TEC Parochial Report Stats from a Church Planter’s Perspective

The numbers have been tabulated from the 2017 parochial reports. How it looks depends on who you talk to. “It’s actually not that bad” some would say, as the decline is leveling off. “The Titanic is sinking at last!” exclaim the doomsdayers. Still others might say, “we need to measure other things” and reject the idea of continuing to measure Sunday attendance, membership, finances and the like.

From a church planters perspective, our numbers read volumes. Here then, are a few observations:

Say a prayer for Bethesda Episcopal Church, starting in the Orlando area — on the Forbes list.

Attendance and membership numbers matter because people matter. For us to continue and thrive into future generations we must have people. New people. More people. You’d agree that each and every number reported in our churches is one of God’s beloved. Since everyone counts, we should count everyone! In the nineteen dioceses where Forbes magazine’s twenty-five fastest growing cities are located, there is an average decline of 1.96%. In every diocese but two (here’s to Florida and Nevada)there is a decline in ASA. Is that OK? (I say no.) Does that mean something? (I say yes.)

TEC is in decline because of a failure to start new churches. Everyone has their favorite reason for decline, but this is the primary one. David Olson in The American Church in Crisis proved that every Christian denomination or group with less than a 1% planting rate is declining in attendance. We not only are not planting at the rate we are closing churches, we aren’t coming close to keeping up with population growth and demographic change. What simple minded and unrealistic thinking it is to cast aspersions at evangelical churches with “their smoke machines, video screens and contemporary music”. Could it be that the only reason why they are growing and we are not is because they are intentional about their mission field and in the right location? As we stay where we are, change nothing and “tsk tsk”, its a genuine credit to our existing churches that our decline is not steeper.

Let’s look at the numbers, just from 2012–17. In 2012 we had 6667 churches, in 2017 there are 6447. From 2012 to 2017 we planted 86 new churches and mission enterprise zones. (Many of which will never track attendance and membership, but let’s be generous!) That is a decline of 220, a -3% rate. Olson reports that growing organizations need at least a 2% planting rate to keep up with closures and population growth. For us to have done that over these last five years we would need 7360 churches (compared to our 6447), necessitating a whopping 913 new ministries (compared to our 86).

We need pioneers, not settlers.

Just imagine what how TEC would change if we set this as a priority. It would change the way we look for leaders, educate and train clergy, allocate resources and run dioceses. Decline makes us want to circle the wagons. I’m calling for the church to head ’em up and move ’em out! More than ever, we need pioneers, not settlers.

Our numbers ask us to make peace with the fact that America has changed. If you’ve read this far, maybe you’d be up to doing a study of your diocese’s church planting history. The last susbstantial church planting boom in TEC was in the ‘50’s, with what my friend The Rev. Valerie Bailey-Fisher calls “Eisenhower Churches”. Many of our churches are on downtown squares or just off highways that link to aging neighborhoods. These churches were terrific in both location and program fifty years ago. As they have declined, many faithful members have stayed with it. “There just aren’t any children anymore!”, they cry. “What are they going to do once all of us are gone?” they wonder.

We need to make peace with the simple fact that we can no longer expect young families to travel to those old locations and participate in a fifty year old program model church. All of our best efforts — like the awesome work done by Invite, Welcome, Connect — still isn’t adding up and breaking through this gravity.

We need new churches in the right locations with new buildings and entrepreneurial leaders. We need ministries that will respond to America’s diversity and are designed to reach children and youth. I believe — with all my heart — that the best days of our church are ahead of us, not behind us. I believe — firmly — that we don’t have to settle for these declining numbers year after year. I believe — can I get a witness? — that God is raising up leaders to change and grow our church for the better.

The only way I know to plant 913 new churches is to do them one at a time. Please pray for our work. We are building infrastructures of support that will coach, train, fund and encourage new ministries across the church. We are working to “lower the bar” for dioceses to start new ministries. Will you join us in the movement? Read more here and like the Genesis Facebook page. People matter. We have a wonderful church and an awesome God!