by Ann Fontaine
In the course of my interim ministry and training work I have been observing churches and their lives. I am coming to a conclusion that we ask too little of people and the result affects our church growth, both in numbers and in our depth of life in Christ. I do not have any hard evidence or measurable data just my experiences.
My thinking about “are we asking too little,” came from a person who started attending church with her husband. He had grown up in the Episcopal Church but she had grown up in what we now call the “none” church. She had no knowledge of or feelings (positive or negative) towards church. After they had attended for a while she wondered to me why they did not ask anything of her. She felt they were nice and welcoming but shouldn’t there be more? I have heard this from others since that time.
This was the beginning for paying attention to what I see as a failure to ask enough of those who are coming to church to find something more than a social club. In the old days church was just a thing people did. They joined to find friends or for business contacts or to look like a good person. Now none of those reasons for church are necessary. At least in the Pacific NW people get those needs met elsewhere. The only thing we have to offer that is different is Christ and a way of life.
As I see growing churches I see churches who raise the bar on membership. Just showing up occasionally and having ancestors who were once active is not enough. All are welcome but to really be a member requires more. Can we be totally welcoming as a church, offering all we have: sacraments, ministry, and care, unconditionally, to those who walk through the doors? At the same time can we ask more of those who want to be part of the decision making and shaping of the life of the church? It is a fine line and one that invites continual reflection.
“Below the fold” is an example of one church’s process. The result is increased numbers, more commitment, and increased depth of faith. The essential steps were looking at the core values of the church and if they are the values it wants to continue, developing a mission statement, in the language the church uses, that reflects those values and asking people to make a commitment to be present and support the church through service and giving.
This example is just one way a church can develop a process of deepening faith and life and commitment. Development will vary according to the core values of each church. I believe it is essential to do the work of discovery before any other steps.
What I have come to believe is that we often ask too little of people. And they go away saying, “is this all there is?” Instead let us be bold and share the gift we have been given so people will find spiritual nurture, a place to center their hearts and exercise their gifts.
The Rev. Ann Fontaine lives on the Oregon Coast and oversees communications for her local St Catherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church. She is a trainer and mentor in the Education for Ministry program and an editor for Episcopal Café. Her book is Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on scripture
A VISIONING PROCESS:
• Began as we started planning for the fall stewardship campaign, as we realized that people will only support an institution if they have a personal stake in its purpose and its functioning. People were invited to gather in home meetings, and shared their stories about what originally drew them to [this church], what they currently value, and what they would like to see developing in the future. The open-ended, in-home conversation and fellowship were the most valuable parts of this part of the process.
• “Visioning Sunday” was celebrated as a gathering that took place after a combined church service. Small groups were given poster board, invited to be expansive, to record all the responses, and asked to share on these three questions:
1. If you were to describe [this church], as it is or as you would like it to be, with only ONE word, what would that one word be:
2. What would be a 1-sentence statement that reflects your hopes for a vision statement for [this church]?
3. Complete the following phrase: [this church] exists to:
• The vision statement essentially grew out of the congregation’s responses to these questions. There was a minimum of word-smithing, and the fact that it is as fantastic as it looks is a testament to the Spirit working within our community.
• IMMEDIATELY after the Vestry adopted the vision statement, changes just started happening. We welcomed an AA group to meet on the premises, for example, because that was the decision congruent with the vision statement. Sermons and newsletter articles also reflected and expanded on the vision statement, what it means, and what it invites us to do.
• Very soon after the vision statement was adopted, there was growth in membership. The membership covenant was developed as a way to increase commitment while still maintaining a sense of radical acceptance and welcome. New members speak of how moving it has been for them to join a church that actually asks something of them, and all those entering via the membership Covenant have become significant givers of record and involved in the ministries of the church.
As individuals think about becoming members they are given this document for reflection:
I: If you are thirsty, come here; come, there’s water for all.
Whoever is poor and penniless can still come and buy the food I sell.
There’s no cost—here, have some food, hearty and delicious,
and beverages, pure and good. (Isaiah 55:1-2, The Voice)
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7)
The first thing to say about membership at [this church] is this: You don’t have to be a “member” in order to “belong.” Grace, love, acceptance, the sacraments, fellowship… all that is available to you simply because you have walked through the door (and in an odd way, it was available for you even before you arrived!) There really is “no cost” to receiving God’s love. It really is open, offered freely, and offered to all.
II: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
“Membership,” then, begins when we “fall in love” with the vision and purpose of this community, and we find ourselves desiring to commit to supporting its common life, and nurturing the community to make it more available to others. We do this by “giving our hearts” – which in turn results in offering our time, our skills, and our financial and material support.
III: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
Our vision statement encapsulates this as “becoming a community of love.” Becoming a “member” means committing to ways of relating within the community that are welcoming and loving. That is why we also articulate a membership covenant, where we speak more specifically about what it looks like to be intentional in how we relate with each other.
What will this look like for you?
IV: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
The first things we do as intentional community are learning, “breaking bread” and prayers. The place where we do this first and most regularly is our regular Sunday worship. What commitment would you like to make at this time to support the worship ministries at This church’s because “that’s what we do first”?
V: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Our vision speaks about experiencing renewal and transformation. What are some of the hopes you hold at this time for transformation and renewal in your own life, and especially as you contemplate membership at [this church]?
After this time of reflection members make these commitments on a Sunday:
Will you support the vision and purpose of [this church], giving generously of your time, talents and material resources, and sustaining its spirit with your prayers and heart?
I will with God’s help.
Will you nurture [this church] in its capacity to be a community of love and respect, relating with others with forbearance and gentleness, asking for forgiveness when you may have caused hurt, forgiving the injuries that arise from our common humanity, and to the best of your ability, speaking your truth with directness and kindness?
I will with God’s help.
If you find yourself too far away to remain, will you speak with the Vicar about the new directions in your life, and then allow the community a loving and gracious parting?
I will with God’s help.