In search of communion

Cross-country pilgrimage reveals keys to church growth
September 7, 2009

In October 2008, Deb Cuny, 28, embarked on a journey to discern her calling. She sold her belongings, rented out her house and left her nonprofit job to travel in an Airstream trailer while working on organic farms, seeing the country and visiting dozens of churches. This fall, she begins seminary in Berkeley, California, as the next step in her lay ministry. Here, she describes her pilgrimage and its lessons.

 


 

In the fall of 2008, I embarked on a trip across the United States unaware of the profound impact that the Episcopal Church would have on my life. I wasn't even an Episcopalian when I planned this trip, and I had no idea that my trip would turn into a full-blown pilgrimage.

Like many disillusioned young people, I thought Episcopal churches were merely historical landmarks with stuffy, outdated liturgy. My opinion changed when a friend invited me to attend a Celtic contemplative service at St. Stephen's in Richmond, Virginia. As a spiritual refugee, I was blessed to find a home in the Anglican Communion. In her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass tackles the struggles of mainline denominations. Like me, Bass also traveled the country, only she did so to study churches that were increasing in membership despite the national decline. Bass wanted to learn from these churches so that other congregations could benefit from her research.

Her passion for a mainline resurgence inspired me to use my own trip to learn about the Episcopal Church. I wanted to know why an amazing denomination grappled to attract new people since my own experience was inextricably positive.

Along with touring organic farms and historical sites, I visited dozens of Episcopal churches such as the formidable St. Martin's in Houston, the labyrinth warriors of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the Taize healers of Trinity Cathedral in Portland. The more churches I visited, the more themes surfaced across regions.

For one, Episcopalians have a deep passion for the sacred. Whenever I walk into a church, I sense the renewing presence of God.

Second, Episcopalians are eager to help. I am constantly impressed with the church's social justice mission. While salvation doesn't come from action, Episcopalians understand that ministry can serve as a doorway into Jesus' loving arms.

Third, while congregants might disagree on theological issues, I saw churches benefit from the tension of differing perspectives instead of succumb to defeat.

Fourth, Episcopalians want to nurture people in whatever ways they are skilled and encouraged. Episcopalians are loving and loyal regardless of geography. Discovering the Episcopal Church was a gift.

Like me, those who hold this gift cherish it. One can imagine my surprise when I found out on my trip that so few people had opened this gift across the nation, especially among younger generations. Furthermore, the brothers and sisters I did meet tended to look more like "aunts and uncles" in Christ.

Although I wholeheartedly support intergenerational community, I have begun to fear that young Episcopalians feel isolated when carrying the yoke of their generation. The lack of young people in the church opened my eyes to the fact that one day this beautiful gift might cease to exist. If not us, who will carry the gift forward to future generations?

Raised in the evangelical movement, I attended a church that placed emphasis on activities, outreach and marketing that included young people. My church had no qualms about using the latest communication methods to reach a larger audience. There was even a ministry where people with savvy multimedia skills could serve God in innovative and "hip" ways. Congregants utilized most parts of the body of Christ using their gifts and skills to work together like an athlete's well-trained physique. While the evangelical movement might limit new members based on their theology, I cannot deny their success in translating and spreading their message to the current age. They have a large young adult contingency.

Unlike many evangelical churches currently experiencing an increase in membership, the Episcopal Church's work is going largely unnoticed not because it isn't the work of Christ but because people are unaware of its programming, vision or why a person would consider the Episcopal Church over other commitments. If it were not for my friend who invited me to church, the Episcopal Church wouldn't have reached my radar screen. My perception of the church was mostly ambivalent. I saw the church as a grand gesture rather then a pertinent part of God's creation.

As a permanent first-time visitor on this trip, I saw how a church's visibility was critical when selecting churches. I used the web to do my research from town to town. For me, it was important to find a friendly, comfortable and young "feeling" church. That meant that I favored churches with a current website that was clean in design, branded and creative. I also searched for churches with updated online calendars that had cultural programming targeted at my age group. I especially loved programs that brought the church to the world instead of requiring that the world enter the church.

Besides programming and the web, I relied heavily on a church's communication. The kindness and timeliness of a response could motivate me to drive off course just to meet the person on the other end. I loved churches that were vigilant to find new people, including young people, to join the dinner table. Overall, I was drawn to churches that strived to be visible and relevant in today's society – making Jesus' unchanging message known to the world.

Tools for growth
The churches that made me feel included were ones that embodied a mission statement focused on new members, marketing and outreach specific to their community. In Austin, Texas, I immediately was involved at St. David's Episcopal. There was a strong young person's ministry that offered an array of programming. St. David's was extremely responsive and eager to make me feel at home no matter where I was on my journey – literally and figuratively. The standards set by St. David's since have helped me to understand why other churches might struggle to grow. While St. David's is a clear example of an alive church, it also gives me hope that, if St. David's can succeed in today's society, then so, too, can other churches.

I realize that every church has its own unique situation. Success is relative to a church's community and circumstance. While St. David's is a church with a large budget in a young town, my experience in another service industry, the nonprofit sector, taught me that success isn't based on one factor, but on many. For example, if an organization wants to increase diversity, money alone will not create success. To truly encourage diversity, it must become a priority in an organization's strategic plan, including every program, with every dollar and for every person in leadership.

While money is an undeniable issue for churches, there are other ways for congregations to support growth. Marketing and outreach are critical to articulating and spreading a mission. In the world of social networking, free tools such as Facebook are available to attract and retain members.

Besides web presence, people of all ages enjoy concerts, nightlife, sporting events and doing Jesus' work through other mission-focused organizations.

A great way to meet people and to learn about their interests and priorities is to attend these events, collaborate with other organizations or simply ask them. There is no better way to connect to people than to meet them where they are at in life. Whereas people once sought out the church, perhaps the time has come for the church to seek the people. After all, word of mouth is the best form of suggestive sales. Even if a person has no interest in church, he or she might need Jesus' presence in the form of a friend. It was a trusting relationship with my mentor that brought me back to the church.

Although I was without a permanent home on my trip, the Episcopal Church provided me with a spiritual one. My pilgrimage inside and outside of the church showed me the demand for God, which means the church still has purpose in today's society. It also proved to me that the Episcopal Church has the supply to meet that demand. The proof is in the people and in our timeless mission to love as Christ loved.

The good news is that God has given us purpose that is strengthened by the best support system of all, a church community. It is communion where we hear our call to feed Jesus' people.

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