A Guest Post by the Very Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman)
What passes for theology these days cannot rightly be called so. We discuss concepts and phraseology, but rarely do we contemplate the divine. This was an observation made by theologian Ronald Rohleiser. Rolheiser observed that theology, correctly defined, is theo logos, or “words about God”. Instead, he commented, theology today consists mostly of words about words.
I must admit, part of me feels this critique whenever there is a discussion about the future of the Anglican Church. Articles are put forward and blogs are published, all attempting to define or dissect the problems at hand. Words like palliative, decline, leadership, or entrepreneurial garner much attention. Some like the words used, some do not. We talk in length about the ins and outs of palliative ministry, or how entrepreneurial leaders hold the best chance of paving the way forward.
Don’t misunderstand me, these discussions have value. But are all these discussions merely words about words? What does parish vitality look like beyond the words we say?
When I arrived as the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kamloops, barely 5 months ago, the parish was engaged in a lengthy discussion about their vitality. We held a parish workshop to capitalize on the excitement felt within the parish. It was titled, “You, St. Paul’s, & The Future.” Roughly 60% of the congregation was present for this vitality day. This alone speaks to the level of hope felt within the community.
The workshop focused on four key themes upon which life at St. Paul’s revolve: Growing (spiritually), Connecting (relationally), Serving (sacrificially), Praying (heartily). As slick as this schema may seem, the truth is it’s really nothing new. The early church lived its life in the same way. Acts 2:42 records how the community of faith “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching (growing), the fellowship (connecting), the breaking of bread (serving) and the prayers (praying).” At its outset this is how the church functioned. And yes, there were controversy and infighting at times; no, they did not live out their congregational life perfectly, but the church flourished, nonetheless. Scripture says that “day by day the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Could parish vitality really be that simple?
Beyond this scriptural account, these four elements are familiar to us in the Anglican Church. We’ve heard them before. In fact, we proclaim this reality every time we celebrate a baptism. Following the presentation of the candidate, the affirmations and renunciations, the congregation expresses the fundamental reality of its life together. To the question, “Will you devote yourself to the Apostles’ Teaching, the Fellowship, The Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers?”, the congregation responds (hopefully enthusiastically) “We will!” As Anglicans, as Christians, as a Church, this is who we are; this is who we promise to be.
What might it look like, then, for a congregation to embrace this formula for church-life? How might a dedication to these activities influence parish vitality? This question focused the discussions at the Vitality Day. A plethora of ideas, opportunities, and wishes were highlighted. The conversation was robust and lively, and after 4 hours of conversation we ended the day feeling rejuvenated and hopeful.
So, what does vitality look like St. Paul’s? Well, ask anyone who has been there over the last few months, and they will undoubtedly say that the congregation feels alive. Since arriving at St. Paul’s in October, our Sunday attendance has increased every Sunday. Many parishioners have returned to active involvement, some after a long-time away. These people didn’t just come back to sit in the pew, they have gotten involved. They have joined ministries and taken on tasks.
We have also experienced growth in newcomers. Since my arrival, several new families have made St. Paul’s their home, thereby increasing the overall number of our congregation. They have been warmly welcomed and lovingly received. Simply put, the church is growing, and people are noticing.
One of the most influential things that has taken place at the Cathedral was a potluck dinner for parishioners in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. Upon my arrival, I heard the common lament that the Cathedral did not have many people in this age category. In fact, I even heard this lament from parishioners who were in that age category! So, an invitation went out to gather for a meal. There was to be no agenda put forward, no strategy about how to attract people, just a simple call to enjoy food and fellowship.
The night was a huge success. People laughed, swapped stories and phone numbers, and began to form important connections amongst each other. Throughout the evening I kept hearing “I had no clue how many of us there were!”, and at the end of the potluck each person asked, “Can we do this again?”
Since that event some amazing things have taken place. Follow up dinners between families have occurred, and individuals have met for continued coffee and fellowship. One couple has come forward to join the music ministry at the Cathedral, another two have asked to become readers, two have stated they would like to join the Livestream team, while another inquired about teaching Sunday school. All of this occurred because of a simple potluck.
Of course, vitality at St. Paul’s isn’t just about the younger generation. There are many other things that garner equal attention. The congregation is starting a Hospital Visitation Team and has begun taking communion to a local senior’s residence; others are asking about a way to gather for Bible study. In fact, during the Vitality Day itself, one person raised her hand and asked if she could begin a phoning ministry. By the end of the day, she had six volunteers all wanting to be a part of this activity.
The fact is, such lively hopefulness, expressed in tangible activity, transforms a congregation. Excitement flows through St. Paul’s and invigorates the congregation. Our singing sounds livelier these days; our hallelujahs are joy-filled responses; people have begun praying for each other at the back of the church during communion. But more than anything, people feel like they belong to a congregation that is filled with the Spirit, not just with people. In short, people like being a part of St. Paul’s. And because they like coming to St. Paul’s they are searching out ways to be involved, and to serve.
Since my arrival, people have said “Kyle, the church feels so vibrant since you came.” Much of the credit for the Cathedral’s vitality gets voiced in my direction. But the truth is, I can’t take the credit. This is something that St. Paul’s is doing together. The people of the parish have risen, and they have grasped with both hands a vision of a community built upon growing, connecting, serving, and praying. As for me, I rejoice that I get to be a part of it.
The Very Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Kamloops, and Dean of the Territory of the People. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation with an emphasis on the formation of Christian Community. He is a writer, speaker, and retreat leader. Learn more about his ministry, or connect with him further, at www.revkylenorman.ca
What encouraging words and ideas! Thanks for sharing!
It is a joy having you with us, Dr. Kyle.
Glad to hear it. You reaffirm my conviction that the baptismal covenant really is talking about potlucks when it mentions “the breaking of the bread”!