Thursday, October 22, 2009

Looking Ahead

I am of course very much an Episcopalian, and this is without question my home in Christ. No fear that I will be swimming the Tiber, now or ever. But, the recent news of our own denominational membership decline is far more troubling to me than any news about the Vatican offering a very small and uncomfortable looking door for former Anglicans.

Our church is in decline, and so are the other large churches we are in communion with in cultural contexts similar to our own. Consider, the ELCA has some 4.5 million members, with an average Sunday attendance of about a third of that -- some 1.5 million -- but those numbers are of course down significantly in the past decade. Same with the Church of Sweden -- which claims some 6.75 million members -- but with just under 300,000 attending church services weekly -- that's about 3%. The Church of England claims some 20 million members, but average Sunday attendance is under a million -- or about 5%. The Anglican Church of Canada has some 650,000 members or so, and about 200-300,000 attend weekly. We have just over 2 million members, and just under 800,000 attend services weekly.

While I agree with Diana Butler Bass' contention that the decline story is not merely because these churches are largely 'progressive' and inclusive of modernity in their vision and practice. It is not just that. My own parish has grown significantly, and so have many other parishes which are equally vibrant in their focus on Jesus Christ, the traditional essentials of the catholic faith, the sacraments, prayers, missions, Christian education, youth work, newcomer development and inclusion, outreach, and fellowship.

But something's clearly going wrong -- if we were given the kind of bill of health by our doctors that our own annual membership statistics indicate, we'd be on meds, exercise, diet-change, etc.

Again, I agree with Diana Butler Bass - churches that are intentional about the Christian practices and message I mention above -- are much more likely to thrive. So why can't we turn this mess around?

I suggest a few things. First, the particular reticence to preach Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, resurrected and ascended must be put to rest. We must focus on this message with passion, excitement, and interest in sharing it with folks. Second, we have too many ministries that are not thriving -- they need to be consolidated. Third, we must be actively looking for energetic and faithful people who are flexible and able to do something daring in leadership. Fourth, we must consolidate our seminaries, and then require that aspirants go to one of them.

Perhaps most of all, we need to believe that God wants us to grow both spiritually and numerically. Inclusion is our mission -- including people into the kingdom of God specifically -- and that means fishing for people -- not waiting for them to perhaps show up.


  1. I think this is part of it, proclaiming the Message we have been given. I do think another part of it is that we have not yet learned how to do so in ways that are humble and beautiful. Especially here in the US the burned over feel is quite high. We have to be willing to be a Church that can acknowledge that we have and will make mistakes. Too often we act and offer an understanding of community that frankly does not fit observation. And that false vision is a serious problem when the Church has a bad name in society. And it does here among many young people.

  2. To me, TEC's biggest problem is that the media and people I talk to think of Episcopalians in light of V. Gene Robinson and our most recent General Convention pronouncement about same-sex blessings, etc. TEC has become a church that has allowed itself to become pideon-holed on this issue and it has not done a good enough job of informing the culture of what it preaches about Jesus, the Incarnate Word and what it does in community on the basis of that Word in action. Everybody thinks we are just about "inclusion" and gay rights and pretty soon that is how the Lutherans are going to be characterized. This is not unusual, for the culture and media characterize the James Kennedy churches of the world in terms of "culture warriors" and the Calvinistic-political overtones of those churches. TEC need to better identify what teh church stands for--help the greater populace understand the history and theological roots in via media. Most of all, we gotta talk about Jesus and His Church that takes along through time eternal. Embracing and strengthening our catholicity is probably a good start.