What does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? There are those of us who care. We may have our share of frustrations with and criticisms of the Church. I certainly do. But she has been our lifeline too many times for us to dismiss her. So we care.
It is in vogue to say the Church is a dead letter. Spirituality may survive in some vague, subjective way so long as it doesn’t actually say anything other than banal affirmations and so long as it does not demand anything inconvenient of people who have more important commitments. But the Church, the institution, the network of committed relationships among people who disagree about most things but share the most important things – who have a common intuition of where we came from, where we’re going, and what it all means – that family is fading fast and the diagnosis is terminal. Many Church folks have adopted a posture of fatalistic pessimism. Many small churches mourn for the death of their congregation even though they are still very much alive. And religion pundits sometimes talk about our impending death with a thinly veiled glee. So what do I say about the future of the Church?
All futures are uncertain. History is written. The future isn’t. So let’s start with acknowledging that we don’t know. If we don’t know, then what attitude shall we take – despair, hope, curiosity? As Christians our attitude might well be informed by a theology of the future. Here is one: God has a desire and a plan for the Church. “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 But God will not impose the divine plan on us. Rather God give us a choice. “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse . . . . Choose life. “ Deuteronomy 30: 19 Cf Jeremiah 21: 8 God invites us into a future and offers us the strength and resources we need – the manna in the wilderness – to become what we are called to be. Whether we as a community consent to become what God wants us to be is, however, up to us. I am troubled by the suspicion that our pessimism is a way of saying “We can’t make it” because we don’t really want to show up. We don’t want to show up because becoming who God calls us to be will be costly. It threatens to cost us everything.
Now to speak sociologically: I was recently talking with a religion analyst about our decline. It reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The plague is on and a mortician is going about with a cart removing corpses from homes for a small fee.
Mortician: Bring out your dead.
Customer: Here’s one – 9 pence.
Dead person: I’m not dead.
Customer: Nothing – here’s your nine pence.
Dead person: I’m not dead!
Mortician: Here – he says he’s not dead.
Customer: Yes he is.
Dead person: I’m not!
Mortician: He isn’t.
Customer: Well, he will be soon. He’s very ill.
Dead person: I’m getting better.
Customer: No, you’re not. You’ll be stone dead in a moment.
Mortician: I can’t take him like that – it’s against regulations.
Dead person: I don’t want to go in the cart.
Customer: Oh don’t be such a baby.
Mortician: I can’t take him.
Dead person: I feel fine.
Customer: Oh do us a favor.
The analyst showed me a graph of the membership of the Episcopal Church in recent years. There was a sharp downturn – not surprisingly corresponding to the years of the schism when five dioceses left the denomination and some parishes split off from dioceses that remained in the fold. However, the last couple of years showed a sharp rebound in Episcopal Church membership. I asked what that might suggest. He said it didn’t mean anything because church membership figures are inherently unreliable. I grant in a heartbeat that membership is not a reliable number. However, my point is that we find membership numbers significant when they show decline, but not when they show growth. I sense a bias in how we read numbers.
If membership means anything at all, this might be of interest. I cannot find my source for this, but I have been told that the membership of the Episcopal Church today is the same percentage of the American population that it was in the 1920s. Granted that is much smaller than it was in the 1960s but it does put things in a certain perspective.
Most dioceses I know are reporting growth in attendance. We all have some parishes growing and some shrinking. My experience is that growth and decline shift among parishes in different years. But generally speaking, it’s going pretty well out there in the mission field. The hole in that good cheer is the plight of small town churches. As jobs leave small towns, people go with them, especially young people. That takes a genuine toll on small town churches. But somehow dioceses are reporting increased attendance on the whole. I don’t have official CPG statistics on this. But when I ask how it’s going, Bishops are telling me it’s going well in that respect. Moreover, as people’s schedules are changing, church life is expanding beyond Sunday mornings into various kinds of gatherings for prayer, study, and worship throughout the week in forms that are not generally part of any measuring reports. Theology on Tap for example is bringing untold young people into the Episcopal circle, but no one is counting them.
