Thursday, May 27, 2010

About Growing Churches

The conventional wisdom is as follows: Continuing Anglican churches consist of five to seven members, all very aged, and there is no potential for anything else. We should expect nothing more, and prepare to die away any day now. In fact, it is terribly bad manners to do otherwise (where was you brought up anyhow?).

The good thing about conventional wisdom is that it is generally wrong. Nonetheless, it appears that a fairly significant number of Continuing Anglicans believe it anyway, and some try to prove it. Those who do make life easy for themselves, willing to pay the price of occasional depression, and pretending that their lethargy is humility. Their version of humility, which is defined as accepting the inevitable and never asserting that we have a better way, provides an excuse for this laziness. "Our numbers must always be small, and that's just the way it is." If you believe that, it will happen to you according to your faith. But, allow me to part company with you, at least far enough away to be at a safe distance if the earth opens under your tents.

I have seen growth at St. Benedict's since arriving here, the count of new members since arriving fourteen months ago standing at twenty-seven, bringing the parish membership up close to one hundred. That is small compared to other parishes I have seen. I am not the number one expert on church growth, and I don't pretend to be; but I have tried and proved a few ideas that I want to float out there.

1. Assume you can grow. This is a matter of faith, if you put your trust in God, that He will do the work if you want Him to.

2. Make room. If you have only the highest of services then consider adding something a little lower in addition, such as a straight Prayer Book Holy Communion and Morning Prayer. The low church people looking for a home should not be left out in the cold.

3. Use the pulpit to preach the Gospel. This is the most important advice of all for readers who are among the clergy. Do not give some mild presentation designed to go largely unnoticed. Prayer for the fire of the Holy Spirit, and go at it simply, directly and powerfully (see this and this).

4. Demonstrate due diligence. Continuing churches need to keep proper records to ensure that people have the basic sacraments of baptism and confirmation.

5. Do not be an underwriter or gatekeeper. Point 3 above should never come across as unwelcoming or restrictive conditions for membership, but as evidence that the priest is diligent in his pastoral duties for the good of each person.

6. Have user friendly bulletins, inasmuch as people who are not accustomed to liturgy do not need to feel stupid.

7. Seek the lost, not only by trying to have evangelism programs, but also looking for those who have wandered off or drifted away.

Damn the conventional "wisdom," and full speed ahead.

The floor is open in comments for additional thoughts.


Donald said...

Fr. Bob,

Thanks very much for this excellent post! I appreciate the very practical advice.


Jack Miller said...

After reading this to my wife (one who is a godly example in both life and doctrine to me) suggested this:

8. Clergy... regularly shepherd your parishioners by visiting them in order to know and love them; to pray with, counsel, and encourage them as needed.

Fr. John said...


It sounds like your doing a great job there! Can you share some of your methods, or your deductions as to how or why you got people to walk through the door?

I think we can keep them if we can get them to come in. I have actually gone out to the street in front of the church and stopped people and invited them in, but that method hasn't netted me any new members yet. I will keep trying that though because it's fun. One woman said she couldn't come in because she had her dog with her. I said, no problem, the dog is welcome too. Then she remembered an appointment.

There are many, many people on the street here in our neighborhood at all hours of the day and night. It is like a freak show, or an outdoor insane asylum. A few years back I placed a large red and blue neon sign that read "OPEN" in one of the church's front windows. That also brought no one in.

This past Easter we did get a tribute from the neighborhood however in the form of a piece of performance art. When we tied the white cloth swag of the Resurrection on the cross in the front churchyard someone placed an empty clothes basket at the foot of the cross, ready to receive the clean laundry.

Actually we love our neighbors even if most of them don't attend services. They have been, for the most part, very kind and generous to us. There was that one woman though who, dressed like a witch with a high conical hat, stood across the street from the church muttering something and glaring at us.

I was thinking about preaching in the park across from the church. Very high traffic area.

I'm trying to get Fr. Bob IV to join me some Saturday.

charles said...

Hello Fr. Hart,

Good post! With respect to #3, don't forget catechism in both the home and sunday evening! Catechism is often forgotten, but it is an extension of the pulpit and should be repeated even by those long confirmed in the faith. Francis Hall has much good to say about it in his book on the Sacraments, explaining how it protects Christians from the humanism of the university as well as retaining churchmen against other denominations. So often commentators subscribe catechism as the basis to revival after a long sleepy time.

Anonymous said...

Other helpful items:

Invite people!

Invent an event that brings people in- a lecture, a hymn sing, etc., and invite people.

