Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reversing the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church


Ample evidence of the continuing numerical decline in The Episcopal Church (TEC) is widely available. The recent report, Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey, provides the latest documentation:

·         Over half (52%) of all Episcopal congregations are in communities of 50,000 or fewer people and another 8% are in rural areas, a cause for concern given the steadily increasing urbanization of the U.S. population.

·         The median age of Episcopalians is 57; fewer and fewer young people identify with TEC.

·         Unless the median age drops significantly (or life expectancy increases very rapidly!), half of all Episcopalians will die in the next 18 years.

·         Only 3.1% of Episcopal congregations have an average Sunday attendance of 351 or greater; these large congregations are more likely to grow than are smaller ones.

The picture is deeply depressing for people who value TEC. Median attendance in Episcopal congregations was 66 in 2009, 72 in 2006, and 77 in 2003 (Episcopal Café: Numbers worth watching). If that rate of decline continues (i.e., median attendance declining by 5 people every 3 years), in 15 years the median attendance will be 31 and in 30 years attendance will average just 6 people on a Sunday per congregation.

Having once taught college statistics, I know that projecting a linear decline over the next 30 years based on three data points relies upon an indefensible methodology. However, the projection underscores the dire future confronting TEC. Although some Episcopal congregations are growing, and a handful of dioceses have experienced some growth, the preponderance of the evidence clearly points to the inevitability of continuing denominational decline if not demise.

This decline constitutes an existential threat to TEC. Unless TEC reverses the decline, TEC will soon become a remnant numbering in the tens of thousands. When that happens, the media will not care, and few non-Episcopalians will even notice, what the Episcopal Church says or does. TEC will no longer be a vital incarnation of God's love in Christ. Instead, TEC will have gone from being the established church in several eighteenth century American colonies and states to being a twenty-first century anachronism.

In my hometown, the Grange has made a similar transition. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Grange was a vibrant, influential organization that enriched the lives of its members and celebrated, supported, and defended an agrarian lifestyle and economy. Today, that agrarian economy and its associated lifestyle are long gone. The Grange Hall sits empty, maintained by a handful of elderly members who find satisfaction in each other’s companionship and in caring for the building.

Although I hope that no Episcopalian wants such a future for TEC, the denomination’s current trajectory seems inexorably headed toward an elderly and (hopefully!) companionable remnant preserving underutilized buildings as monuments to once vital ministries and missions.

Contrary to some pessimists, I do not believe that the current trajectory and prospective fate of TEC are irreversible. Change is possible. Even as a small rudder can steer a mighty ship, so can visionary leadership steer an organization. Adding the momentum of committed people and well-utilized resources to that vision will accelerate the speed of organizational transformation.

Visionary leadership begins with a simple question: What is our agenda? That question integrates vision (who we are) and mission (what we do) into an action-oriented proposition. An agenda that addresses the root causes of numerical decline may enable TEC to alter course. An agenda that fails to address fifty years of relentless numerical decline in TEC is tantamount to acceding to the denomination’s passing from influence and presence on the American scene.

Current TEC agenda items include developing rites for blessing same sex relationships, publishing a new hymnal, restoring Church buildings and ministries in Haiti and Japan in the wake of disasters, and resolving a host of governance issues, not the least of which is the proposed Anglican Covenant. Those are important issues. Some of them evoke passionate responses; some of them, such as the rite for blessing same sex relationships, are long overdue. As important as any of those issues is, or others that I neglected to mention, none represents or identifies an existential threat to TEC. None of those issues, individually or collectively, will cause the demise, much less the renewal, of TEC.

What should be our agenda?

Better use of our resources is an obvious agenda item if TEC is to reverse its numerical decline. Demographic analysis quickly reveals that TEC has resource distribution problems. A majority of TEC congregations (53%) were founded before 1901. Consequently, population shifts have left many congregations with underutilized facilities in a location where the congregation is unlikely to grow. Apart from staff support, most congregations (remember the median attendance is just 66 people!) expend the largest portion of their resources on maintaining their physical facilities (19-36% of the budget, varying indirectly with average attendance – the larger the attendance, the smaller the percentage spent on facilities). Staff support represents the largest set of expenditures, averaging about 50% of a congregation’s budget. The 17% of congregations with average attendance of 1-25 persons on a Sunday, the 36% of congregations with average attendance of 26-50, and the 66% of congregations with average attendance of 51-100 that now have full-time clergy do not fully utilize this costly resource. Similarly, a disproportionate share of diocesan resources supports a small congregation (episcopal visits, deployment issues, etc.).

