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On Mars as it is in heaven
So, who will build the first church on Mars?
Everything about Musk's success says that he will make the most serious attempt so far to grow a permanent human presence elsewhere in the Solar System. Among other things, this would make the survival of the human race more probable, since the Sun is a variable star, and deadly things can happen to the Earth (not to mention what we might end up doing to it). Of course, Musk and his devoted teams of engineers have to overcome some technical difficulties to get thousands to the Martian surface, as well as very significant financial, psychological, and spiritual challenges. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate what Elon Musk can conceive and achieve.
Can we conceive of planting a church on the Fourth Rock?
Now that you've stopped giggling, Gentle Reader, ask yourself why we should not be thinking about such a project? Is the Christian vision of the people of God big enough to conceive of doing it? Or to put it differently, we need to think of God's mission in creation in terms of the whole creation, not just our "fragile earth, this island home". Anything smaller is unworthy of Christ, "through whom all things (including Mars) were made."
As we consider the challenge that the Presiding Bishop, Michael Bruce Curry, has thrown down, that we embrace not an institution but a movement, the "Jesus Movement", is we simply have to think big. Very big. It is not just about turning around the decline in The Episcopal Church, it is positive — it is about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to heal our hurting nation, our world, and the planet itself.
Church planting on Mars has very down-to-earth consequences, however. If we can arrive at a realistic plan to take advantage of Musk’s "bus to Mars," we will have a freshtemplate for starting new churches on Earth. Pulling off such a church plant will need some very hard thinking about the absolute minimum necessary. And that will give us a fresh perspective on church on Earth, in fact, in the communities in which we live and move and have our being, right now.
Such a template would also be a lens through which to examine existing congregations, as well as direct how to start new ones. Clearly, I am talking about what can only be a thought experiment at this point in time. But with the continued decline in The Episcopal Church’s membership, we need a fresh perspective, a bold one that can match Elon Musk’s engineering ambitions with a missionary spirit up to the challenge of the Jesus Movement.
Let us begin to think about what it would take. We have to send a trained team on one or more of the SpaceX shuttles. How many, initially? The Lord sent out teams of two. But that was on Earth, less dangerous than space flight (Musk cheerfully admits that there will be deaths). If every ticket costs $100,000, then we need to think through how many at first: three? Six? Twelve?
And their formation will be crucial. Not only must the missionaries be enthusiastic about building a congregation on Mars, they need to be ready and willing to undertake what could well be a one-way trip, although Musk foresees returnees. They will need to have other skills as well as what church planters need, in order to contribute to the group effort.Conditions on the Red Planet are something like living in Antarctica, with a lot less air (poisonous, at that). No room for slackers, or specialists, either.
So our missionaries need to have life skills as colonists. They will also need to be creative theologians, able to witness to tough-minded physicalists convinced that faith in God is merely a fantasy, and that all will be understood when all the equations are known. A significant aspect of Christian theology will have to be rethought, as our faith interprets life on Earth ("Thy will be done/On Mars as it is in heaven"). There will be a new culture in the Martian cities, as well. So they will have to have excellent skills in biblical interpretation, and ritual life. They will need to have compassion and patience for their fellow colonists. Above all, these sisters and brothers will need strong, tested faith, because what the Spirit and we will be asking of them requires lifelong perseverance.
As we continue this thought experiment, it should be apparent that we are also talking about what kind of qualities and formation church planters and congregational revitalizers need to have Down Here. Our church has been woefully inadequate at starting new churches, and none more than in the black communities of our land. This missionary bishop has heard of only one new church started in a black community in the past thirty years (but I would love to be proven wrong!). All people need the Good News! Who will bring it to them? What lets us off the hook?
Similarly, in Hawai'i and the American West new immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands are arriving, with different cultural perspectives but the same need for the Gospel. California, Hawai'i and New Mexico now have non-white majorities. Latinos are now the largest population in the Los Angeles region, and whites will be in the minority across the entire country by 2050. Ask your Latino friends how well we have been doing in that area. They may well say, as one well-known Latino priest said to me, that we are 30 years behind other denominations…
Not to mention the communities in which we used to thrive in the past half-century. Many churches need revitalizing, rebuilding their communal life. We need as much determination, training and resources to build up our mission work Here and Now as it would take to build the Church on another planet.
Here are some numbers. The most recent statistics are these: In the United States, the population as a whole is 12.7% African American or Black, while Latinos currently make up 17%, Asians 5.4%, Native Americans 1%, and whites 66%.
A majority of Episcopalians are white/European American (86.6%). The second largest racial/ethnic population is African American or Black (6.3%), followed by Latinos (3.6%), Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans(3.5%). See here. The numbers speak for themselves.
My own experience is that we must start with people who are willing and able to be part of a church building team in targeted communities. The money we spend should not be on buildings or even supply clergy at first, but on the kind of formation for church planters described above. They need life skills, ability to witness to atheists, seekers, and "nones" in a winsome, non-manipulative way, good skills in interpreting Scripture in novel circumstances, and experience in leading prayer and worship. These people must have compassion for the community and people to whom they are sent, because they are becoming a part of them. They must have patience for the rocky beginnings that every new church has. And did I mention strong faith?
Once a congregation has been started, then we can think about how to find or raise up clergy, hire good musicians, and find worship and activity space. Diocesan support, and help from the wider church, are essential all through the process.
So, Mars… That possibility exists, if only as a dream. Yet considering what it would take — and I have only scratched the surface in this brief essay — should inspire us to be very real, very concrete here and now about what being part of God’s mission requires of us right this minute. That is also part of the recipe for healing our nation’s deep divides and poisoned politics.
Serving the God of our salvation, following Jesus, relying on the Spirit, demands our very best. Nothing less will do. We need to dream big, think hard, pray without ceasing, and do the work we have been given to do.
On Mars as it is on Earth.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.