In a nation where Christian congregations (320,000 plus) are far more ubiquitous than even fast-food restaurants (176,800 at last count), the project that writer Paul Wilkes undertook required some brashness.
Wilkes has selected 600 ''excellent'' congregations in 44 states, a variation on best-cities or travel guides -- minus the rating stars.
Actually, there are two new guidebooks. ''Excellent Protestant Congregations'' (Westminster John Knox) lists 311 picks; ''Excellent Catholic Parishes'' (Paulist) includes 289. Subtitled ''The Guide to Best Places and Practices,'' both books provide several in-depth profiles plus information on hundreds of programs.
Wilkes' project will culminate with a New Orleans ''Pastoral Summit'' May 30-June 1, where clergy and lay leaders from the these congregations will meet those who'd like to learn their trade secrets. Afterward, all 600 names will be posted on the summit's Web page.
Some of the names are widely known -- including Old St. Patrick's Catholic parish in Chicago, and 193-year-old Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York's Harlem -- but most are not.
This unique church-shopping spree didn't locate ''America's best,'' Wilkes quickly explains, since many others could readily be added.
But he's confident anyone would consider each of these congregations excellent. And he says their successful techniques can be reproduced elsewhere, an important point since local congregations are ''still the place where the overwhelming majority of people find spiritual sustenance''
Excellence shines forth equally from small outposts and megachurches, from fundamentalist and left-wing churches, and from wealthy and poor congregations, he reports.
The chosen churches range from a Lutheran cluster based in Lone Wolf, Okla. -- where the forlorn downtown consists of an eatery, an auto parts store, boarded-up buildings and an abandoned grain elevator -- to Holy Family Catholic Church in suburban Inverness, Ill., with its 10,000 parishioners, 120 ministries and 28-member staff.
Many Americans are willing to drive 50 miles on a Sunday morning to places where excellence exists, Wilkes has found.
Wilkes, 62, the author of numerous books, magazine articles and TV documentaries about American religion, now teaches writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He's a Catholic layman who spent a decade as a Methodist.
His church hunt originated in 1997 during a weekend speaking engagement at the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, N.J. (praised in the Catholic guidebook for its innovative liturgy, weekend retreats, young adult ministry, soup kitchen and funeral preparation).
''I just saw a parish at work, being happy about what they did. It didn't seem to be heavy lifting, just an authentic, joyful spirit, not the pasty-faced, have-a-nice-day Christianity,'' he said. Parishioners were ''living the Gospel, not mouthing it.''
He wondered how many other congregations were like this one. The eventual result was $450,000 from the Lilly Endowment to find the answer, research the lists, prepare the books and stage the summit. Together, Wilkes and two Protestant researchers visited some 40 churches and sifted names from 80 experts.
So, what makes for excellence? The books attempt to put this into words, but for Wilkes it's rather like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's epigram on pornography: You know it when you see it.
Wilkes thinks the beginning of excellence is faith in God. That might seem so basic it's hardly worth mention, but Wilkes believes many Christians act as though they're atheists because ''they have to do all the work and God isn't there.'' He continues, ''I'm a believer. God is with us. On Last Supper night he said, 'Don't worry. I am with you.'''
With that must come ''faith in each other,'' the realization that it takes involvement from everyone, not just the pastor and a few veteran lay leaders, to have a successful congregation. That's especially important for Catholics, with their thinning ranks of priests.
The final ingredient is imagination. He found that excellent churches welcome not only new people but new ideas. Rather than saying ''we have no money, or we have no room, or the city has these rules,'' he remarks, the best congregations say ''let's see what we can work out....Imagination is not saying no, but saying maybe. That gives God a chance to work.''
Other traits the books underscore: innovative worship, roots in a tradition, flexibility, continual self-scrutiny, a forgiving atmosphere and openness to community needs.
Catholics are urged to use ''informed pragmatism'' in applying church rules. Protestants are advised to make the Bible central to everything and offer practical ''life-situation'' preaching.
Given the difficulty of recruiting clergy -- Protestant and Catholic -- does Wilkes conclude the ministry is just too difficult a career these days?
''If you're depending on yourself, yes, it's tough. If you're a bureaucrat or C.E.O. it is tough. If you're depending on God, no, it's not,'' he says. ''If you have a sense of humor and are willing to fail as well as succeed, it's an enormous amount of fun.''
On the Net: http://www.pastoralsummit.org
End Adv for AMs newspapers of Friday, April 13
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