April 4, 2019

Formation Moves into the Neighborhood

Sometimes, when my family and I have a Sunday off but we’re still in town, we pop into a local Presbyterian church for worship. They have great preaching and strong worship. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that very few people there know me or us. We slip in, enjoy worship, and go on with our day.

A traditional brick-and-mortar church, this congregation is known in our community as a strong, thriving church. They have great programs, a well-manicured campus, dynamic pastors, a good website – and it doesn’t hurt that their gym and nursery are top-notch!

But the one thing I really appreciate about them is their approach to Christian formation. They have Sunday morning classes, and youth group in the middle of the week. There’s a college-age group that meets in some kind of lounge space, and they pull together what they call a “Big Gathering” every now and then. But most of what they do in terms of formation and relationship-building happens Monday to Saturday … and not in their brick-and-mortar building.

In fact, whenever we worship there, one of the ushers hands us one half-sheet of glossy paper. On the front side are a few announcements; very few, very brief. On the back is a map of our entire County with pins dotting the locations where various Community Groups meet throughout the week. Tuesdays at So-and-so’s house in this neighborhood. Thursdays at this place. Fridays, mid-day, at Such-and-such. Addresses, times, details, contact person – all of that information is on one half-sheet of paper. All of the groups follow a common series of lessons and teaching, and it seems to be tied to their current sermon series.

Several years ago, The Episcopal Church started talking about re-structuring, but the buzz word at the time was “re-imagining.” That’s kind of old news now with our current Presiding Bishop and the Way of Love, and the report itself from the Taskforce for Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC) reads like a reaction to the lack of top-level energetic leadership at the time. But we did get one by-line out of TREC: Follow Jesus into the neighborhood. Travel lightly.

Sure, Bishop Curry is helping us talk more boldly and evangelically about Jesus, and I suspect it’ll remain an open question about how ‘light’ we can get this vessel. But going into the neighborhood? That’s something that can’t be programmed from on high. That’s something that has to be bought into on the grassroots, in the neighborhood.

That’s what we’re doing with Ascension and St. George’s, the two congregations I serve as rector in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Because we are two congregations, with two church buildings, it’s hard to do serious lifelong Christian formation at any one stand-alone place. One church has a thriving Sunday School and strong youth group. The other church is more accessible during the week so it’s the logical place for the mid-week bible study. But we primarily believe God is calling us to foster mission and give life to a broader sense of being a united and larger and more impactful church.

For all those reasons, the practical and the theological, we’ve pushed most of our Christian formation out of the church buildings and into the neighborhoods. For six weeks last fall, and for eight weeks this spring, we’ve organized an expansive network of Community Groups. Together with our neighbor Episcopal parishes, we’ve opened the invitation to anyone, anywhere. The idea is that at any given moment, on as many evenings and during as many time-slots as possible, there are intentional, serious Christian formational gatherings happening. Even more to the point, ideally, they’re happening in your neighborhood, in a place close to you, not only in that building called ‘church’ or ‘parish hall.’ This is not to diminish the importance and beauty of our churches and church-related buildings. They are indispensable to our mission – after all, there isn’t any other place than I’d rather be on a Sunday morning than in a church building and worship space. It’s just that our churches and church-related buildings aren’t the only places where meaning is made and life is lived. Wouldn’t we want to move out into those other spaces, too?

An important part of our Anglican theological heritage is this idea of a “parish,” that is, a geographic entity, our piece of turf. Somewhere in that parish there is a building called a church, and there may be other buildings owned by the church. But, let’s be honest, the single greatest amount of gathering spaces within any one parish are people’s homes or public gathering spots. What if we, from the treasures of our Anglican theological heritage, took some of our common life out of the church buildings, proper, and into the neighborhoods, homes, parks, restaurants, and coffee shops? What if we re-claimed our parishes, that is, moved back out into our geography? More than a collective push around Small Groups, we’re talking about moving a significant portion of our total strategy around Christian formation in a more widespread approach, bringing the Good News closer to homes and places where meaning gets made and life gets lived.