Post card mailers- this must be done routinely. There are many card companies that will do the mailing turn key- everything from demographics to artwork and design- this should be a line item in every parishes budget! Also 8.5" x 11" inserts in local papers are effective.

Have an info booth at local fairs and festivals!

Show Christian films and offer discussion.

Make sure you have a decent website!!!!!
- this is the biggest problem in the CC! If your website looks like it's from the 1980's with pic's of an altar you ain't doing yourself any favors. Newspaper ads are ok but the trend is they are loosing readership and your ad bucks are better spent on the Internet.

You website needs people of your parish prominently displayed- people are looking for relationships with other people as well as with God. They want to see the human dynamic of your parish- NO PHOTOS OF EMPTY BUILDINGS!!!!! Get your parishioners out front before you take that snapshot!


Fr. Robert Hart said...

You website needs people of your parish prominently displayed...

Absolutely, for example...

J. Gordon Anderson said...

Good music helps a lot. You are fortunate to have what appears to be a talented organist.

David Gould said...

Having started Annunciation Mission in Hobart for the ACC we had an inauguration mass with limited advertising and 7 people came. Since then we have had Matins and Litany in the absence of a priest and the attendance has been 1 or 2 and sometimes - often zero. Am I disheartened? Yes - when I am paying for the hall hire and a newspaper ad and have done letterboxing.

However I see this as a test from God of my fidelity and my evangelical commitment, and I trust that the Holy Spirit will lead people to us in time.

I go to hymn singing at a former Anglican Church,in the oldest church in Hobart, which has a full set of bells, Holy Trinity. The ACA Diocese despite having large bequests and a city block of houses as assets of the parish rejected the old fashioned church and sold it to the Greek Orthodox Church for $50,000. They have kept the Anglican tone really well - no iconostasis, and the organ intact. So I gather to sing old Anglican hymns and share the faith with those alienated by modernism and informal worship and suspect they will come in time.

So brothers and sisters please pray for Annunciation Hobart, for souls alive in Christ, and for my capacity to serve them and share the joy that is life in Anglican Catholicism.

Also please pray for me to be ordained to the diaconate at our Synod on June 5th in Sydney by Bishop Iverach assisted by our Suffragen from New Zealand, Bishop Denis. Please pray too for a successful Synod for our tiny in numbers Diocese, with big aspirations to share the faith of Jesus Christ.

David said...

another wonderful suggestion: actively involve the congregation in ALL aspects of parish life. Another tendency of smaller episcopal/anglican churches (and we are not immune to this) is the "Father knows best" approach which, no offense, is the worst way to go. It burns out the priest, it implicitly absolves members of any responsiblities to bring about the kingdom of God, and it limits the gifts available to a congregation. At my final CC parish, the last priest who was there micro managed everything and, unless his wife wanted it done, it normally didn't get done. Very sad.

Anonymous said...

Not bad Fr Hart, but if I can offer some friendly criticism:

The site looks dated- more like a free blog site. The pics are great.
The only 'ministry' depicted is music.
You have young people? what are they doing?
What is your 'mission'?
How about parish life?

Is there a parish blog?
How about some smiling faces?
A map?

All these things are very easy to do:

I'll be glad to advise any ACC parish on how to have a decent website for less than $150 a year with emails. No programing or software needed.
Contact me at


Rappahannock Rev said...

Timely and insightful. Thank you.

Benton H Marder said...

A fine post that needs to be repeated and expanded upon, using the comments.
Please, keep in mind that the Prayer Book service isn't just a concession. The Prayer book service of Sunday mattins can be a real magnet. in a manner the 'missal mass--mass only' service cannot be. We want our parishes to be real commuity churches. The Prayer Book straight up can help us become that. It's a sure thing when anything fancy will repel. Be a magnet!
In +,

Anonymous said...

Our Archbishop Ordinary has been quite busy of late with Confirmations. In spite of "conventional wisdom," the reality is that our Continuing Churches are growing in numbers.

Websites are highly important and particularly so in attracting people under 40 years of age. When I chat with visitors I generqlly get around to asking, "How did you hear about us?"
Almost consistently they say, "Though your website."

All the ideas proposed here are good. But I suspect that the most solid growth is taking place in churches which have good worship (reverent and solemn without intimidation) and vigorous and diligent preaching, expository, urgent and Christ-centered.

Also, may I put in a word of encouragement to those parishes which have struggled on for 30 years or longer in rented quarters with tiny congregtions. These may turn out in the long run to be the greatest jewels of our movement. Their simple survival is a testament to their faith. While statistical growth helps us to succeed in a carnal and worldly manner, the only growth that God cares about is our growth in His grace. I recall a small town mission which came into existence over 30 years ago, experienced various difficulties, and is still a small congregation today. Those 30+ years of faithful loving service are not to be spoken of with disrespect. Its easy to keep a big parish going, but to keep a struggling mission alive takes real guts.

