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The Next Church

By Duo Dickinson

Long ago our culture made Sunday like any other day of the week. Whether it’s soccer practice, our desire to eat brunch, or buying what we want when we want it, government-sanctioned Sabbath is dead in America.

I am 63 and one of those “cradle Episcopalians,” but I know that the church, practiced as I love it, is not long for this world. People are dedicating themselves to adapting the way we express the Faith, but the Next Church will ultimately reveal that the church I grew up in is going the way of shiny shoes on Sunday mornings.

It has become a cliché to cite the 2015 Pew Study America’s Changing Religious Landscape. The study addressed seven years in the early 21st century that saw the doubling of self-declared atheists, a 10 percent reduction in those defining themselves as Protestant, 50 percent fewer Baby Boomers declaring themselves “mainline Protestants,” and endless more numbers that state the obvious: The church as I have known it appears increasingly irrelevant to the world as it is evolving.

Since I am from New England, the most secular region of the United States, itself the most religious country in the First World, the facts of religion’s change are not just anecdotal but are evidence. The church as I knew it for more than 60 years is a dying reality, at least in Connecticut where I serve on the Episcopal Diocese’s Property Committee. In the last 22 years the diocese has closed 21 of the state’s more than 160 parishes — with more to come. Attendance is dropping as the young leave.

A cleric told me of her experience as a visitor to many parishes in the last few years. During scores of visits, at least one elderly parishioner has implored her, “Please, please, just promise me that this church will last long enough so that I can be buried here.” That overwhelming focus on the end offers little joy in the present, let alone hope for the future.

In his address to the 2016 Annual Convention of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, Bishop Ian Douglas said that Western industrialized nations are living on the cusp of “the end of Christendom.” He defines this “end of Christendom” in the diocesan magazine, Crux:

Christendom is the all-encompassing social, political, cultural and economic system that presupposes the church is central to the life of a people and nation. … It is clear to anyone with open eyes that in most of America, especially the northeast, the Church we have now will not be the church of our grandchildren.

Before you stop reading, this is not another hand-wringing article that bewails change or extols hope in florid church speak. Please suspend judgment. I am not addressing rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Episcopal Church has to be a different thing in this next century to survive, while maintaining all the beauty it offers. It is easy to curse the darkness or think magically; it is harder to act. People are acting to find the Next Church, and I have attempted to find direction in their efforts.

My rector, Luk De Volder, offers this clear description: “For the next church we need to prioritize the message, which requires guts to proclaim that Christ didn’t just have interesting quotes, but shared a standard of wisdom and humanity that continues to call us upward.” Our church, Trinity on the Green in New Haven, has six different services, all centered on the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but offering a huge range of approaches through all the arts, in varieties of language, and alongside many other opportunities for community integration and collaboration.

Unless the Episcopal Church is fine with being an artisanal artifact of tradition for a dying group of dead-enders, things will need to change. Obviously there is no magic bullet, and many places, like Trinity in New Haven, are energetically evolving. The future lies in the minds and hearts of the young, and although some parishes are alive in Anglo-Catholic rituals or the use of icons and labyrinths, the exodus from commitment to all mainline churches in the Northeast suggests that there is little immediate appeal in the liturgies and practices that are fundamental to many who remain.

David Zahl helped create Mockingbird Ministries, which uses popular culture, the Web, edgy graphics, humor, and a direct approach to injecting spirituality into lives that are often overbooked and underloved. I asked Zahl, a young father, where Mockingbird’s first decade has led his thoughts. (In full disclosure, I am perhaps Mockingbird’s oldest contributor.) Zahl addressed how he believes the Next Church will embrace those whom Pew Research has quantified: “They need a Church which acknowledges the difficulty of life and brings to bear the comfort of God’s grace in the midst of their pain, a church that is not afraid to offer a spiritual (and transcendent) solution to the sadness and rage that surrounds us.”

Mockingbird Ministries communicates beyond liturgy to the fundamental truth that God is in everyone’s life, whether they know it or not. There is no simple alternative to the extreme competitions for our time in the 21st century, but there are essential realities in every life that are, to me, unaddressed in what Zahl identifies in his new book, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It — to be published this spring by Fortress Press.

I was referred to Shayna J. Watson, a recent graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary. I asked where her generation of deeply committed Christians thinks the church is heading, and she responded: “People are not declining in their seeking of God. As people continue to seek meaning, they are regrouping, not in church. … Tradition is not supposed to be an anchor, but rather the culture that propels us forward.”

