Note: this well-intentioned article is the subject of an embarrassing correction.
By Kirk Petersen
You may have seen the headlines:
“Has the Last Episcopalian Been Born?”; “Episcopal Church Will Cease to Have Sunday Worship Attendance in 30 Years”; “Episcopal Church Continues Uninterrupted Decline.” All real headlines, some of them served up by a small coterie of bloggers who chortle at every sign of Episcopal misfortune.
The decline is real. The Episcopal Church (TEC), which for decades has reported detailed attendance and membership statistics, says in its Fast Facts report that average Sunday attendance (ASA) grew more than 10% in the past five years at only 14% of Episcopal churches, while 59% declined that much.
Hmm… What about the churches in that 14%, the ones with significant growth? What’s the secret sauce in their recipe, and where can other churches get it?
At TLC’s request, the presiding bishop’s staff generated a report of the 20 churches that have grown the most from 2013 to 2018. (The 2019 statistics, gleaned from the annual parochial reports that every church is supposed to submit, will be published in the fall.) We eliminated churches that reported no ASA for 2013, and trimmed the list to 10 — all of which experienced growth of at least 50%. That list appears below.
We then reached out to all 10 churches. Not all have responded yet, but from the rectors and priests we interviewed, a few trends have taken shape.
Let’s start with some things you can do to be more like the fastest-growing churches. You’ll recognize right away that some of these are less practical than others:
- Be located in a growing town.
- Be Hispanic.
- Have strong lay leadership.
- Have a preschool.
- Have a lot of money.
Yes, the list is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but the factors are righteous. Let’s look at these factors to see if there are any lessons for other churches.
Be located in a growing town. “It might be one of the fastest-growing areas in the country,” said the Rev. Tom Smith, rector of St. Paul’s in Prosper, Texas, which had 87% growth during the period examined. “The towns right north of Dallas, they’ve experienced change over the past 10 to 15 years that has completely altered the landscape.”
Smith is on to something. Of the 10 fastest-growing churches on our list, three of them are in Dallas or its northern suburbs. Two others are in Oklahoma. One is in California, and the rest are scattered on the East Coast.
“Something profoundly unique is happening in Brooklyn, with the growth of young Manhattanites who are choosing to live in Brooklyn Heights,” said the Rev. Allen F. Robinson, rector of Grace Church Brooklyn Heights (88%). The growth has been so dramatic that the church is planning to add a second campus in another section of Brooklyn.
Locating in an area of secular growth may be good advice for planting a new church, but existing churches typically don’t have the option of relocating. Still, there may be other ways for a church to benefit from what is happening around it.
“I’m in a really conservative county, theologically and politically,” said Tim Baer, rector of Grace Church in Yukon, Oklahoma (350%). “Some people come because we are an inclusive church for LGBT folks. Some people come because they’re divorced, so they got shunned by their Baptist church, or even their Catholic church, and no longer felt welcome.”
Be Hispanic. Of the 10 growing churches, three offer services in English and Spanish. The Hispanic population in the United States is growing at four times the rate of the country as a whole.
St. Barnabas Church in Garland, Texas, has had a Spanish-language community for more than 20 years. That community got a big boost in 2017 when it merged with a Hispanic congregation that had been sharing space in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. Now the combined parish is about to begin construction of a new church building that will seat up to 350 people.
The church holds services in both Spanish and English. “We are growing in the English speakers at 9:15 service, and with my English, this is a miracle,” said the Rev. Tony Munoz.
At San Francisco de Asis in Dallas (100%), Vicar Lino Lara added a small English service a few years ago, to what had been an all-Spanish worship schedule. He said some members who were born in the United States “still feel comfortable worshiping in their parents’ language. Their first language is English, but they still worship in Spanish.”
St. Matthew’s Church in Hyattsville, Maryland (77%) also conducts services in both languages.
Have strong lay leadership. The Falls Church Episcopal (84%) has traveled a rocky road to make it to this list. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the church, in Falls Church, Virginia – eight miles west of the Lincoln Memorial – was a leader of the movement to disaffiliate with the Episcopal Church over sexuality and other issues.
Most of the congregation of 3,000 voted to disaffiliate in 2006, eventually joining the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). They remained in the historic facility, parts of which date to 1769, while the Episcopal Church filed lawsuits around the country over ownership of church properties. TEC prevailed in 2012, and the much-smaller Episcopal congregation moved in.
The congregation was and is far too small to support the property, which has two naves that hold a combined 1,200 people. With diocesan help and proceeds from litigation, they worked toward establishing a balanced budget.
