Dear People of the Diocese of New Jersey,
On Ash Wednesday, we were all invited to "the observance of Holy Lent, by self-examination, prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word" (BCP. P. 265).
How has this gone for you? Has your Lent been a holy time in which you have had the chance to deepen your relationship with God in Christ? I pray it has been. The world is so busy and so frenetic; it can be a challenge to maintain the Christian disciplines. Nonetheless, maintaining Christian disciplines is essential if our identity in Christ is to be strong and faithful.
I am convinced that we have an identity crisis in the church today. It is a crisis that has been building for decades. Too many people in the pew don't know their own Christian story. Too many people who claim the identity "Christian" cannot offer a coherent account of their faith or faith story.
In his 2009 book Religious Literacy, Professor Stephen Prothero of Boston University observes: "Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can't name the four Gospels, Catholics who can't name the seven sacraments and Jews who can't name the five books of Moses."
"Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe," he writes, "but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates" (Prothero, Stephen - Religious Literacy - What Every American Needs to Know, and Doesn't. HarperCollins e-Books, 2009 - Kindle Location 57 - 68).
A primary task confronting the church today is the formation of people, both those in the church and those outside the church. While many churches expend significant money on the Christian education of children, the truth of the matter is that our efforts would be better spent on forming adults. If we do a better job of forming adults, it is much more likely the children and youth will follow.
I am excited about our upcoming Bishop's Spring Conference which is an intentional effort to address the crisis of formation challenging the church today.
As of this writing, over 300 people representing 82 congregations of the Diocese of New Jersey have registered for The Bishop's Spring Conference, which will be held at Trinity Cathedral on April 18. This is great news!
The Bishop's Spring Conference will address concrete issues confronting all churches in our contemporary context such as:
How do we reach people in today's culture?
How do we form people - adults as well as children and youth - as disciples of Jesus Christ in a world where there are ever increasing demands on people's time and an increasing number of religiously unaffiliated people?
How can technology support and strengthen our congregations and the formation of our people in the Christian faith?
What are we to do about the challenges facing traditional Sunday School?
The Bishop's Spring Conference is for all church leaders - Clergy, Vestry, and Laity - in the area of adult, youth and children's formation. Bring as many people as you can. One of our congregations is bringing 21 people! The more people you bring, the more you will get out of it and the more likely you are to incorporate the knowledge you glean from the conference into the life of your congregation.
In order to encourage more churches and people to attend the Bishop's Spring Conference, the "early bird" registration fee of just $10.00 per person has been extended to April 1st.
Don't hesitate to recruit people in your congregation to sign up now. It promises to be an exciting and important day in the life of the Diocese of New Jersey.
May you and yours have a blessed Holy Week.
Yours in Christ,
The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, D.D.
Bishop of New Jersey