Today’s guest Blog is by The Rev’d Dr. Robert M. Lewis, Rector of
St. Stephen’s Church, Grand Island, Nebraska
Times have been better for the town parish. Throughout Middle America it is this type of parish that is suffering through decline and in some cases, even death. Town parishes are often shifting from pastoral-sized models with full-time clergy to family-sized models with part-time or yoked clergy supply. But what is the recipe for changing such an outcome? Is there a silver bullet approach? In most cases, the answer is no. There is however one thing that I hold to be key in turning a declining town parish around, and that is incarnational perspective, in other words, embracing our neighborhoods.
Most town parishes have a history like mine. It is over 100 years old. It has had a series of pastorates, some far too short to really get anything off the ground. There are stories of the “glory days” when churches were filled with far more people and Sunday Schools were filled with children. Those days, the standard Episcopalian had far more clout than most and our members were perceived as the movers and shakers in that town’s community. But…those days are long gone.
In the town parishes I have known, this is a common lament with significant blaming: culture, youth, technology, lack of duty, soccer games on Sunday mornings, and the list goes on. But one thing that town parishes never really had to do was look into their neighborhoods. Town parishes grew used to evangelism by attraction and forgot that we are called to be witnesses of resurrection, that is, a vehicle that conveys all that is right, good, and gracious in our own neighborhoods.
One such turnaround was in a parish that I served as a consultant. The Priest-in-Charge was in ill health and projected a very “Father knows best” attitude. The Vestry had noticed (quite appropriately) that the congregation really did not look like the neighborhood. The church was composed of an ethnic group that did not look like the neighborhood and they were significantly older as well. The only outreach ministries were aimed at addiction, and those who attended those programs, drove for the program from a nearby town. There seemed to be little interface with the neighborhood. All that would change.
New life and new faces changed when that church decided to construct an open playground for the children of the neighborhood. Let’s be clear -this church had NO children, it was purely giving something away without hope of a return. A series of get to know meetings (always including free food) celebrated the playground’s debut in the neighborhood. As people began to visit their neighbors, celebrating this gift to the neighborhood, relationships were formed, stories shared and slowly, new faces appeared at worship in this now “neighborhood” church.
Town parishes often do not sit next to residential neighborhoods. The last story was an unusual one. In fact, the standard model is the downtown church. But here too, the incarnational approach of knowing your neighborhood can help. (Spoiler alert, I lead this very town parish). I hear the same aforementioned laments. People tell me, “All the people I know already attend some other church.” But the one thing that this parish did not look at – out of fear – was its own neighborhood.
I said WAS. We have turned a corner together. The neighborhood had plenty to engage: addicts, the trafficked, the homeless, the lonely. It was these that I pointed out were our neighbors. We began with a free lunch on Sundays. It is never fancy, just sandwiches, coffee and bottled water. At times, we get as many as 120 on a given Sunday and manage to always have money to keep the mission work going. At times the church is a little smelly and we have had to make adjustments for security as well. But this activity has made us actually look our neighbors in the face, know their names and hear their stories. Usually, folks just come for the meal, but occasionally, for worship as well.
We also began embracing our neighborhood by going into a local school and providing an after-school Bible study. We chose the most impoverished school and one we knew might have some families that frequented our “Sandwich Sunday”. For many children, this is the only church that they have and a perfect jumping off point to bring new families in. On Pentecost Sunday, we offered “open baptism” and invited through our neighborhood Bible study welcomed four new souls through baptism. (Just to be clear, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that Bible studies may occur in schools after hours if they allow for any outside after school groups whatsoever)
With any transition, there will be those who dislike it, and others who may actively sabotage a new initiative. While that is really the subject for another blog, you can expect that you will need to do some campaigning to get the initiative across. Invariably, when embracing your neighborhood, the detractors will quickly point out that these folks do not pledge or give (or give very little). I would be quick to point out that God always sees that what he wills is paid for. I have never had a hard time getting funds for our neighborhood ministries simply because we all see the effect they make.
I wish I could tell you that this one simple way of incarnationally welcoming your neighborhood would make a dramatic U-turn for any congregation. Instead, I offer it as a congregational development strategy and not a grow-your-church-quick initiative. Embracing our neighborhood has changed us and poises us to look firmly at our present and not bemoan our lost past. When we embrace only those initiates that promise rear ends in the seats, we often fail to realize that we have to grow together before we will ever grow numerically. A funny side effect did happen. It galvanized the Generation X folks of our parish to be the missioners in our neighborhood. Although our numbers are only moderately climbing, the average age is much lower than 5 years ago and our vestry has no one over the age of 60. It is a significant corner to turn.
We will not be who we once were. That is part of the life cycle of a parish. If we stay just where we are, we never grow. Embracing our neighborhoods changed forever two parishes in active decline. It is a provocative question to ask ourselves, “Are we known by and involved with those in our neighborhood?” If not, it’s time to get into your neighborhood.