Studies in Vibrancy

Article 1: A Ministry of Presence at Santa Maria
Article 2: Be Ye Doers at St. James's, Richmond
Article 3: Saying 'Yes' at St. Peter's in the Woods
Article 4: Overcoming Space Obstacles at Our Saviour
Article 5: Relationship Building at St. Matt's

Read the recent headlines about the decline in church membership across mainline denominations and you can get pretty discouraged: “Percentage of Protestant Americans is in Steep Decline,” “Mainline Protestants: Vintage or Vibrant,” “Decline in U.S. Mainline Denominations Continues.” But for every dark and dismal headline, there comes another story: one of hope, excitement and, yes, even growth.

Take a look at the recent survey of Diocese of Virginia Annual Council members as evidence: 66 percent of attendees declared themselves to be decidedly “optimistic” about the future of their congregations, with another 20 percent leaning toward “somewhat optimistic.”

So how do we reconcile these two realities that seem to be at odds with one another? On the one hand, we’ve got some pretty convincing facts and figures. On the other, we have a vibrant, exciting church that’s filled with hope. To get to the bottom of the story, we decided to take a look at five congregations in the Diocese of Virginia that have experienced some level of growth in the past five to seven years, and ask a key question: How have these communities not only survived but even thrived during a time when many are struggling?

That’s not to say that these churches haven’t encountered challenges. But they’ve been pretty creative when it comes to solutions.

We sought congregations that are very different in makeup. St. James’s is a large, urban parish near downtown Richmond; Church of Our Saviour is a more rural mission congregation in Montpelier; St. Peter’s in the Woods is a mid-sized congregation in bustling Fairfax City that recently attained church status; La Iglesia de Santa Maria is a fast-growing, Spanish-speaking congregation in Falls Church; and St. Matthew’s is a suburban, program-sized church in Sterling.

Church Communicants, 2007 Communicants, 2012 ASA, 2007 ASA, 2012
Church of Our Saviour, Montpelier  112 148 52 70
La Iglesia de Santa Maria, Falls Church* 160 230 491 700
St. James's, Richmond 2,249 2,570 586 590
St. Matthew's, Sterling 525 630 309 385
St. Peter's in the Woods, Fairfax Station 76 276 78 156

2012 is the most recent year for which full membership information is available.
ASA = Average Sunday Attendance
*Membership figures not available for 2007 at Santa Maria; 2007 field contains figures for 2009.

Members of La Iglesia de Santa Maria welcomed the Rev. Roberto Orihuela as vicar in 2011

We spoke with clergy and a few lay leaders at these congregations – not necessarily to uncover their secrets to adding new members, but rather to learn how they approach and embrace vitality during an admittedly difficult time in a changing church culture. And what we learned was pretty interesting.

Step One: An Assist from the Holy Spirit

Over and over, we heard that no number of programs, events or philosophies can help a church grow without guidance from the Holy Spirit. The Rev. Randy Hollerith of St. James’s puts it this way: “If a church is growing, it is the result of the Holy Spirit working and moving in that community.” The Rev. Dr. DeDe Duncan-Probe, rector of St. Peter’s in the Woods, agrees: “In the process of building a church, it’s very important to really be in tune with how the Holy Spirit is leading the people,” she says. “It all starts with the Holy Spirit.”

Folks at St. Peter's in the Woods, Fairfax Station, celebrate the installation of a new sign.

Step Two: Intentional Authenticity

So, once the Holy Spirit is at work, what happens next on the road to vibrancy and growth? A close look at these particular congregations reveals that a unique combination of embracing authenticity and intentionality is key. Identifying just what it means to be an “authentic” church is the tricky part. The Rev. Roberto Orihuela, vicar of La Iglesia de Santa Maria, has a special phrase for it: “We want [the parishioners] to feel me siento bien aqui: ‘I am myself. I am comfortable being here.’” At St. James’s, “We have been intentional about being our best selves,” says Hollerith. “Authenticity and intentionality are infectious and inviting to the wider community."

Members of St. James's, Richmond, host in-home events for newcomers.

Step Three: Keeping It Flexible

What these churches have in common in their approaches to being authentic, intentional communities is flexibility. Take Our Saviour, for example, where “there had been an attitude … of being ‘the little country church in Montpelier,’ and there had also been some internal conflict,” says the Rev. Herbert Jones, vicar. “I believe the change in attendance is a product, in very large part, of a decision, perhaps unarticulated, that the parish was ready to put all of this behind them and live into our call as members of Christ’s body.”

Our Saviour, Montpelier, broke grown on a new building addition in 2013.

For some churches, then, flexibility means being able to let go of the past, embrace the present and look to the future. For others, it means intentionally adapting to a culture that puts a different value on Sunday worship. The Rev. Rob Merola of St. Matthew’s puts it like this: “For people who have never grown up in a church, church is the last place they want to be. Even folks who have gone to church all their lives are increasingly willing to skip church for a array of reasons.” So the members of St. Matthew’s have adopted “making services memorable” as a strategic goal. They're exploring new ways to adapt.

Members of St. Matthew's, Sterling, worship together.

Looking at these five examples, it’s difficult to pinpoint one or two specific things that are responsible for their vibrancy, vitality and growth. But from one congregation to another, a common thread that’s a bit less tangible prevails: It’s a mindset, one that is open and optimistic, honest and energized, and infused with the movement of the Holy Spirit. In the days ahead, we’ll take a closer look at these congregations, one at a time. You’ll find that perhaps none of them has a one-size-fits-all solution to the widespread question of “how to grow a church.” But all provide pretty solid inspiration in their powerful stories.

Follow along, share your thoughts and join us on this journey of #DioVaVibrance.

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