“Effective at the end of today, and until further notice, this nave and sanctuary are off-limits for worship.” (from my sermon, Sept 14, 2014)
Our congregation was in a slide. Midway through my fifth year as rector of St George’s, things were back to the doldrums of my arrival in March 2010. The first 16 months we were here had seen God working in powerful ways as the congregation responded to his leadings. Our average Sunday attendance jumped 25% from 2010 to 2011, and we hadn’t done anything to try to advertise. All we were doing was what I called the “inside strategy”: making our little church a place where God would send those who were seeking him.
The culture change we were effecting took a blow in July 2011 with a catastrophic event in my family. Every bit of focus and attention that I had been directing at the transformation of St George’s shifted to keeping our family together. Drained spiritually, emotionally, and physically, I spent the next three years following through with only the bare essentials of my work in the parish and the diocese.
Yet as day-to-day stretched into month-to-month and year-to-year, the aborted large-scale work begun in 2010 largely regressed to an atmosphere unsuitable for discipleship. Attendance hit a new low. Any sense of community that we had begun to cultivate had dissipated. Newcomers were few and far-between, and when they did come, they didn’t stay. By Fall 2014, there was only one person in the church who hadn’t been there at our arrival in 2010.
We needed change.
The change we needed was much deeper than musical styles or service times. We needed the sweeping internal cultural change that we had once begun. We needed to become a community of believers pursuing discipleship together. We prayed that God would again do this work in our congregation. Prayer led to conversations with our bishop and then other priests, with clear direction from the Lord as to the next steps to take.
And so, in my September 14 sermon, I announced that we would be moving worship from our beautiful nave and sanctuary to our parish hall. We would strip down the liturgy to the very basics. And we would do it for a fresh vision of what it means to be the church, the fellowship of those whom God has called out from spiritual death to spiritual life. We would do it for a fresh vision of what it means to be a community of believers. We would do it for a fresh vision of Jesus.
Of course, this isn’t a story of something we did last year, or the year before. We’re in the middle of it now. While there was significant resistance at the beginning, many have already begun to appreciate the changes. Comfortable surroundings can become blinders, and with the blinders gone, we are beginning to see just how much we need God to do something fresh with us. Next post, I’ll go into more detail on those first few weeks in the Parish Hall.