As we are working to re-plant a worshiping congregation in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven there are a number of realities that bear strong resemblance to the broader Church’s situation. Ascension Church in the Hill was a chapel of Trinity Church on the Green. It was a place to worship when the summer heat became to stifling too travel all the way into downtown New Haven. The congregants were well off and the neighborhood a middle class one.
The neighborhood changed – as all do. It became more working class and more diverse attracting large numbers of immigrants who worked in the industries all about New Haven. Gradually, the well-off congregants at Ascension moved away or found means to get to Trinity or points further to worship and Ascension was left to struggle along, searching for an identity amidst a changing neighborhood in which the church was not at home and was not equipped to change drastically enough to make itself a home for others.
Rather than adapt, over time, Ascension dwindled and, about ten years ago, shuttered its doors as an Episcopal worshiping community. We were not the only church that failed in the neighborhood nor were we the only church that failed the neighborhood. Every mainline church in the Hill closed and, most recently, several Roman Catholic parishes closed, leaving the neighborhood without a spiritual center or home.
For an historic Church that is declining rapidly in a culture that no longer knows what it means to be Christian let alone Episcopalian, it might be beneficial to think of the Episcopal Church not as a dying institution that is in need of resuscitation but as a Church that needs re-planting.
As we seek to re-plant the church in a neighborhood that desperately needs we have read through a pile of books on planting churches. Among them many resources, mostly from a very evangelical persuasion, we found a report from 2001 entitled, “New Church Development: A Research Report.” It was produced by the Episcopal Church for the Office of Congregational Ministries.
There are several key factors that the report identifies as crucial to the success of new church plants or as strong corollaries to successful evolution over time.
• Effective recruitment and training of lay leaders
• Shared vision and direction
• A younger minister who is good at starting groups from “scratch”
• A focus on reaching unchurched community residents
How might the wider Episcopal Church look at these as we think about how to re-plant ourselves? The report states, “’Who’ congregations are as defined by their community constituency and their leadership and ‘where’ they are going in terms of mission and vision are crucial for success in new church development.”
Recruiting and training leadership
The first point, the effective recruitment and training of lay leaders, is no mean feat. How do we identify and equip our congregation to live as baptized leaders in the Church? In the past, serving as a lector, reader, eucharistic minister, on the vestry, as treasurer, or as warden, or in any other leadership capacity was a sign of status and achievement. Now, how many of us struggle in parishes to find capable people willing to take on these critical roles?
The report says, “Not surprisingly, analysis of other factors related to characteristics of the founding pastors shows that those who are successful in planting strong new churches possess a clear sense of direction and are not merely people-pleasers. Successful pastors tend to be young to middle-aged and like their lay leaders they are personally involved in evangelism and outreach.”
Successful new pastors are evangelists and missionaries – our lay leaders must be as well. How do we equip lay leaders for this work of evangelism and outreach?
The report found, “leader training and experience in practical evangelism, outreach development, and conflict resolution (in that order) are most important for new church success.”
In other words, the focus of the training in successful church plants is all on the growth and evolution of the community as witnesses to the Gospel. The Episcopal Church could benefit mightily from rediscovering an emphasis on our work as evangelists focused on outreach skilled in resolving conflict. How much better would the Church look if our energies were centered on bringing word of God’s love to all around us and understanding that creating new community means that we must understand how to resolve conflict?
The formation of our leadership must begin with Christ. Teaching the story, learning to pray to and with him, and trusting in him are all at the root of effective Christian formation. Once this is begun, we can begin to train for evangelism and outreach. We need to see lay leadership within the context of Christian formation. The goal is not recruitment for the sake of perpetuating the institution, the goal must be first recruiting the person to a life of spiritual maturity and offering them a vision of the baptized life that strengthens them for leadership.
Asking someone with a prayer life that is not exactly lively to be in leadership is a disservice to their development as a Christian and to the Church’s witness to faithful leadership. I know more than one person who was brought into leadership and then, as the quotidian pressures of church life wore them down, were spiritually unprepared to handle the inevitable disappointments that come and dropped out of the Church altogether.
Our approach to lay leadership cannot be “more is good.” Our approach must be rooted in the deepening of the faith, a commitment to living the gospel, and an understanding that using their gifts in the service of the Church is part of stewardship. Moreover, the life of any leader in our Church must be undergirded by dedicated prayer and a conviction that they are leaders not in a civic organization but in a Body that calls others to the life of faith.
