Phillip Ellsworth Elected Interim Priest in Charge

If one thing above all was true of the first Christians and their fledging church, it was that they were alive. After the darkness of the crucifixion and the mystery of the resurrection, the scattering uncertainty of Jesus’ followers turned into a period of realization, powered by the Holy Ghost, that Christ would live in what they came to call the Body of Christ.

To be alive a body must grow. That is the law of all living things. Health and life itself depend on growth. There is no no-growth option.

Let me make a few observations on words and the Word, and then recount some principles and experiences in church growth. Biblical religion is dynamic. It’s impossible to follow the narrative line of scripture without sensing movement and growth. Humankind exiled from the perfect garden; people formed by exodus and wandering; kingdom building followed by the rebukes of the prophets who smelled the rot of static, self-satisfied corruption; a Jesus community of proclamation and healing in the context of journeying, recruiting, and preparing for a new community of journey and growing.

Biblical Greek gives us dunamis, the word behind “power” in Acts 1. 8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Dynamic means potential force or energy, marked by continuous, productive activity or change. That same New Testament Greek should inform our understanding of health. Hygeia means “living well,” or more precisely, “a well way of living.” Euexia means “well- habitedness” or “good habit of body.” English words for health all point to “wholeness” or “completeness,” and however spiritually rich this notion is, we have almost unconsciously let ourselves slide into an understanding of wholeness that is structural and static.

The Greek words correctly point us to functioning and activity of the body—not only its working but its working well. So I make sure to read often, and to teach clearly, how these understandings fueled the early church. Paul and his successors and colleagues richly put this language to work in their descriptions of mission and growth and in their teaching about it. Ephesians 4. 11ff. speaks of “building up the body” and of “the whole body working properly.” Colossians 1. 16 and 2. 19 make clear that growth is not just biological but firmly based on Christ.

I try to remember, too, that growth is mysteriously cumulative; and even the committed, converted soldier of growth is likely to benefit (or suffer) from others’ work. Paul, who wasn’t always modest, writes engagingly about this in 1 Corinthians 3. 5 – 15. To grow, leaders must have a clear-eyed knowledge of their congregation’s past and its personalities. And of course, Jesus’ own teaching constantly uses growth parables (especially the Sower in Matthew 13. 3ff., and its parallels) and his ministry repeatedly challenges his disciples to fish for people, seek the lost, and prepare for the challenges of a growth-focused ministry. He collected a growing number of followers, he “trained” disciples (James the son of Salome and Zebedee being one of the first), and he preached a growing Kingdom. I see no reason to think that our task is any different.

A word about numbers. They aren’t by themselves indicators of anything. But if as members of Christ’s mystical Body we’re doing what we’re supposed to, increasing numbers do matter. Obviously, they measure the reach of our work. They are indicators of whether the body is healthy because it is growing or sick because its organic functions are beginning to shut down. But church leaders, and clergy especially, are often heard putting down any emphasis on growth in numbers. Undeniably, and for a lot of complex reasons, mainline churches like ours have seen an alarming erosion of our share of the population. We could argue about the causes, but why not establish growth as a goal, embracing it as faithfulness to the Great Commission and as commitment to the living health of our beloved church?
I still hear leaders—clergy and religious professionals especially—defend small and declining numbers by saying that numbers are not really the point. I fail to see what glory there is in the rationalization that if we’re growing in numbers we are somehow into people pleasing and peddling cheap grace. Isn’t it just possible that growth and trouble can go together? “Disturbing the comfortable,” which many of us clergy have taken to be the litmus test of our own courage and integrity, often looks a lot like taking a ‘stand’ on issues. Might it not also look like squeezing the faithful to make room for their neighbors?