“We were within spitting distance of a black budget,” said Associate Rector Kelly Moughty. “The vestry looked around and said, yeah, but we’ve grown so much that we’re under-staffed. We need a full-time youth minister, and a full-time children’s minister, and a full-time parish administrator.” The only staffing for those roles at the time was a part-time children’s minister.
“So the vestry had some tough conversations, and said, ‘Are we called to be a place that has a black budget, or are we called to do our best to make Christ known in this community?’” Moughty said. They created the positions, going back into significant deficits to do so.
“Without the courage of the vestries of The Falls Church, we would not have gotten this far.”
Christ Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma (93%), has a less complicated version of a similar story. After recognizing that there was a growing number of families in the area, the church “made some intentional decisions to really build children’s programming,” said Rector Everett Lees. “We were fortunate in that we had some folks who had some experience with Godly Play, and we were able to implement that.”
They also hired a children’s minister, “before we even had a lot of kids,” he said. “We jumped out in a leap of faith, and we built something for the congregation we hoped to become.”
Have a preschool. A thriving preschool can dramatically alter the economics of a church. “At St. Paul’s, all of our capital expenses are loaded into the preschool budget. Our church budget is an operating budget,” said Smith, from Prosper, Texas. “We could not afford this site without the preschool.”
The presence of a school can, in a modest way, help attract new members. Once the parents have been inside the building to drop off their kids, they may be inclined to try out the church as well.
In Brooklyn, Grace Church School is one of New York City’s famously competitive preschools — and church members get special consideration in admissions. “We have special consideration for members, and they are usually given preference — but not in all cases, because the child still has to go through the regular process of applying, and testing, and all that is associated with admission,” Robinson said.
The Falls Church also has a preschool, with up to 180 kids on site. “It’s wild, it’s chaotic sometimes,” Moughty said.
Have a lot of money. In 2012, General Convention established a program called Mission Enterprise Zones, and designated $1 million in matching funds for church plants or evangelism projects in the 2013-15 triennium. One major success story from that effort is Grace Church in Yukon, Oklahoma.
“We’re unique in that we’re a new church start, but we had a building to start with,” Baer said. He and his wife, the Rev. Kirsten Baer, closed down a struggling Church of the Savior and, with about a dozen people from the congregation, started Grace Church in the same building in 2013.
(That timing accounts for the eye-popping 350% growth rate calculated in the table. The 2013 ASA of 32 reflects a partial year of pilot services, which established a very low base. If you calculate growth from the 2014 ASA of 79, you get a more realistic 82% growth over four years — still high enough to make our list.)
They had a building, they got $100,000 in a mission enterprise zone grant from the church center, and another $500,000 from the Diocese of Oklahoma. “That pays clergy salaries for the first number of years,” Baer said.
They also had very few parishioners needing pastoral care, so the Baers threw themselves into methodical community networking. “Any referral that came our way, we set up coffee with someone, or lunch. So we were meeting with people all the time.”
“We also had a clear idea that we wanted primarily to reach people in this community who had felt kind of pushed out, or felt they no longer fit in the traditions they grew up in,” or “post-evangelicals,” he said. Theologically, he described the church as “middle of the road, but progressive for our neighborhood, for sure.”
In Search of Growth
The danger of highlighting the fastest-growing churches is that it risks putting the idea of growth on a pedestal higher than it deserves, and may set a goal that’s impossible to reach.
The “Fast Facts” page mentioned earlier shows that for 2018, 6,423 parishes and missions submitted parochial reports. The median average Sunday attendance was 53, meaning half the churches were that size or smaller.
A church with an ASA of 53 probably cannot afford a full-time priest.
Most of the churches described here have some sort of special circumstance that has contributed to their growth. All of them have worked hard to understand and meet the needs of their parishes and communities. They’ve focused on those needs, rather than on a desire to grow.
Smith, in Prosper, Texas, was astonished to learn that St. Paul’s was one of the 10 fastest growing churches. “I don’t tend to focus on [ASA] very much, but we do have a lot going on. It’s not a metric that I want to zero in on too much, so I haven’t paid much attention to it.”
There are valid and obvious reasons why churches want to grow. Growth brings resources, which brings program possibilities. But even in a small church there are souls to tend.
When TLC published the first in a sporadic series of articles on growth in the Church in October 2017, the man who is now Rio Grande Bishop Michael Hunn was still a priest, and one of the top program officers at the Church center in New York.
“When Jesus said, ‘Go out into the world,’ he didn’t say ‘and make them all come into the church,’” Hunn said. “The fundamental goal is to spread the good news, not to bring people into the church.”