Ten Marks of Vibrant Parishes

by Michael Sullivan

Each Monday, several church leadership blogs hit my inbox. Sometimes, I find fresh bread among them, but most often, only stale crumbs fall from their tables. I crave more about vibrancy and less about pessimism, and for some reason, it seems that all the blogs by mainline writers begin with the line “Research says we are dying.” It’s hard to get hungry after such a line. (And, yes, I realize it’s in my opening paragraph).

Our churches need Good News for life rather than death, so recently, when asked to speak at Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina, I developed Ten Marks of Vibrant Cathedrals in the 21st Century. From the reception, something fed them; a little yeast was added to the bowl. So, I’ve edited the list for the typical parish church.

Let me know if you find fresh bread or any stale crumbs.

1. Houses of prayer for all

We know we’re a house of prayer, but perhaps we need to be reminded. Gone is the assumption of open naves and chapels twenty-four hours a day, standing ready on the street corner for anyone who needed a holy space to encounter God. I know I’ve needed an empty church many times in life, sometimes to feel the absence of God while at others to trust in the presence. Perhaps we need to stop worrying and just open the doors again. Being open to prayer is half the battle.

In my tradition, Episcopal, we’ve also lost touch with the Daily Office, reading the ancient prayers of the Church at Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline. But a resurgence of these offices among millennials evidences a deep hunger for the life of prayer. We must recollect the prayers of the Church, even when we don’t feel like it, because prayer expresses and shapes our belief; it is who we are. We need the daily bread of common prayer internalized in our hearts. With scripture we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, the prayers of the Church sustain us.

And while the Christian practice of prayer is foundational, we must not see prayer narrowly. We must embrace our Christian voice among multiple voices, risking invitation to and among other religious communities so that the multiple voices of prayer might help us understand God, ourselves, and all creation. Our houses of prayer have wrongly become ways to perpetuate segregation and separation rather than opportunities for seeing the face of God in all.

2. Icons of God’s wider presence

Parish churches do not exist to get something from the wider Church. They live as evidence of the wider Church. If we’re going to live fully, we’ve got to see our lives as icons of presence for and to the whole of Christ’s Church.

For those of us in hierarchical denominations, too many of us have started to think of the diocese or presbytery or whatever you call it as an albatross to be blamed for all our troubles. Together, we are the Body of Christ; our mission to and for the wider Church is an imperative. Live like a written icon, a portal to something beyond words. Allow your life to transfigure the mission and ministry of Christ in the whole Church instead of remaining a personality enshrined in a parochial parish.

3. Places of the Via Media

In my tradition, the middle way or via media is the core of our identity. A product of the Elizabethan Settlement, we are both Reformed and Catholic, an institutional preservation of multiple points of view in one Church.

And while not all adhere to our defining ethos, truth is, it’s operative everywhere. All churches are communities of divergent views. Some are labeled progressive or emergent or evangelical or liberal or conservative or traditional or something else. All strands of the warp are not the same; God intentionally weaves with different colors and textures.

This rich tapestry is a gift of the Holy Spirit. In a time when the world is wrongly seeking agreement and is thus stuck in polarities and inaction, the Church must value woven commitment over torn consensus. We need each other and the difference latent within creation at the Church’s altar. If we can harness the gift of our multiplicity, finding a middle journey amidst us, we will see God moving among us.

4. Curators of the arts

In Western Civilization, the Church has been the primary benefactor of the arts. And of course we have, for the arts give expression to God and our life beyond texts, helping us express thoughts and relationships in “sighs too deep for words.” When we open ourselves to the multiple expressions of the soul in visual, dramatic, and musical arts, we reach toward the fullness of God’s image in all things.

Parishes need to stop ordering everything from catalogues of cookie cutter ecclesiastical forms as if our best expressions were available from a warehouse. Local and national artists are available to express how God is speaking among you, often for less money than stock appointments. A photographer can create inexpensive, yet stunning Stations of the Cross. A potter or local silversmith can create amazing vessels. Let your building and furnishings express your parish’s understanding of God, not someone else’s standardized form. Become an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace you experience as a community, not as a commodity of expected, ecclesiastical forms.

5. Communicators beyond gates

Our age is going through a major shift in understanding not unlike the beginning of Modernity that came out of the Renaissance. The next age, whatever it is or will be called, will be considerably more connected across the globe. It will blow apart the concepts of printed word with progressive and emerging communication for a world of instantaneous information.

Parishes must cast fear aside and use all methods of communication to reach the member and unchurched alike. Twitter, facebook, texts and other forms of communication are imperatives today; they do not isolate in the virtual world but invite into deeper connections among the gathered world. If you’re not texting your youth group, using email instead, you’re already behind. Email is an antique to younger generations and rarely used. Churches must stay abreast of the latest innovations in technology and communicate in multiple ways. Cost is no excuse; many of these tools are free.

6. Wisdom bearers

Our societal shift in communication is actually a shift in worldview; how we understand and gather information in and about the world is rapidly changing. This new model is based almost solely in information rather than wisdom and the formation that attends it.

