What if being a Christian meant deepening your relationship with God?
What if being a Christian meant walking ever closer with Christ?
What if parish life supported those things?
It does. It should. It can.
In 2013, the Diocese embarked on a journey called RenewalWorks. Based on a decade of cross-denominational research in which over 500,000 Christians and 2,500 parishes have participated, RenewalWorks is an Episcopal planning tool that assesses the spiritual vitality of a congregation.
The process is simple: 1) survey the beliefs and spiritual practices of parish members, 2) assemble a team to make meaning of the results, and 3) tweak congregational offerings accordingly.
The goal is lofty: align congregational resources to support the spiritual lives of their members.
We imagine church to be about spirituality. Of course, that’s what it was created for. And yet, as in any institution, some of our practices have veered off course. Some of the things we do in our parishes we do out of habit, not because they meet a current need. Some we do for their attraction value, not because they inspire us to go deeper. And in many places, we have programmed around resource constraints rather than challenging ourselves to something more. RenewalWorks asks us to re-center. It requires us to revisit the basics of what church was meant to be: an institution committed to deepening the spiritual lives of its members.
Most of us think of church as an art. For sure, it strikes the same emotional and spiritual chords. It enlivens and inspires us, brings us to the highs and lows of our human experience. But church, as an institution, is also responsive to the science of organizational development. There are things that work better and worse; there are proven ways to be in deeper or more shallow community; there are organizational tenets that direct effective resourcing and policy. Just as artists learn technique for brush and color, we benefit from technique for church.
RenewalWorks guides us through five best-practices of thriving Christian community
- Inspire the heart of core leaders so they can actively inspire others
- Get people moving so they can grow to a different level of relationship with God and each other
- Embed the Bible in everything so people understand how their everyday is connected to our faith tradition
- Create ownership so that people understand they don’t “go to” church, they “are” the church
- Pastor the community so people can share God’s love and experience themselves as the hands and feet of Christ in the world
So far, 18 EDOW parishes have participated in RenewalWorks. In doing so, they have explored whether – and how – their Sunday experience is connected to congregants’ spiritual development. And they have had mixed results. For some, the process has been course-affirming. For others, course-changing. But in each, RenewalWorks has started new conversation. It has helped God breathe new life into tired dialogue. It has shifted the lens back to the basics of Christian life.
The Diocese will sponsor RenewalWorks again this fall and in fall of 2016. It’s not the right initiative for every parish; but to discover whether it’s right for yours, contact Joey Rick.
This month members of the diocese visited two thriving parishes in the United Methodist Church. Our goal was to spend time at parishes whose reputations delighted us and see how they accomplished being centers of spiritual vitality. Of course, many of our own parishes are thriving, but we decided to visit congregations outside our tradition so we could see with even fresher eyes.
Our targets were GLIDE in downtown San Francisco, a 50-year beacon for inner-city ministry, and Floris in Herndon, VA, a suburban growth story for the last two decades. And our experiences were eye opening.
These two parishes have proven some things we’d love to replicate:
- Sermon series designed around the listener, not the lectionary, are popular with today’s newcomers and make church more practical and accessible.
- Giving people the experience of being the hands and feet of Christianity is more rewarding in this era than giving them an intellectual experience of God.
- Small group programs and assignments are key to spiritually intimate relationships. It’s impossible to be vulnerable and deep with a whole church full of people.
- Non-verbal cues are some of the strongest ways to create a culture. Walking the aisles with tissue reminds people that church is a place to get emotional.
- Vocabulary is seminal to the church experience. Use words that resonate with people, and you hook them. Use words they don’t like or understand, and you lose them.
- Good organizational processes can make or break staff, committee and volunteer experiences.
They’ve made some sacrifices we might not choose:
- A Sunday centered on today’s stranger or visitor will not be liturgically traditional.
- An intense focus on social services and advocacy for the underserved can make an organization feel more like a 12-step club than a religious institution.
- At some point, growth requires worshipping with strangers and selling/moving buildings.
And they embody some truisms:
- Drastic change in traditions can result in massive loss of congregants. Sometimes that’s necessary, sometimes not. Sometimes a church can survive that, sometimes not.
- Reputation through branding can be expensive. Very expensive. And misleading.
- Deep pockets do help growth. So does knowing how to ask for money if your pockets aren’t deep.
- Era and context have enormous implications on parish development. What worked in the 60s is less likely to work now. What works in the inner city isn’t always transferrable to the suburbs.
- Even successful churches have a tough time getting consistent volunteers.
Overall, what our visits reminded us is that there’s no silver bullet to church work. It takes steadfast courage and faith; deepest candor and infinite grace; an attention to politics as well as process; an acknowledgment of the sacred within the secular; and a community of people willing to give it their all.
But, we were also reminded that all those things are internal, and we can cultivate them in our own parishes, regardless of size, shape or location.
I challenge you to imagine the possibilities. What could you try in your own congregation? What would it look like if you harnessed the faith, courage, and grace in your community to explore new opportunities for spiritual deepening?
For more information on GLIDE, Floris, or what works at parishes other than your own, please contact Joey Rick.