From an objective, statistical perspective the analysis proceeds easily. Identify congregations that waste resources based on average Sunday attendance. Then find and implement a creative alternative. Some congregations could merge, with either another TEC congregation or a congregation with whom TEC has intercommunion. Other TEC congregations could yoke together, establishing team ministries, as is increasingly happening in the Church of England. In both cases, congregations could cede surplus assets to the diocese and utilize revenues, previously expended on building maintenance and staff support, to fund mission. Dioceses, serving fewer congregations, would also have more resources for mission.

However, these are not new ideas; TEC has rarely implemented any of these ideas. The real agenda in TEC is not maximizing our participation in God's transformative activity. The real agenda, though generally unspoken and unacknowledged, is self and local congregation. Institutional and personal inertia, emotional attachments to buildings, and Churchmanship modeled on the eighteenth and nineteenth century Church of England all represent substantial barriers to change. As readily apparent from meeting agendas and budgets, congregations and their members invest themselves and their resources more in building maintenance than mission; TEC and dioceses similarly invest themselves more in institutional maintenance than mission.

I am not arguing, à la Rick Warren and The Purpose Drive Life, that the Church’s purpose is evangelism. I am passionate about making a difference in the world. I believe that the Church should incarnate God's love for the world, modeling in community the abundant new life that God wants people to enjoy and offering living water, literally and figuratively, to a world dying of thirst. TEC talks a great deal about this or a similar vision for itself. Yet we fail to incarnate that vision. In truth, we are more about maintaining the status quo than about transforming the world. A dying church unavoidably sends the opposite message. A dying church dissipates its precious resources in a losing campaign to maintain an increasingly lifeless institution.

Yet, we in TEC have some cause for hope. The Episcopal congregations most likely to have experienced numerical growth in the past decade are large and very liberal congregations, according to the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey. A Church committed to ongoing renewal, a Church that seeks to live ever more fully into love for God and others, and a Church that recognizes that theology, worship, and resources are but earthen vessels is a Church that will become an increasingly vibrant and alive incarnation of the body of Christ. I want this future, this agenda, for TEC. I believe God wants this future, this agenda, for TEC.

42 comments:

Fr. James+ said...

I have quoted and responded to this this blog post at http://http://jamesthibodeaux.blogspot.com/

- James+

Anonymous said...

The agenda should be Jesus Christ at all costs and the rest will follow. Instead TEC members (particularly clergy) worry about material comforts--pension, social standing, publicly endorsing popular agendas and all the rest of it--before even considering Christ. If the Episcopal Church is plummeting, it has no one but itself to blame for its lousy leadership, distorted vision of itself and the world, ignorance of Holy Scripture, and denying it's Lord. It is very sad to see, but the Episcopal Church is reaping precisely what it has sowed.

George Clifford said...

Anonymous,
Your comment judges the clergy far too harshly. Although I am sure a few exist, I personally do not know individuals who have become ordained because of the potential salary, pension, or lifestyle. The clergy I do know have had a genuine sense of call, one confirmed by the church through an extensive process of interviews in a parish, diocesan commission on the ministry, diocesan standing committee, and bishop. In other words, nobody is self-ordained. Both the individual and the Church have discerned God calling that person to ordained ministry.

Furthermore, clergy do not run TEC. Clergy and laity share in TEC decisions.

TEC's decline has many causes. More important than the causes, however, are solutions. The solution begins with refocusing our attention, building on strengths.

Anonymous said...