I also recall a small mission I help to create in a small city in South Georgia. It never got above ten people. Those ten are mostly now with the Lord and the survivors are scattered in other places. Conducting the final service was quite painful, but I recall my three years with that little flock as one of the most enriching experiences of my priesthood.
We were not successful, just faithful.

George said...

our parish has a parishioners board. each person, couple, or family in the parish has their picture taken placed on the board and there names below it. Makes it feel welcoming and you don't have worry if you happen to forget someones name.

Education - my Priest picked up on the fact that i like to read 'heavy' material. and he has suggested and lent me books to read, but without being pushy about. (we also have discussions when i have questions)
Everyone is at a different level and now more and more people come from different traditions. Also making all parts of the church accessible explaining why and where things are placed in their position and there meaning.

derril said...

I would like to re-enforce the explicit reference to the Catechism, or the expanded version - The Offices of Instruction. In my experience in the Church in the last 20 years in the US, the admonition for the faithful to "examine themselves" (as in Preparation for Holy Communion) should be preached more explicitly.

Admittedly, this issue, brought up in this discussion, may seem not an exact fit. But it seems, this limited (can only visit so many parishes in 20 years) observation ties in with point 3.

Thank you for your witness in the Atlanta area, Fr. John. When my son, then a student at Emory, attended a Sunday Mass at St. Hilda of Whitby Parish, the priest (now deceased) and organist were the only others in attendance.

Benton H Marder said...

I like the idea about the photograph board. I'm partly deaf and don't always fit names with faces. So, I skirt this inability by using 'sir' and 'maam'. Problem is that I'm 70, which can imply extremely old-fashioned manners, when the truth is that I'm dense about names and faces.

Allen Lewis said...

Gracious! Church growth in that bastion of the Secular Zeitgeist - Chapel Hill - of all places!!

Way to go, Fr. Hart. But I suspect the Holy Spirit has something to do with it....

derril said...

David Gould - Thank you for your witness in Hobart. You and Annunciation Mission are added to my prayer list. Will offer special prayers for you and the Synod next Saturday. Please continue your prayers for us in the States. We need them too.

Michael said...

I'm 26, and have been involved in the Continuing Church for about 10 years. Although there was some personal contact as well, I came into the church primarily through the internet.

Benton H Marder said...


You've told us something that I never imagined---being drawn to the Church through the Internet. Would you please tell us more about this? Your story is something we can all learn drom. I.m utterly fascinated with the possibilities here. It is not merely the practical use of the Internet; it is the thought that it can be a means of grace. I'm dense. I can catch a glimmer but not much more.
Most of us came into the Church through a visit to a parish; the BCP caught us good and we read and learned and prayed. The BCP itself was and is the magnet. Now, we have to learn another approach.
Many thanks for your vision.
In +,

Anonymous said...

“Make room. If you have only the highest of services then consider adding something a little lower in addition, such as a straight Prayer Book Holy Communion and Morning Prayer. The low church people looking for a home should not be left out in the cold”.

Just out of curiosity Father, would you advise the same in reverse for those Rectors/Priest’s-in-Charge, who only have the “lowest” of services? I know that in the three parishes that I have served, growth has only been realized through the addition of those who were attracted to the mystery and majesty expressed in a “High Missal Mass”, with “smells, bells, and yells” as described in Ritual Notes.
These people either remembered what they had come from (ie. the “old”, “High Church” Episcopal Church), or were searching for a Catholic Church devoid of the corruption that has infested the Roman Communion, but with similar liturgy. It seems to me that these people should not be left out in the cold as well.

Benton H Marder said...

Anonymous (Fr DJJ) writes a thought-provoker. If we want the missal crowd to cater to the others, the others should cater to the missal crowd.
Generally speaking, what are the prportions? I suspect that the missal priests greatly outnumber the others. In both cases, the question is how comfortable or uncomfortable are they about the other?
Do missal priests feel comfortable and able doing a straight BCP service? Do the others feel comfortable or able doing a full-blown missal service?
Besides, what about the layfolk? Are they so wedded exclusively to one style of service that they can't abise the other? Perhaps we all had best think out a happy medium that attracts most and repels few?
As I suggest, there are more missal parishes and priests in the Continuum than there are the others.
Please note that I refuse to designate the others as 'low' They may well be 'central' or just more restrained.
Thank you for throwing this out for us to savage and gnaw at.

In +,