Thursday, May 20, 2010

So... Should the Episcopal Church Go out of Business?

Should the Episcopal Church go out of business? That's the question George Clifford asks over at Episcopal Cafe, and I have to say it's an intriguing question. The church has been having problems for decades as it has gone through an identity crisis of sorts. In recent years, the factions within the church have started to splinter.

Photo by Metrix X under creative commons license.

This whole discussion is important to me. I've mentioned in passing that I grew up in the Episcopal Church and that my extended family is Episcopalian. Tomorrow, I will tell you more about my experience with the Episcopal Church, but this post is going to be long enough already. So, let's look at some selections from George's article.

From a sociological perspective, the Episcopal Church (TEC) has suffered both a striking numerical loss in membership (almost 30%) and an even larger decline as a percentage of the nation’s population (almost 60%). In 1960, TEC had 2.9 million members, equaling 1.6% of the U.S. population. Forty-eight years later, TEC had fewer than 2.06 million members, or only 0.65% of the U.S. population.

There are probably hundreds explanations for why the Episcopal Church has seen this decline in members over the years, but I would argue that this may not tell the whole story and that the facts may actually be much worse. Many non-denominational churches count attendance rather than membership because it is a more accurate representation who how many people are actually coming to church during any given period of time. If almost one million people are no longer members of the Episcopal Church, the actual attendance figures may be much lower than that.

The median average Sunday attendance in TEC congregations was 69 in 2008, continuing a long-term decline. My point is not that small congregations are of less value than large congregations are, but that small congregations necessarily devote a far greater percentage of their resources to maintaining their physical plant than do large congregations. In fact, keeping the building open and maintained often consumes such a large portion of available revenue that insufficient funds remain to pay clergy adequately, let alone fund ministry and mission programs. The building, instead of being a means to an end, becomes the congregation’s de facto raison d’ĂȘtre.

This problem is not confined to the Episcopal Church. The church where I attend made cutbacks in staff and missionary support recently due to financial issues. Church leaders are constantly discussing the wisdom of buildings as they relate to finances, but the Episcopal Church may have a unique culture that would hinder its ability to flourish outside of the traditional church setting. For example, on any given Sunday, I could probably find thousands of young churches who meet in gymnasiums, schools, and civic centers. I don't have the figures, but I would be surprised if any of those churches were Episcopalian.

First, fifty years from now the church in the United States (its worship, community, structure, facilities, and leadership) will almost certainly look vastly different than today’s church. The shift away from the way of being church that I personally cherish is already underway.

The problem with the Episcopal Church is not only due to external challenges as the church is dealing with internal struggles too. Just this past weekend, the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles ordained the first openly lesbian bishop. The Episcopal Church is changing. Unfortunately, it's changing in the wrong areas and into the wrong direction. George understands that the forces of change are internal as well as external.

In the last couple of decades, thousands of mostly non-denominational congregations, many with rapidly growing membership and diverse patterns of being church, have emerged. Living in denial benefits neither God nor the growing non-Christian majority. Pro-actively adapting to a rapidly changing context and constituency will afford the church more leeway in defining and shaping its identity and form than reactively struggling to survive.

Many of these non-denominational churches have seen exponential growth and have not made the compromises that the Episcopal Church has. In my experience with the Episcopal Church, the church has not adopted a culturally relevant method of communicating the gospel message, but it has attempted to make itself culturally palatable by compromising on important theological and political issues. The point that George is making is that the church needs to adapt. I would argue that it's attempting to adapt, but is doing so in the wrong areas.

Second, TEC is not alone in facing these challenges. Other Churches – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ to name a few – have experienced similar, large declines and face parallel challenges.

And what do these denominations have in common? Generally speaking, they are primarily traditional churches who resist aesthetic changes, but seem apathetic to major changes in polity. They have shown signs of being willing to compromise values before compromising methodology. (I know, I know. Not all congregations in these denominations fit this description.)

