accomplished with love, enthusiasm, and the power of the Holy Spirit. “The Gospel is about really touching people,” says Father Savage. “It’s about giving them something they can hold on to! God intends ministry to be a delight and a joy. It should be fun.”
Christ Church has become a dynamic place, a growing organism with a vitality and a life of its own—one taht is invigorating for its members and life-changing for the spirituality hungry who walk through its doors. Members “see themselves as missionaries,” the vicar says. Many of the new members had never held a Prayer Book before or even been to church except for “weddings and funerals.” They had to be trained and educated. People who have never attended church come to see how much it has to offer them. “We bring them in one at a time,” the vicar says, “and minister to them as individuals.” Christ Church is an inspiring example of the transformative power of evangelism born of a diocesan vision of community and mission.
Mission vs. Mai
The culture of a congregation like Christ Church that is devoted to making disciples and committed to the concept of the missionary outpost is different from the culture of a maintenance-based congregation in many ways. These include:
Focus on others rather than on self. Evangelism is outwardly focused. It leads to compassion for others and away from self-centeredness and self-indulgence. It provides meaning and sustenance for the soul, returning many tiems the investment made. Because it involves the Holy Spirit, evangelism is a great blessing for the disciple as well as for the disciple-to-be.
Spiritual orientation rather than an institutional orientation. Missionary outposts acknowledge that the institutional dimension of Christian life is important, but that is ultimately secondary to the dimensions of service and mission. The orientation and passion of the members are directed at making disciples and at spiritual transformation rather than at the mechanics of maintainiing the institution of the Church.
Sharing rather than hoarding. Evangelism and congregational development encourage the sharing of spiritual treasure so that all can be enriched. Evangelism teaches disciples not to hoard that which has been given to them, but to share it so that it can be multiplied. A congregation that is devoted to maintaining the status quo is grounded in selfishness. By hoarding that which God has commanded to be given away, congregations lose their vital connection to God’s will and stagnate. A missionary outpost, on the other hand, is eager to share with the suffering people outside faithful offer aid to those who are hurting along life’s highway. The disciples of a missionary outpost are not concerned about whether those who are suffering are “like us,” but only whether they are in need. Such an attitude of sharing “outside the church” spreads easily to time, talent, and treasure offered within the church.
Congregational collaboration rather than isolation and competition. When the judicatory operates as “one church,” missionary outposts are led to collaborate, each making a unique contribution that is valued by the whole. The tendency for individual congregations to compete with one another or to suffer in isolation is reduced.
Love rather than indifference or hostility. A judicatory that envisions itself as one church living in miraculous expectation of glorious transformation and that carries that vision outward through its missionary outposts to the unchurched is a community living in love. Such a community does not focus on internal issues that divide but on issues that unite, such as the call of Christ to make disciples of all nations. Self-righteousness, intolerance, and condemnation are replaced by compassion, discernment, and acceptance. In the spirit of the Great Commandment to love, people are allowed to change and grow.
A Glorious Transformation
When a congregation becomes a missionary outpost and shifts its focus from its own needs to those of the community around it, the profound changes that occur in the lives of its members are echoed in the larger community. In Matagorda, for example, the mobile health clinic has dramatically improved the physical health of the area just as Christ Church has improved its spiritual health. Once a missionary outpost embraces the Great Commission and the glorious transformation of lives that discipleship makes possible, it becomes a catalyst for change that draws others to it. When a congregation becomes committed to evangelism and so knows what it wants to do and for whom, it becomes open to missionary leadership. Harley Savage provided that kind of leadership at Christ Church. Part of a congregation’s “getting well” is to develop a missionary vision and then identify the person who is called to fulfill it.
What began as an intellectual respect for the missionary vision of the Diocese of Texas has evolved over the past five years of Bishop Payne’s episcopate into a deep understanding of its purpose and promise. Out of that understanding has grown a genuine and abiding love of mission, evangelism, and the Great Commission. What had once been a dream of the diocese and its congregations has become a reality for the “one church” and its missionary outposts: disciples making disciples in a community of miraculous expectation devoted to the glorious transformation of lives.