By Father Casey Shobe
This September, the Saturday evening service will transform in order to make it more accessible and compelling for newcomers from less liturgical church backgrounds or no church background at all. A team of musicians is already forming an ensemble, featuring keyboard, guitar, and other instruments, as the feel of this service will be distinct from Sunday morning. A steering committee is also working on the liturgy itself, to ensure every element is carefully considered. But the ultimate success of this redevelopment will depend upon the involvement of a great number of volunteers. This is where you can help!
We need 80 members of Transfiguration who do not already regularly attend the Saturday service to commit to attend it at least once a month. This will help us boost the energy of the service and create a pool of additional volunteers to strengthen our hospitality. Volunteers could simply commit to show up once a month, or also help with refreshments, greeting, ushering, or as a shepherd in the service (helping newcomers find their way in the liturgy). This initiative is a major way we’re hoping to “build a longer table” at Transfiguration, as we know there are many people in the Metroplex who are looking for a church with our mission and values, but don’t feel totally at home in our Sunday worship. Please help us welcome them so we can seek and serve Christ in even more people!
You can read more about the redevelopment of the Saturday service in my article from Illumine, shared below.
In recent years, I have had numerous conversations with people who have visited Transfiguration a few times, and who have a deep regard for our church’s mission and witness, but who choose not to make this their church home. The reason they most often cite for not planting roots is that, while they appreciate our high church style of worship, they don’t personally feel at home in it. Quite often these folks were raised in, or recently a part of, less liturgical Christian traditions, which lack the formality and complexity of our services, and so our worship feels jarring. They admire our core values, they like the preaching and teaching, and they feel at home in our diverse congregation, but our worship simply does not resonate with them. So they drift away. Also in recent years one of our core weekend services has continued a long, steady period of decline in attendance. Established in the 1980s as a relaxed alternative to Sunday morning, the Saturday 5:30 p.m. service reached a peak in average attendance of 110 around the year 2000, but since then it has decreased by a handful of people each year, and to date this year average attendance is about 50. The main reason for this decline has to do with an aging congregation that is able to attend less consistently. Added to that is the way this service has not attracted many visitors in recent years, so it is not replacing the ones who can no longer attend. Taken together, these two dynamics present an exciting opportunity for Transfiguration. Far from moving to retire the Saturday service, the Vestry and I have chosen to make it a goal this year to invest new resources and energy in this service in hopes that it can become an exciting new doorway into the life of our church.
Beginning this summer and formally launching this September, the 5:30 service will be redeveloped to include music, a simpler liturgical format, and enhanced hospitality to help visitors feel more at home. The goal is to create an experience that may feel more comfortable for those who feel drawn to our church’s mission and identity, yet have struggled with the traditional ritual of Sunday morning. To prepare for this transformation, we conducted two important processes. First, last fall I presented the data about the pattern of slow decline to the 5:30 congregation and asked for their feedback. A survey revealed that there is an openness to more music in the service by those who attend it regularly, but a discomfort with modifying the service to make it similar to the Sunday morning services. That is, current congregants are open to music, but are not interested in the “Sunday experience,” which they feel they could otherwise choose. The survey also showed that regular attendees of this service rarely invite people to church with them, the reasons for which was not asked or offered, but the effect of which has contributed to the service’s shrinking attendance.
Ultimately, the results of the conversation and survey were extremely helpful to me, the staff, and the Vestry as we discerned possible next steps. The other process we conducted was about vision. I had numerous lengthy conversations with parishioners and members of the staff about what a redeveloped service should be like. Rather than simply copy the formulas of other mainline or non-denominational churches that offer “contemporary” worship, we discussed at length how to preserve our Episcopal identity and core congregational values even as we experiment with changes intended to create a fresh experience. Eventually, those conversations settled on four core themes: simplicity, accessibility, hospitality, and reverence. During the summer, I’ll be working closely with Mother Rebecca,
Joel Martinson, and other members of the staff to lay the groundwork for this service. There will be many people to recruit, including an expanded number of volunteer roles and the establishment of a Steering Committee to offer counsel and feedback as we go along. We will also create a new ensemble to lead the music, which will likely include a keyboard, guitar, percussion, a vocalist or two, and a rotation of other instruments. For the first few months, this ensemble will be directed by Joel Martinson, until he and I feel we’ve found a stable and sustainable pattern, and then we’ll seek to hire a new music coordinator. The transition of the service to this new format will happen in stages through the summer, leading to a formal launch in September. Ultimately, whatever hopes the Vestry and I have for the revitalization of the 5:30 service depend on all of us becoming more proactive in inviting people to church. The bottom line of church growth strategies remains the same today as it has always been: people come to church when they are invited by someone they know. So, even as we make these changes to create a simpler, more accessible, and hopefully more comfortable worshiping experience for newcomers, we must all recommit to the effort of inviting people we know or meet to join us some time for a service.
The “high church” form of Episcopal worship practiced on Sunday is a source of rich inspiration and meaning for existing members, and it is one of the truly special things we offer our area, but even those of us who love it can acknowledge how it could feel overwhelming to some. It has been remarked to me that our worship feels a bit like sitting down in AP Chemistry class halfway through the school year. Some find the ritual and music exhilarating and holy, while others just feel lost. Therefore, the service will become simpler. We will reduce the number of liturgical components and draw on a smaller range of music. There will be fewer readings and less choreography. In this way, we hope to honor the existing 5:30 congregation, which greatly prefers the simple formula of the Saturday service.
Most who are new to the Episcopal Church, as well as many who’ve been members for some time, don’t know why we do what we do in worship. That feeling of unfamiliarity can become off-putting over time, but it is hard to perform instructed or informed Eucharistic services on Sunday morning, given the format and time constraints. Therefore, we seek to create a service style in which there is more instruction to educate congregants, more teaching in the sermon and a more relaxed homiletical style in general, and a variety of familiar acoustic instruments to lead the music. We want to foster a feeling of comfort in parishioners, even if they are new to the Episcopal Church.
The tradition of reverence expressed in the worship of Transfiguration is a core value, regardless of the service time, style, or congregation. The goal of this redevelopment is not to pretend we’re a megachurch, but to offer a distinct worshiping experience that feels fresh but also remains true to our Episcopal identity. Therefore, we seek to introduce liturgical elements that may be new to Transfiguration, while continuing to draw on the rich heritage of the Episcopal tradition and preserving the core value of reverence.
Those who are new to Transfiguration often need help feeling at home in our church, connecting to our congregational life, and participating in our worship. Therefore, we seek to expand the ministry of hospitality around this this service. We will ensure the campus is properly prepared to welcome parishioners on Saturday evening, including basic things like effective lighting and signage, an open nursery staffed with our amazing childcare workers, and simple refreshments before and after the service. Additionally, we’ll bolster our volunteer team at this service to include ushers and “shepherds,” who will assist newcomers during the service in finding their place and following along.
About Father Casey
Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard. You can contact Father Casey by email.