Monday, February 01, 2010

Deep Roots

Grace Episcopal Church
Madison, NJ
The Messenger
February 2010

Curate’s Corner

Deep Roots

One of my personal goals since I arrived here has been to figure out why Grace Church is a thriving Christian community at a time when many other churches are in decline. Over the past two and a half years I’ve come up with many different explanations. In one of our first conversations, Lauren chalked it up to daily prayer and I believe that’s undoubtedly true. There is also the fortunate history of strong clergy and lay leadership as well as a clear understanding and support of lay ministry. The bottom line is that every day of the year vital ministry is being done by a wide range of parishioners.

Recently I recognized another source of our strength when I had the eye-opening experience of reading a new book, The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. The book’s title might lead you to think that it tells some DaVinci Code-inspired story of lost gospels or secrets about Jesus and his first followers. Instead, Jenkins tells the true and nearly-forgotten story of Christianity in Asia and North Africa, making the case that this was the thriving center of our faith during the first thousand years of its history.

The energetic and confident Middle Eastern churches sent out missionaries to India, Tibet, China and beyond. For many centuries monasteries in places such as Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia were great centers of spirituality and learning. For the proud and faithful Christians in this part of the world it must have seemed like their sophisticated and rich churches, in some cases founded by Jesus’ first disciples, would last forever.

The sad truth is that for a variety of reasons today Christianity is almost extinct in the Middle East and North Africa. Jenkins devotes a good bit of space to reflecting on why some churches die and others live on, even in the face of long-term persecution. He suggests that some churches die because they become too closely associated with one demographic group or geographic area. On the other hand, Jenkins claims that successful churches “reach broadly across sections of society and make their religion part of the ordinary lived reality of a diverse range of communities.”

In other words, successful churches plant deep roots in their communities.

This is exactly what happens here at Grace Church! It doesn’t take much effort to see the deep roots of our church in many communities. Although we don’t make these connections in an effort to increase our average Sunday attendance, the truth is people join our church because they learn about our many activities or because they are invited by parishioners who are excited to share the good things that are happening here.

Many of our ministries help to deepen our roots in many communities. We have a longstanding connection to the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown, sending volunteers every other month to prepare a nutritious and delicious lunch while also donating thousands of dollars through our annual “Souper Bowl” fundraiser. We also have a deep connection to St. John’s Church in Dover, the co-sponsoring congregation of the Recycling Ministry. For the past two years, we have sent people and resources to support St. John’s vacation bible school, which provides a summer camp-like service to people in need. Others of us are closely involved with the Church of the Good Shepherd in Ringwood and Apostles House in Newark. Closer to home, many people have benefited from services provided by the Grace Counseling Center. In addition, recently we have been renewing our connection to Project Community Pride, a remarkable family-centered counseling agency supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

Grace Community Music plays an invaluable role in deepening our roots in the community. Many people have first entered Grace Church to hear a Harmonium concert or a Lenten organ recital or to be entertained by the Halloween Concert. Plus, we have long-term relationships with a host of local musicians and groups. Again, we don’t offer these musical programs to grow our church, but inevitably these events and relationships help us become, in the words of Philip Jenkins, “part of the ordinary lived reality” of people in our community. As one woman who regularly attends our musical events said to me at Bottle Hill Day, “I’m Jewish, but if I were Christian I’d go to Grace Church!”

Finally, many individual parishioners work to deepen our roots in the community. Each week I page through the Madison Eagle looking for stories and photos featuring Grace Church parishioners. Without exception, every week there is always at least one article and picture to cut out and proudly put up on the bulletin board. At our First Friday in May, we are planning to feature parishioners who volunteer outside of church. This has created a wonderful problem; in response to my inquiry in Grace Notes so many people have identified themselves as volunteers that we may have a panel of 40 or more people!

As we begin another year we can – and should – be thankful for Grace Church, our thriving Christian community. We can also give thanks for our deep roots in our communities and continue to look for ways we can be “part of the ordinary lived reality” for our neighbors.