What makes a church excellent?
After two years of researching churches that produced "life-changing results," three university scholars came up with one trait common to all. They call it a missionary authenticity.
Excellent churches look at congregational needs with a fresh eye and try to solve needs creatively, much like missionaries in a faraway land, said Paul Wilkes, founder and director of the Parish/Congregation Study. These congregations are not afraid to try new projects, programs and liturgy, although they are sometimes unsuccessful.
"Blessed are the risk-takers, for they have once again revealed the kingdom of God," Wilkes said. He added, however, that excellent churches stay grounded in Scripture and the basics of their faith and denominations.
Wilkes teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the base for the two-year study funded by the Lilly Endowment. Wilkes got the idea for the study after spending three joyful days with a dynamic church in New Jersey. Parishioners seemed to "love just being there."
When he returned home, he called a Wilmington church. A glum secretary acted as if his simple question was trying her patience. Other churches treat newcomers in the pews or in Bible study programs as if they were intruders, he said.
Why can't more churches learn to follow the model of the New Jersey church? Wilkes wondered.
So, he got a grant and hired two professors to help prepare a guide to best church practices. The team met with experts on congregation reform and visited churches from coast to coast.
"We went out to find those that can be duplicated," Wilkes said.
Most excellent congregations, large or small, city, suburban or rural, share similar traits. For example, many of their pastors have served their congregations for long periods. To prevent pastor burnout, many excellent churches offer their pastors sabbatical leaves "to connect with God away from the congregation's Babel of needs."
The laity in excellent congregations also shoulder leadership responsibility. St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the 600 excellent churches, has a paid volunteer coordinator who sees that volunteers within the parish get training for their stewardship tasks and meet standards.
Excellent churches help families pass on their faith to their children. Volunteers from Yesterday's Kids, a seniors program at St. Nicholas in O'Fallon, Ill., prepare young parents before a newborn's baptism. Most Precious Blood Church has four "family nights" to help parents transmit their Catholic faith to their children. While parents share ideas about family practices, for Lent for example, children learn about Lent in age-appropriate sessions.
"Our parish helps our parents connect their faith to everyday life," said Sister Rose Dobelman, the Lemay parish's religious education director.
Excellent churches help other churches. St. John's Lutheran Church in Ellisville got so many requests from other Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregations about its lively, contemporary, praise-music Sunday services that it formed a network called the Association of Courageous Churches. Now the association's 150 churches exchange ideas at meetings and on its Web site: acc4u.org.
Many excellent churches have "seeker-sensitive," innovative worship. St. Alphonsus "Rock" Church helps non-Catholic African-American visitors feel comfortable with traditional, spiritual music. Cantors at many Sunday services face the assembly to encourage all to participate and celebrate.
Marie Kremer, St. Monica's music director, and the Rev. Robert J. Hermann, Incarnate Word pastor, often tell parishioners to sing "whether they sing like a canary or a woodpecker." Each is quoting the late Monsignor Martin Hellriegel, a Baden priest and advocate of congregational singing.
Excellent congregations know their neighborhoods. The Chinese Christian Union Church in Chicago was formed by Chinese-American members of mainline Protestant denominations who felt unwelcome at existing churches. Now, the nondenominational church has services in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. The majority of 12,000 members of St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C., are from the north with no extended family in Charlotte. The parish has 100 ministries, supported by its 30-member staff.
"We have support groups for members whose parents or spouse have Alzheimer's disease, support groups for those who recently lost parents, siblings or a child, and lots of bereavement help," said parish adult education director Susan O'Connell Krasniewski, a St. Louis native. Each Wednesday, 400 parishioners eat dinner at the church. Many remain for religious education and support groups. Excellent churches mentor their teen-agers. At Fairhaven Ministries in Hudsonville, Mich., junior high youth are paired with an adult volunteer for two hours weekly for six weeks as the teens write or craft a personal testament of belief. Many churches have huge programs to help the needy, but even the smallest can help. Star Fellowship Baptist Church in Edison, Ga., a town of 1,100, runs an "Adopt-a-Grandparent" program. Children from a mobile home park and a housing project are matched for weekly chats with people at a residence for the elderly. The children learn that adults beyond their own families care about them. "Christianity is always struggling with its culture and trying to make it more ethical and loving," Wilkes said. "These churches do that on the edge, the creative and holy edge of the New Testament."