Posted by: Titus Presler | October 29, 2009

Mission is key to parish growth – a story from Chicago

“So we came on this parish.  It’s not large, but it’s quite fantastic what they’re doing:  They had a team go to work in New Orleans post-Katrina.  They have work in Africa.  And they have a soup kitchen for people in the neighborhood.”

This was my niece Katharine, age 34, talking about how she and her husband Woody started attending All Saints Episcopal Church in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago.  They looked around at a number of congregations, but the parish’s engagement with the wider world was the centerpiece of her comment about why they settled on that particular parish.  She went on to say that the preaching is good and the congregation has a wide range of people.  But it was the outreach that stood out, and it was important to them that the outreach was both local and global.

The comments echoed what I’ve long observed about the magnetic power of mission in congregations.  Yes, people want a “warm, welcoming community” when they attend church, but that’s not all they want.  When people today are looking for spiritual community, they want to be part of a group of folks whose horizon is wider than the gathered community itself, who want to make a difference in a world of suffering and injustice.  When I was rector of St. Peter’s in Cambridge, I knew that the young adults walking down Massachusetts Avenue had lots of religious options.  Communities that reached outward as well as inward had particular appeal.  What was happening not only at St. Peter’s but out of St. Peter’s drew them in.

So it’s crucial that struggling congregations not defer mission, thinking: “Well, we’re not strong enough to reach out yet.  We need to grow the congregation more.  We’ve got a lot of internal issues to sort out before we move into the neighborhood and the wider world.”  No, the faithful church is always a missional church.  Missional faithfulness is key to the vitality that draws others in.  Mission is not so much a result of growth as a cause of growth.

The All Saints website has a history of the parish’s turnaround, beginning in 1991, when, like St. Peter’s in Cambridge in the same year, the congregation was teetering on the edge of viability.  Today attendance and membership are robust, and a capital campaign has been successfully completed.  Africa outreach is through the Diocese of Chicago’s link with the Diocese of Renk in Sudan.  The work in New Orleans is organized by a parish Katrina Response Task Force.  And the soup kitchen is one part of the broader Ravenswood Community Services, which grew out of the parish.

Mission grows the church.

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