I've read your blog as well as the Oct 31 anonymous post and your predictable response to it. Your flawed thinking, as you express it is part of the problem contributing to the decline you claim to bemoan. I worked for the Episcopal church for 5 years and had been a member for more than 20. When I closed the door behind me for the last time it was with the firm belief that priests DO become ordained for salary, pensions, health care benefits, free housing, free utilities, club memberships and shameless greed. I sat an listened as our rector smirked that his annual raise is "dictated" by the canons. As for interviews by the parish, that does not happen. It's the vestry that interviews and in this case he was very cagey about his departure from scripture until AFTER he was hired. I've watched discernment committees be hand-picked to guarantee approval and I've seen "Proctors" guarantee test passage for those with the right liberal mind-set, and the reverse for those with scriptural or "conservative" leanings, while those in charge snickered about it. Diocesan commissions on the ministry, diocesan standing committees, and bishops are not barriers to greed or decline or corruption. If these commissions, committees and bishops were effective, we would not be discussing the decline of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church is in decline because in it wants to be in decline. It has done everything possible to alienate it's core supporters and nothing to replace them. How else can these newbies get their hands on all that endowment money and redistribute it in the name of "social justice" starting with the clergy of course. ? ? Do you really think we don't know the plan? I don't expect this will make your filter, but it's said now all the same.

George Clifford said...

I’m saddened that your experience of the Episcopal Church included venial clergy. I’m sure there are some. Similarly, I’m certain that abuses exist within the ordination process. After all, the clergy and individuals who manage the ordination process (Commissions on Ministry, Vestry committees, Standing Committees, Bishops, etc.) are all humans and therefore imperfect. However, in my experience, most clergy and individuals who oversee the ordination process feel called by God and do so to the best of their ability to aid in God's work. I do not understand your sarcasm regarding “social justice.” All justice is social, i.e., experienced in community because, as John Donne put it so eloquently, no person is an island. The Episcopal Church – at least the Church I know and serve – is not in decline because it wants to be but because it is struggling to adapt to a new world that challenges many of its long-held traditions.

Anonymous said...

My sarcasm regarding "social justice" is the born out of the experience that while they claim to practice social justice, they make sure they get their goodies first and if anything is left, then maybe they will do something about the poor. Consider my example: One of the local Episcopal churches had a homeless program. That's great. That's social justice. But it had to close because a full 98% of it's income was spent on the salary and benefits of it's director and her numerous staff. When health care insurance increased yet again, over 100% of their income was needed to fund the excessive salaries and benefits. Nothing was left to help the poor. That, sir, is the source of my sarcasm. It would have been true social justice if they had been better stewards of the grants and funds provided, if they had budgeted wisely, done more to raise money instead of sitting about drinking coffee and have the homeless people they were supposed to be helping washing their cars and vacuuming them out, but sadly, greed and corruption was very much at home in the Episcopal church.

Anonymous said...

You say TEC "is not in decline because it wants to be but because it is struggling to adapt to a new world that challenges many of its long-held traditions." Why, may I ask, is the church struggling to adapt to a new world that challenges many of its long-held traditions? (If you are correct and that's what is happening.) When did it become a good idea for any institution, especially the church, to adapt to a decaying society instead of trying to correct it and educate it in the benefits of our long-held traditions instead of trashing them and re-molding them in the image of what's popular this week? If, as you say, the church is struggling to adapt, and that new-fangled adaptation begins a decline, as evidenced in TEC's own charts, especially evident in 2003 then have you not confused cause with effect? The decline started when TEC turned it's back on it's traditions. And the result is exactly what any reasonable person would expect. Decline by design.

George Clifford said...

I’m sorry to learn of your sad experience. However, that remains the exception in my experience. I’ve seen countless examples of Episcopalians and their parishes giving generously of their money, time, and other resources to help people. I’ve seen a handful of incidents in which good intentions have failed because of poor planning. Unfortunately, too many clergy lack sufficient managerial expertise.

George Clifford said...

Anonymous, you and I have rather different outlooks on the world. I do not think that society is decaying. Such assessments are exceptionally problematic. Although I see some negative signs, I also see signs of improvement, e.g., the world is gradually moving toward democracy, human rights now prevail more than ever, the U.S. has a higher standard of justice than at any point in its history. The Church is a human institution. That means it not only is comprised of sinners (you have emphasized this in your comments) but also that it has accreted elements and aspects rooted in sin rather than God, e.g., its bigotry toward GLBT individuals. Additionally, because the Church is so human, the Church needs to update its theology continually, pushing beyond literalism and narrow, exclusivist understandings to embrace a radical hospitality that affirms there are many paths to God. In sum, the Church has not chosen to decline but, stuck in the past, finds moving into a larger future difficult.

Anonymous said...

