Among the trends that I have been following on Anglicans Ablaze is what has been described as renewed interest in hymns, more emphasis on congregational singing, and smaller worship gatherings. A counter-trend is the continued flow of people from smaller churches to larger churches.
What we are observing are two clusters of trends—one involving folks who desire to engage in more intimate, participatory forms of worship and the other folks who prefer to listen to the latest contemporary Christian music and a celebrity preacher. A small traditional Anglican church could benefit from the first cluster of trends if it undertook a number of changes.
To maintain viability in the twenty-first century a traditional Anglican church needs to establish and keep a reputation for taking its worship seriously; having a friendly welcoming congregation; offering clear Bible teaching, providing opportunities for leadership, ministry, and mission, and serving its community. It further needs to reflect its community in the makeup of its congregation. If it is a regional church, it needs to reflect the makeup of the region.
What also is critical is that the community sees its members as caring, loving people at the heart of whose care and love is Jesus Christ. This means that the church members themselves, not the church’s clergy, must build bridges to the community, which bring the church members and the community into contact with each other.
In addition a traditional Anglican church needs to have an attractive website on the Internet, which prompts folks visiting the website to want to visit the church. Nowadays people looking for a new church home visit the church’s website first. If they do not get a good first impression from the website, they are not going to visit the church.
The 1928 Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal, 1940 have name recognition value to only a tiny segment of the US population, a segment of the population that varies in size from region to region and is growing smaller every year. They are not the draw that they were in the heyday of the Continuing Anglican Movement in late 1970s and early 1980s. A traditional Anglican church can no longer advertise its use of the 1928 Prayer Book and the 1940 Hymnal and attract a steady flow of visitors. Their use is no substitute for the characteristics that I have identified in the foregoing paragraph as essential to traditional church viability. I have watched one too many traditional Anglican churches go belly-up because they did not pay enough attention to these areas of church life and worship.
One of the primary reasons members of small churches do not invite people to their church’s worship services is that they are embarrassed by what they perceive to be the poor quality of these services. A part of the solution to this problem is to get the congregation excited about Sunday morning again. People who are excited about something want others to share in their excitement. Church members, when they are excited about Sunday morning at their church, will invite all kinds of people to their church’s worship services.
The first step to generating excitement about Sunday morning in a small church is to size-up the resources of the church and show the church how it can make better use of these resources to enhance its worship services. In a traditional Anglican church this entails giving attention to five key areas—planning and conducting of the service, reading of Scripture, preaching, music, and the sacraments. Only the last area requires a priest and then primarily for the administration of the Holy Communion.
As the rubrics of the 1928 Baptismal Office recognize, a baptized layman can administer the sacrament of Baptism in dire emergencies. Lay baptism is a biblical practice. Jesus’ disciples baptized as laymen, not as ordained ministers.
In his research on why formerly unchurched people joined a church, Thom Rainer found that an important consideration was the quality of the church’s worship music. Style of worship music and quality of worship music are not synonymous. It is a common mistake to confuse the two. What Rainer found was that, whatever the various styles of music that a church is using, when a church is tangibly doing its best, the church conveys to the unchurched visitor that the church takes the worship of God seriously. This was a major factor that caused an unchurched visitor to return for a second visit, a third visit, and so on, and eventually become a regular attendee at its services. The research included churches that used a variety of instruments as well as music styles in their worship.
Over a century ago in Loyalty to the Prayer Book (1904) Percy Dearmer urged his readers:
Let us by all means have bright Services, if by that we mean singing in which everyone can join, if we avoid the temptation to make our Services dull and without significance, through perpetual monotoning, if we secure real brightness by clear and stirring reading of the Lessons "distinctly with an audible voice"--and by short and vigorous sermons, and by interesting instructions; and if we remember to make the highest Service the brightest of all. Let us, in fact, bring out the real brightness of our Services by doing them proper justice.
Dearmer’s advice is as true today as it was then—perhaps even more so.
If you are not familiar with Percy Dearmer, he was English priest and liturgist best known as the author of The Parson's Handbook, a liturgical manual for Anglican clergy. Dearmer championed the English Use, sound liturgical practice that came from the traditions of the pre-Reformation English Church and which conformed to the rites, services, and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and the canons that governed the Prayer Book. He wrote a number of other books as well as revised The Parson’s Handbook several times. Dearmer had a strong influence upon the music of the church during his lifetime. He was responsible with Ralph Vaughan Williams for the publication of The English Hymnal in 1906 and with Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw for the publication of Songs of Praise in 1926 and The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. Dearmer was professor of ecclesiastical art at King's College London from 1919 until his death in 1936. His ashes are interred in the Great Cloister at Westminster Abbey.
On a personal note my favorite hymn as a child was Dearmer’s “Jesus, good above all others,” 540 in Songs of Praise, Full Music Edition, Revised and Enlarged edition 1931, sung to the tune QUEM PASTORES LAUDAVERE.
I have given serious thought over the past few years to how a small Anglican church that uses one of the older Anglican service books and what is known as the “new traditional” core hymnody in its worship might reach and engage the unchurched population of its community and its region. The article series, “Early in the Morning Our Songs Shall Rise to Thee: The Music and Conduct of Morning Prayer,” is one of the fruits of that thinking as it relates to worship, particularly worship music.
Reinvigorating its worship, however, is only one of a number of steps that a small Anglican church needs to take to achieve this goal. It must make itself more attractive in other ways. It must also expand its “footprint” in the community and the region. A church can be small but have a very large “footprint.” A church’s “footprint” is its impact upon the community and the region which it is located.
A common way for small churches to expand their “footprint” is to have a yard sale in the church parking lot to raise money for a charitable organization in the community such as a food bank. The community is impacted in a number of ways—through the purchase of inexpensive items at the yard sale and through the proceeds donated to the food bank. The church also benefits from the yard sale—from the goodwill it generates in the community, from the visibility it helps to give the church, and from the interactions between church members and community members at the yard sale. The previously invisible St. Fursey’s suddenly become the church down the street that had the yard sale last week and the people of St. Fursey’s the nice folks who sold me this whatsomadoodle real cheap. Another common way is a parish fair with booths, games, prizes, and food—lots and lots of food. Any profits from sales at the parish fair are donated to a worthwhile cause in the community or the region. A third common way is to join other groups and individuals from the community or the region in a community service project benefiting the community or the region or both. This is a great way to meet people, form new relationships, and to expand the church members’ relationship network. It also puts a human face on St. Fursey’s.
Yard sales, parish fairs, and that sort of thing also help church members to recognize that the church does not exist for them. It exists for the whole community, for the entire region. These types of outreaches help church members become more outward-looking and less inward-focused—a critical step in church revitalization.
Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house” (Matthew5:15 HCSB). Have you ever seen the lamps that were used in ancient Palestine during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry? They are tiny! One easily fits in the palm of your hands. They also can be easily hid under a basket, especially a large basket used to measure grain. I have replicas of the two most commonly-used lamps. But in the dark windowless houses in that part of the ancient world they provided a welcome light. If a tiny lamp can brighten a house, how much more can a small church be a light in its community and its region?!