Growing a Church



For years now it’s been generally accepted that society is becoming so secularized that the only “memory’ left is one of clerical scandals or perhaps a Royal wedding or two. What does this mean? It means that there’s a generation out there that’s never heard of Abraham or Moses, David or Hosea, the Sermon on the Mount or the Ascension. If they do have an opinion about the Church it is that whatever it is, it has nothing to say about “real life.”

That further means that the advertisements placed in the newspaper, the website carefully crafted and the sign stating that Eucharist Rite 1 is at 8 am and Eucharist Rite 2 is at 10 am means nothing to those who “see” the sign. They may register that something mysterious is happening on Sunday mornings when all decent people are still in bed. A good number of those passing by “see” neither the sign nor the large faux gothic building with its bloody door. My former parish had a large stone Victorian gothic church building, with a large tower and the obligatory red doors. It was on a corner lot on a well travelled road. I was constantly amazed by the number of long time residents I met who had never noticed it. Thus those looking for a church might have been drawn in by the building, its sign, web site of Facebook page. A majority of Episcopal parishes are located in small communities with stagnant or dwindling congregations. Apart from new-comers, or people who are angry with their pastor or church -and who needs them? – no one is looking.


What does a group do when it becomes invisible? Our usual answer is to train more greeters to greet those who won’t enter, rearrange the pews for those who won’t use them, and tinker with the liturgy for those who know nothing of the God who is to be worshipped. We sign up for courses on church growth and learn eight astoundingly obvious methods to organize a growing parish. So many church growth organizations assume that congregations have spare cash to spend on projects designed to attract church shoppers. More and more small churches can’t even afford a full-time priest and spend most of their money on upkeep and paying to keep the lights on and the building heated or cooled.


Well, it’s not all bad. The elderly group responding from the back pews to an enthusiastic young priest are still offering worship to God for the neighborhood if they haven’t the foggiest idea how to offer God to the neighborhood. That in itself is powerful. Something remains to draw the world closer to God. The eucharistic offering, the prayers of the people actualize the love of God for human beings where they are. They work.


The Church in the West is in an Upper Room mode.  Jesus seems to have ascended elsewhere. We are still haunted by the call to talk about Jesus in our version of Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. We still hear Jesus ordering his followers to be life-givers for him. We hear the promise that God the Holy Spirit will possess the Church and give it power and authority to announce reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins.


There are haunting similarities between our church and the Church in the West and the pre-Pentecost Church. We continue to make up the number of the Apostles, busy ourselves with looking after each other, and stay indoors because we fear those outside. We don’t fear their anger. We fear their apathy.


The clue to St. Peter’s enormously successful first stab at talking about Jesus to those outside was twofold.  You can read his first speech in Acts 2. He related his love for his Master to the history and traditions of his listeners. It’s as if we started to draw lessons from American (or British) history and tradition to tell the story of the Living Messiah. Secondly Peter was heard by people whose first languages were diverse. Language is much more than defining or translating words. It carries with it culture and nuances, turns of speech and local flavor. Like St. Paul in Athens, Peter relates to the people he’s addressing. Above all, St. Peter and the women and men with him had been freed from fear because God has possessed them. They lived through their fears and waited until the promise that the Advocate, the defense attorney, would appear  accompanied by the signs a first Century Jew associated with the presence of God. Could one of our problems be that we are expecting signs associated with God two thousand years ago and so fail to recognize contemporary signs? We shouldn’t look for Pillars of Fire and mighty winds. We need to ask how a twenty-first century woman in Chicago would recognize God’s enabling Presence.


Witnessing in a manner which is associated with the life experiences and traditions of a Twenty-first Century Western human being, in a speech form readily understood isn’t a matter of learning a method, a series of bullet points. We aren’t selling detergent. It isn’t about talent or ability. If we think it is we will excuse ourselves. “That’s not my thing”, we conclude. Truth be told, we are frightened. Frightened Christians facing cultures possessed by fear, conspiracy theories and sheer terror debilitates the work and witness of the Church. As we wait in our Upper Room parish churches we need to stop organizing, stop planning; we need to be still. 


In the stillness, God will make his love for us, his love for the Church, obvious and effective. Perfect love casts out fear. Talking to our neighbors about Jesus and the church begins with taking an interest in them. I don’t mean by that taking an interest in what we assume is their spiritual lives. Without being frightfully nosey, we need to connect with the loves and fears, cares and challenges of our neighbors, whether they live next door or next door to the church building. Sharing connecting stories is a way to communicate how faith works in our lives. Note well: evangelism isn’t the priest’s job. It’s everyone’s job and it begins with sharing experiences, a shared history and an ability to overcome divisive language. So those of us who worship God in small congregations must pause and pray that God will drive out our fear of the people outside, fear that they will think we are strange, or fanatics, or different. Once we have admitted our fear, we begin by talking to our neighbors, establishing relationships. So begins what we call evangelism.

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