I was once one of those Episcopalians giving freely of their time, money and other resources. With respect, allow me to say that a clergyman who is educated well beyond average and being compensated over $100,000 annually when you include salary, pension, health care, housing, even more education, utilities and perks should not lack any qualification, especially managerial expertise. And if he or she does, then they should at least have the wisdom to listen to those that have such expertise or go bless the sacraments and let someone qualified handle it. Unfortunately, some of them stubbornly cling to control while the registry hemorrhages members and the treasury hemorrhages money. It's most likely too late to save the Episcopal Church. The people who grew up in the church and loved and cared for it are, to a large extent, gone or on their way out. They are not likely to come back. The people you were counting on to replace them are not showing up to give, and do and care. Churches are closing. Reversing the numerical decline of the Episcopal church will take so much longer than most of them can afford. How could they not have known this would happen?

George Clifford said...

A colleague (another priest) suggests that the world changed and the Church failed to keep up. The world began to look for rectors to be executives; seminaries failed to anticipate that change and still have not really adjusted. I'm one of the few priests with a solid management background (an MBA in corporate finance and years of experience as a senior officer in the Navy).

Anonymous said...

When all is said and done, the only outlook on the world that matters is God's. Peace be with you.

Michael said...

George, I fear that you are ignoring what may be the obvious explanation. If you become wedded to the spirit of the age, you find yourself widowed when the age has past. The Episcopal Church has decided to embrace what is regarded as 'good' in secular culture, telling people that they can basically do whatever they want. Once this point is conceded, of course, it is not such a jump for laity to decide one of the things they want to do is skip church. What is the point of going to church if Jesus is not the only way to salvation? What is the point of penitence if God does care how you behave? The attempt to bring people in by adopting anti-Christian elements of culture has not worked; on the contrary, it has divided the church and pushed people away. Sadly, there is unlikely to be any such reform; instead, any leaders in the Anglican Communion who advocate a move towards tradition are mocked as backwards and foolish. It is telling that their churches are full, while most Episcopal Churches are empty.

George Clifford said...

Michael, We clearly have different perspectives. I find worship meaningful even though I strongly believe that Christianity is but one of many paths. I prefer to think that instead of being wedded to the spirit of this age, that I seek the Spirit of the living God, a Spirit who becomes more fully known as time passes.

Anonymous said...

I'm the first anonymous poster and I've just returned to your blog since my initial post on 31 October. I served as an Episcopal priest for 13 years. I have returned to the UK and am now a Church of England priest. We're paid much less over here, so perhaps there wouldn't be many priests from TEC interested in serving here--unless it's at a "distinguished cure" (although our salaries are equal). The ministry is so encompassing, orthodox, and rewarding you might not recognise it. The Episcopal clergy have no idea about the scope of ministry and mission that they're missing state-side. Our parishes are geographical, not based on congregants who make "pledges" like a club. Our responsibility is to those who live in our parish, regardless of their religion or lack of it, not only to our "members". Episcopal clergy also don't have a clue what it means to be Anglican, whatsoever. Pity really. Personally, your perspective is untenable for anyone claiming to be even a nominal Christian. Yet you're a priest--shame on you! I'd give you my best wishes but you wouldn't know what to do with them; you'd probably be saddened that my best wishes might differ from yours. Good luck choosing one of the many paths to wherever you hope to go...

George Clifford said...

I spent two years as a Church of England priest, serving as a Royal Navy chaplain (exchange duty with the U.S. Navy). The opportunities that parochial C of E clergy have are similar to those chaplains enjoy - much more far-reaching than in the typical U.S. parish. Thankfully, both the C of E and the Episcopal Church include a significant number of clergy who, like me, have broader, more inclusive views.

Anonymous said...

From anonymous 2...so as not to be confused with the first anonymous poster.
Why is it, that when challenged, your usual, and now quite predictable response is to a) point out your background or b) point out that "we have differing views". ? First of all, your background, when compared to many more priests is really rather weak. Nothing to brag about when viewed in that light. Secondly, your "differing views" are pretty much the point of your blog so going on about that is really treading water, don't you think?
Im not surprised, of course, to find that a corporate finance MBA has made his way into the Episcopal priesthood, the clergy agenda being what it is, after all. Why do you keep touting your background? It's ok, of course, but nobody is as impressed with it as you seem to be. You really need to get over yourself and stop prattling on about "differing views" like a peacock spreading it's feathers and strutting about. It's juvenile at best. Can you find something truly MEANINGFUL to say about the decline in the TEC that's being abandoned in favor of scripture-based houses of worship? Something that doesn't used the tired term "broader view".

