The story of the Evolution of St. Peter’s By the Sea (Sitka, Alaska) Multi-Format Worship Strategy
June 18, 2011
Sometimes a system evolves almost unnoticed by those who participate in it. But frequently there is a logic or principle at the root of that system that needs to be occasionally reviewed. The system of multiple worship service formats as once practiced at St. Peter’s was just such a system. I offer the following as an example of one approach to the developing needs of a congregation.
The best place to begin is with the establishment of of the 9:15am service on Sundays.
Back in 1998 it came to our attention that St. Peter’s had over 30 children in our parish directory and if we saw a handful of them on Sunday we were doing well. We began to ask around why more of our children were not in church.
The answers seemed to center on parents’ feelings. They thought that their children were not welcomed by the older members of the community. These parents were also stressed by the anticipation that their children would do something “wrong” and annoy the “empty nesters.” The older members of the congregation liked seeing the kids, but they wished the children behaved as well as they imagined their own children had. A theory began to develop that the issue was not that the children were not welcome, but rather that the parents were worrying that they might not be. The parents felt unsafe in church. What was needed was a safe worship opportunity for the parents of young children.
A strategic decision was made to discontinue the traditional Sunday School in favor of a worship opportunity in which the parents of young children could feel comfortable. This service would be designed around the structure of the traditional Episcopal liturgy, but be short enough that a child would be comfortable attending. The music used would be “contemporary,” short, and lively. And noise and disruption would be the norm, not the exception. What was called the “Family Service” began at 9:15am the morning of September 12, 1999.
The existing 8:00 AM and 11:00 Am Sunday services continued as before. This allowed us to minister to diverse sets of needs.
The establishment of the 9:15 AM service ultimately led to the establishment of the Wednesday School. To the best of our recollection Wednesday School began the fall of 2000. By 2004 many began to recognize that the Wednesday School population was no longer made up solely of the children of the members of St. Peter’s. The majority of the children were from non-church families. This realization raised the question of what is most important, head knowledge of God, or the knowledge of God that the heart gains through worship. During the summer of 2007, Fr. Gordon Blue was tasked with designing a 20 minute worship opportunity for the Wednesday School. The hope was to provide a Wednesday School program that engaged the entire person of the child. The Wednesday School Communion service was first offered September 12, 2007. It has been very popular with the children of Wednesday School and their parents.
Church communities are frequently faced with two desires. The first is to maintain the close family type environment of a community in which everyone knows everyone else. The other desire is to respond to Jesus’ command to the church that they reach out to the community around them, offer what they have received to others, invite them in, and grow. These two desires are often experienced as being in opposition to each other. One way to be responsive to both these needs is to continually give birth to new “family” size clusters within the body of an ever-growing congregation. St. Peter’s various worship services and formats were ways of doing this.
The 9:15 AM service was established in response to the needs of families with small children. But by 2010 the population that this service attracted had changed. Most of those who attended this service were no longer the families with small children at home. The population was largely a community of adults who knew the 9:15am format as “the Episcopal Church.” It resonated with their life style and worship needs. It proclaimed the Gospel message in a way that was accessible to them. In a small way, the less formal and doctrinal format was inviting to those who considered themselves less religious and more spiritual. This was an example of how a “good” idea can morph into another good idea.
This same thing can be said of the Wednesday School communion. The children and most of the adults who attend would probably not attend the 8:00 AM, 9:15 AM or 11:00 AM service on Sunday. The time, environment and style would be foreign to them. What was offered Wednesday evening “spoke” to them right where they were.
In less dramatic ways, the same thing can be said for the 8:00 AM and 11:00 AM Sunday services, the 1:00 PM Sunday service at the Pioneer Home, and the 5:30 PM Wednesday Holy Eucharist. Each of these formats had been developed to respond to the needs of a particular group of people, or to attract them. Without these multiple worship opportunities and ways of worshiping in the Episcopal tradition, the congregation would have been limiting their evangelical reach. I would have loved to have been able to add a weekly Taize service for the same reason. Experience has shown this offering has the potential to reach many outside of our normal circle of community. But marshaling the resources to do this as an ongoing offering was not possible at the time.
For me, the fact that our congregation had multiple and distinct “family size” clusters of worshipers within our larger community was cause for celebration. It meant that we were responding to Jesus’ “Great Commission” to the church, that we were being good stewards of our facilities by making use of them for as many worshiping Christians as possible, and that we were discovering new ways to express the Episcopal / Anglican experience of Christianity today.
There is one more thing that could be done. There was a concern expressed that the multiple clusters of community were beginning to feel remote from each other. The best way to address this could be through social events and shared outreach projects. There is nothing quite so good at building community as a potluck, and working together.
Along the way it would be important to remember that no one format will ever suit the needs of all. But over time, an approach with a variety of offerings has a better chance to reach the entire community and foster relationships between our various family size clusters.
Fr. Dave Elsensohn