Anvil journal of theology and mission
Michael Plekon, Community as Church, Church as Community, (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2021)
by Revd Katrina Hutchins, Vicar of Mears Ashby and Hardwick and Sywell with Overstone
“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” With these familiar Eucharistic words Michael Plekon concludes his book on the death and resurrection of failing parish churches. It is an apt message of hope for those of us who are leaders of small rural (or urban) churches seeking to deepen the connection between church and community. In his introduction, Plekon captured my interest through his reflective analysis of Fr Köder’s painting of the Supper of Sinners. The seven people – a diverse group of guests – are Jesus’ friends, Jesus’ community, Jesus’ church. It is a reminder that church is a community that is part of the wider community, and – like Rublev’s icon of the Trinity – offers a space at the table for all comers. The question that this poses for church leaders is, “How is this church serving its local community?”
For Plekon, the church is both the small body of Christ in this place (its members) and the places where they gather to worship (the buildings). The core part of the book looks at the shrinkage of church congregations, primarily in the US but also touching on Canada, the UK and Europe, and the way that the death of a parish church can lead to its resurrection. Plekon has clearly undertaken extensive research into the exciting Godbreathed ways that parish churches are addressing the critical issue of declining numbers and resources. Many churches have closed or merged with neighbouring parishes. Others, though, have re-imagined their church life and church spaces to offer fullness of life for both members and their neighbourhoods (John 10:10).
While most of the case studies are not directly relevant to or replicable in a Church of England setting, where we have Grade II* buildings to manage and maintain for future generations, these stories of rebirth and new life are truly inspirational. Plekon suggests that small churches are here to stay and can create remarkable results (to which I would add, “in God’s hands”). Small parish churches can be deeply immersed in and be at the heart of local community life, and this can be a two-way blessing. This book speaks to the key missional opportunity and pastoral need for connectedness (koinonia). It evokes such questions as: What does fullness of life look like for this community? How are its needs changing? How might this community of faithful followers serve as Christ came to serve (Luke 4:18–19)? Plekon’s research shows that being few in number can enable rather than hinder community-based projects. Such projects can be a two-way blessing by building up the spiritual life of the congregation. And, whether or not the small congregation is struggling with the upkeep of its over-sized building, how can its sacred space be opened up as a community amenity? What is this village or parish lacking?
Plekon offers a powerful image of a small church’s mission as being “like the horizontal thrust of Christ’s arms on the cross, the movement is out to others, to share what the church and members have… to do the liturgy after the liturgy, not on the sanctuary altar of wood or stone but that of the hearts of the sister and brother in need.” He offers a vision of a small church that is alive to God and working with God within their community. What abundance of life!