A church in search of a mission

As it begins its seventh year of operation the inter-denominational Community Church of San Miguel, to which Stew and I belong, faces the crucial question Alfie was once asked: “What’s it all about?” This is an existential quandary that goes beyond incidentals such as whether the church needs a bigger choir or different flower arrangements.

Historically, churches have taken their creedal and liturgical cues from a visionary founder, in the order of Mary Baker Eddy or John Knox, or later from denominational lore, as in the case of Methodists, Roman Catholics and other mainline churches. Some rely on the fire of a charismatic leader to fill the pews on Sunday, like Joel Osteen’s  Lakewood Church in Houston and other megachurches with Walmart-size parking lots.

Alas, the genesis of the Community Church was not nearly as lofty, inspirational or focused: Some parishioners at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in San Miguel, an English-speaking, buttoned-up congregation, became embroiled in a very personal and bitter feud with its pastor Michael Long and ultimately a dozen or fifteen members walked out and convened their own "church." 

In the beginning: The beautiful grounds of
 St. Paul's Church in San Miguel.
Indeed, the split was nasty, rancorous and to some extent petty—hardly the most productive soil on which to plant the seeds of a new religious organization. Certainly the separation had little to do with liturgy or theological nuance.

Initially the new church was led by two retired Episcopal priests and a deacon who had officiated at St. Paul’s and gave the new group some direction. An “outreach” program was created to distribute tens of thousands of dollars donated by the congregation for charitable projects.

Those founding elders left after three or four years—the two priests because of age and ill health, and the deacon and her partner mostly as a result of infighting with some members of the congregation.

With their departure the church lost whatever liturgical or theological moorings it had. In effect, lay members were left to fill in the blanks as they went along and purely by default adopted, almost to the letter, the Episcopal order of service the dissenters had left behind at St. Paul’s.

The only "professional" guidance now comes from visiting ministers who are offered free airfare and housing but who preside for periods of approximately two months. They come from various Protestant denominations but here they celebrate the same Episcopal-ish mass or liturgy.

Three years after its founding, and over the strenuous objections of some of the church’s founders, a new, less encumbered service was created by members unhappy with the Episcopal/Anglican rigmarole of the main event. At its core, the minimalist new service so much resembles an Alcoholics Anonymous or Quaker meeting in that all members voice their opinions about the discussion topic of the day. 

Except for joint services on Easter and other holidays most attendees at the earlier, lite service don’t interact much with those who attend the full-strength, Episcopal  liturgy. The new service in effect has become a mini-denomination of its own, confirming the fears of elders who opposed its creation.

About now, there’s a sense among some of the members that as the initial insurrectional fervor fades—and with no theological underpinnings or rationale to help guide it—the Community Church faces a potentially fatal loss of momentum.  

So a new committee has been convened to develop strategies to attract new members. Even the participants of the early, more informal service are grappling with Alfie’s Dilemma: What’s this all about?

A few members have whispered about a thermonuclear option. Since the offending Michael Long has retired and our main service is nearly identical to St. Paul’s, why not shake hands, pass around the peace pipe and disband the Community Church?

St. Paul has its own English-speaking minister—a retired Episcopal bishop, no less—and the church has a beautiful facility with a closetful of vestments and liturgical paraphernalia.

But I suspect the cardinal sin of pride gets in the way of any such official rapprochement even though several individuals have quietly returned to St. Paul’s fold.

During the early service last Sunday Stew posed several trenchant questions for which no one had any ready answers: What makes this congregation different? What’s our special niche among the various religious groups already in town? What’s our mission? How do we explain to outsiders what we do and why we exist? Where do we fit in the vast firmament of Christian denominations?

Indeed, what's this all about?

To collect money to fund various charitable projects in town? That’s the role of a not-for-profit, of which there are literally over a hundred already operating in San Miguel. You don’t need candlesticks and communion wafers to help the poor.

Where’s our prophet to articulate the religious beliefs and liturgical practices of  this so-called church and lead it beyond its original and rather uninspiring creation story?

Those questions are crucial to the church's long-term survival. I'm not very sanguine there are any answers.  


  1. I know the answer: you are there to ensure I have a place to worship during my infrequent visits to your arid clime. And that vacuuous response should give you absilutely no succor. I will confress that I have fully enjoyed meeting with your pre-liturgical (in all of the meanings of that term) group. But you are correct; without a purpose a congregation simply has -- no purpose (if that is not too redundant). I wish you well in your search. For me, one of the failings of any church is when it turns from faith to worship masturbation. But that is just me.

    1. Worship masturbation, eh? Pretty good. Did you make that up yourself? Thanks.

  2. I've wondered about the purpose ever since Michael Long left, which was a few years ago, I think. I couldn't and can't figure it out........It is an interesting dynamic.

