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Does your congregation resemble your neighborhood?

Does your congregation resemble your neighborhood?

Yesterday I attended church at an urban parish that, like many Episcopal parishes, is sustained by members who drive at least a few miles to attend services. By chance I was present for a quietly momentous event: the baptism of a mother and her three daughters from the immediate neighborhood. Looking around the church, which I attend from time to time when I am traveling on business, I noticed that it had become somewhat more reflective of the neighborhood than it was when I first began to visit. Which is to say it was a little less affluent and a little more racially diverse.


One of the things that my business partner, Rebecca Wilson, and I speak about when we consult with parishes or give workshops on how to use the tools of contemporary communications for the purposes of evangelism is the importance of developing a relationships with your immediate neighborhood—of having a sense of who people are, what forces shape their lives, what they hope for, what they are afraid of, where they are at various times of the day, how they spend their leisure time (assuming they have some). In the jargon of our profession, this falls under the heading of knowing your audience. But there is more to it than that, we say.

The mobility of our society notwithstanding, a parish church exists in part to be in relationship with people in a specific geographic area. And, as we begin to understand that the church that says “come and see” is giving way (of necessity) to the church that moves out from behind its walls and says “here we are,” cultivating relationship with your neighbors is more important than ever. So today, let’s have a reality check: To what extent does your congregation resemble your neighborhood? If it does not resemble the neighborhood, does this concern you? If so, what are you doing about it?

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Fmendespinto

William, how did the diocese go about resurrecting the notion of geographical parish boundaries? I think the idea is very interesting.

My parish isn't really located in what is primarily a residential neighborhood: we're surrounded by a university campus on all sides, and as the only Anglo-Catholic parish in the diocese (the other, St John's Newport, has reverted to mission status) we draw people from all over the state and from across the borders in a couple of cases. By and large, though, the congregation does match the neighborhood (which is a good thing, since Brown is a pretty diverse school).

Bill Dilworth

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William R. MacKaye

Congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington are assigned geographical parishes to be spiritually responsible for, and St. Stephen and the Incarnation, where I have been a member for more than 50 years, has always taken this responsibility seriously. Our leaders keep up with neighborhood issues, work to maintain the stock of affordable housing as the neighborhood gentrifies, and are active in neighborhood institutions. While we attract members from the suburbs, more than a third of our members (not including me) live within the geographical parish, and somewhere between half and two-thirds live in the church's zip code and the two adjoining zip codes.

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William R. MacKaye

Congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington are assigned geographical parishes to be spiritually responsible for, and St. Stephen and the Incarnation, where I have been a member for more than 50 years, has always taken this responsibility seriously. Our leaders keep up with neighborhood issues, work to maintain the stock of affordable housing as the neighborhood gentrifies, and are active in neighborhood institutions. While we attract members from the suburbs, more than a third of our members (not including me) live within the geographical parish, and somewhere between half and two-thirds live in the church's zip code and the two adjoining zip codes.

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William R. MacKaye

Congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington are assigned geographical parishes to be spiritually responsible for, and St. Stephen and the Incarnation, where I have been a member for more than 50 years, has always taken this responsibility seriously. Our leaders keep up with neighborhood issues, work to maintain the stock of affordable housing as the neighborhood gentrifies, and are active in neighborhood institutions. While we attract members from the suburbs, more than a third of our members (not including me) live within the geographical parish, and somewhere between half and two-thirds live in the church's zip code and the two adjoining zip codes.

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Weiwen Ng

And I have a feeling that some urban churches (maybe especially mainline Protestant ones?) look nothing like their neighborhoods.

Church of the Epiphany is one of my former parishes. It is in downtown DC, on 13th and G streets. For those of you not from DC, that area has basically zero housing and all offices. The White House, which is sort of housing, is a few blocks west. The neighbors are mainly homeless folks (many of whom do come to church, so a success in that regard) older residents who drive in from all over the Metro area (failure) and a smattering of younger folks living in DC and the surrounding areas. Epiphany is in a genuinely tough spot as there is no real residential neighborhood to draw upon.

I have a feeling that a lot of the mainline churches in DC are in a not dissimilar situation. They may be more or less comfortable with the homeless residents. We should do anything we can to draw those folks into our midst, so long as we maintain appropriate boundaries. But I have a feeling that we have a bunch of urban churches serving suburban residents. I'm not sure that's great on the grounds of environmental stewardship. It's also not great in that we have somehow failed to draw in the people who live in DC - many of whom are younger.

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