Third, the real work of the Church – becoming God's people by striving to increase the love of God and neighbor – occurs primarily in local congregations... most of what happens at the diocesan and national levels is “overhead,” essential as a means to an end but not, per se, why the Church exists. Bishops, for example, perform critical tasks teaching, confirming, ordaining, organizing and deploying ministries but those instrumental tasks support the life and work of local congregations. As much as I love and appreciate my bishop, my parish does not exist to support him. Similarly, most diocesan and national staff offices exist as a means to support the life and ministry of local congregations.

This describes the difficult balance of denominational churches. For the benefits that the denomination offers, do local congregations suffer? I don't have any data to back this up, but I would guess that when the economy is strong, the local congregation and the denominational higher-ups are both clicking along pretty well together. But as the money dries up, or attendance overall declines significantly, the local congregations no longer have the funds to operate their own ministries, much less support the bureaucracy that was designed to help them achieve their purpose in the first place.

Imagine … several small, geographically adjacent congregations of various Churches laying aside their idolatry of buildings and accoutrements to unite as the people of God, worshiping in homes, served by a single member of the clergy, and using their consolidated resources to engage in expanded ministry and mission.

How is this vision different than what many non-denominational churches and seminaries are already doing? Many non-denominational church plants start as house churches or at least meet in shared spaces like schools and are served by a single pastor.

Imagine … large and medium size, geographically adjacent congregations sharing a single physical plant while retaining their distinct identities, cooperating in diverse projects that might include feeding the hungry, offering different styles of worship, establishing an institute for lay spiritual formation, etc.

Larger non-denominational churches have congregations from various backgrounds, but I don't know if this is what George is promoting here. It sounds more like many churches meeting in one location (not to be confused with the satellite church model of one church meeting in many locations.) I'm not sure what this would look like if various churches were meeting in the same building while "retaining their distinct identities." I have heard of smaller churches joining larger churches, but rarely are they encouraged to retain their identities. Please leave me a comment if you know of a church that meets in this way. I would love to learn more about it.

Imagine … seminaries and judicatory staffs of different denominations consolidating to reduce expenses on physical plant and internal administration while better serving their constituent congregations.

At Dallas Theological Seminary I had classmates from dozens of different denominational backgrounds, and though we might have differences in opinion on church polity or methods of worship, we could not have been more unified on the fundamentals of the faith. Again, I don't know if this is what George is promoting, but it sounds pretty similar to what is already happening.

From where I stand, which is admittedly on the outskirts of the Episcopal Church, the church needs to find where it can adapt the methods without adapting the message. I would argue that this is true for any church.

Three exit questions:

1) Is the future of the Episcopal Church really as bleak as George makes it out to be?
2) What can other denominations and non-denominational churches learn from the struggles that the Episcopal Church is facing?
3) What are some ways that your church has adapted or needs to adapt in order to address cultural shifts?

I have not commented on the whole article, so do yourself a favor and go read the whole thing. George raises some interesting ideas for the future of the Episcopal Church.

The Future of the Episcopal Church - My Take

Yesterday's post got a little too long, so I thought I would add my personal story today.

The traditions of the Episcopal Church are rich with theological significance, but to an outsider (and a young insider when I attended) the message may as well be written in Japanese. I would (and have) encourage my Episcopalian friends and family to try to look at the service through the eyes of someone who did not grow up in the Episcopal Church or any church for that matter. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, but it wasn't until I received my master's degree in theology that I understood the significance of many of the church's traditions, including most of those that took place every Sunday right in front of me.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Video: Missional Church... simple

Here is a video that gives a pretty basic description of the missional church. Admittedly, it doesn't cover all the nuts and bolts of missional ministry, but, as the title suggests, that is not its purpose. When people talk about the "missional church," it can sometimes come across as being overly critical of "other" churches. I could see how people who are invested in attractional ministries might take offense to that video even though I don't think it was attempting to be critical.

Does it have to be an either-or thing?

Maybe attractional ministries can still bring people in to hear the message of Jesus Christ while people are going outside of the church walls to share the gospel.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

This Video Has 5 Million Views?

When archeologists in the future examine our civilization, they will not debate what signaled the beginning of our decline because they will unanimously agree it was when this video passed 5 million views on YouTube.

Yes, I know it was posted last fall. Mercifully, I was protected from this video until tonight.
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