Congregational vitality is still on the front burner in conversations about the church. Noting that on average, 9 churches close their doors everyday, the Episcopal Church Building Fund has launched a recasting process, designed to help parishes evaluate their communities, reevaluate the deployment of their resources, achieve a sustainable budget, and rediscover a measure of relevance to the communities around them. The goal is to create a "thriving parish."
The chaplain for the process observes, "What vital role can your church play in your community? For many churches, the biggest challenge facing them isn't crumbling buildings or declining attendance, it's lack of relevancy. What is the Church called to be in this time and place?"
I have no doubt that the nuts and bolts of effective church administration are important. It is also important for churches to ask questions about the needs of their communities. The incarnational nature of our faith requires that we ask questions of that kind. Discerning our ministry to others is never done in a vacuum. It is done in real time, in specific places.
But whatever a "thriving" or "vital" parish might be, I hope that parishes everywhere are also asking themselves whether the one thing that finally matters is possible when people walk through their doors.
The desert mothers and fathers tell a story of a young aspirant to holiness who visited...
The hermitage of an old holy man who was sitting in the doorway of his quarters at sunset. The old man's dog stretched out across the threshold as the young spiritual seeker presented his problem to the holy man.
"Why is it, Abba, that some who seek God come to the desert and are zealous in prayer but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime? The old man smiled and replied,
"Let me tell you a story: One day I was sitting here quietly in the sun with my dog. Suddenly a large white rabbit ran across in front of us. . . . my dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that big rabbit. He chased the rabbit over the hills with a passion. Soon the other dogs joined him, attracted by his barking. What a sight it was, as the pack of dogs ran barking across the creeks, up stony embankments and through thickets and thorns! Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the chase. Only my dog continued to hotly pursue the white rabbit. In that story, young man, is the answer to your question."
The young man sat in confused silence. Finally he said, "Abba, I don't understand. What is the connection between the rabbit chase and the quest for holiness?"
"You fail to understand," answered the old hermit, "because you failed to ask the obvious question. Why didn't the other dogs continue on the chase? They had not seen the rabbit. They were only attracted by the barking of the dog." (Edward Hays, In Pursuit of the White Rabbit)
There is no substitute for an experience of the living God. Let's not just unleash more barking dogs.