I want to build on my article in The Living Church to point to seven reasons for the continuing decline of the Episcopal Church. I am going to spend time in my blog covering these items.
#1 Our society is becoming increasingly more secular particularly among the people who we have historically attracted.
This may seem surprising to mention this when 82% of the population continues to believe in God and a very high percentage believe that Jesus was divine, but the numbers are secondary as to who believes these things.
The truth is that increasingly our society functions as a secular society and this is driven by intellectual leaders and opinion framers. Importantly for Episcopalians is that our demographic — highly educated people — are the most secular of all. In the U.S., the higher someone is educated the more they tend to disbelieve.
This is even made more difficult for us by what Peter Steinke calls “The Rise of Militant Atheism.” While only about 6% of the population claim to be atheists, those who are, particularly in the University setting, are much more openly critical of religion.
Recently Bill Maher was asked if he was opposed to building the Mosque near ground zero. His reply expresses the popularized atheistic view. “Yes, I am opposed to building a Mosque. I am also opposed to building a church or a temple of any kind anywhere.” He then went on to express that humanity needs to outgrow religion and a belief in God, and then he expressed the further belief that religions have become a danger to humans — a popular expression of Christopher Hitchens’“God is Not Great!”
This is all an expression of a growing hostility to religion in the public market place. All this hurts mainline Christians and especially Episcopalians because of our strong connection to education and the educated elite. So, the people that we often reach are becoming less and less likely to find any need for religion and especially the church.
What is needed in the face of all this is a more assertive proclamation of the value of our faith than many Episcopalians, especially clergy are comfortable giving. Certainly our “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” expresses the DNA of a once socially acceptable Church (dare we say DNA of a State Church) that sees little need to justify our existence.
What we should be doing, of course is reading Dawkins, Hawking and Hitchens and learning how to develop a current apologetic for the place of Christianity in our culture. What we seem to be doing is trying to strike some sort of cultural accommodation to this shift. Of course, a multi-cultural and inclusive church welcoming of all people is irrelevant to people who question the good of any church whatsoever.
Behind all this are both theological and mission issues too complex to go into here. What I am saying is this. One major reason TEC is in decline is because our society is becoming more and more indifferent to the church and in many ways hostile to it.
One modest proposal I keep making to folks is that we need to develop a post-seminary mission training center that prepares our clergy to be mission clergy in a secular world rather than chaplain clergy to a believing world. Maybe if I keep saying it, some will begin to listen.
The second and third reasons for the decline of TEC on my list of seven key reasons have to do with young people.
#2. The failure to keep and to recruit younger generations of people, especially younger than boomers!
#3. The failure to recruit younger lay and ordained leaders
Of course we have wonderful younger people in the Episcopal Church. Our own parish has some extraordinary younger members. The diocese has an outstanding ministry to younger people, as does my former Diocese, Texas.
However, nothing points to our continued decline more than this simple fact; for almost my entire life, I have been near the median age of Episcopalians. I joined the Church when I was 12 and I am now 64! This means that during this time span, our community has continued to age. Today, the typical Episcopalian is a 61 year old, college educated, white female.
Among some of the reasons for this failure to keep and recruit younger people, I would list the following:
1. The abandonment in the early ’70s of a National Curriculum for Church Schools.
2. The failure to have a unified teaching and age for confirmation, and the lack of emphasis by our bishops of the place on confirmation.
3. The moment toward ordination to an older and older age, along with making ordination almost exclusively a “second career” track for people.
These two reasons are closely related because it is younger leaders who have the best chance of reaching their own generation for Christ. So for a person ordained at 27, number 3 is critical. I was ordained in the year in which the Commission on Ministry System was instituted in the Episcopal Church. While I understand the reasons and certainly the rationale for such a system, I think it has not served the Church well. For example, we have greatly underestimated the dynamic of a committee selecting candidates for ministry. Simply said, a committee tends to recruit toward the median of the committee in age, education and experience.
A second dynamic is that this system was to be “advisory” to Bishops. Today, almost all bishops defer the decision making to the Commission on Ministry. Few would ever attempt to ordain a person against a majority vote of the Commission. So COMs are now “selection committees” in most dioceses.
Since 1971, I have listened to countless justifications for our current way of doing things, but the most common one is “Well, our system has flaws, but it is so much better than what we had before.” When I compare the extraordinary clergy who came into the ordained ministry between 1945 and 1970 versus today, I think such a justification is nonsense.
What I think is needed is a concerted effort of Bishops, Commissions on Ministry, and Standing Committees to recruit young leaders to ordained ministry. Let me be clear, I have no objection to ordaining people past 40, but these should represent a minority of our ordained folks, not the vast majority.
#4 Failure to reach out to new and ethnically divergent people.
#5 Failure to plan new congregations, especially among new and ethnically divergent people.
This is a very hard thing to point out to Episcopalians. We see ourselves as a church that is inclusive of all people. I do think it is true that most churches want to be open places, and many individual congregations have become more diverse in the past two decades. However, what I mean here brings us into that uncomfortable place between what we want to believe about ourselves and what we actually are.
