by George Clifford
The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church.
If you doubt that pronouncement, map where the attendees or members of your congregation live. Also plot the locations of all churches – regardless of flavor (i.e., denomination) – in the geographic area in which your congregation lives.
The parish system originated when the Christian Church tailored its organization to meet the requirements of being the Roman Empire’s established religion. Ecclesiastical and/or secular authorities divided territory into non-overlapping, contiguous dioceses. Dioceses were subdivided into geographically defined parishes, with a church and at least one priest assigned to each parish. The nation states that emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire retained the parish system for their established Churches.
The parish model theoretically provided ministry to everyone. Ministry, particularly in pre-printing press days, primarily consisted of administering the sacraments, caring for the sick, burying the dead, and managing the institution.
The parish system has two potential disadvantages. First, as population shifts occur, church buildings and parish boundaries once tailored to fit the population distribution may no longer align with where people live. Second, the parish system presumes a sufficient supply of clergy to staff all of a diocese’s parishes.
The Church of England’s Diocese of Birmingham recently proposed ending its parish system for both of those reasons. Birmingham’s population has migrated from rural areas to urban and suburban areas, producing an imbalance between the location of church buildings and people. The Diocese also has too few clergy to assign one priest to each parish.
The Episcopal Church (TEC) does not have formal geographic boundaries for its parishes and missions. Nevertheless, TEC has functioned for most of the last two centuries as though it had a de facto parish system. TEC divided the nation into geographic dioceses. Dioceses often aimed, intentionally or otherwise, to situate a parish or mission in each town, neighborhood, or other population cluster. Each of those congregations then usually sought to develop the finances to afford its own full-time priest, the primary distinction between parishes and missions.
Both disadvantages of the parish system are evident in the American context. First, population shifts from rural to urban and suburban areas have left many once thriving congregations struggling to afford a priest and to maintain buildings. Second, many rural congregations experience great difficulty in calling a priest because priests generally prefer urban or suburban living. This distribution problem is frequently misdiagnosed as a clergy shortage.
Another factor compounds the parish system’s problems, especially in the United States but also increasingly in the United Kingdom. We are living in a “Burger King” culture. Individuals want everything, including religion, their own way. No longer do people almost reflexively walk to the nearest congregation of the faith group inherited from their parents. People want to choose where they worship – if they attend any worships service at all. Growing numbers in both the U.S. and U.K. now opt to identify as spiritual but not religious, agnostic, or atheist.
Persons who do choose religion increasingly want to choose whether to belong to a Christian church or faith community of another religion. Those who choose Christianity then choose which flavor of Christianity they like, at least the flavor they currently prefer, and may move from one flavor to another. Over half of U.S. Episcopalians, for example, are not cradle Episcopalians.
The desire to choose is so strong, that coupled with the American love affair with the automobile, people unhesitatingly drive past one or several congregations of the desired flavor to find a congregation that offers what they seek in terms of worship, programs, ordained leaders’ personality style or type, parking, etc.
The neighborhood church is on life support, if not dead.
Is there a healthy alternative to the parish system?
Intentionally becoming a destination church – what I more broadly call a special interest church – offers a promising alternative, especially in the U.S. where the parish system is not mandated by law.
“Destination church” is not a new concept. “Destination church” typically connotes a church that offers something so special that it draws people from well beyond its immediate neighborhood, analogous to how magnet schools attract students from across a school district. English cathedrals, and often American cathedrals, are destination churches. A large downtown congregation may be a destination church because of its expensive, high-quality music program or some other, probably costly, distinctive programming.
The concept of special interest church adapts the idea of a destination church to fit congregations of all sizes and resource levels. Let’s stop pretending that any one congregation can, or even should attempt to, minister to everyone. Wealthy congregations, like Trinity Wall Street, will never attract people who believe, as St. Francis of Assisi did, that walking in Jesus’ footsteps requires disavowing all worldly possessions. Large congregations, such as St. Martin’s in Houston, will never attract people who seek the family-like experience that comes from knowing every member of the congregation. Conversely, small congregations cannot offer either the anonymity or diverse programming possible in a large congregation. Not every congregation has the youth, leaders or money to offer top-quality youth ministry.
What does your individual congregation do really well? Honest answers, for most churches, will number only one to a half-dozen items. No congregation, no priest, can do everything exceptionally well. To identify strengths, truthfully compare your congregation to other congregations in the community (of all flavors) and in the diocese. What does your congregation do so well that other congregations could learn from it?
Paul wrote that “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Paul’s statement was clearly a hyperbole. He could not change his race or gender. He remained a tentmaker, being neither a peasant nor a noble. As identity politics underscores, nobody can literally be all things to all people. Let’s stop tilting at windmills, attempting the impossible, and deluding ourselves about congregational limitations. Instead. build on your strengths.
Furthermore, with the multiplication of denominations (making lemonade out of the lemons of schism), extremely few communities have just one church. Only very large congregations have the people, staff, and resources to offer a truly wide variety of first-rate programming for children of all ages, adults of all ages and interests, professional quality music, effective social advocacy that makes a difference locally and globally, etc. People today increasingly reject the mediocre as unsatisfactory. Instead, people want to be associated with the truly excellent, whether in their choice of a smart phone, health care, or a religious congregation. Great congregations today measure success by the quality, not the quantity, of their ministries and missions.
Dream about what your congregation might look like if it single-mindedly focused on its few outstanding strengths. Then design and deliver ministry and mission programs to bring that dream to fruition, boldly scrapping everything else and realigning resources, including lay and staff time, with that dream.
The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church!
George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He mentors clergy, consults with parishes, and blogs at Ethical Musings.