Greetings, dearest friends!
Our Communion is joyfully comprised of small worshiping communities of faith, whether they are parishes or an intentional religious community. Often the work of calling forth, planting, and nurturing a small community is daunting, particularly because we do not have ready templates for such in the liturgical-sacramental tradition. People have a hard time envisioning their small group as “a church.” They may think, “We meet in a home. We are only a handful of people. We don’t have steady attendance. Maybe someday we’ll be a church.” But a church is constituted by “the Church” – where two or three people are gathered in the name of Christ (Matthew 18:20). It is most present at Eucharist, when all share the sacramental meal that unites us as Christians. At Eucharist, the priest feels his/her sacramental role; the people are truly at prayer – body and soul; and the many ministries of reading, preaching, music, etc., are intensely present. But the growth of the church is only half developed at Eucharist. Here are some practical elements to assist that growth:
1. The small church needs to meet for prayer and sharing once during the week.
This is a time for quiet prayer and meditation – a special time for small groups, and it should be relished. At no other time in the history of your church will you feel such closeness and dedication. Prayer is a time to feel the presence of God in the love and faith of the people who share week by week. This is a time of great spiritual growth for each person, and the miracle of that growth will happen right before your eyes.
2. Sacramental ministry needs to involve others in the church besides the priest.
Individuals begin to enter the ministries of the Church (lector, Eucharistic minister, etc.). A small church takes up these ministries with the anticipation of future growth when others will be mentored into those ministries. This also means inviting people to do the set-up and prepare for sharing after the Eucharist (coffee, etc.).
3. Share special occasions with the small church.
First of all, this means the celebration of sacraments within the group who comes to Sunday Eucharist: baptisms, anointing of sick members, weddings. These can be shared at Sunday Eucharist, or in a larger context if necessary. Also, others should be invited others to celebrate the sacraments in the context of the small church – a real opportunity for the group to grow. One of the hallmarks of parish ministry is the ongoing celebration of all the sacraments. The priest of the small church can invite people to celebrate these sacraments in the context of the Sunday Eucharist (e.g. baptisms, first communions, renewal of spousal vows, etc.).
4. The priest needs to be an intimate leader of the small church.
It is important that the priest be a part of the warm friendship shared by all. All Christians are icons of Christ, and the priest is also a particular icon of Christ for his/her church, large or small. People depend upon their priest’s leadership – as the one who celebrates sacraments, counsels and comforts, and gives a vision for the life of the small church. This is a special place recognized by parishioners as distinct.
5. The priest should always be a teacher.
Especially at Eucharist – even if there is common sharing after the homily – the priest should always give a homily that instructs in the scripture and leads the small church in the life of faith. Homilies are good when they make the Gospel relevant through stories from the life of the church or the experiences of the priest. And, as a good teacher, the priest remembers that he/she will always learn from others’ experiences – and transforms this learning into future teaching in homilies, weekday groups, etc.
6. Individuals in the church need special development in their ministries.
Part of the ministry of the faith community – and its pastor – is aiding church members to discover their own ministries. Emerging ministries need support from the church and openness to others outside the church. Adding to these ministries adds to the church. For instance, a teaching ministry or a ministry to the poor may be led by specific individuals, but the whole church will support it, and the pastor will be a spiritual guide for the ministry. These ministries will add numbers to the church from those who are served. All ministries are celebrated together at Sunday Eucharist.
7. A retreat will solidify the identity of members as a church.
Retreats grow the church and to deepen the lives of members. Retreats are, first of all, days of prayer. They can be one-day retreats (e.g., from 9am to 3pm on a Saturday in someone’s home), or week-end retreats at a retreat center or similar place. Generally, the longer retreat takes place once a year – although each parish may differ. One-day retreats are more easily organized and can happen more often.
