Who do you think you are? Episcopalians often face that question, posed either as a rebuke or as an honest inquiry into our faith.
When referring to the Episcopal Church, it's safe to say, You're not who you used to be. With a membership of less than one percent of adults in the United States, the denomination's position has changed since its heyday of power, prestige and privilege.
"The Episcopal Church saw itself for many years as the church of the establishment," Zscheile says, "but we are now living in an era when the church is rapidly losing its privilege in American society."
In a weeklong, intensive course at Seabury, Zscheile discussed the "dis-establishment" that is underway and explore renewing Episcopal identity by going deeper into the roots of the faith. This will include exploring and reframing the church's sense of mission. The course was offered in January 2013.
The syllabus describes the course this way: The Episcopal Church has a long establishment legacy that still shapes its life, mission, and sense of identity. Yet the era of cultural privilege is rapidly ending for Christianity in the U.S., and the Episcopal Church increasingly finds itself marginalized where it once saw itself as central to American life. The Anglican Communion is a product of British colonialism. Dramatic shifts in culture, demographics, mission, communications, and geopolitics make the Communion a contested reality today.
Using a hybrid course format with teaching and learning taking place both online and in the classroom, Zscheile will lead students in re-envisioning Episcopal and Anglican identity.
Central to that identity, Zscheile says, is mission.
"The way the Episcopal Church has historically thought about mission is the benefactor paradigm. We give money to do good things, generally out of excess. That's a tradition that goes back into the ancient world, of people giving out of abundance. Yet Jesus challenges us to a deeper, more reciprocal relationship with our neighbors in mission."
Interpretations of mission can be puzzling, says Zscheile, who is an assistant professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary and associate rector at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our model of mission must change; not only becoming something new, but also returning to our roots. Who and what we are called to be, Zscheile says, are followers of Jesus, or as the early Christian movement came to be known, People of the Way. Rather than fulfilling the role of benefactors, Zscheile says Jesus calls his followers to a more reciprocal role of giving and receiving. In addition to giving, it requires knowing how to receive. In addition to welcoming in, it requires going out.
"We want to welcome everyone into our church," Zscheile says. "That still is the DNA of the established church, but that doesn't go far enough. Of course I want to be welcoming, but the assumption is that people want to come into our church, and that's often not the case. What we need to do is go out and meet people in their neighborhood, meet them on their own turf.
"We often still think that mission is something that we do far away, without recognizing that our mission field is very much in our own backyard," Zscheile says.
"In all the stories about Jesus, he usually relies on the neighborhoods' hospitality rather than offering hospitality to them. We need to ask how we can share in the life of our neighbors, on their turf, in their culture, rather than just inviting them into ours."
Who do you think you are? Perhaps the better question is, Who are we called to be?
In his Seabury course, "Students will have to develop for themselves a working theology of mission," Zscheile says. "They'll have to connect an understanding of God's mission with how that shapes the patterns and practices of their church."
Those interested in the January course can register online.
Evening Session with Zscheile Open to the Public
The public is invited to a free session with Zscheile from 7 to 8:30 pm Wednesday, Jan. 9. Titled "Meeting God in the Neighborhood," the session will explore how God is on the move in our neighborhoods, inspiring people at the grassroots level to renew their communities. The evening will include an examination of theological ideas and the practices of some real faith communities in an effort to discern the role of the church in the life of our communities, now that the church no longer occupies a place of power and privilege. While there is no charge for this program, registration is required. Register online.