Support the Café

Search our Site

Part of why church growth is hard

Part of why church growth is hard

Carol Howard Merritt is fast becoming one of the most sensible and perceptive bloggers/twitterers out there. Her post yesterday on the Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog clearly points to a problem with contemporary dynamics of how churches grow and who can be accounted among those responsible for growth.

The current [economic] crisis does not have to do with how responsible, smart, generous, hard-working young adults are. It has to do with the fact that they have been burdened with huge educational debts, high housing costs, limited access to medical care and an increased cost of living. It is because wages have gone down and the unemployment rate is as high for young adults as it was during the Great Depression.

New churches often reach out to young adults, new immigrants and diverse communities. And it’s not as easy for them to become financially independent. The challenge of starting congregations often reflects what’s going on with our larger society.

Can we imagine a church where we can share resources? Where our definition of “church” does not depend on financial independence? Where a community’s status as a “congregation” is not based on how much money it has?

At one point it was the cachet of diocesan boards and conventions not to grant parish status to diocesan startups until they could show a certain amount of yearly income from pledgers. The thinking at the time was that that proved short-term vitality and long-term viability and self-sufficiency. In light of these questions, you might wonder if that’s as critical a distinction these days.

An associated question: In congregations of young/immigrant/diverse demographics, what kinds of ministers are best placed to serve? The word bifurcated comes to mind, as in being able to speak both English and Spanish, or “tentmaker by day, priest on Sunday.”

Your thoughts?


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lois Keen

That is something I, too, fret about, Eric Bonetti. We have blingual services on the last Sunday of every month. We observe Holy Week together with bilingual services – Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil. 2011 Easter Day was also bilingual – because of when it fell, not because of intention.

I dream of every primary Sunday service being fully bilingual. Meanwhile, the entire service is published in both languages side by side whether or not any of the Spanish speaking parishioners are at the English service or not. And currently, there are two couples of younger, fully English as well as Spanish speaking members from the Hispanic/Latino congregation who worship at the English service by preference, because with the Spanish also in the bulletin they can opt to say those parts that always are there – creed, Lord’s Prayer, etc. – in their own language and feel free to offer one of the petitions in the Prayers of the People in Spanish, knowing that the English speaking congregation has become accustomed to not losing their place in those instances.

It is long work. I’m glad we’re doing it. And at the same time, there is that risk – one congregation owns everything, the other only their communion vessels – but the “host” Altar Guild has made them at home in what was once their space alone. So there is hope for the now as well as the future.


One of the things I worry about with our Spanish-speaking ministries is the possibility of de facto segregation. My parish has a Spanish-speaking congregation; I’m proud that we do that. But it doesn’t escape my attention that we only have joint services a handful of times each year. Is there a risk that one congregation is the “haves” and the other the “have nots?”

Eric Bonetti

Lois Keen

Okay, okay, so something’s going on here I think. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for over a month now, and here it is on Episcopal Cafe. I sense something moving.

The congregation I serve is already, a la Marshall Scott, a “ministry center supported by a worshiping community as opposed to a worshiping community supporting particular ministries”. Indeed, the place where I serve the ministry is not looking to “survive” for the sake of the worshiping community but for the larger community of AA groups, ESL classes, RC Voices of the Faithful, manic/depressives, Family and Children’s Agency, Haitian Baptists, Hispanic ministries and other community groups and ministries that inhabit the building, to which the worshiping community has given itself away.

Now, no longer able to financially support that larger purpose, never mind themselves as a worshiping community, the congregation is awaking to what more it could be, given what it has grown into, yet they are faced with all those in the larger community who have found refuge here losing their spiritual home before they can grow into the true community to which they now feel called.

And so I asked myself, as I walked the labyrinth (painted on the parking lot! very inexpensive) one day, what happened to cooperation between Christian communities, if it even ever existed outside the book of Acts? For we have now reached that time when parishes as islands to themselves are no longer sustainable. Are we being pushed, nudged, even forced by Spirit to begin to work together and share resources for the sake of a Gospel that is larger than a single community of worshipers? I think so, but how to make that leap, and maybe even across denominational boundaries? What, for instance, if we made common cause with the Sikh temple down the street, not just the other Episcopal churches in the deanery?

And, maybe, Grace and the Community at Grace are called to die as a wake-up call to the Church at large. I hate to think of that, but a church I once attended, and later served as a priest, will close in June because it gave itself away to the poor in the neighborhood in which it is located but could not find the money to stay open for their sake and the sake of the Gospel because there is no money in being a congregation of the poor, with huge honking gothic buildings to support without the collaboration of the larger community of churches, which is not forthcoming because – well, just because no one thought outside their own parochial needs. A wake up call, yes, and a costly one.

And yet, this post gives me hope. My musings apparently are not taking place in a vacuum. Others are thinking these things. And so, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession, and the Lord is still working on us all to make of us what we have not yet become but shall be.


The previous bishop of my diocese reflected on our situation: small congregations, both within and outside our two metropolitan areas, struggling to maintain themselves. He asked this question: for at least some of these congregations, are there ministries in some of these small places that are worth it for the diocese to support? Are there circumstances to support a ministry center supported by a worshiping community, as opposed to a worshiping community supporting particular ministries?

Marshall Scott

Ann Fontaine

Thanks for the link, Mike. l wonder about the life span of these start ups. So far I have seen them come and go.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café