In Search of Growth

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. —Matt. 16:18

By Kirk Petersen

If you search the web for “growth or decline in Episcopal Church,” you will encounter some scary headlines: “Why is the Episcopal Church near collapse?”; “Episcopal Church Continues Uninterrupted Decline”; “Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Members, Attendance at Alarming Rate” — the list goes on and on. Perhaps the most imaginitive: “Has the Last Episcopalian Been Born?” (Spoiler alert: no.)

Membership is declining. Pick any time horizon. One year: down 3.2 percent, as of 2015, by the most recent statistics available. Ten years: down 25.7 percent. Fifty years: down nearly 50 percent, from the peak in the mid-1960s. Among 99 dioceses throughout the 50 states, precisely one has experienced growth in average Sunday attendance (ASA) for both the year and the decade. (Look for a report from the Diocese of Nevada in a future issue.)

TLC’s weblog, Covenant, recently published “Facing Episcopal Church Decline,” a detailed analysis by David Goodhew. The article has a wealth of data, breaking out the decline geographically and demographically. Goodhew writes that the decline of Episcopal baptisms and weddings — key sources of future Episcopalians — is far higher than the decline in overall membership.

Judging from all of that, you might expect to find a bunker mentality wherever Episcopal leaders gather, but that is not the case, at least among churchwide leaders. (There are, of course, individual churches that worry they may have to close. Some of them will do so.)

At the churchwide level, there is discussion of financial issues, and talk about how to bring more people into the church. But despite the impression left by some disaffected bloggers, the Episcopal Church leadership doesn’t seem preoccupied with concerns about an existential membership crisis.

“We don’t sit in meetings saying, ‘We need to grow,’” said the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation. “And I’ve been in spaces where that was the case, so I know we’re not in that zone. What we’re talking about is movement. My experience is, when you frame it like that, growth happens, but it doesn’t happen for the sake of growth.”

“When Jesus said, ‘Go out into the world,’ he didn’t say ‘and make them all come into the church,’” said the Rev. Canon Michael Hunn, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry within the Episcopal Church. “The fundamental goal is to spread the good news, not to bring people into the church.”

Episcopalians are wealthier and better educated than Christians in other denominations, and the church has long had a social prominence that has exceeded its numbers. Of the 45 U.S. presidents, 11 have been Episcopalians — more than in any other denomination.

“We were the established church,” Spellers said. “It’s hard for God’s Spirit to work with a church that confident, that secure, that established. … I prefer to say, hey, look at that decline. Now what? So you’re not comfortable anymore? Good! Now you need Jesus.”

American society has been becoming more secular for decades, and attendance is down in all mainline denominations. “I think what is coming to an end is Christendom,” Hunn said. “And by Christendom, I mean the kind of state-supported Christianity we’ve had since Constantine, [which] was basically in effect through the ’50s. America was understood to be a Christian nation.”

One significant cause of the decline in Episcopal attendance in recent years is, of course, the schism that began after the General Convention of 2003 consented to the election of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a relationship, as Bishop of New Hampshire.

In the following decade, five diocesan conventions voted to leave the Episcopal Church: Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, South Carolina, and San Joaquin. Some congregations in each diocese remained with the Episcopal Church, effectively splitting each diocese. The small remnant of the Diocese of Quincy was absorbed by the Diocese of Chicago; ASA in the other four dioceses all declined 70 to 80 percent in the past decade, by far the worst declines in the church. (These statistics, drawn from the parochial reports filed by every Episcopal church, are available from the Research and Statistics section of episcopalchurch.org.)

The departures had a dramatic effect in those dioceses, and individual parishes elsewhere in the country have also left the Episcopal Church. Most of the departing dioceses and congregations have joined the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), founded in 2009. But nationally, ACNA is dwarfed by the Episcopal Church. Based on reports from the two churches, ACNA had 111,853 members, while the Episcopal Church was 16 times larger, with 1,779,335 baptized members.

Still, ACNA membership is growing, while Episcopal numbers are declining. With declining attendance comes declining revenues. The church does not exist for the purpose of making money, of course — but eventually money has a kind of veto power. If a church fails to pay the electric bill for enough months in a row, the lights will be turned off.

Real estate poses a particular problem for cash-strapped congregations and dioceses. “We’re overbuilt,” Hunn said. “There’s a lot of our buildings that were built in the horse-and-buggy days, and so we are maintaining 12 or 15 churches in a city. … We’ve been around so long that our model was not just to have a building, but a beautiful building with a slate roof.

“We’re going to see some sort of consolidation, where we can get some economies of scale,” he said.

The decline in attendance has continued year after year and shows no sign of stopping. Church leadership is focused not on church growth or “market share,” but on adapting to a new era. “What if decline isn’t the end of the story?” Spellers asks. “What if decline is the beginning of the story?”

When the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry was installed as presiding bishop in November 2015, he immediately began describing the church as “the Jesus Movement.” Spellers thinks that’s the road ahead.

“We have to fall in love with Jesus again. It’s the only answer to decline,” she said. “The reason we’ve declined is because, frankly, we have not been as in love with Jesus as we’ve been in love with any number of the manifestations of Jesus — our buildings, our worship, our structures.

“If we are truly following Jesus in the way that he taught … if we are growing loving, liberating, life-giving relationships, with God, with each other, and with the earth, then there will be fruit. There will be fruit.”

This is the first in an extended series of columns about growth in the church. Future columns include extended interviews with thought leaders; reports from individual growing congregations; a look at the dioceses hit hardest by division; and the flip side of growth: the need to close some churches. Suggestions for topics are welcome: kirk@kirkpetersen.net.

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