Advent & growing your church

Since I first landed at PSR ten years ago, Advent has taken on a vastly richer meaning than the “holiday hustle and bustle” I had always known. I also find it strangely serendipitous that every other year Advent follows closely on the heels of an election.

In 2008 I returned as a newly-single mother of two to my hometown of Berkeley to pursue an MDiv at PSR after spending the previous fifteen years in Oregon. During my first Advent at PSR, in the wake of Obama’s election hate crimes against black people were rampant. On Election Day I sat in preaching class next to a black classmate who was distraught and frantically fielding text messages from his sister and mother. His sister was in the hospital after being followed, assaulted and pistol-whipped by a group of white men as she left a voting booth in Chicago. They only ever asked her one question, “Did you vote?!”

There was a chilling effect on campus as the reality of Prop 8 – the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in California – settled in. The looming family holiday dinners threatened not only political awkwardness but violence. Many opted just to stay home. Families were in tatters.

In December I saw international friends return disillusioned mid-semester to their home countries with their families as their benefactors sheepishly called to tell them that the economic downturn had gutted their endowments and the promised scholarships would not be forthcoming. While the apartments in Arch had started out as a utopia of international families with young children, by Christmas I suddenly found myself the only one with children in a suddenly very quiet building. The world felt very dark and hopeless.

I was having serious doubts about being a minister. While I loved my Field Ed church, much of my time was spent in long meetings and listening to people argue about whose fault it was that their church was declining. It was a cold splash of water and not what I had thought ministry would be. I needed some good news.
That Advent, I designed my very first and at the same time a very strange liturgy. Early in the worship service on Christmas Eve, the family who had processed up to light the Advent wreath discovered all of the candles were missing. All the children were invited forward to solve clues through scripture and song that led them to the candles one at a time. By the end of the service, the congregation found they were inside the wreath with the candles all lit around them. Together as the Body of Christ, we were the Christ light in the center.

Shortly after, I attended a seminarian’s conference and learned for the first time about church planting and church revitalization. In my pre-seminary life, I had started a few businesses and – in my volunteer life – grown numerous organizations and one awesome UCC church that all seemed to need a shot in the arm. It had never occurred to me that these might be useful skills in ministry. I had a moment where I suddenly realized that I was the right person at the right time with the right set of gifts.

I returned to PSR at the end of the weekend with a new sense of call and an enormous amount of hope. In every class, I asked, “How could we use this material to revitalize a declining church?” I began systematically testing hypotheses in various churches and created a body of writings.

By the time I left PSR in 2011, I was committed to planting or revitalizing 351 churches before I die. I was also rapidly developing a body of tested methodologies in four areas: Newcomer Retention, Interpersonal Outreach, Youth Discipleship, and Stewardship. These are all critical skills that progressive churches have lost, that anyone can learn and use, and that cost nothing to implement.

The first Sunday of Advent of 2014, Ferguson, Missouri was erupting in the news over the death of Michael Brown. I stepped forth in fear and trembling to address my all-white congregation and spoke of how the police terrorizing the blacks in the United States was exactly what Zechariah – John the Baptist’s father – was lamenting when he sang of being rescued from their enemies and sitting in the shadow of death. (Luke 1:71,73,79) Hope sprang forth as over the next several weeks congregants approached me privately to confess racism they had seen and participated in. They wanted to address it. We spent the next year talking about racial justice in American history and in the Bible. Immigrant children and people of color began filling our pews.

In 2016 Donald Trump was elected. One of the immigrant children that came to our Homework Club tearfully asked me whether it was true that their parents would be sent back to their countries without them. The entire community was terrified. That Advent we became a Sanctuary Church and found our hope again.
By this point I was actively revitalizing a congregation, teaching workshops on Church Growth, and consulting and grant-writing with numerous churches. A good friend suggested I convert my workshops into a book, and in October of this year Grow Your Church! Overcome the biggest obstacle to church growth and get 85% of your first-time visitors to return was published through Apocryphile Press.

We are starting yet another Advent season in a world that feels very broken with people that feel hopeless. But all is not lost. The world still needs – and will still receive – that same hope that comes on Christmas morning. Churches in progressive denominations have long been at the forefront of social justice movements, and are still uniquely poised to do so. I have learned that church decline can absolutely be reversed. At the same time, just as the midwives Shiphrah and Puah secretly defied Pharoah’s infanticide, and the Magi openly subverted Herod’s tyranny, the world still needs good people of faith to take meaningful action toward creating a just and peaceful society. The hope of Advent gives us the courage and the vision to follow in those footsteps. This Advent season, may you find yourselves in the center of the peace, hope, love, and faith of the wreath, and bearing it out into the world as the Body of Christ.

Rev. Tracy Barnowe holds an MDiv from PSR (2011) and an MA from the GTU (2012) in Biblical Studies: Focus on Old Testament Hermeneutics. She has a BA in Russian and a BA in French with a minor in Spanish from Portland State University. She was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 2012. She has served churches as a revitalization pastor and consultant all over Northern California and is now serving as Minister for Church Vitality in the Hawai’i Conference of the United Church of Christ. She blogs at Her book Grow Your Church! Overcome the biggest obstacle to church growth and get 85% of your first-time visitors to return is available on Amazon. You can email the author at