So herewith some first principles:

  • There is always resistance to growth. Members of a body will resent the strategies that lead to growth, namely, the kind of preaching and worship that strengthens the faithful and also appeals to the seeker. In the mid-90s, we were going through astonishing growth at St Bartholomew’s in New York City. My boss, the Rev’d Bill Tully, in a moment of grace (he had run out of clever answers and had tired of being defensive), was able to reply to a parishioner who exploded one Sunday after the service, “I don’t know anyone here anymore. I had to fight for a seat. And they don’t even know how to use the prayer book!”And Bill said, “I don’t know everyone anymore either, Tom, and if you and I did know them all, this parish would be stuck and ready to decline and die.”
  •  Hallowed habits keep us small. The pastoral model of the priest as caretaker—or even a team of ministers primarily offering empathy—seems to ensure putting maintenance over mission. Good pastoring is Biblical and indispensable, but we need to rethink how we do it, or else we will continue caring for a diminishing flock.
  • The Prayer Book is not enough. We have an unsurpassable liturgy and a book that makes it easy (for the professionals) to open it and “do” it week after week. Attracting people who are unchurched, unfamiliar with the liturgy, or turned off by church memories or associations requires user-friendly leaflets, the best music we can offer (regardless of style), and constant evaluation and improvement. For God to be glorified, Jesus preached, and the Spirit to enliven the proceedings, the Rector and the professional staff will work to get the mechanics, the distractions and the mediocrities out of the way.
  • I’m all in favor of the essential mystery of the religious “transaction” but in most of our churches, getting there is almost impossible. At Good Samaritan we will constantly audit the barriers. The church’s communications, our signage, our social media, our ushering, our child care, our furnishings, our sound systems, our coffee, our lights, our editorial standards, our recruitment of fresh volunteers, and our willingness to run, at least sometimes, counter to our own preferences—I could go on—will be subject to constant improvement.
  • Long services are killing the church in many places. A service of Holy Eucharist with music, real preaching, and 200 coming to communion, can be done beautifully in an hour. It requires work, coordinating, and discipline. People will forgive long services on special occasions. They will be more likely to come to other venues for teaching and mission and group life if we don’t wear them out at the primary event. They will be gladdened and strengthened by the opportunities for education and fellowship created by the discipline of one-hour services. The 10:05 to 10:55 education ‘hour’ is critical to the growth of this parish.
  • Large and growing churches are staff-intensive. For the Church of the Good Samaritan Vestry, one question to decide is whether we should get the Vestry out of the program business where everyone seems to wear a portfolio hat, and adopt the older, focused model of Vestry purpose: to raise support of the mission (and plan long range), to maintain the fabric and the property, and to call a Rector. For various reasons, one being the pandemic and the prolonged shutdown of public in-person services, parish members have been sidelined or have dropped out of the parish altogether. The professional staff of the Church of the Good Samaritan has become severely attenuated given our aspirations, and we need to evaluate, restructure, and strengthen our assets. We need to get in increasing numbers lay people—as Jesus got Peter (to his everlasting astonishment)—back on the team and not just on the sideline but back onto the field. I would have us consider every effort to accomplish that, by God’s grace. Perhaps it could mean the creation of a standing committee of the Vestry called the Parish Council. This isn’t an either / or proposition, but I know this: a key to our strength and growth will be focusing as a Vestry on the big picture and empowering both lay people and professionals for day-to-day operations. This will leave wide berth for just about any model of lay ministry and involvement. For more about this, see the essay I wrote for the February 2023 edition of the Church of the Good Samaritan newsletter.
  • The professional staff should be highly disciplined and focused on worship, clear communications, continuous improvement of what is offered, and the constant removal of barriers to growth. A corollary, of course, is that the Rector (or the Priest-in-Charge) focus on very few things. Nothing empowers everyone else more than such powerful and humble focus in his or her leader. If the Rector is controlling he is not powerful, humble, or in control. 
  • Learn what we can from the “emerging church” or “mega church” movement. Our job is more difficult than that of the pastor or team who invent a congregation from the ground up. But surely we can remain faithful to our theology and our traditions and still learn from those who have aggressively sized up their markets and really thought about the realities of churchgoing in this society. Few of us Episcopalians would want the somewhat plastic feel and consumerist obsession of these churches, but we can imitate some of their focus, their commitment to constant evaluation of what they’re doing, and their regard for the non-churched and their responsiveness to those who are just more at ease with a different style of worship. All those elements, it seems to me, are essential for growth and faithful to the Great Commission. +PCE