Study identifies `excellent' churches

N.C. researchers list 600 congregations that `nurture the spirit'

January 28, 2001|By ASCRIBE NEWS SERVICE

WILMINGTON, N.C. - A groundbreaking, two-year nationwide study based at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington has identified some 300 Protestant congregations and 300 Catholic parishes as examples of local church excellence.

"Churches like these are beacons of hope in a very confusing time when people are looking for moral guidance and a sense of belonging, of true community," said Paul Wilkes, director of the Parish/Congregation Study and a creative writing professor at UNCW. "We went in search of excellence and found it in abundance."

Wilkes and his team of researchers combed the country looking for churches that "nurtured the spirit, welcomed and yet challenged, both preached and - more importantly - lived the good news." Size or location, denominational affiliation or lack of one were not important, but a certain "habit of being" was.

"The churches we found are simply wonderful places to be. They not only take care of their members and welcome the newcomer, but also reach out generously into the world. I was absolutely amazed with the abundance of goodness and greatness that was found," Wilkes said.

`A great hunger'

"There's a great hunger in our land for authentic spiritual experience and community. And the local church is still where most people look for spiritual nourishment and for guidance for their lives. An effective parish or congregation feeds your soul, and you're in company with other people who are seekers, so it's a perfect combination. Our churches are a most underutilized natural and supernatural resource. They have roots in faith, in the community, in the lives of people. We're not using these role models enough," Wilkes said.

Wilkes and his team compiled the list in consultation with many sources: pastoral and church institutes, scholars who study church life, ethnic and cultural groups, as well as religion writers and reporters.

"We drew up a list of criteria and went to these experts asking: 'Use these criteria, but go beyond them. We want the best of the best, the cream of the cream,'`' said Wilkes. These criteria, as well as information about the study and the forthcoming Pastoral Summit, are found at The Parish/Congregation Study was funded by a $190,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment, the largest humanities grant received to date by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Books in the works

Results of the study will be featured in two books by Paul Wilkes: "Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices" (Paulist Press, published in February) and "Excellent Protestant Congregations: The Guide to Best Places and Practices" (Westminster John Knox, published in April). Not only will the excellent churches be included in an annotated, state-by-state index in the books, but a representative group of parishes and churches is profiled, giving an in-depth look at their approaches. A "virtual tour" of the profiled parishes and churches is available at, and the complete list will be available on the Internet after the books are published.

"This study is an effort to show that excellent churches thrive in all settings: rural, urban, suburban areas," said Wilkes, who is the author of 15 books, mostly on religious belief and practice, and who has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. "This study holds them up as possible, attainable models of what every church can be. While we hear there is a shortage of ordained priests in the Catholic Church and declining numbers in mainstream Protestantism, the only scarcity is in imagination, openness to the changing role and potential of lay people - and faith.

"We want people to visit these excellent churches when they're on the road or moving to a new locale and to see how good these `homes for the soul' really can be. We want a certain `benign contagion' to sweep this land, based in local churches."

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