A three-point plan for turning around the Episcopal Church right now!
We’ve had another release of statistics on membership and attendance in Episcopal churches. Besides an increase in stewardship (0.7%), the news is not good. Membership in Episcopal churches is down 2.1% and 19% over the last ten years. Worse, Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) is down 3.4% and 26% over the last ten years. The median ASA in the Episcopal Church is now just 58. Only 4% of our churches have an ASA over 300 and 71% have an ASA of 100 or less. Yikes!
Is it because of the declining attitude about church in the northeast? Is it because of liberal theology? No. In our beloved, demographically awesome Diocese of Dallas, we’ve declined .5% in membership and a higher than the national average 5.3% in ASA.
Is it because we need a massive restructuring in church polity, governance and resources? Probably not. Is it simply because we are a mainline denomination whose glory days are behind us? Is it because people are choosing non-denominational “big box” churches? Hey, it’s far better to be pure in liturgy than large in attendance, right? Wrong.
I’m not particularly concerned with nailing down the reason for the decline. Instead, I want to affirm, with all of my heart, that we have all the resources we need to turn the whole thing around right now. We’ve got God. We’ve got the Scriptures. We’ve got the Sacraments. We have talented clergy, dedicated lay people and wonderful resources. So let’s go! Let’s go!
How much time will we spend looking to consultants from Human Synergistics for solutions to fix the denominational structure? How much longer will we wring our hands over the details of the Diocesan strategic plan? How much more time will you spend in church Vestry meetings talking about replacing appliances in the church kitchen? All of these things have their place — important ones in fact. But this is not why we do what we do. We must get busy in our mission fields, reaching outward, not looking inward.
Here, then, is a simple three point plan for turning around the Episcopal Church right now.
- To the clergy — preach the Gospel. It is Jesus people need, not social commentary. Over the last few days I’ve been stunned at the level of passion that clergy have put forth about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I wish you would get as excited about Jesus as you are about Trump’s tapes and Hillary’s e-mails! In your social media profile, and for God’s sake your pulpit, stop imposing your polarizing ideas on your congregation. Is being “prophetic” a simple code-word for making yourself feel better via your bully pulpit? Cut it out! Lift up the goodness, grace and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Cast a vision of a church united in a common mission of transformation. Make your church a house of healing, a resource of reconciliation and a haven of hope. Most people — even the people who agree with you — really don’t want to feel more lousy about the world and themselves than when they came in. The Gospel is Good News. Even confrontational sermons must be soaked in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. I’m sorry to break this to you, but the Jesus Movement is not the installment of your personal political philosophy. Be excited about Jesus! Less of you and more of Him.
- To the laity — be nice to people! For example, one small reason for the decline in the Episcopal Church, I’m convinced, is the Exchange of the Peace. While members hug, chat and smile with one another, visitors of our churches stand stiffly, often completely ignored, thinking, “well, I guess this place isn’t for me”. Most churches feel like they are nice and welcoming, but really they are not. When is the last time you welcomed a newcomer? Sat next to someone you didn’t know? Made it a point to extend your friendship to someone outside of your current circle of relationships? No amount of restructuring at any level, no change in the music, and no amount of good preaching is strong enough to overcome this obstacle. This is not the Vestry’s job or the “Invite, Welcome, Connect” team’s initiative to achieve. If you love your church and want to see it succeed, this turnaround must start with you. A welcoming church will grow — not just because people will return but because it will be a safe place for people to invite friends to.
- To all of us — exist for your mission field, not yourselves. Way too much of our energy and resources flow inward, not outward. How much longer will your church exist for itself? If the place was closed, would your community notice? Would it care? The days when we can paint our front doors red and expect people to come are gone and they are never coming back. Our mission fields don’t care about our stained glass windows, our organs or even how great the baked goods are at coffee hour after church. What is one thing your church could do to reach out? How might you open those red doors wide and let people know they can come? Where are the poor and how can you serve them? What is a need in your community that your church can meet? When will the blessed energy of your church flow outward instead of inward?
I believe in the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Dallas, the church you attend and I believe in you. Most of all, I believe in Jesus. We must do good work, but our trust is not in a denominational restructuring, General Convention resolution or church committee. I know the plans He has for us: and they are to give us a future with hope. (Jeremiah 29:11) Our hope is in the Lord.
As for the statistics, the thinking that says, “the last one turn out the lights” I’ll leave to others. This turnaround starts today! We will leave our church stronger than we found it. We will be the generation that turns this around. And when structure, lack of resources and even the forces of hell itself work against us, we will not grow weary. So our flock is smaller than it used to be. So what?! Our Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” — Luke 12:32
Let’s go! And remember, God loves you.