Mission Chattanooga: An Anglican Mission in America

Most Americans, when they think of the Anglican church, think of the Church of England, the queen, redcoats, stuffy high church practice and possibly something about a king wanting to get a divorce.   If you are an evangelical, you might think of a few respectable Christians that you know are Anglican, like C.S. Lewis, JI Packer, John Stott, Alisdar McGrath, and N.T. Wright.

Its likely that whatever thoughts you have of Anglicanism don’t include Chattanooga Tennessee, or Rwanda, or coffeehouses.

In May, I got an email from an Anglican Priest in Chattanooga.  He had met me briefly when I gave a talk in 2002 in upstate New York, and he wanted to tell me about their ‘urban abbey’ that they had been forming on the edge of downtown Chattanooga.  I didn’t get back to him right away, but finally did in June, and we went to visit them.  One of the reasons that I did was that I got another random email from another Anglican priest here in Omaha not long after that.  His wife had seen the simple free blog, and thought we should meet, in part because of the book clubs we’d had.  She was right, and now we are good friends with Tony and Heather here in Omaha.   So after this, I decided to talk more to the priest from Chattanooga.

Although they didn’t really know each other, one thing these two priests had in common was that they were part of a fairly young Christian movement in the US.  Anglican Mission in America started just 10 years ago.  A little history is necessary to explain.  We haven’t had churches called “Anglican” churches in the US, because we call them ‘episcopalian’ here in the US.  Episcopalians are Anglicans, they just don’t refer to themself as the ‘Church of England’ for obvious reasons.

Now some episcopalians are more liberal about their view of Scripture and other such things than some episcopalians.  And the conservative ones have been feeling less and less a part of the growingly liberal episcopalian majority.  Various groups have tried to seperate off from the main Episcopalians, calling themselves ‘evangelical episcopalians’ and other such things.  In 2002 a group of these conservative episcopalians had opportunity to move their allegiances from the American episcopal church to be under the Bishop in Rwanda.  The Rwandan Bishop saw the plight of these somewhat homeless American Episcopalians, and he had a much higher view of Scripture.  So the Anglican Mission in America was born.  It is really just a mission of the Anglican Church in the US– under the Bishop of Rwanda.  They plant churches.  One that they planted is in Chattanooga and is called (appropriately): Mission Chattanooga.

The Mission is one block from the old Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, which has been around forever.  Its an up and coming part of town which was until recently, pretty neglected.  The Mission has a few buildings, including a converted bread factory which serves as a coffehouse during the week, with a thriftstore in it, and a lot of evening shows.  On Sundays, the place gets rearranged, and they have church services– 4 of them.

Church at Mission is a mix of liturgy and evangelical music, with a strong dose of hymns.  They have many fantastic musicians, including the bass player from  the band ‘ludicrus’ and a back-up drummer for Saturday night live.  Every service they break bread and do communion– walking down the aisle to the front.  The early service is mellow, and more contemplative.  The 11 oclock service is the largest, with around 180 people, and the most ‘normal’ praise music (accompanied by a wall of sound from the musicians though).  5:30 is evensong, which is heavier on liturgy, and also probably heavier on rock and roll.  Last, at 9:30, is vespers, which is a smaller service which takes place around a very long table (like the Lord’s supper).

Across the street are more buildings which the Mission uses.   Pastor Chris is an unusual pastor, unfortunately.  I say unfortunately, because I have seldom seen a pastor who is so good at drawing out the gifts of those around him.  He sees his job, as pastor, to help people in the church to come to realize and use the gifts they have.  And he has eyes to see potential.  On Wednesday in one of the buildings across the street we got to see the sermon planning at work.  10 leaders were there with pastor Chris to share ideas on the upcoming passage for two weeks from then, and together they thought through what the message might be for their Church through this passage.  While some pastors are quite territorial and possessive of their pulpit, we saw a collaborative enterprise, and in the end, Pastor Chris only preached 2 of the 4 services, and had some of these other leaders rotate through to preach at the other two services each week.

In our Omaha BookKlub, we have been reading two different books– Desiring the Kingdom, by Jamie Smith, and Boursma’s Heavenly Participation: Weaving the Tapestry.  They each, in their own way, are speaking to something going on right now in Evangelical culture, and I think we see it in Chattanooga.  To put it bluntly, Evangelicals are becoming less gnostic, and more physical.  Gnostic Christianity is concerned primarily if not almost exclusively with knowing rightly– understanding the most correctly, having the most exhaustive knowledge of the Bible, etc.  Knowing is not the problem.  But the problem with gnostic Christianity is that it tends to think you know only by learning intellectually.  But that is not true.  We learn a lot through practice, habituation, repetition, doing things again and again.  This is what liturgical styles of worship do– they help train us towards certain habits and practices which enrich us, not merely intellectually, but in our imagination and heart.  Evangelicals are also becoming more physical in that they are realizing the imoprtance of living out the Gospel (whatever that means).  A book from a few years back called “The Hole in the Gospel” highlighted the problem with churches full of people who had top-shelf Christian knowledge, but very little outlet for using their lives to transform society around them for the better.

Mission Chattanooga is an interesting experiment.  There are 28 staff, most of whom raise their own support, and they are intent on being used of God in that town.  For Celeste and I, we came away from Mission Chattanooga feeling spiritually encouraged and hopeful.

If you want to go check out what is going on there, go see their website:

http://www.missionchattanooga.org/

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