Communicating your parish ethos

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By Derek Olsen

A clergy friend, Robert Hendrickson at Christ Church New Haven, has been doing some artwork for his church and putting the results up on Facebook. I can say without qualification that he’s got more artistic sense in his little finger than I have in my whole body because these things are terrific. Simple, restrained, black-and-white photos with just a splash of muted color, these images from parish worship are paired with tag-lines that are clever—ironic, even, as their main target is the young-to-hipster set for whom irony is a native tongue.

The reason why I think these posters are so great is because they do such an effective job at communicating the parish ethos.

smoking_section.jpgWhere we participate in corporate worship and the experience that we find there has a major effect on our experience of the Christian life with God and shapes our theology and spirituality. Yes, we all use the Book of Common Prayer, but the question is how we use it. How do we embody the texts of our liturgy? How do we clothe it? How do we own and incarnate the words and phrases to bring them to life in the peculiar particularities in which we live our lives?

The ethos or “character” of a place is a combination of factors. It seems to me that a classic description of the old English Anglo-Catholic stronghold, All Saints Margaret Street, was one attempt to define a community’s ethos: “Music by Mozart, Decor by Comper; Choreography by Fortescue; but, my dear boy, libretto by Cranmer.”

It’s fair to say that an ethos is a combination of:

• Architecture

• Music

• Ceremonial

• Liturgy

• Decoration

• Attitude and Execution of the Liturgy by the Clergy

• Attitude and Execution of the Liturgy by the Congregation

The last two cannot be overlooked. Reverent, pompous, attentive, energetic, bored, sloppy: it’s remarkable how one community can project a completely different ethos from another even when many of the other elements are the same.

After hearing and participating in “worship wars” for well over a decade, I think such discussions often fail by being too narrowly focused. That is,christ-church-ad.jpg people argue over music, liturgy, and ceremonial. But more often I think what they really intend is the overall package—the ethos of a worshipping community—and considering elements in abstraction can’t grapple fully with the issue of ethos.

The posters communicate an ethos. The black-and-white shots depict worship that is traditional—very traditional—yet the faces in the photos and the “voices” of the tag-lines are young. The ethos communicated is of a parish that worships well, that cares deeply about its liturgy and the traditions that inform it. It’s traditional, but not traditionalist; it takes God seriously, and itself a little less seriously.

In and amongst the photos of silver and smoke, we are invited to a mystery. Not so it can be explained away or talked to death—but that we can dive within it and find at the center of the mystery the key to our longing.

(From the comments – here is a link to all the ads. ~ed.)

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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5 Responses to "Communicating your parish ethos"
  1. I would like to add that these posters comply with Wingate's First Rule of Parish Websites: put the service times and the address on the front page!

    (He could sneak the phone number in there too, though.)

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  2. Having just had to abandon plans for an ecumenical blessing for the new fire hall to be held at our church (it is where everyone will be parking for the open house) because a few of the pastors in town will not set foot in our building -because we ordained Gene Robinson and many of their members think they will go straight to the devil if they go in the building (they won't attend concerts there either) - I am thinking if that is the public perception - we like gay people and they can be bishops - maybe we need to capitalize on that.

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  3. I have been drawn recently to Jesus' words in Matthew that scribes who are fit for the reign of God are like master stewards who know how and when to bring both the new and the old from the store rooms. These ads and this essay seem to be examples of what that is all about.

    I suspect that this is where our future lies, and not in the definition of modernity I just heard in class of "the new replacing the old" or even worse, the old trying to pretend it is new.

    Thanks for breaking open the Word! God's Peace, Z

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  4. Derek,

    It's great to see these shots of Christ Church. David Boulton there was my dependable priest mentor in my first four of years of ordination when I was working at Episcopal Church at Yale and, though the evident ethos of our liturgy at ECY (where we laid the foundation for liturgy at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco), David saw the deep shared roots. David was also one of my inspirations as a preacher, and my guess is that Christ Church continues to put high value on intellectually rich, spiritually grounded Gospel preaching.

    I like your observation of the creative tension of timelessness and contemporary feel that the black and white photos give. What I also notice is that each of these black and white emphasizes a quality of radiance in a moment of seeming darkness. It's not just a satisfying aesthetic or compositional interplay of light and darkness but a proclamation of an inextinguishable light. AMEN!

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