St. John’s Flies its Flag
  • Monday, June 2, 2014

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

As a lifelong Southerner, the Rev. Jeff Reich has seen plenty of churches in his region grow by offering more amenities, from entertainment to gift shops, coffee bars, and car repair.

But he’s discovering in Laurel, Mississippi, that an Anglo-Catholic congregation can grow vigorously without adding frills. At St. John’s Church, which Reich serves as rector, rapid growth has coincided with efforts to make church less intimidating for newcomers and to use social media.

From 2008 to 2012, average Sunday attendance at St. John’s more than doubled from 65 to 155. That makes the 119-year-old congregation among the faster-growing in the Episcopal Church.

In the past five years, Reich said, St. John’s has paid off its $184,000 debt and has expanded its annual budget by 50 percent to $330,000. Sunday School has grown from 15 to 60 children. The average age of parishioners is now about 35, Reich said.

Spreading the church’s online presence has been a key factor, Reich said. St. John’s maintains an active Facebook page.

Advertising in the local newspaper used to be a given, especially at Christmas and Easter. But St. John’s has swapped newspaper advertising for something it finds to be more effective: Facebook and Twitter ads. For $50 or $60, Reich said, the church’s ad will pop up in front of everyone who’s on Facebook within a 50-mile radius of Laurel through the Advent season.

“I’d never heard of anybody coming to church because an advertisement in the newspaper,” Reich said. “But I’ve probably had eight or nine folks in the past couple of years come to church because of an advertisement on Facebook.”

Low-tech projects have made a difference, too. The entire service, including readings from the Book of Common Prayer, is now printed in the bulletin. Newcomers no longer feel awkward or frustrated by fumbling hastily through the prayer book. They can instead leave their books closed and relax.

Reich also did away with mysterious, sometimes frustrating systems. It’s no longer a guessing game to figure out how someone is invited to join the altar guild. Regular announcements and training explain the process and prepare people to serve on the guild with confidence.

With such increases in transparency, more people are taking part in various lay ministries. They stay abreast of goings on via a weekly electronic newsletter, which is mailed to church members who do not use email.

St. John’s has notably not offered lots of new programs. The congregation’s dual focus has been on worship and equipping families to practice holiness at home.

People are responding to the back-to-basics approach, Reich said. Turnout is typically stronger for a feast-day service to honor a particular saint than for a dinner or fellowship event, he said.

For the home, worshippers are equipped with numerous resources, such as prayers to say at particular occasions or times of day. They also learn more about meeting the needs of others, such as coworkers, employees, and neighbors in need.

“The first part of your free time should be given to serve the community or the poor,” Reich said. “I’m trying my best to say: ‘if you’re going to be a faithful Christian, then your home needs to be an outpost of God’s kingdom. It needs to be a place of prayer and a place of virtue. And this is how you do that.’”

TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).

Images courtesy of St. John’s, Laurel, from its Facebook page

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