For a sample of what I'm talking about here:
December 19 you said:
I'm one of the few priests with a solid management background (an MBA in corporate finance and years of experience as a senior officer in the Navy).
Anonymous, you and I have rather different outlooks on the world.

Jan 29
Michael, We clearly have different perspectives.

Feb 1
I spent two years as a Church of England priest, serving as a Royal Navy chaplain (exchange duty with the U.S. Navy).

(Yawn...we know. Now tell us why TEC is on the decline)

George Clifford said...

I'm sorry that you're tired of hearing about my background. However, experience colors perception and by referring to my background, I let people know, at least in part, why I hold the views I do. My background, like that of all people, is uniquely mine - no better, no worse than anyone else's. By way of contrast, anonymous comments provide no information about the person, and therefore no possibility of understanding the factors that color the commenter's views.

Anonymous said...

You say, "By way of contrast, anonymous comments provide no information about the person, and therefore no possibility of understanding the factors that color the commenter's views." Well my good man, if you don't want anonymous comments you need only revise your blog settings to exclude them. I have mentioned in previous posts my background as an employee and long term member of the Episcopal church, but that's irrelevant. If I have come here and read your blog, and used time in my life that I will never get back, and can write intelligently, then I am at least equal to most.
If doing anonymously bothers you then why publish the blog? The trend in the Episcopal church toward such meritocratic snobbery is contributing toward the decline you speak of. Jesus had no degree, but then maybe that's why you've rejected him in favor of your so-called "broader, more inclusive views". But, let's get to the REAL agenda....which you tipped us all off to in your previous post which reads, "congregations could cede surplus assets to the diocese and utilize revenues, previously expended on building maintenance and staff support, to fund mission. Dioceses, serving fewer congregations, would also have more resources for mission."
Well, there it is.
CEDE SURPLUS ASSETS = close and sell your buildings, turn over the money and your endowment funds to the diocese and they will spend them on mission. Hmmmmm...sounds like redistribution of wealth...socialism...wearing a dress designed by "mission". Of course before you can achieve this, you must first ENGINEER the exit of intelligent, conservative members so that no one is left to object. And with the churches emptied of their core members, you have the perfect excuse to close the building and sell the property, and distribute it's "assets" to the diocese. And when some anonymous poster on a blog calls you out on it, just express sympathy for their "narrow, exclusive understandings" and sound saddened for the corruption they've witnessed, talk about your background and try to invalidate their argument because they've elected to speak anonymously. So terribly obvious I can smell the rot of it through my computer speakers.

George Clifford said...

In our polity – that is, the Episcopal Church – the basic unit of organization is not the individual Christian or the local congregation but the diocese. Congregations ceding surplus assets to the diocese is not socialism but rather helping the community (i.e., the basic unit of organization, the diocese) to make the best use of its assets. Incidentally, the ecclesiastical principle has legal status: repeated court decisions have confirmed that assets congregations utilize are in fact held in trust for the diocese, i.e., diocesan assets.

Jesus, as you observe, had no degree. However, degrees awarded for completing formal education in his day did not exist. Debating the relative merits of first century pedagogical patterns compared to twenty-first century patterns is a separate issue. But, and this is a key point, I do not reject Jesus. I reject the image of Jesus that many people form based upon an uneducated reading of scripture. The Bible, written over a period of centuries almost two millennia ago in a culture alien to ours, is not easily understood. The Church does itself and its people a disservice when it pretends otherwise. Much of the current controversies over ordination of women, full inclusion of people regardless of sexual orientation, and a host of other issues point to the Church’s failure to educate all of its people in how to read and understand scripture. One of the reasons for the Church’s numerical decline is the failure to incorporate the historical-critical method of reading scripture more fully into its corporate life. Scripture belongs to the community not to individuals.

Anonymous said...

You say Incidentally, the ecclesiastical principle has legal status: repeated court decisions have confirmed that assets congregations utilize are in fact held in trust for the diocese, i.e., diocesan assets.

Yes....court decisions rendered when your new-fangled theology divided the church so much that we had to appeal to the "unrighteous judge". Again, nothing to be proud of. If I were you, I'd be ashamed to even mention it, much less brag of it as you seem to be doing. And when average members realized it they started staying home and spending the funds previously turned over to "diocesan trust" elsewhere. Congrats TEC.