  3. Thanks Stew, for this perspective. I’ve had some time to think about what was said in the discussion after I presented the “wisdom offering” last Sunday. (Anyone interested in those remarks can find them on my website www.susanjcobb.com). Frankly I thought the discussion was sort of hi-jacked when the visiting minister said that he wished I had said the best sort of church was one with a Mission, rather than a Message. I think I was polite in my response, but it’s my contention that Message HAS to precede Mission. It’s when an individual grasps the Message, that he or she is empowered to fulfill any particular mission. Without the Message, human effort has no underpinning, no fuel for the fire. The result is burn out.
    The problem is that the language of the Christian message, otherwise known as The Gospel or good news, has been co-opted in modern times by a very vocal segment which has a view as restricted and narrow as the first century church at Jerusalem, who saw themselves as a sect within Judaism, dedicated to a ministry towards those who loved the Prophets and whose men were circumcised. Those of us who may describe ourselves as “Progressive Christians,” (otherwise known as “bleeding heart liberals” to the conservative right-wing evangelical branch of Christianity) find ourselves reticent to broach the subject of “being Christian,” without a discourse on what kind of Christian we’re not.
    If ever there is a time for message clarification, this is it. It is because of MESSAGE that thousands flock to hear motivational speakers. More often than not these days, there is more sense of empowerment and purpose coming from TED talks and Tony Robbins than there is coming from mainline Christian pulpits.

    1. I think your reply takes us into far deeper theological waters than I intended to navigate in my posting, though I agree that "without a message, human effort has no underpinning." That is, I think, what I meant to say: The church needs to articulate its message before it attempts any marketing or "selling" of the product.

    2. This might be a duplicate. I thought I had replied but it got lost in the ether.

      Susan: I think your reply is far more complex than my blog posting, though I agree that without a "message, human effort has no underpinning."
      What I meant to say was that unless someone articulates a purpose or a mission for the church, it's not likely to last for long-haul. Thanks for your comment.

  4. From Jeannie Schackenberg:

    The Community Church was started initially by a small number of people who were dissatisfied with St. Paul's and its pastor. Not all of them were Episcopalians but attended there because it was the only English speaking option. Many others, like myself, joined in and had never even attended St. Paul's. Initially there was a lot of the service straight from the Episcopalian Prayer Book because our clergy - Dean, Ida and Harold were Episcopalian. But, as the years moved on, this changed and today the 11:00 service is far from Episcopalian. You should take a look at the service bulletin. The Apostles' Creed has not been a part of that service for a long time.

    To think that we could quit and just all go to St. Paul's is beyond absurd. A very small percentage of our current members are actually from an Episcopalian background. And, not more than 3 or 4 of our members have gone back to St. Paul's. Our attrition rate is due primarily to death, disability and permanent moves back to the US. We are actually working on the specifics of these statistics. But, we are not bringing in enough new members to make up for the losses. The new Growth Committee (to which all are invited to join) had 16 people show up for the first meeting with lots of good ideas and enthusiasm. You both are very welcome to join.

    As for our mission - I believe that it is about a community of Christians (means different things to different people) who care about one another, support one another and care and share with the community beyond us.

    Your blog post felt quite negative to me . Constructive criticism is always welcome - however, there should be suggestions for improvement to go along with the criticism. Unfortunately there is no way for the church to be all things for all people. But, some of us are truly trying.

    1. Jeannie: Criticism, unless it's ad hominem or disrespectful, is constructive because it directs attention to the problems that need to be corrected. Unfortunately it also triggers defensiveness instead of calm discussion or solutions. Reconvening a choir or instituting a "shepherding" program are all good ideas but don't answer the core question of "What's the Community Church all about?". Thanks for your observations.

    2. I did not intend to be defensive but was trying to correct a few inaccuracies regarding our 11 service being Episcopal - this is absolutely not correct. I would be happy to send you a copy of yesterday's service if you wish so you can see for yourself. And, 1/3 to 1/2 of the 9:30 service attendees also attend the 11:00 service and the council and committees have members who attend both services. And 3 of the 7 members of the council plus the treasurer attend the 9:30 service. I think you have a right to express whatever your views are but the picture you paint is not the picture I see at church and I am involved in many ways. I do not see the problems that you see. Overall much of the discord we had is the past is gone - the fellowship gatherings we have are joyous. There are over 72 people coming to the Easter dinner after church next Sunday. I see much to be thankful for and much to look forward to at the Community Church. And the 50% or more to outreach - a core principle of the church - continues - as Christians we are called to help the needy and we do. The Community Church is alive and healthy and continues to work on improving what it does and how it does it. It will always be a work in progress.


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