Sparking ‘new visions’ of communities of faith, centers of mission

June 7, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] “Revival” may be a “cringe word” in the Episcopal Church but it’s one way the Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries’ New Visions Initiative is helping to re-energize congregations.

Building relationships, rediscovering mission and even making simple language changes are others.

Like shifting awareness from “being congregations to becoming communities of faith working toward becoming centers of mission,” said the Rev. Angela Ifill, missioner for the Office of Black Ministries during a telephone interview.

“We’ve seen ourselves and talked about ourselves as congregations for so long that it’s become rote, just like when people pray it can become rote,” said Ifill, who launched the New Visions Initiative pilot project in 2009. Currently there are eight congregations participating in NVI.

The effort pairs struggling historically African American churches with thriving ones to help rediscover mission and to navigate change. Ifill hopes to add four additional partners in 2012; they are asked to participate for at least 18 months.

“If we can think of ourselves as communities of faith, it will move us from that whole passive idea of the congregation to working toward becoming communities of mission, understanding … the reason for being is to be in the world, bringing about God’s mission and not just as a congregation that comes to church on Sunday morning and everything they do is focused internally,” she said.

It means taking risks and making changes, even adapting cultures. Like hosting revivals, for example.

“Our churches are asked to plan revivals. At first, there was some hesitance, that caused us to begin to look at what we call ‘cringe words,'” Ifill said. “When people heard the word ‘revival’ they questioned, ‘revival in the Episcopal Church?’

“But, why not? We have evangelism, stewardship, but often words like ‘born again,’ ‘revival,’ ‘testify’ make people cringe. We are asking why these words have that effect upon you and we are doing some theological discussion around that,” she added.

Recently, two nights of revivals at St. Simon of Cyrene Church in Lincoln Heights, Ohio, moved Ethelrine Shaw-Nickerson to offer a testimony of her own during regular Sunday morning services on Pentecost.

“I had nothing but praises. It was a wonderful, beautiful, spiritual, great participating folk event that reminded me of the old days of revivals in the Baptist church, but with that Episcopal flavor,” said Nickerson during a telephone interview from her home near Cincinnati.

“The theme was making all things new,” she added. “The first night we had over 200 people; the second night there were 150 folk, and we fed everybody the second night. We didn’t know how we were going to feed all those people but God came through with plenty of bread and plenty of fish and we even had some food left over. It was wonderful.”

Hosting communitywide revivals is just one of many changes begun since St. Simon’s joined the New Vision Initiative, said the Rev. Trevor Babb, rector.

“This is the third revival we’ve done and it’s grown each year,” Babb said during a telephone interview from his office. “When we started three years ago, there were about 40 people. This year we expanded it to two days and the church was packed with people from across denominational lines.”

The pilot project has led to new energy in worship, he said.

Located in a changing neighborhood, with an average Sunday attendance of about 90 and an average member age of 55, St. Simon’s was 81-years-old and “at a point of transition and looking for a way to energize our congregation,” Babb said. “But, we needed tools to do so.”

The New Visions Initiative paired St. Simon’s with the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew and Holy Communion in South Orange, New Jersey, a 152-year-old multi-ethnic, multinational congregation with an average Sunday attendance of about 250.

The pairing has included sharing of liturgical and congregational development resources “and we have learned from each other,” said the Rev. Canon Sandye Wilson, rector of the New Jersey congregation.

“New Visions has helped us to focus our mission-mindedness,” Wilson added. “This is a model for the future in a postmodern church, when we are trying to figure out how to respond to the needs of our communities and how to take the church to where people are. It witnesses to the power of partnerships across miles and gives us a new way of looking at and experiencing others.”

Ifill said the congregations begin by developing a New Visions prayer for use by both partners during worship. They also decide upon specific issues to address, usually involving discipleship or education “because we are focusing on lifelong Christian formation.”

The partnerships also involve pew and pulpit exchanges and building relationships across geographical and other boundaries. In April, Wilson preached at the Lincoln Heights church.

“Another piece is to participate in developing a mission project,” Ifill added. “Also, with the mission project they’re asked to go into their communities, to really get to know them, to walk around, meet people, find out what is happening and how they can be part of what’s going on.”

On June 6, Babb began “asset mapping” to match the congregation’s gifts and resources with the needs of the local community.

NVI “has really given us a new vision, no pun intended,” he said. “We need to be more than mortar and bricks in the community. We need to be touching the community in some specific ways and NVI has helped us to crystallize some of the plans we are putting in place. It has been a catalyst to us to shift our structure to help us incarnate our mission.”

Some changes work, others not so much, said Ifill. Longstanding congregational disagreements and unexpected issues do surface and have to be dealt with, through prayer, healing and reconciliation—which leads to new growth, she added.

Such church-wide gatherings as the Everyone, Everywhere conference in Estes Park, Colorado in October and the New Community Gathering in San Diego in March presented opportunities for participants to gather.

NVI also inspired a “Singspiration,” a pre-worship sing-along designed “to try to get people to come to church earlier and to start church with a better attitude,” said Frank Carr, a member of St. Simon’s NVI leadership committee.

The partnering has been “contagious within the life of the congregation,” he added. “I don’t think there’s anyone in our congregation who will say they don’t understand what it’s about. For the first time, we’ve entered NVI as a line item on the budget and we’ve dedicated a significant amount of our website to information about the project.”

For Trevor Bryan III, a member of St. Luke’s Church in New Orleans, partnering with the Historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, NVI “can serve as a model not just for black churches but other churches that could be in decline. It could be applied to any ethnic group. It’s been good for us.”

St. Simon’s Ethelrine Shaw-Nickerson agreed.

She is already anticipating another revival at the Lincoln Heights church because this most recent one sparked “some changes with the younger group” –changes she was so thankful for she felt moved to offer a testimony.

“It brought people together in a new way,” she recalled. “It amazed me. I didn’t know how we were going to feed the people, but all of the sudden here I am in the kitchen and young folks are bringing in trays of vegetables, and desserts, and we had a lot of food left over.”

On Pentecost Sunday she shared that excitement with other parishioners. “I said God was with us. That God had helped us do what we needed to do and that I wanted to show appreciation for what had happened at our church.”

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

Related Topics: