Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Lessons from Unlikely Sources: What a Market Researcher and a Megachurch Are Teaching a Few Episcopalians about Growing the Church

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Lessons from Unlikely Sources: What a Market Researcher and a Megachurch Are Teaching a Few Episcopalians about Growing the Church

Article excerpt

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given tome I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:1-3)

As a parish priest, with a heart for the Episcopal Church and an eye on disheartening statistics about the state of mainline congregations, the following question has been on my mind of late: Is the church doing and being what it is called to do and be? The question, originally posed by my theology professor at Union Seminary in New York, came back to me recendy as clergy colleagues gathered to bemoan flat attendance and flat pledging. We consoled ourselves by saying that flat is the new up. After more than twenty years in parish ministry, and more than seven years in my present cure, I have come to believe that, actually, up is the new up: there is in fact hope for growth, because the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition have much to offer in the contemporary religious context. At the same time, I have come to believe that there is urgency about this call to a new way of being and doing church, a call to a new vision for the individual spiritual journey, for the sake of the church we love.

Let me be specific about the call. I have come to the conviction that we are called to three critical aspects of spiritual growth in Episcopal congregations:

1. A more transforming encounter with God, especially in our common prayer, our worship, and our engagement with Scripture.

2. A deeper Ufe of discipleship, marked by personal spiritual practices that infuse all of life, not just time spent in a church building.

3. A more compelling orientation toward putting faith into action, specifically in service to those in need and work for justice and peace, with clear articulation of opportunities to do that.

As I survey the wondrous church, I see a big gap between what we are called to do and be and what we are actually doing and being. In order to close that gap, I believe we need to experience the kind of transformation suggested in Romans 12: a renewal in our thinking and way of being that transforms the lives of individuals and church leaders, as well as the common life of our congregations and denomination. We also need the kind of discerning, sober judgment to which Paul alludes, moving us to a deeper sense of expectation, responsibility, and challenge.

This essay tells the story of the journey of one parish, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, Illinois, a congregation committed to exploring new understandings of church growth and sharing those discoveries with other congregations. It is a story about what we are learning in our conversations with faith communities that represent a different expression of the Christian faith, including the nondenominational Willow Creek Church in the suburbs of Chicago. These conversations have been an interesting and clarifying exercise for us at Holy Spirit, bearing insights into the theology of our church. Perhaps the most compelling insight we have learned is that the spiritual vitality of any congregation flows from the spiritual vitality of its members. Developing spiritual vitality in the members of the community thus poses a significant challenge for the lay and ordained leaders of those congregations.

Leadership is key. As I puzzled about the level of vitality in the congregation I had been leading for seven years, I reflected on my own spiritual vitality. Was I doing and being what I was called to do and be? When had I experienced spiritual growth? When had I stalled? …

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