You say:
"I reject the image of Jesus that many people form based upon an uneducated reading of scripture."

Ok. I see. We yokels is too ignant and unedoocated to undastand what we be areadin cuz we ain't open minded nuff to know that when it say don't do thus and so it don't actually mean that. It really mean do whateva you want.
Well that's good. I decided that what I want is to sleep late on Sundays, have a leisurely brunch and take the money I was giving the church and buy a subscription to Glenn Beck's website, and take the time I was wasting on other church services and devote that to posting on blogs. Congrats TEC.

George Clifford said...

I’ve argued before that appealing to the civil courts to settle property disputes was wrong: affirm that the diocese owns the property but allow the schismatics to keep it in order to avoid wasting money on legal fees. Both the schism and court cases are sad; being a connectional church – my point – is important.

I’m also sorry that you feel the Church has betrayed you. The betrayal, in my estimation, was not in changing theology but in having failed to form you (and thousands of others) more fully in Jesus’ image as the one who lived for others. Providing substantive theological and biblical education for all of God’s people should be one of the clergy’s prime responsibilities, as indeed the ordination services in the BCP indicate. Anonymous, you are in my prayers, that your anger may yield to peace and your resentment may yield to a welcoming, inclusive communal love.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous, you are in my prayers, that your anger may yield to peace and your resentment may yield to a welcoming, inclusive communal love."
Thanks for your prayers. But assuming I'm angry is a stretch. I can go to another church if I choose so there is nothing to be angry about. And I'm quite at peace thank you especially on Sunday mornings when I no longer feel compelled to get up, get moving, write a check, find a parking space and pop up and down in the pew like a jack in the box. Don't worry about me. I'm fine and God is there with or without TEC just like He was before they ever existed and will be when you are reduced to a collection of abandoned buildings and newspaper articles about lawsuits among so-called Christians. Focus your pity on the church that nobody notices, listens to or takes seriously anymore because they traded scripture for error, and began preaching politics instead of salvation.

George Clifford said...

Anonymous, I’m sorry that you ever felt compelled to write a check and to pop up down like a jack in the box. That’s not been my experience of the Episcopal Church. TEC does not need pity as much as it needs focus and energy on its mission to incarnate God’s love for the world. Salvation is not pie in the sky but the experience of God’s liberating, life giving love in the present. Preaching salvation entails preaching about justice, echoing the prophets, to include Jesus, whose message was very much about encountering God in this life.

Patrick said...

As a former Baptist pastor, who tried to be an episcopal lay-person and found it impossible, I have a few comments. For what it's worth, when I was a pastor I started with a very small, country church (ASA 18) and left after four years -- due to my wife abandoning me and our four children, making me a single parent -- with an ASA of 118.

The first is that most Episcopal congregations don't really want growth. Or, at least, they only want growth among people who look just like them, and they are expert at snubbing people who don't fit their model. When I visited a very large, very liberal Episcopal church, I attended for almost 4 months and literally didn't know ANYONE well enough that they would say "hi" to me in the hallway as I passed -- even when I greeted them. Note that I wasn't coming on Sundays only -- I was going to church "events" three nights a week. This was not an isolated occurrence. I had similar experiences at 2 other Episcopal churches, as well as a couple of "Anglican" churches (Episcopals with a Bible.)

The second I would mention is that the Episcopal model of ministry is badly broken. The last straw for me was when the rector of a very large, Anglican church told me that he didn't have time to clarify a theological question, and that he wouldn't respond to any more emails from me (I had sent him three emails over a period of 6 months -- these emails were as inoffensive as I could make them.)

Listen: I am a dedicated Christian, and I tried to make it work with everything in my power, because I loved the liturgy, but I couldn't -- not because I rejected them, but because they rejected me. What do you suppose would happen to someone who wasn't a dedicated believer in Jesus? One of two things: either they say, "to hell with it" and stop attending church altogether (most likely) or they go to the Contemporary, "Rick Warrenesque" Baptist church down the road where a slew of greeters meet them the minute they walk through the door, help them find child-care, give them a welcome packet, etc., and the pastor calls them on Thursday of the next week to introduce himself -- then schedules a lunch appointment.

TEC and ACNA claim to want growth, but the reality is that they don't want "whoever God sends through the door" -- they want people who look just like them. Increasingly, this will turn TEC into a nursing home.

