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.