8. The small church needs to display stability and longevity. Most of the churches in this country are under 100 members. Small churches should advertise in the phone book, newspaper, and be present at as many community functions as possible. The small church should meet weekly for Eucharist and encourage the members to socialize with one another without becoming a clique. In addition, most churches meet on Sunday morning between 9am-12pm. [This time may be difficult for some because they cannot find a facility that can accommodate the church at these hours.].
9. The pastor should emphasize the connection with the Diocese and larger Communion.
Events in which the people of the small faith community can meet others in throughout the Communion will support the identity of the smaller community as it struggles to establish itself. People of the small church will become aware of other communities and not feel so isolated in their efforts.
10. Some small churches choose to limit their appeal.
Because of small numbers or geographical distance, some faith communities only meet every other week. Others try to appeal to a specific population, based on gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. But this limits the growth of the church if it is too strongly identified with one group. Every community is challenged to ask itself, “Are trying to build a church that is open to all or only to an exclusive group?” The average family with children seeks to pass on the faith of their ancestors in the tradition that is familiar to them. This means that they need to feel comfortable with the language of the liturgy. Liturgy is a “sacred dance” among the young, the old, those with special needs or desires, and (yes) the priest. Small groups must ask how to balance new liturgical language (that seems more just or inclusive) with language that is cherished by those who have prayed all their lives using beloved prayers. So much of this is educational, takes time and education, and requires a sense of balance.
11. The small church needs to be “family and kid friendly.”
Children always need to be welcomed. Parents are eager to attend a church where the children at loved, nourished and respected. Programs need to fit around the family and its needs (This is the most important consideration in beginning programs.)
12. We need to be a sacramental church honoring the traditions of the people.
The sacraments are ancient symbols that touch our hearts and souls and bring us the presence of God. People have often been excluded from the sacraments in other Churches and are longing to return to the reception of these sacraments. Others have come from non-sacramental religious traditions – but long for the beautiful and sacred mysteries of the sacraments. The sacraments belong to the people. If we prayerfully and inclusively celebrate them, many will come through our open doors.
13. Small churches need to move toward an active music and youth ministry.
Early Christians were known for their joy, and their mutual love. Both music and the joy of our children remind us to “let go” and to see God in the moment. The choir or singing group is also at the heart of the liturgical ministry.
14. The members of the church should start to contribute financially.
This is important because the contribution of money means the sense of ownership of the community by its members. The church really belongs to the people, and they realize their stake in it by the investment of their time, energy and money.
15. Growth will come through outreach to specific groups.
The community to be open to all, but real growth comes from outreach to specific groups. For instance, the community might want to reach out to families by offering programs that emphasize their needs. The group might want to reach out to divorced people, and make plans for healing programs for the divorced. The same could be said of the gay and lesbian community, ethnic communities, etc.
16. The call to social justice must be emphasized from the beginning.
Tithing is an excellent example of one step for the community toward the ministry of social justice. This is not just one of many ministries, but is at the heart of the Gospel. Social justice and the ministry of compassion arise from the Eucharist as an outreach of the unity and love shared by the community. The entire community would benefit by turning its attention to one specific project (e.g. a ministry to the old and sick in the larger civic community). This would be both a sacramental ministry and service of the needs of those who are marginalized in society. Such a project unifies the small parish in a sense of purpose.
17. Finally, learning not to take the whole experience too seriously is important.
We mistakenly believe “success” is measured by the number of church members. But the walk of faith only measures our love for one another, and the experiences we discover of God in our lives. The rest is up to the Spirit, who leads us through prayer in an adventure of faith; and teaches us to laugh as much as we cry through troubles. Success belongs to the faith community which finds these things.
Our communities are prophetic in every sense of the word. We recall together that a prophet is not called to be successful, but to be faithful. May we bear fruit for one and for all, in Christ.
God's peace and every blessing to all that you undertake with faith and courage!
As the Presiding Bishop of the Communion of Synodal Catholic Churches, I have been called forth by the Communion to serve with our Bishops as "first among equals" to represent the Communion, to articulate the vision and mission of the Communion and to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.