The report states, “The success of a new church start clearly has more to do with what the church as a whole does in terms of evangelism and outreach as led by the pastor, rather than the individual evangelistic efforts and orientation of the founding pastor.”
The wider Episcopal Church needs to take seriously the development of lay leaders not as managers or administrators but as partners in the work of intercession, evangelism, and prayer that is the lifeblood of the Church. The more the Church looks to society’s models of success or management the more we will find ourselves floundering. People are not looking for one more place to work – they are looking for a place that gives them strength and hope for any challenge that comes their way and a chance to be part of something that transforms, convicts, and connects them.
That formation begins with a shared vision and direction – people knowing who they are and where they are going.
Shared Vision and Direction
What is our shared vision and direction? In the past, it was simple to say that Episcopalians were defined by their common worship life centered on the Book of Common Prayer. I would contend that this must be our source of shared vision in the decades to come.
Our way of being together as Anglicans is being tried and is fraying because we do not believe the same things about Scripture or Tradition and Reason has been reduced to individual perceptions of the movement of the Spirit. The report states, “Knowing “who” you are and “where” you are going is critical from the start and for the start.” It continues, “The impact of a common vision…helps a new church grow, rather than merely staving off stagnation.”
We cannot be a Church of all things to all people and expect to exist let alone thrive. We will never be as trendy as evangelical mega-churches and we will never have the undeniable (though increasingly resented and resisted) authority of a College of Cardinals.
We do, however, have a way we pray together. We have a common heritage and way of expressing our hopes, fears, thanks, and longings that has been the product of centuries of holy trial and error. We have a catholic sacramental life that takes seriously not only the presence of the Holy in the Sacraments but demands a response from us as well.
We have a common identity in the Book of Common Prayer.
The report states, of failed churches, “the sower failed to produce a crop because the seed did not take sufficient root to become established and so resist natural impediments and take advantage of encountered opportunities in its continuing efforts to flourish.” How are we making sure that the seed takes root in our people? How do we continue to offer them a life changing encounter with Christ that takes root in them so that they may serve as faithful witnesses?
That common identity and vision does not mean we share in a cookie-cutter approach to how to carry out that vision in our local contexts. It does mean that we have a core that defines and shapes us and those we call into leadership. The report states, “…it is important for the pastor to articulate a vision it is even more critical that leaders share it.”
The Prayer Book militates against the spiritually soporific influence of hyper-Protestant individualism, personal spiritualities, and comfortable notions of private religion. Our whole future is bound up not only in personal sanctification, but in the work, life, and love of the community.
The Prayer Book provides that common way of being that protects our parishes from being exercises in clerical vanity and it provides a way for all of us to be formed in a common way of being and praying together that gives us strength to do the work we are given to do. The report states, “the largest and strongest new churches scored high on the common vision scale. This scale reflects responses to two questions: one, that the founding pastor gave priority to clearly articulating a vision for the congregation and two, that leaders shared the same vision for the church’s future.”
All that we do together is geared toward the worship of a living and present God – not simply a God who promises a future but a God who dwells in the present. We do not simply anticipate or describe God’s future “re-entry” into the world but remember God’s action in history, draw strength from His very presence among us now, and bring word of His love to the world around us.
Our common worship is not didactic exercise or self-referential philosophical technique but an encounter of love that expresses our love and hope in a living God.
The Prayer Book will not give us a blueprint for the future as the Episcopal Church – except that it does. It offers a way of living into holiness together.
If you have ever been part of a community that is saying the Psalter together, it is an interesting experience. As the community first comes together, there is all manner of confusion. Pace, rhythm, pauses, volume, and more all are off as each individual does what seems right to them. Yet, over time, a miraculous thing happens. The loudest get a little quieter, the fastest get a little slower, the slowest pick up the pace a little bit, and the pauses become regular. In other words, the community prays together.
The Church has the means to pray together and this is our blueprint for the future. Neither congregationalism nor forced centralism offer hope for the body of the faithful. The Prayer Book is not a force of its own. It is given life by our common use of it – by our commitment to be brought together as a praying community that has agreed on it as our way of adoring Christ together.
Our hope is to be found in listening to one another as we pray and to being formed, together, by the common bonds we share as we replant this Church we love together.
Apologies for the unusual length of this post but I wanted to set up a couple of things for the next ones. The next will focus on different visions and strategies for church plants and how they might be useful to consider.