On our way rejoicing

By Kimberly Durnan
Posted Oct 2, 2014

[Diocese of Dallas] Whether reciting the liturgy in Igbo, sharing the chalice with the homeless or discovering the Canterbury Trail, all illustrate the rich vibrancy of the Dallas diocese where 11,300 believers sit in the pews each Sunday to worship.

Church planting, urban renewal, population growth and renewed excitement toward all things Anglican have buoyed the 69 congregations in the diocese and kept parishes and missions growing or stable. This is an important feat, particularly during a time of transition as leaders search to replace recently retired Bishop James M. Stanton.

While no one thing is credited with keeping the diocese robust, strategic church planting is its lifeblood. New churches are being created in rural outposts, the inner city, and in the suburbs.

“Culture changes, neighborhoods change and so there is always a need for new church plants,” said The Rev. Brendan Kimbrough, who is launching a new church in Collin County. “If we want to reach people through Christ, the most effective way is through church planting.”

Kimbrough speaks from experience. He began sowing the seeds of St. Timothy’s nearly two years ago in effort to make an Episcopal Church accessible to residents in the towns of Murphy, Wylie and Sachse.

After two years of meeting residents and holding Bible study in his home, Kimbrough is officially launching St. Timothy’s in August in the Murphy Activity Center. “It’s a perfect space, and will allow us to have full worship, a nursery, children’s Sunday school, a hospitality area and plenty of parking.”

Establishing new churches isn’t easy and requires substantial support from the diocese in both funding and management, said Canon Victoria Heard, missioner for church planting.

Starting from scratch is hard work for the priest who has to parachute into a new community with little more than a dream and a prayer. Heard points to the Rev. Michael Gilton, as a successful planter who started St. Paul’s in Prosper, which now has 130 in average Sunday attendance.

“Father Gilton did most things right,” Heard said. “He moved to Prosper, where his first act was to become a crossing guard at a school, which helped get him connected to the community. Then he joined the Rotary Club. You really have to be visible as a church planter because you don’t have a pretty building. You just have yourself, Jesus Christ and a vision of what could be.”

While many new congregations are built chasing suburban growth, inner city growth is more complex. In Dallas, the diocese’ largest parish is undergoing a massive construction project, while just a few miles away, a parish for the homeless continues to grow in both membership and mission. And in the Oak Cliff neighborhood, urban renewal has inspired the reconfiguration of three parishes.

At the Church of the Incarnation, in Dallas’ Uptown neighborhood, members raised $26 million for a construction project that will double the church’s footprint, and better meet the needs of a rapidly growing congregation that already numbers 1,350.

“We have been forced into it,” Bishop Tony Burton said. “We don’t have room to start another Sunday school class. People keep coming and we don’t have the space. We had to build. We want to fulfill the mission of the church to worship God in the great tradition, make disciples, serve the poor and raise up leaders…. .”

The construction is expected to be completed next year, and will include a new worship space for the contemporary service, a new welcome center and two new educational buildings.

The growth is in part due to more families moving to the Uptown area, and the easy access provided by Interstate 75 that makes the location convenient for those outside the immediate neighborhood, Burton said.

A few miles away, an outdoor church servicing the homeless continues to flourish and expand its mission of helping others. The Gathering, which provides an extended Eucharist with lunch in a downtown park, was started in 2012 and averages 100 worshippers on Sunday.

“It’s a parish community without walls,” said Tom Hauser, executive director of The Gathering. “We have liturgy, we have communion, and we have a proper sermon with the appropriate liturgical colors. We are proclaiming the same gospel as the Church of the Incarnation, but at the same time we are less formal. We have to be, some of our people don’t have shoes.”

Homeless members of the parish have gone on three mission trips – twice to Oklahoma to help rebuild homes that were destroyed in tornadoes and once to Camp All Saints to help get the grounds ready for summer campers.

In Oklahoma, “it was the homeless helping the homeless,” said the Rev. Charlie Keen. “They worked their butts off. On the way home they talked about what a blessed experience it was and then when we got back into town, instead of taking them home I dropped them off at a park — they don’t have homes.”

While The Gathering offers access to urban ministry, so do the changing demographics of older neighborhoods such as Oak Cliff. Recently, three parishes with dwindling congregations united into one parish in a neighborhood that is experiencing urban renewal.

The congregations of Epiphany, St. George and St. Paul merged to form St. Augustine’s. The new parish meets in the former St. Paul church and has a new rector, the Rev. Paul Wheatley. Because all of the parishes wanted to merge, the congregation has deeper roots than a new church that may have popped up a year ago, he said.

