An article published by The Washington Post caught my attention recently because it discussed a church split. In some macabre way I always enjoy reading those. I hate the heartache that people feel, but I find how and why churches split to be either amusing or simply fascinating. What struck me about this particular article was that, while it focused on the fresh start the anti-lgbtq Falls Church Anglican has in a new building, after fighting for years to keep the historic building that belonged to the Episcopal denomination, the real story seems to be about the astounding growth of the progressive, inclusive parish that they left behind.
Boiling it down, 90% of Falls Church Episcopal’s parish voted in 2006 to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. For several years the majority occupied the historic church building, while the continuing ECUSA parish was in ‘exile’ meeting elsewhere.
Just 35 people had decided to remain Falls Church Episcopalians when the church split. During the years of the court battle, that number grew to 80, who moved back into the contested building when the ruling came down in their favor.
A tiny group of a mere 35 managed to grow to 80 without their church building and the resources it housed. That’s pretty great. Separately, a minister of the ECUSA parish had this to say later in this timeline:
What I mean by that is when I started here in 2012, there were about 100 members, almost all of whom attended church almost every Sunday. And almost all of them were actively connected to their church — regularly volunteering in a ministry and/or actively engaged in discipleship/growing in the faith/learning to be an apprentice of Jesus.
Okay, so according to that there were roughly 100 parishioners with Falls Church Episcopal, back with their own building, in 2012. In March 2014 on the website of Episcopal Relief & Development, an astonishing number is mentioned.
The congregation has seen tremendous growth since moving back into its buildings after a lengthy lawsuit over ownership, from an average Sunday attendance of ninety to now almost two hundred people. While there are many factors that contributed to this growth, one area that has become particularly vibrant is the youth and children’s ministry.
If all the foregoing is correct, then the congregation nearly doubled in just two years. I’ve never seen growth like this in any church I’ve been around, and we usually attribute such to conservative evangelical churches, while we expect churches with more liberal theology to wither and die.
But wait, there’s more, and it’s buried in the article from The Washington Post.
Today, The Falls Church Episcopal, less than a mile from the new building of its conservative counterpart, has almost 600 members, according to the Rev. John Ohmer, who has been rector since 2012, but recently announced he will leave for another church position.
Holy moly kiddos, this parish went from 35 in 2007 to almost 600 in 2019. In 2012 it had about 100, so it’s gained an average of about 70 new members each year.
I’d really like to know how they’re doing it. There are massive, well-equipped congregations all over the United States with relatively tiny, mostly elderly congregations hanging on inside. I’ve seen a few just in Manhattan. That’s aside from the average-sized buildings with just a handful of hangers-on, such as were many I supply preached for in my college days. Just having a great facility can’t be what’s helping Falls Church Episcopal experience such growth.
Evangelicals tend to think that mainline Protestant churches just want to be popular, and follow every whim of society. Frankly, I can see where they’re coming from with that. At the same time, if that’s the strategy of such churches, it’s failing miserably. Denominations like the United Church of Christ, perhaps the most theologically liberal of the mainline Protestant churches (of which the Unitarian Universalists are not a part and thus not considered in this group)is hemorrhaging members at a shocking rate. ‘Popular’ they are not.
Falls Church Episcopal makes it clear that they are generously progressive, welcoming everyone, and setting no doctrinal requirements or standards with regard to who people are or who they love. And they are growing. Like gangbusters. There’s something to be sussed out there, for sure.