In Search of Growth
St. Anne’s Church, Middletown, Delaware
By Dylan Thayer
At St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Middletown, Delaware, cultivating a mindset of growth and openness to the community is a matter of presentation and routine. “You get up in the morning, you shower, you shave, you put on clean clothes,” says the Rev. Russell Bohner, TSSF, who has served as the parish’s rector since 2014. “You look sharp.”
Just as we have these morning rituals and try to make ourselves look presentable before leaving the house, Bohner says, parishes need to put on their best possible image for newcomers experiencing their church — or any church — for the first time. In Bohner’s view, this includes making sure the building and grounds are “vibrant, alive, and inviting” — no peeling paint or dismal bathrooms — and extends to virtual spaces, such as the website and hybrid worship, a must for any church in the post-pandemic era.
But while what’s on the outside is important, Bohner stresses that what’s within sets St. Anne’s apart. Bohner is a cradle Episcopalian who grew up in the First State, and he’s spent all 11 of his years in ordained ministry in Delaware. So perhaps he’s a bit biased when he assesses St. Anne’s as a “small congregation with a good heart and a good core” and considers the church’s friendliness fundamental to its growth during the past nine years. But the results speak for themselves: according to Bohner, St. Anne’s average Sunday attendance has grown from around 105 in 2014 to 160 in March of 2020, just before the pandemic began.
“The people, when I arrived, were eager to be church,” Bohner says, and joy has become the primary ingredient in everything the congregation does. “Joy is an overlooked gift of the Holy Spirit. … We’re here [on Sunday mornings] to celebrate.”
Music and liturgy are important to St. Anne’s, but embracing the movement of the Spirit in sometimes unexpected ways is even more essential. “It’s OK that the baby’s crying,” Bohner says. “It’s OK that the liturgy wasn’t perfect. Let’s live into freedom. Doesn’t mean that anything goes, but let’s not be obsessive about this.”
As an example of this attitude, Bohner relates the story of a little girl who was hanging out in the aisle while he was preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Bohner invited her up to the altar with him, and now the children of St. Anne’s routinely congregate there during the Eucharist.
The children around the altar reflect the diverse group of people flocking to the congregation. Again, Bohner believes that the liturgy and music are attractive, and he’s quick to heap praise on the parish’s music minister, whose repertoire ranges from traditional Anglican hymns to gospel music. This mix of innovative and familiar music has been warmly received by new and old faces alike.
But Bohner believes the emphasis on a Sunday-morning experience that borders on the provocatively countercultural and remains deeply faithful to the gospel message is the biggest reason why people of so many different backgrounds — young, old, gay, straight, Black, white, conservative, liberal — all find a home at St. Anne’s.
Bohner is blunt and moving on his primary responsibility as a preacher and pastor: “I don’t care if you’re a good Democrat, I don’t care if you’re a good Republican. I’m here to invite you into a totally different way of living in the world: to be genuinely Christian, and have that be your primary identity. If we’re really preaching the gospel, it will have something to aggravate everyone. Our identity in Christ does not have any other category. It does not fit neatly into preexisting categories.”
Above all, Bohner believes that people don’t come to church to experience fellowship, music, preaching, or anything else but Christ himself. He tells each newcomer leaving St. Anne’s for the first time: “I hope you experienced God here this morning.”
And Bohner is thrilled by the number of people who say yes, and the energy and enthusiasm he sees building at St. Anne’s. “People are excited to join us because we’re doing what we love,” he says. “It’s not ‘What would Jesus do?’ It’s ‘What is Jesus doing right now?’”
Dylan Thayer is a member of St. Paul’s K Street, Washington, D.C.