Every once and a while a parent, well-intentioned, comes up and asks me why our children aren’t learning more about the sacraments or being instructed in a particular theological concept. When the child is close at hand, I usually bend down and just ask, “Claire, can you tell me about communion?” And then, a few minutes later after the child has described the paten, chalice, corporal, colors of the year, words of institution, and a couple of other things, I stand back up and thank the child for the lesson. Because the child learned through an experiential wisdom based curriculum, the parent assumed “information” was not being taught didactically.

Information is not the key to religious formation. As we all become wiki-informers, we need the deeper discernment and wisdom of the Church through the ages, the theology and praxis of our common life. Throughout our history, we were the ones establishing centers for learning. We too often forget that the entire university system was monastic in origin; just think of Oxford and Cambridge. Our current age, despite our connectivity, is quickly becoming illiterate from information without wisdom. We have substituted opinion based on shallow information and emotion for time-tested wisdom based upon formation, education, and the careful discernment of God’s movement among us.

If we are to thrive, we must reclaim our role as wisdom bearers, seeking more formation from our members and constituent bodies rather than less. We need internalized wisdom, not external information.

7. Missioners in all things

Too many churches treat mission and outreach today as if they were agencies of the United Way. Churches are not grant-making foundations. They are centers for the mission of Jesus Christ in the wider world.

Truth is, outreach is not a program of the Church. It is an outgrowth of our life in Christ, a recognition that outreach is the outward life of our prayer and worship, the symbol of the richness of God working in our lives. When we focus upon outreach as reaching outwardly from our sacramental life, our work in the world takes on new dimensions and perspectives. We cease to prop up the social order through grants and begin to transform and transfigure the world through Christ’s kingdom “coming very near us.”

I often say that a church will only reach outwardly as far as it reaches inwardly. If we expect our outreach to be more than “Wow, I went to a foreign land and realized how lucky I am,” we must do the hard and difficult work of reconciliation in our own hearts in conjunction with our reconciling work in the world. There is no other way to Christ-like mission.

Missional churches not only embrace this truth, they celebrate it. They dare to tell the story of their own lives in order to give voice to others, going to places where Good Friday is still the average twenty-four hour day and Easter light comes just moment by moment.

8. Vulnerable healers

It’s hard to be vulnerable as a parish church. Wanting to proclaim the Good News, we often dress ourselves up too richly, hiding our warts from those around us out of a fear we might be seen as we truly are. Of course, we know deep down that this is not a strategy for hope but despair. It’s just so terribly tempting. But if parishes can accept their histories, warts and all, they possess the possibility of healing in common life, and thus, healing for others.

The world aches and groans for authenticity in religion. We must admit we don’t have all the answers, that life can be hard and difficult. We’ve got to stop treating healing like magic, clinging to the notion that if we just “believe,” good things come. I have long ago faced the reality that my beliefs do not affect God’s grace. When I hear people say, “He was a true believer and was healed,” or worse, the converse, I sometimes ask if the person actually believes the statement. Do we really believe we are so powerful? Does the child in South Atlanta who went to bed hungry last night remain hungry because he didn’t pray enough? Or the mother in Africa whose child dies in her arms?

Let’s all remember that Jesus did not heal pretty situations and sometimes didn’t use pretty methods. He also wept in the face of death and despair. Sometimes, the only way to heal was to bend down, scoop up some dust, and spit into it. There is a deep lesson there. We cannot ignore it.

9. Signs of excellence and hospitality

The Rule of St Benedict puts excellence and hospitality toward the end. The reason: excellence and hospitality in Christ are not consumption-based; they’re not like hotels or restaurants. No, radical hospitality is an expression of the inward life made manifest outwardly in your care for others. Ultimately, this maxim means that hospitality is outreach, an outward sign of your inner life that becomes so prayerful, so present it results without reflection. It just happens because the interior life is so wonderfully manifest in daily life and work. Truly, how you treat others is an expression of the kingdom of God you have cultivated within your own soul.

Don’t program excellence and hospitality; allow it to live throughout your entire life as a parish. And don’t accept mediocrity, what C.S. Lewis’s character Screwtape, the veteran demon, instructed the novice Wormwood to instill in the Church. “A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing,” Screwtape taught.

10. Embodiment of beauty and holiness

This entire list culminates in a distinctly Christian notion of beauty and holiness. We are to be a house of prayer for all people, gifting them with gracious beauty and holiness amidst the challenges of life. Our places of worship and community should become icons to a wider more fulfilling life in the Church and our value of commitment over consensus allows the holiness of a middle way to become our path. Seeking wisdom beyond information, we go forth in mission, not to appear and disappear to others as if on a triumphant white horse, but to arrive as fellow pilgrims along the holy journey. We know that despite our warts, healing brings grace and mercy, authentic life amidst the superficial and skin-deep. We trust in these things that excellence and hospitality emerge, presenting the face of God to the world, the world desperately desiring to be “so loved.”

The Rev. Michael R. Sullivan is rector of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church and School in Atlanta, Georgia. He is author of two books on art and spirituality, Windows into the Soul and Windows into the Light.

Past Posts