Innumerable printer cartridges have been used up and billions of electrons inconvenienced in the effort to explicate what is arguably a monumental shift in the relationship between Christianity and Western culture. This has been taking place over the last several decades, at least, but seems more recently to be gaining momentum at an exponential rate. The privileged position that Christianity had enjoyed, first in Europe and then in the Europe-influenced societies of the Americas, has been effectively lost in all but a few scattered pockets. The Constantinian synthesis has run its course. Quite possibly, the primary challenge facing the Church in the coming years, dwarfing all other challenges, will be how to navigate this new and unfamiliar territory, how to exist — and, indeed, thrive, one hopes — in a post-Christian environment, one without an assumed hand-in-glove relationship with secular society.
The problem is, it’s been so long since we’ve had to do this that we’ve forgotten how. There is very little by way of received wisdom or “best practices.” We can get a few ideas by examining evidentiary fragments of catechumenal praxis that might be traceable to the third century, but, in the larger context, that’s pretty meager fare. For most practical purposes, the task before us is more akin to discovering fire or inventing the wheel. That prospect is, to say the very least, daunting. It will require us to cast aside the mental maps that are so familiar and comfortable. They are obsolete, no longer corresponding accurately to the territory they purport to represent.
So we’re talking about new practices, new routines, new habits. And we in the historic “brand name” churches are certainly tightly fused with our practices, routines, and habits. One of these is a propensity for record-keeping. In Britain, for instance, where parish structures — institutional as well as physical — are both quite ancient and relatively intact, historians and genealogists are grateful every day when they find well-maintained parish registers that go back hundreds years and tell us of baptisms, marriages, burials, and other detritus of ordinary life.
This penchant for record-keeping was inherited by the Anglican Christians of the Eastern seaboard who formed the dioceses that came together to constitute the Episcopal Church in the 1780s. In time, it became customary to gather the data stored in parish registers and send them on to the diocese and the national church. The annual Parochial Report became an occasion of acid stomach for clergy for whom administration does not rank high in their areas of giftedness and for treasurers who never made their peace with deadlines. This information was studied by bishops and diocesan staff members and any number of committees, commissions, agencies, and boards created by General Convention. It became the basis for considered opinions about the overall health and vitality of the church. We grew accustomed to measuring the church by means of objective numerical data. In other words, we created a culture of “ecclesiometry.”
Until fairly recently, the categories that measured membership were considered the most telling. They have been labeled in a variety of ways; in the current system, they include only “Active Baptized Members” and “Communicants in Good Standing.” In the closing years of the previous century, however, those responsible for drawing inferences from crunching numbers got wise to how the system could be gamed by savvy clergy, who would retain names of people on the rolls whom they had not seen in many years, but it entitled them to a larger diocesan convention delegation and other perks.
So the category of “Average Sunday Attendance” (ASA) gained currency as a more helpful measure of congregation health than number of members. In combination with financial giving statistics, ASA has been used to evaluate and make decisions about where a parish is in its natural life cycle, how long it might remain viable, and whether its ordained leadership is doing an appropriate job. When I was in parish ministry myself, I was wont to refer to the Service Register, where attendance statistics were recorded, as my Self Image Book. For good or for ill (mostly the latter, I suspect), ASA was how I measured my effectiveness as an ordained leader.
ASA, along with its complementary twin, Average Annual Giving (total plate and pledge divided by ASA) are not going to disappear next week as important measuring sticks of church health. But as we embrace the transition out of Christendom into, well, whatever comes next, attendance and giving will be re-contextualized and understood differently. A concern with attendance and giving is, in many ways, reflective of the environment that we are leaving behind, an environment in which certainly not everybody went to church, but most everybody had a particular church that they did not go to. In the world to come (no, not that world to come, but the one presumably more imminent), those among whom we proclaim good news will be (indeed, already are) mostly blank slates when it comes to Christianity. Or, if they have any opinions at all, they are probably based on misinformation about what Christians believe and do. In such a world, the attractional model of mission — the right kind of music and the right kind of preaching along with an inviting childcare facility, attractive signage, and, in the case of Episcopalians, red doors — will give way to an apostolic model, wherein Christian disciples are sent into the places in the world where the need for the gospel is most evident, where the soil is most fertile.
One might well ask, then, in a world of apostolic mission, rather than attractional mission, what might be the most helpful measure of ecclesial health and vitality? What is the best approach to future “ecclesiometry”? There are probably several, but I would suggest that there is one that is so preeminently significant that there probably isn’t even a close second.
It’s this: adult baptisms.
We are, of course, long past the time when one could presume that relatively few American and European children would reach adulthood without being baptized. Even 25 years ago, such an “escapee” was remarkable for his or her rarity. Not so anymore. So, to the extent that the Church is faithful to her apostolic mission, grown women and men will come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit through a gracious encounter with organized Christian missionary efforts and be led to faith, repentance, baptism, Eucharist, and discipleship in the communion of the Church. Baptism is the linchpin in that sequence, the objective metrical indicator that a deal has been closed.
An increase in adult baptisms will say that the Church has been faithful in forming the baptized into disciples who are equipped to engage apostolic ministry, that is, ministry in the saecula that is no longer Christian. It will be a sign that people are saying their prayers, reading their Bibles, being nourished sacramentally, and forming authentic community because someone who does not come out of such an environment will not last long as a missionary in a hostile world. And, of course, the sort of interior spiritual formation and growth that produces apostolic missionaries begets numerical growth of the sort that multiplies missional effectiveness, but then those who are baptized are already well en route to mature discipleship, which is actually presumed by the vows and promises of the baptismal liturgy itself. Along the way, attendance at Eucharist on the Lord’s Day and the amount of tithes and offerings taken in will be positively affected. But it will be the energy and activity that leads to adult baptism which fuels these favorable indicators.
Christian communities with roots in the Anabaptist tradition, of course, have a bit of a head start on all this. Even if they may not being doing many (or as many) adult baptisms, they at least have an ecclesial culture in which such things are both plausible and normative. The rest of us have some catch up work to do. We have some great resources (here’s where all the information about the ancient catechumenate comes in handy), and we need to live into the Book of Common Prayer (1979) norm of baptism by immersion to really do this well. But that’s another essay!
The image above is “Measure for measure” (2008) by Mason Bryant. It is licensed under Creative Commons.