I turned also to my friend Audrey Scanlan, the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, asking about the diocese’s approach in a largely, rural conservative part of the Northeast. She answered:

We are funding projects that emphasize collaboration. … Letting go of one model of church is very hard when the “new models” are experimental and shaky, at best. … We are learning how to be experimental while holding the core of our faith — the Hope that is born in the resurrection to new life.

The hard truths of reinvention are really from God, not us. We who love the church may curse our old buildings and bemoan our unappreciated rituals, but action is required, not lamentations or wishful thinking. I am an architect who has spent the better part of 40 years working with scores of congregations of several faiths to create better uses of their buildings, and I have been a member of vital congregations in New York and Connecticut and on many boards of nonprofits, all evolving in the 21st century.

There are perspectivesa layman like me can offer. I am an active consumer of the trappings of religion, and a worker in its fields of Christian devotion. Beyond lamenting the loss of the “Christendom” that Bishop Ian Douglas defined, hereare some thoughts after 60 years of Episcopal life.

Trust God (not ourselves): Every human was formed by our Creator. As we grind away at science, it relentlessly reveals the ever increasing and insane complexity of life, and its miracle is becoming inexplicable and undeniable: the fear of ignorance can end in faith. Louis Pasteur said, “A little science distances you from God, but a lot of science brings you closer to him.”

Trust the Young (they are a changed generation): Use their language: The old school, top-down conventional wisdom is simply losing meaning, and thisgrowing irrelevancy dooms churchspeak. When architects use favored terms, what we call archispeak (zonesfenestration, transparency), that jargon simply stands in for everyday words like rooms, windows, and openness. Similarly, in churchspeak, buzz words like evangelism, missional, and fellowship often simply mean accessible, purpose, and friendship.

Go Outside (where everyone is): The meanings encrypted in rituals set behind closed doors need to have their meaning lived out in the world. Giving in a secular society may be more important than services for ourselves. Food, shelter, and clothing are ways we relate to each other and ourselves, and the needs of all the children of God start with the obvious necessities.

Love the Past (but don’t force others): You cannot make the genetics of Episcopal faith anything other than what they are (clearly, based on the prayer book), but these essential words reflect our faith. They do not create it.

People are the Church (not the building): Rituals, practices, and liturgy are taught and lived in the constructions that were made for those of us in the pews. As a low Episcopalian architect I see the humanity in devotion, not the divinity in what we make. Faith creates openness to rituals, not the other way around. Those of us who are devoted to Cranmer’s words, the greatest hits of the hymnal, and the thoughtful rigor of the lectionary may be convinced of their beauty, but we need to be aware of how more and more people simply do not perceive that beauty.

Politics is Death (values mean more): We cannot compete in the secular Olympics of policy. We need to be on the side of the angels on obvious points of morality and in the value of love in every life. Anything beyond that often extends faith into judgment — great for some, poison for most.

There is future in truth. The fact that you and I are no better or worse than anyone else is simply true. The truth of love in our lives is the essence of beauty: if we can laugh, or find joy in a baby or the smell of baking bread, we are on the edge of knowing God in our lives. Attending a Eucharist, a baptism, or a Maundy Thursday service may be a result of finding this love, and they may be essential for the convinced, but we are a shrinking group of people.

Popular culture has lurched fully into a secular worldwhere personal values dominate our lives rather than faith in meaning beyond ourselves. Rather than expect the rest of our world to find God in rituals, it may be time that the reality of God needs to be revealed first — in the most basic, undeniable truths.

Venues for connection should be unlimited. Services are our religious heartbeat as Christians, but we can use the rest of our bodies and minds to use that heartbeat in the world, sharing the grace that passes all understanding. Life is inexplicable. Love is often completely unmerited, but essential. No human is more valuable than any other. The thrill of beauty makes no sense. These realities are as self-evident as our rituals are inscrutable for more and more people.

To form the Next Church, we need to express the truth of God in our lives. If religion continues to church-it-up in pretense and inside baseball, we become like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: great good stuff, beloved by an ever-shrinking, self-congratulating group of lovely people.

To some this is a dead church walking, but to me it is the cusp of resurrection.

Duo Dickinson is an award-winning architect and a member of Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut.



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