Engagement : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The numbers are in, and they are not good. This last month the Episcopal Church released the numbers garnered from parochial reports for 2018. In a single year, the church lost over 36,000 active members. During that same year, average Sunday attendance dropped by almost 25,000. These figures, however, do not tell the larger story. From 2008-2018, average Sunday attendance has declined by almost 25% in the course of the decade, with some provinces losing a full 30% of attendees. Currently, the denomination has more parishes of less than 10 persons than it has congregations with an attendance of 300 or more. While the average age in the United States is about 37, the average age of an Episcopalian is 57. Some dioceses present a picture in which it is difficult to perceive even short term viability. For instance, the Diocese of Northern Michigan currently has 1,259 baptized members with an average Sunday attendance of 394 scattered among 21 parishes. Across the whole denomination, the median average Sunday worship attendance is 53.
We have to wonder if the Episcopal Church has reached a “tipping point”. That is, has it reached a point from which there is no clear way forward, apart from a continuing downward spiral that increases in speed and intensity in the course of the next ten to twenty years? Now, to be clear, we could see very similar statistics from a whole range of mainline denominations, including Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and more.
As a theologian, my first inclination is to lay the blame for decline at the door of a faulty theology. “Obviously, the liberal theological positions of the mainstream churches have driven people out the door.” Yet, it may not be so simple. We also see a decline among numerous conservative and breakaway denominations as well. Moreover, if we look at the Roman Catholic Church and its precipitous loss of active members over the course of the last decade, we might have an even further pause to consider. The theology has not changed, but society and societal norms have changed around that theology.
Among the changes in society are those dealing with gender roles and sexuality. All of the mainstream Protestant churches have long since welcomed women into the ranks of the clergy at all levels. A complementarian point of view in these circles has increasingly become an almost unheard dissenting opinion. Meanwhile, LGBTQ issues of same sex marriage and clerical ordination have split denominations but nevertheless, for the most part, have gained acceptance in mainstream Protestant churches. There are surprising shifts happening even among evangelicals. A recent report indicates that while 75% of older evangelicals oppose marriage equality, some 53% of younger evangelicals are supportive of same sex marriages. Evan allowing for the stated opposition of the Roman Catholic Church and other smaller denominations, it is clear that societal norms are rapidly becoming the norms of numerous faith communities. Moreover, it is clear that this is only the beginning of a massive social change that seems set to increase and gain momentum as the current generation of “boomers” in America begin to fade from the scene in the coming years.
From all appearances and indicators, it seems that we are steadily moving toward a post-Christian society in America, similar to that of Western Europe, albeit with a distinctly “American” flavor. In America we will continue to invoke God’s name in the public square, even as the churches are closed and shuttered on the side streets.
For myself, I sometimes want to lock myself in my library, say my prayers, read my books and ignore the changes that are taking place. It’s probably my greatest temptation. Yet, I know that it is not possible. Unlike those who experienced the plague of the Black Death in the fourteenth century and survived by locking the city gates, we cannot be quarantined from the changes that are sweeping through our society and through our churches. In light of this, I would suggest instead, that this is a time for engagement, not withdrawal.
How we engage, however, is the point. We have to provide what society at large cannot provide or, in some cases, what society at large has set aside. Rather than being a mere reflection of the society, we have to be an authentic reflection of what it means to be the Church. Furthermore, being an authentic refection of what it means to be the Church may allow us to not only engage the society around us, but may also allows us to provide certain elements which the society has lost, or set aside.
For instance, American society has increasingly taken on an anti-intellectual, anti-expertise bias. This has been chronicled in Tom Nichol’s book, ‘The Death of Expertise’. Now, whether you wish to believe it or not, the Church has for centuries been the incubator of intellectual life. This was the result of the belief that education and intellectual life were good, in and of themselves. Unfortunately, much of this has been abandoned in recent years as Christian communities and individuals have reduced themselves to the same pat answers and two sentence slogans that have become the standard fare of the internet. A return to, and an encouragement of, scholarship would benefit both Church and Society alike.
American society is also increasingly “ahistorical”. It is not just that history is not known, it is considered almost irrelevant. The Church, however, is rooted in history. Indeed, churches divorced from history effectively disregard the work of the Holy Spirit over the course of 2000 years. When this happens, they most often take on the nature and immediate attributes of the society in which they find themselves. The acknowledgement of history as being formative, is a gift that the Church can offer to society at large, but only if we recognize that history ourselves.
There is also a need for community, as individuals in society are increasingly isolated. The isolation may be the result of the digital age as we are siloed behind our screens. The isolation may be the result of aging as retiring boomers make their way into retirement communities. As small towns, cities and suburbs change, it is increasingly difficult to find a sense of community. Now, I wish to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Church engages in providing a sense of community for people as an element of some plan for Church Growth. We should do it because that is who and what we are supposed to be as the Church. The way in which that community is expressed will be different for each church, but I think it is time to lay down our denominational and petty theological rivalries and, instead, focus on being the loving and accepting gatherings envisioned in the New Testament and practiced in the early centuries of the Church.
There are certainly other points of engagement that could be named and expanded upon, but the point of this article is to say that the Church, by its very DNA, still has gifts to offer. We still have the ability to be salt and light. It is not a time for withdrawal, yelling at the kids to “get off my lawn” as we disengage and fade. It is a time for engagement. Apart from Christ, it is our only hope.