August 27, 2013

Unpacking the 700,000

According the 2010 parish profile, there are 693,000 people living within three miles of my church. The other thing the parish profile said was that the church hopes to grow.

Seven hundred thousand people and a desire to grow? How could we miss?!

It's easy to talk ourselves into corners when we want our churches to grow. The dense abundance of people in our particular area just puts a finer point on the math. But rare is the Episcopal church that can't count more neighbors who are out than in.

The problem is that getting to know people takes time. Understanding the rhythm and flow of their lives, as well as the joy and the struggle, is an important part of that process. Learning about the existing spiritual lives of those individuals, families, extended family networks, ethnic and language communities, and other groups is yet another piece – an important prerequisite to imagining how our churches might meet spiritual needs, or how we and our neighbors might journey together.

It's too bad that so many Episcopal churches have waited a long time to get to know their communities, and that we are now in a rather big hurry to grow these fading churches of ours. But just because we want growth now (yesterday, really), doesn't mean that there's a quick and easy way past the real work of getting to know our neighbors. Our neighbors don’t necessarily share our urgent need to have more people in the pews each Sunday. They have urgent needs of their own.

Seven hundred thousand is a whole lot of people. It certainly ought to provide fertile ground for a little parish looking to be of service. It also means a lot of unpacking, of recognizing the many different sorts of families and communities and individuals, all living in a space without much elbow room. 

What we are finding at St. Mary's is that it all takes time. Some of that time is spent in reaching out, some in being receptive when our neighbors reach out to us. I suspect there will be more “walking with” than “inviting in,” and that what we end up offering each other will not always look like the simple formulas we had hoped for (700,000=>bigger church right away).

St. Mary's has been at this for awhile, certainly since well before I arrived. Our efforts are bearing fruit in many ways, including some that are probably not yet visible to anyone but God. But we’re not big yet. We may never be big again, by traditional measures of Average Sunday Attendance and Sunday School Enrollment. I hope and pray and trust, though, that we and our 700,000 nearest neighbors will find ways to be faithful together.