George Clifford said...

Patrick, I’m sorry that you have not had a more positive experience with the Episcopal Church. Lots of congregations – regardless of denominational affiliation – do not want growth in spite of claims to the contrary. Much of the time, I think this reflects a deep seated comfort with the status quo (perhaps what you characterize as “people who look just like them” – except I would frame this psychologically and spiritually rather than physically). I also know that lots of people today seek anonymity. The ability to remain anonymous draws some people to megachurches (though the Baptist Church you describe has a different model), at least based on what I have read. Growth does not, cannot, occur until that attitude changes.

I’m intrigued by your comment that the Episcopal model of ministry is badly broken. Can you describe the brokenness (you provided an illustration, but I’m unsure what you intend it to illustrate).

Anonymous said...

Now that a year has elapsed since Fr. Clifford's original post, I am curious if there are any tangible signs that the numerical decline he spoke of has been reversed, or is likely to be reversed in the near future. I will say that, from my vantage point, I do not see any such signs. To the contrary, I recently visited 2 Episcopal churches in a medium-sized American city that I had attended regularly in the 1970s and 1980s. I was stunned how the congregations had shriveled in the 25 years since I lived there. And among the people who were there, youth were especially scarce. These were thriving, growing parishes 40 decades ago. So sad.

Anonymous said...

The reason for the churches decline is simple. You have strayed from the Gospel. Your comments demonstrate this precise point. Moving away from literalism(aka scriptural integrity) and embracing "many paths" (aka unitarianism) will not bring people to church. This is the reason so many have left the church, and now you claim that it is the solution to bring people back? The only churches growing are those holding to more traditional biblical understandings. The Holy Spirit will not Guide people to a place teaching fundamentally errant doctrines. Also, why would you expect someone to "give up" one's sunday to hear speeches about universalism and radical hospitality. Who gets passionate about a message you can hear at your local Rotary Club.

Anonymous said...

George,
You use them term "broader" and "more inclusive" and say thankfully. This would imply that you hold your theological view is higher esteem than the view share by more traditonal anglicans. This would imply that your view isn't so broad afterall, but rather just creates a different set of restrictions, and hypocritically criticizes others who do the same. Also, I have generally found that theologically liberal people such as yourself freuqently use such terms as "broad" as a synonym for better and use a tone of condescension. Honestly, this seems the case in your blog.

George Clifford said...

Jesus did not take the scriptures literally. Nor should we. The concept of a static gospel is why the Church has largely disappeared in Europe and is headed that way in North America. Change is a pervasive constant in the cosmos; theology should be no exception. Conservative churches are not all on growth trajectories and liberal congregations are not all declining. The growing interest in spirituality, as distinguished from religion, reflects both the reality that humans are spiritual beings and the Church’s failure to minister adequately to that need.

Anonymous said...

The Church is the Body of Christ and has not failed in its purpose, which is to preach the Gospel. The best summary of the Gospel is John 3:16, not some universalist diluted message that you speak of, and the ECUSA extols.

George Clifford said...

Anonymous, you read John 3:16 through the eyes of love, i.e., you perceive Jesus to be the only way even as individuals with partners frequently perceive their partner as the only person for them. In a global context, God's love is obviously much greater than we can imagine, sufficiently great to encompass all creation.

Adam J.W. said...

"I am not arguing, à la Rick Warren and The Purpose Drive Life, that the Church’s purpose is evangelism."

This is the most ironic quote from a piece demonstrating an "arranging deck chairs on the Titanic" sense of futility.

The first priority of the church is to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28:19).

The Episcopal Church has largely rejected the notion of the biblical gospel and host of key biblical doctrines, along with evangelism itself, so it's not surprise that it's in decline.

Disobeying God's commands is never met with success, but even the most ardent pagan could see the functional benefit of heeding The Great Commission: no evangelism = no converts = no growth.

Don't think for a moment too, that theological orthodoxy is something prized only by the old and conservative. I say these things as a young, 24 year old graduate from a liberal, Ivy League University. Even in the most progressive communities, the rich historical orthodoxy of the Nicene and Apostle's Creed are still valued and still resonate with people. What the TEC offers is a toothless, emaciated faith that offers nothing to young people that we couldn't find in liberal, secular humanism.