“St. Paul’s, Epiphany and St. George’s all experienced demographic shifts in their neighborhoods over the last few decades and the congregations declined as the neighborhoods around them changed,” Wheatley said. “Our opportunity is reaching out and connecting them to the wonderful resources we have such as history, maturity and diversity.”

The merge created a 90-member congregation that represents the neighborhoods surrounding the church, which is diverse in age and race, and thereby attracts new members. “They show up and we have great-grandparents, grandparents, Latinos, Anglos and African Americans,” Wheatley said. “Our local churches are at their best when they represent the diversity of the neighborhoods around them.”

Diversity is not only a growing theme in Oak Cliff but in other areas of the diocese where services are held in a variety of languages. Congregations include Latin American, Nigerian, Kenyan, Bhutanese, and Korean.

“On any given Sunday we have services in seven languages,” Heard said. Currently I’m looking for a priest who speaks Swahili.”

One such service at Emmanuel Anglican Church is in the Igbo language, one of the three major languages of Nigeria. The mission meets at St. Luke’s in Dallas and has an average of 115 worshipers on Sunday, said the Rev. Daniel Ofoegbu.

The mission competes with evangelical churches for newly transplanted Nigerians. “One of the challenges is that in Africa, the Episcopal Church is known as the Anglican Church, so it does not translate for them when they come to America and they end up at an evangelical church,” Ofoegbu said.

Services in Spanish are also increasing in the diocese due to Dallas’ growing Hispanic population. About 90 percent come from the Roman Catholic Church and the other 10 percent come from an evangelical church, said the Rev. Tony Munoz.

The main draw for Hispanics to the Episcopal Church is the liturgy, he said. “They like that we are a welcoming church, it makes them feel like they are home. They have more accessible priests, and they get excited when they find the sacrament is still here,” Munoz said. “They came from the Catholic Church where they felt like spectators, but here they get to be part of the liturgy and participate.”

While Spanish-language services are a draw for Hispanics, engaging the second generation is much more difficult. “The people we reach are the parents who speak Spanish. We are trying to reach the children who speak English,” Munoz said. “Our challenge is to give them an English service with a Latino flavor.”

Another stream of diocesan growth is a counterculture trend of Protestants coming into the Anglican faith, said the Rev. Joseph Hermerding, an assistant rector at Incarnation.

“This movement is referred to as the Canterbury Trail. We are seeing young evangelicals looking for something more stable, more traditional, more relevant and transcendent than what they are used to,” Hermerding said. “They don’t want their pastor in jeans, sandals and a t-shirt.”

Much of the attraction for the new converts is a rich, worship culture that is intellectual and takes the life of the mind very seriously, Hermerding noted.

Part of the appeal is that the church is authentic and doesn’t pander for membership, he added.

“We thought we would get all the yuppies from Uptown coming to our traditional service,” Hermerding said. “We get some of those, but we were surprised to also get those with tattoos and dreadlocks to high mass. We are not marketing to them. We are not trying to please them. We are trying to worship God and they are attracted to an articulate, thoughtful Christian orthodox message.”

The Canterbury Trail is led by the millennial generation but is becoming a much broader movement, said the Rev. Steven Peay, associate dean at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. “It’s the new monasticism. They are looking for intentional community, they want depth, and they want something that makes a difference. People are not interested in the shallow spirituality that we’ve shoved out for years and years. They are looking to go deep.”

Wheatley agreed that the Episcopal Church’s historical identity and doctrine is a strong catalyst for diocese growth and stability.

“One of the strengths we have as a diocese is that Anglicanism has Catholic and Evangelical streams in it,” he said. “We have a faith that is old as the apostles and we serve a risen Lord whose Holy Spirit is always bringing renewal and life.”

— Kimberly Durnan is communications director for the Diocese of Dallas. 

Comments (2)

  1. Don Plummer says:

    Well done! Well documented, well organized and well illustrated. Thank you for holding up the faithful, sustained work by those in parishes of your diocese and, by extension, in the larger body of Christ’s church. We all need the hope and vision that come from sharing the ways others have overcome challenges.

  2. Janet Campbell says:

    A wonderful article, but “sit in the pews” suggests a passive, receiving audience, rather than a dynamic people who carry out the ministries in this article. Our liturgy is full of activity. When Episcopalians come together for worship, we gather, process, stand, sing, sit, proclaim, listen, baptize, anoint, pray, kneel, confess, share the peace, make offerings, give thanks, process to the table, eat and drink, feed one another, and are sent out to go into all the world. 11,300 people gather in their church buildings to celebrate, not “sit in the pews.”

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