I retired from active parish ministry as a priest in the Episcopal Church in December 2018 after nearly 29 years in holy orders, more than half that time as rector of one parish. Since then, my wife and I have visited several Episcopal congregations in this and other dioceses on Sunday mornings, not as supply clergy and spouse but simply as visiting worshipers.
In nearly every case, we have been greeted by friendly people, found worship that is lively and engaging, enjoyed sermons that are masterfully crafted and well preached by erudite clergy, and left feeling that we have encountered a loving God in a vibrant community. Oh to be sure, we have been able to find minor aspects to criticize, but these are merely the quibblings of professional church geeks; sharing them is how we amuse ourselves on the drive home. In the main, though, we have been very impressed at how well the Episcopal Church follows the first great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Unfortunately, what we have also found are aging communities with few children and very little seeming to go on outside of worship. Announcements at the services often tell of many activities planned on the schedule, but from the goings-on in the church building on Sunday morning (outside of worship) one would wonder if there is more aspiration than reality in that calendaring. We have come away not at all convinced that we Episcopalians demonstrate very well our ability to follow the second of Jesus’ great commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
My wife is a former chorister and I love church music, so we usually attend the mid- or late-morning service with hymns and, if we are lucky, a choral anthem. We are also the sort of folks who like to show up “on time,” by which we mean very early in advance of the scheduled start of a service or other event. For this reason, we often arrive thirty or even forty minutes early, sometimes seeing the early-service attenders leaving as we pull into the parking lot.
Entering the building during these in-between times, we would hope to find the place filled with the sounds of children in Sunday School in one part of the building, a young adult book discussion group enjoying coffee and debate in the parlor, and the rector holding forth in a forum in the parish hall. Unfortunately, nine times out ten we have encountered the quiet of a museum or, worse, the stillness of a mausoleum.
A year or so ago, we Episcopalians were thrilled to be able to say to the world, “You know that guy who preached at the Royal Wedding? He’s ours!” Presiding Bishop Curry’s powerful message of love which got so much positive press coverage was an unparalleled evangelism opportunity. We could say to our neighbors, “Come! Come and experience the church that is led by the Royal Wedding preacher.”
This year there is nearly as much interest in one of the contenders for the Democratic nomination for the presidential election of 2020. Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s public affirmation of his Anglican faith is another opportunity for us to say, “Come! Come and experience the church that has helped to form this man’s politics.”
When we make that invitation, however, we have to be sure that the church to which we are inviting our friends has something to offer, something more than our Prayer Book worship. If we are going to convince our neighbors that we love them, we need to offer them activities that show it!
Don’t get me wrong! I love the Eucharist. I adore the Book of Common Prayer. It’s the reason why I, a basically unchurched 14-year-old with a negative evangelical background, embraced this church and made it mine. But let’s be honest. Our liturgical worship (especially as it is embodied in the hard-to-use, turn-here, now-turn-there Prayer Book of 1979) is confusing for those from a non-liturgical background and bewildering to those with no worship experience at all. For such newcomers the Sunday morning experience must include more than our much-beloved service of Holy Communion. In addition to confusing them we our first great commandment activity, we need to offer them some second commandment love of neighbor.
Just as importantly (if not more so), we need this in our Sunday morning church experience for our own spiritual well-being.
A few years ago, I took the vestry of my last parish on a retreat to explore with a well-respected national consultant the issues of personal evangelism and church growth. One of our vestry members admitted to being ill-at-ease with the notion of growing the parish. She lamented that if the congregation got larger, “I won’t know everyone.” Some of her fellow vestry leaders responded by asking her how well she thought she know them. As you might guess . . . not well at all. Despite worshiping with them nearly every week and chatting with them over coffee afterward, she did not know what they did for a living, did not know where they had grown up, did not know what their hobbies were nor what sort of books they liked to read, didn’t know what sports they enjoyed, and the list went on and on.
We cannot truly say that we are a community in the absence of that sort of knowledge about one another. We cannot truly say that we love our fellow church member as we love ourselves when we are so ignorant of our fellow. In the absence of such shared familiarity, we are barely neighbors and certainly not brothers and sisters!
We get to know one another and become community by joining in structured experience that encourages us to share of ourselves, to talk about our lives, our activities, our likes and dislikes, and so forth. This is why Sunday School classes, youth groups, book discussion clubs, rector’s forums, outreach committees, choirs, dinner groups, and all the other small group activities on Sunday morning and at other times are so important. It is in these groups that we “connect”.
The gospels tell us a few times that the disciples talked among themselves as they walked along following Jesus through the Palestinian countryside. On those few reported occasions the subjects of conversation were such things as who was the greatest among them or why Jesus talked about yeast, but I am convinced that there were many more unreported conversations. I’m pretty sure they talked about their parents, their favorite fishing spots, the girls they knew back home, or the teams they followed in the Galilean football league. I’d be willing to bet that the Twelve “connected” in their small group experience of hiking through the desert by simply sharing one another’s stories.
We need those desert hikes on Sunday mornings, those times of conversation and interpersonal discovery. We need them for the health of our own souls and for the health of our church communities. It is through them that that we become the kind of community in which we genuinely care for one another in that engaging and enticing way that attracts others.
Having said that, I must hasten to admit that I don’t know how to foster, encourage, and nurture that sort of community in every parish, or even in all the places I have served. If I had a sure-fire answer to that question, I would have been a more “successful” parish priest! Every congregation and community is different and it is the truly gifted church leader, whether cleric or lay, who can diagnose, prescribe, and administer whatever it is that may be needed in a given place.
As certain as I am that there is no one-size-fits-all panacea, I am also certain that there are skills that can be learned and techniques that can be applied to encourage community growth in every parish. And I believe it begins with learning opportunities for every age on Sunday morning. We must focus our development energies on crafting educational and fellowship offerings that are as vibrant and engaging as our worship services. Where our worship focuses our attention on knowing God better, these activities focus us on knowing each other better. In worship we live out the first great commandment; in education and fellowship, we turn our attention and energies to the second.
I also believe that it is only when we have learned the lesson of interpersonal connection among ourselves that we will really be able to say, “Come! Come explore my church” to our friends and neighbors. Only a church community that has learned its second-commandment lessons can turn outside itself to follow that commandment in the world around it.
We have been given some wonderful evangelism opportunities the past couple of years, but we’ve not been able to make the most of them because our Sunday morning activities have been limited in most parishes to worship. We do a great job of loving God and worshiping Jesus; we must broaden our Sunday morning offerings to include opportunities to better love our neighbors as ourselves.
Note: The illustration is a photograph of a Rector’s Forum from the website of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Belleville, Illinois, a congregation with which I have no connection whatsoever. However, they have a great website which shows a number of church activities pursued by the parish and its members. Click here to visit their webpage.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Mark 12:30
 Mark 12:31
 Luke 22
 Matthew 16