I often say at clergy conferences that “I have been a priest so long at 39 years that I can remember when we had a significant number of African-Americans, even African-American congregations, and I can remember when we had a large number of blue-collar congregations. This usually makes clergy nervous because, of course, our self perception is that the Episcopal Church has become more diverse and more open to other people over the last generation. Simply said, we have not. As I said, I do think we have more congregations that have conscientiously added some ethnic and cultural diversity, but this is not what I mean. What I mean is that we have failed to form new congregations among the newer arrivals to America.
At the 2009 General Convention, the Joint Committee on Evangelism backed a proposed initiative from our Hispanic Leadership put together by our Hispanic Officer, Antony Guillan at 815. This was a visionary initiative aimed especially at the most receptive people in North America to the Episcopal Church, namely Latinos. If this initiative had been both embraced and funded by TEC, we could have seen considerable new ministry, new congregations, and new Latino members. Tragically, in the across-the-board slash of our tri-annual budget, most of the needed funding for this initiative was lost. This reflects a continued failure on our part to reach out to the significant number of immigrants now present among us.
Our strategy seems to be that if we have a sign that says “the Episcopal Church Welcomes You” or “We Are Here for You,” they will come. Another way to say this is that once people speak our language, dress like us, and are comfortable sitting in a church where the majority of those present are white, upper middle-class, Americans, they will certainly be welcome. This is poor mission strategy.
The denominations making considerable strides in reaching diverse people have learned to plant whole congregations made up of precisely the people they intend to reach. These are led by lay and ordained leaders who are from these groups.
We seem inhibited in trying this proven strategy because we are (a) insensitive to the needs of newly arrived people, and (b) so caught up in our own sense of being an open and inclusive people that we think it would be bad to plan such a strategy.
Ironically, what has happened to TEC in the last 30 years is that we are becoming less diverse, not more so. I commend all Episcopal leaders to read Harold Lewis’“Yet with a Steady Beat” to see documentation of our abandonment of ministry among African-Americans.
It certainly is true that we are becoming more gender inclusive. I would just point out that there are significant numbers of “other” people for whom we should develop an intentional missionary strategy.
If you have been reading my blogs, you will notice that if you consider younger generation folks as “new and divergent” than my items 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all inter-related, and I believe they are. They all represent our inability to develop an intentional missionary strategy to reach people different from our present membership.
If you are looking for good news in my blogs on this topic, here is some. There are a few dioceses that are learning to do exactly this kind of intentional missionary strategy. Let’s hope and pray that this becomes contagious.
#6 The failure to plant enough new congregations to replace aging, declining, and dying Churches.
At the General Convention in Philadelphia, the Standing Commission on Evangelism offered a resolution that the Episcopal Church aim at a goal of planting new congregations at the rate of 1% of our present number. Just two months earlier, I had attended a conference of denominational congregational development officers and heard Lyle Schaller offer that denominations need a 3% new church planting rate to maintain themselves. Of course, fast growing denominations such as The Vineyard plant at a much faster rate, and ironically some of our off-shoot Anglican groups in the U.S. are doing much better too. So Even if we would have been able to reach the 1% number in those days, approximately 76 new Episcopal Churches a year, we would still have lost ground. Of course, this is also connects to an earlier point about reaching new ethnic folks by planting new churches among them.
#7 The failure to develop a systematic approach to the revitalization of present existing congregations.
There is, of course, a great deal of information on congregational revitalization, and a number of places such as the Alban Institute that can help this process. My point is that seldom does a diocese create a systematic plan for this. When I studied the history of new church planting in TEC, I discovered that the most recent period of extensive church planting was in the 20 years following WWII. This means that many of these congregations went through a predictable life cycle peaking between 1975 and 1990, and that now we have a large number of churches that need planned revitalization. This is not the same as waiting until such a parish has a serious enough crisis to ask for help. This is creative and intentional intervention. A diocese should not wait for leaders in the local community to come to the realization that their church is in decline and needs revitalization or re-visioning.
As part of this, in recent years we have seen in TEC is a large number of formerly “Pastoral-size” churches (ASA of between 85 and 150 Sundays) decline to “Family-size” ones. This will have a number of other important impacts on our community. One primary example is ordination because the Pastoral-size church is one able to sustain the services of a full-time seminary trained clergy person.
One last word on these two items: leaders often pit these two issues against one another. For example, when we started planting new congregations in the Diocese of Texas, we got a great deal of resistance from clergy in present congregations. They argued that if we invested such money in them, they had greater potential to grow. However, studies have consistently shown that new plants grow much more rapidly than existing congregations. More importantly is the knowledge that new plants (a) reach people that present congregations will not reach, and (b) new congregations often discover critical information on reaching new people that, when shared, help present congregations do better at reaching new people. So, new church planting and present congregational revitalization are parallel and complimentary works not competitive ones.
Next blog: “If, Then” — what to do and where to start changing the future of TEC.
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