Speaking of young people, what about the Millennials – the generation we have supposedly lost? Three points about Millennials:
1.In American Grace, Robert Putnam observes that there is a stage of life factor and there is a stage of history factor in measuring church affiliation. Millennials are at the stage of life when they tend not to affiliate with church; and this is a stage of history with lowered church affiliation. The combination of the two factors makes the statistics on the millennial exodus more dramatic. In other words, the stage of history factor is real but the stage of life factor makes it look like a bigger deal. The pessimistic statisticians report the total as if it were all stage of history.
2. Now let’s put the stage of history factor in context: Church
affiliation has declined during an era when all voluntary associations have declined. Every group from the Kiwanis to the NAACP to the neighborhood bowling league have lost membership. See Putnam, Bowling Alone. So our self-recriminations about what we Church folks have done wrong are excessive. We have been through an era of disassociation from civic groups (including all voluntary associations). I don’t meant to let us off the hook completely, but we have primarily been part of that broader trend. The important fact observed by Gilbert Rendle is that American society over the course of history has repeatedly come together in those voluntary associations, vaunted by Alexis de Tocqueville as essential to our free republic, and then seen those associations disintegrate, in order to come together again in new ways. It is a recurring cycle. We have been on the downswing and are nearly due for the next upswing.
3. But let’s acknowledge that there is a special sociological trend that makes the Millennial/ Church situation particularly strong. True, there is an exodus of Millennials from churches. But they are for the most part fleeing from the fundamentalist churches that surged in the 80s and 90s as a backlash against the anti-establishment excesses of the 60s and 70s. The number one adjective people under 30 use to describe Christians is “anti-homosexual.” The old saw that our LGBT inclusion is the cause of our decline is flat wrong when it comes to Millennials. We are in fact ahead of the curve on that point. I have known a good number of young straight people who joined our Church precisely because we are inclusive. For the very reason that overall Millennial/ Church affiliation has declined in recent years, the Episcopal Church is well positioned to attract Millennials when they come to the re-afilliation stage of life.
The summary conclusion on Millennials is that they are not less spiritually and religiously inclined than their ancestors. They are different and the Church must make some changes in order to be in relationship with this new generation – but without exception, I believe these changes are for the good. The Millennials insist on integrity, authenticity, and mission. They want to see a Church put its time and money where its mouth is. They are not formally affiliated with us now but Millennials place a higher value on community than did the Boomers or the Gen-Xers. They are intrinsically inclined to affiliate in a way that Boomers and Xers are not. To throw up our hands and write off this generation of young Americans would be to abandon them to a secularism unworthy of their good characters.
So back to the broader question: what is the future of the Episcopal Church? I do not mean for a minute to sound confident or to suggest that we do not need to take bold energetic action for the future. God invites us into a future excitingly and frighteningly different from our past. “Behold I am doing a new thing. Even now it springs up! Do you not perceive it? I am making a pathway in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19 Some of our old ways will not do. Sometimes “new wine will break old wineskins.” Mark 2: 22 But other old ways, by which I mean ways older than the “contemporary” adaptations of the 70s and 80s – old ways, by which I mean the ancient reverent mysterious ways we have somewhat forgotten in our modernizing impulses – these old ways may be the key to our future. “The Scribe who is trained for the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings out of the storehouse things that are old and things that are new.” Matthew 13: 52
So here are my three fundamental and absolutely simple points about the future of the Episcopal Church:
1.The future is unwritten. We don’t know what is coming next. The prophets of gloom are expressing an attitude, not a proven fact.
2. God invites to a future of hope and spiritual prosperity. If we don’t want that, we should just say so instead of hiding behind pessimistic fatalism. If we die, it will be an act of ecclesiastical suicide.
3. We must not change in order to survive. That would be self-serving and unbearably boring. We must change in order to dance into the new thing that God is doing, to experience the surprise and delight of grace erupting in new ways.