By Kirk Petersen

Over a year ago, we planned a series of stories about Episcopal congregations that were growing (TLC, March 22, 2020). We started with a top 10 list of fastest-growing churches, and with impeccable timing we posted it the same week that church services started closing for the pandemic.

Then it turned out that we hadn’t really identified the 10 fastest-growing churches, because I misinterpreted the data. I slinked away, vowed never to do another top 10 list, and found a perverse sense of relief that I didn’t have to think about church growth for a while.

Time has passed, the pandemic apparently is easing, churches are reopening, and we can dare to think about growth again. This is the first in a series of articles focusing on one of the growing churches we identified a year ago.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Prosper, Texas

When St. Paul’s was planted as a new congregation in an elementary school in 2008, it began benefitting from perhaps the most potent driver of church growth: location in a rapidly growing area.

The population of the town of Prosper, at the far northern edge of the Dallas suburbs, grew 160 percent in the decade beginning with the 2010 census, and St. Paul’s now has a building of its own. As we reported last year, St. Paul’s average Sunday attendance grew from 121 to 226, or 87 percent, in the five years ending 2018. ASA was flat at 216 for 2019, while membership and pledge income increased. The Church Center asked congregations to report 2020 ASA for January through March 1 only, and that total was 213.

The Rev. Tom Smith, the vicar and only full-time employee, said the church now offers three Sunday services: Rite I without music at 8 a.m., and Rite II with music at 9 and 11. Pre-registration is required for the two later services, as capacity is limited to 50 percent, and masks are required.

Attendance has begun to bounce back, Smith said, bouncing around from 130 to 180 on recent Sundays, and hitting a high-water mark of 209 in early May. That was the Sunday when “we brought back consecrated wine, which the people haven’t had in over a year. We did that with Baptist-style Communion cups,” he said. “They were really happy about having both elements.”

The church is in the Diocese of Dallas, and “We lost some people who were upset by being told by the bishop they had to wear masks,” Smith said. “We gained other people who were glad that the bishop was doing it.” They have two or three regular families who started attending because they “thought their own churches were playing too fast and loose.” No St. Paul’s members have died from COVID-19.

The church slashed its budget from about $350,000 to $275,000 for 2020, but donations have been running ahead of budget, and Smith says the budget may be re-evaluated in the summer. The building houses a popular preschool program with more than 100 children, which helps sustain the church financially.

Smith aims to reinforce “in any way possible why church, Communion, and hearing a sermon is important.” The pandemic gave people a reason to fall away from church, but some are finding they cannot draw spiritual sustenance from Netflix.

“At the end of the service this week, I said to the people, ‘You’re going out into a hard and dangerous world.’ You need food to sustain yourself. That’s what Communion was. It was food to sustain you in a dangerous world. You needed this, and hopefully I’ll see you next week, because you’ll need it again.”