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Studies in vibrancy

Studies in vibrancy

The Diocese of Virginia looks at five churches that have experienced growth in the past five to seven years and asked “How have these communities not only survived but even thrived during a time when many are struggling?”

The Diocese looked at five congregations. St. James’s is a large, urban parish near downtown Richmond; Church of Our Saviour is a more rural mission congregation in Montpelier; St. Peter’s in the Woods is a mid-sized congregation in bustling Fairfax City that recently attained church status; La Iglesia de Santa Maria is a fast-growing, Spanish-speaking congregation in Falls Church; and St. Matthew’s is a suburban, program-sized church in Sterling.

While these five congregations have all encountered challenges, they were creative in finding solutions.

Diocese of Virginia:

We spoke with clergy and a few lay leaders at these congregations – not necessarily to uncover their secrets to adding new members, but rather to learn how they approach and embrace vitality during an admittedly difficult time in a changing church culture. And what we learned was pretty interesting.

Step One: An Assist from the Holy Spirit

Over and over, we heard that no number of programs, events or philosophies can help a church grow without guidance from the Holy Spirit. The Rev. Randy Hollerith of St. James’s puts it this way: “If a church is growing, it is the result of the Holy Spirit working and moving in that community.” The Rev. Dr. DeDe Duncan-Probe, rector of St. Peter’s in the Woods, agrees: “In the process of building a church, it’s very important to really be in tune with how the Holy Spirit is leading the people,” she says. “It all starts with the Holy Spirit.”

Step Two: Intentional Authenticity

So, once the Holy Spirit is at work, what happens next on the road to vibrancy and growth? A close look at these particular congregations reveals that a unique combination of embracing authenticity and intentionality is key. Identifying just what it means to be an “authentic” church is the tricky part. The Rev. Roberto Orihuela, vicar of La Iglesia de Santa Maria, has a special phrase for it: “We want [the parishioners] to feel me siento bien aqui: ‘I am myself. I am comfortable being here.’” At St. James’s, “We have been intentional about being our best selves,” says Hollerith. “Authenticity and intentionality are infectious and inviting to the wider community.”

Step Three: Keeping It Flexible

What these churches have in common in their approaches to being authentic, intentional communities is flexibility. Take Our Saviour, for example, where “there had been an attitude … of being ‘the little country church in Montpelier,’ and there had also been some internal conflict,” says the Rev. Herbert Jones, vicar. “I believe the change in attendance is a product, in very large part, of a decision, perhaps unarticulated, that the parish was ready to put all of this behind them and live into our call as members of Christ’s body.”

You can learn more about this “study in vibrancy” by clicking here.


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Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but all that talk about how growth is all thanks to the Holy Spirit gets my goat, almost as much as when we use the same language to talk about vocation. Yes, it’s true that it’s God who gives the increase, but we spend far to much time poo-pooing our own efforts, as if we had neither free will nor the ability to change the world around us. After all, in the same place it is noted that Paul planted and Apollos watered before God gave the increase, and goodness knows that work might have made a difference in the final totals, or at least in the likelihood of growth. Certainly in modern efforts to grow the church it seems likely that having engaged parishioners who are actively inviting others to church is very helpful in seeing numeric growth. I can’t imagine a big corporation would look on something like as anything less than a Godsend or major marketing coup.

Jonathan Galliher

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