Epiphany’s epiphany: One church’s story

Can itinerant preachers be part of a revival – a reimagining of American mainline Christianity that brings people back to pews?

Ann Hermes/Staff
The Rev. Jay MacLeod (right) and Mary Jannenga sing during a service at the Church of the Epiphany on Feb. 6, 2020, in Newport, New Hampshire.

Jeff MacDonald’s cover story makes a point and implicitly asks a question.

The point is not a new one, but is important precisely because it is so persistent. Mainline Christian congregations are declining, and Jeff drives home this point by looking at itinerant preachers. The tradition of clergy preaching to multiple congregations has its roots in the 19th century. But back then, the phenomenon grew from an excess of need. An expanding America – stretched over more and more space – had a dearth of preachers. 

Today, itinerant preachers are a cost-saving mechanism. Congregations are doubling up on clergy they can no longer afford alone.

Which leads to the question: Can itinerant preachers be part of a revival – a reimagining of American mainline Christianity that brings people back to pews? There is anecdotal evidence in Jeff’s piece that this can happen. One Episcopal church in Newport, New Hampshire, saw its congregation double, from 12 to 24, when it began sharing its priest.

But the story of the Church of the Epiphany is about more than the Rev. Jay MacLeod, the priest it shares with a church about 10 miles away. It is also the story of Messy Church – another experiment at Epiphany that uses a “casual, intergenerational format” and once brought 65 people. It is the story of the decision behind the decision to share Mr. MacLeod with nearby St. Andrew’s Church, which one person described as a choice to shut down, merge with another church, or make “big changes.” Epiphany chose to make big changes.

The fact is, declining membership is not a problem unique to Christian churches. As sociologist Robert Putnam notes in his groundbreaking book, “Bowling Alone,” America has undergone a dramatic decline in “social capital” during recent decades. Put simply, people aren’t investing as much in neighbors and acquaintances as they once did. As a result, everything from Elks Clubs to labor unions are declining, too.  

This recognition, however, does not come with a solution: No one really knows how you rebuild social capital. Yet here’s one thing we do know, and which the coronavirus has only underlined. Humans do still want connection.

Experts who study the internet will tell you that it’s not really about information. People use it for connection. This is the secret of YouTube’s success. It is a platform for creating communities around personalities and shared interests.

Professor Putnam found that megachurches were fantastically good at doing this, too. “They have the mountain bikers for God group, the volleyball players for God, ... and so on,” he tells The Guardian newspaper. They are connection engines. So is Messy Church, Epiphany is discovering.

The answer to Jeff’s question is not itinerant preachers or even Messy Church, per se. It is the choice to look at the problem in new ways. How humanity finds meaningful fellowship is evolving, and everything from coronavirus quarantines to YouTube channels is offering clues about what shape that future will take.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.