Look at congregations like Mars Hill Seattle, Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, and The Village Church in Dallas. You can condescend to them all you want for their theological conservatism and their lack of liturgical or rhetorical sophistication, but at the end of the day, they have a reverence for the primacy of Christ in all things that is completely lacking in the Episcopal Church. Until you return to the Gospel of Christ, you will continue to decline.

George Clifford said...

Adam,
Thanks for your comment. However, neither the verse you cite as establishing what you identify as the Church’s number one priority, nor the context of that verse, state that making disciples (aka evangelism by some) is the Church’s top priority. I think that loving God and others is the Church’s top priority, a claim rooted in Jesus’ response to the question of what a person should do. The teaching to love moves the Church in a somewhat different direction, one that includes, when and as appropriate, making disciples.

Adam J.W. said...

You make it sound as if Christ's commands to love God and love others may at times conflict with the Great Commission. I argue that, as Christ said, "If you love me you will keep my commandments," ergo, the chief way we show love to God is by doing the things He's asked us to do, like evangelizing.
On the topic of loving other people, what is more loving than sharing with them the message of salvation? We are called to serve both the physical AND spiritual needs of the people around us, and serving without preaching the Gospel is depriving those around us of spiritual nourishment.

George Clifford said...

The commands to love God and others do not conflict with the Great Commission; they do help to put the command to make disciples in proper perspective and priority. For the hungry, food is more loving than “the message of salvation,” indeed food is their salvation; for the one in need of medical, medical treatment is more loving than “the message of salvation,” indeed medical treatment is their salvation. Furthermore, actions speak louder than words, a lesson that missionaries have sadly had to learn repeatedly. Incarnational love rather than words most often charts the path to making disciples. Indeed, salvation is arguably the experience of God's love in the present rather than an abstruse future hope.

Caswell said...

I love the Episcopal Church, have been a part of it for my 38 years on this earth and will continue to do all I can to keep her alive and well. At my Church in Westerly RI we have an active congregation, Asa of 232 and a Chior of 50 that's the envy of our Diocese. We have a vibrant new Bishop who knows his way around Facebook and Twitter and knows how to bring attention to our church and we are doing fine.

So you naysayers can go somewhere else. I for one fully expect our Church to recover from 40 years of Membership Decline as soon as the Presiding Bishop and staff start to act like it's the 21st Century and learn how to bring the message to the masses.

Stephanie said...

Thank you for this blog post. I grew up Episcopalian and then became Catholic five years ago... But I still care for the Episcopalian church and have the best wishes for it. I think it is great you are taking the current membership/financial situation seriously and brainstorming how to draw more people to the church. The Christian church has been evangelistic from its earliest days, and that vision of the Good News is what has awakens people to faith no matter the context. Gospel love for Christ is what drew me to the Catholic church, when I happened to find it strongest there during college, and Gospel love for Christ is also what will draw new people into the Episcopal church from secularism or from wherever they happen to come. I like your point that a small rudder can steer a large ship, and your optimism that even these very negative trends of decline can be turned around. Our God works beyond our expectations, and if there is any way to save the Episcopal Church and help it thrive - then surely faith means belief our sovereign God has the power to do it! I really pray for the Episcopal church, and all the people there in whom God is doing ministry, that it may grow and share the the sacred heart of Jesus with the world! God bless

George Clifford said...

Stephanie, Thanks for the good wishes for the Episcopal Church AND the prayers.

Daniel Handel said...

Fr. George,

I tried to leave a comment previously but not sure it took.

I am an Episcopalian living overseas and based on the latest statistics and trying to project out different scenarios. The best I can figure, at current trends, TEC faces collapse around 2030 and extinction around 2040. However, I do not have very good data on parish age profiles beyond a median age.

You have written about the numerical decline in several places. Do you have data not on TEC website?

Cheers,
Daniel Handel

George Clifford said...

Unfortunately, I do not have any other data.

Stan Theman said...

The main reason religion is shrinking? It's boring.
The songs are boring; the music is tedious; the people are too old; the ceremony looks ridiculous-why would a grown man want to swan around in silk robes waving a metal purse with smoke coming out and not think that people won't laugh at him?
If you can be moral without going to church, why bother with church? If you want to do "progressive" politics or the "Lipton League of Tea", you can join a political party or group; you can volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter without having to sing songs or take part in church.