Angry reacts only: Declining church attendance and the digital church

The Episcopal Church recently released statistics on membership, average Sunday attendance, and annual giving. Following trends reported ad nauseum over the past several years — and an overall sense we all carry that society is so over that “God stuff” — The Episcopal Church overall reports that average Sunday attendance is down 25 percent over the past decade.

It’s a decline of about 200,000 people.

In my home diocese, the Diocese of Pennsylvania which covers, in part, Philadelphia, the decline mirrored the national trend with a 27 percent decline. Though, between 2015 and 2016, there was a slight 0.4 percent increase.

Now, there are some outside of the Church who look at these statistics with cynicism. Of course, they say, fewer people are going to church nowadays. It’s a relic that’s rife with superstitious hogwash and conmen!

A few journalists will report on these statistics and likely conflate the Church universal — an institution that has existed millennia that has developed creeds and theology through academic understanding and intense philosophical practice and discussion — with random people online who predict the end of the world every few weeks for attention and GoFundMe donations.

Others within the Church will read these statistics and figuratively light their hair on fire; they’ll begin screaming about the way things used to be and how they ought to be that way again.

If only we could return to the great golden age of church attendance, they’ll say. This is, of course, a revisionist fantasy that ignores how terrible things used to be for a great many people in society overall, including within the Church. It also ignores that the great halcyon days of church attendance were immediately following World War II when all institutions in democratic society became incredibly strong.

It’s easier to convince people to build up strength and integrity in politics, journalism, the economy, and churches when you’ve just witnessed the horrors of what happens when they’re being torn down.

These statistics got me thinking about the churches we physically inhabit. But, this also makes me think about the holy catholic digital Church: the Church we promote and convey online.

Naturally, Christ requires no internet, no hashtags, no Instagram account.

After all, people have sought out the Word for 2,000 years.

But, the Church itself is not immune from the same stresses and growing pains other dimensions of human life in the 21st century are experiencing.

From dating to transportation, the way we live is rapidly changing. Industries are dying out. New ones are emerging. The way we work is changing. Income inequality is rampant. We used to be able to look to our national leaders for guidance. Today, we cannot.

In short, we are at a loss for stability, security, and intimacy.

While it’s true that for 6,000 years of recorded human history, there have always been hard times, it does feel as though there’s something particularly special about this age when we sort potential husbands and wives with a swipe to the left or right.

The Word requires no gimmickry, repackaging, or capitalist sheen. Christ needs no rebrand. He is and always has been.

Our personal behavior as Christians on the internet, on the other hand, could use a bit of work.

To be sure, our discipleship could always use some improvement. That really is the game, after all: grace unearned and undeserved.

Jesuit thinker Father James Martin has been ostracized by fringe, far right groups within the Catholic Church for simply starting a dialogue with LGBT Catholics. He’s had a recent speaking engagement canceled. Even Archbishop Charles Chaput, not exactly the most progressive man, came to Martin’s defense.

It’s not just the Catholics, either. We Episcopalians promote this maliciousness regularly online, too.

Spend some time on an Episcopalian Facebook group to see just how quickly things go off the rails and turn into a rage-fueled frenzy that looks more like the 2016 presidential election than a discussion between Christians.

There are some who say that the digital Church is not the Church. This is wrong.

We can’t act like the internet doesn’t exist.

Thinking of the Church digitally doesn’t cheapen the Word, either.

The digital age is a gift for us. We can now interact with Christians across the world to pray together, to share ideas, to befriend one another, to proclaim the truth: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

The internet, though, is only as useful as we are virtuous. And, our content needs to be produced thoughtfully and with good care. If we consider our discipleship on the internet as an afterthought instead of a new dimension of our Christian life, we are going to err tremendously.

Likewise, if we become bullies or internet-based inquisitors, we abuse this gift just as we abuse ourselves when we act out in other ways in our lives through sex, food, or money.

To be sure, I am not talking about righteous anger conveyed online at injustice or abominations like white supremacy, hatred, homophobia, or other ills that persistently bedevil our society. And, I am not talking about candid discussions on theology.

I’m simply saying that a holistic approach to the 21st century realities before us ought to include digital due diligence — and, of course, listening to the Holy Spirit instead of our own insecurities or biases.

I’ve been disturbed by the casual way some of us Christians handle other’s emotions: the propensity all human beings, inside and outside the Church, have of acting as though the internet is a different thing altogether from “real” life.

It’s shown in the way we think everything is a gag put on for our own amusement, the enthralling way we work ourselves up into a frenzy and cause damage to ourselves or others by impulsively smashing that post button. It’s shown in the lack of charity in Facebook comments, the fantasies about retribution under news stories, the brutish assertions of heresy.

Angry reacts only, please.

Our lack of care toward the digital age is shown in the way we think so long as we’re showing up on Sundays, we need not think about our digital presentation — as parishes, as priests, as Christians, as disciples.

In our age, that’s as effective as praying away strep throat instead of taking antibiotics.

I guess what I’m saying here is that we ought to be thinking as a Church about how we honor and glorify God, proclaim the Truth, and stay connected to the world and the times all at the same time.

It’s a challenge. But, so long as we keep Christ front and center at all times, we’ll get through.

Just, please, think before you comment. Charity in all things.

And, read the article first.