Of elephants in rooms

Inertia is felt nowhere more strongly than in the church. In some respects, this is a good thing. When you are seeking to maintain continuity with 2,000 years of tradition, you don’t want to change too quickly. On the other hand, when institutions fail to acknowledge changes around them, it’s impossible to carry on.

We are at a critical point in the life of the Episcopal Church. Read the “state of the church” report in the so-called Blue Book, and you’ll see that attendance declined 10.5% in four years from 2003-2007. If that continues much longer, we will be in a vortex from which we cannot escape. This is a crisis. Most alarming for me, many of our church leaders refuse to acknowledge that we’re in crisis. “Others are facing the same challenges” or “there are lots of good things happening in my congregation” are the frequent responses. But you cannot argue with an overall 10.5% decline in four years.

The big question is why are we declining so rapidly? Some will ascribe blame to liberal teachings and practices in the Episcopal Church. That’s a tough position to maintain when you dig into the details of particular places and begin to notice that the decline (and growth, where it’s found) does not seem to correlate with theological position.

My theory is that we’re not very clear about our mission. Because of that, we’re not very good at offering compelling reasons for participation. We are not in the social justice business. We are not in the museum business. We are not in the social club business. We are in the salvation business.

By “salvation” I do not mean that the church is a giant machine to punch people’s tickets to get them into heaven. Rather, I mean salvation in the fullness of the underlying Greek word, sozo. That’s redemption, wholeness, healing, and salvation.

So, sure, we seek to draw people into God’s everlasting life. In this life, though, we have a lot to offer as well. At the core of the Anglican tradition is an emphasis on holiness of living. Salvation is not something that you earn after this life. It’s something that begins in this life. Read the Gospel according to John if you don’t believe me.

Sadly, this will not be discussed at General Convention. We will talk our way around the crisis. We will not spend much time on our purpose. Yes, there are “mission conversations” scheduled, but those are likely to be focused on the service aspect of mission: social justice, especially the MDGs. These are worthy things, but they are secondary.

I hope at every committee hearing as every resolution is discussed, someone will ask about the connection to our crisis. We shouldn’t start playing numbers games where we implement goofy programs to boost attendance, but we should ask why we are not compelling enough to draw people into church life more often.

“Help me feed someone” is not a compelling reason to get someone out of bed on a Sunday morning. There are lots of agencies which can do this work better than we will. “Join us as we seek to find new life” is a compelling get-me-out-bed story.

So, friends, if you are gong to Anaheim, read the state of the church report. It has four legs, gray skin, and a big trunk. Don’t let it sneak around. Keep pointing it out to everyone.

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7 Responses

  1. Peter Mayer says:

    This is best thing about the church I’ve read in a long time. This should be on everyone’s hotel pillow along with the chocolate when they arrive to GC.

  2. Greg Cole says:

    Great words. I couldn’t agree more. The church that I experience is in the preservation business – buildings, institutions, tradition, etc. We need to be in the transformation business, even if that means letting go of some of our sacred things and ways. I don’t think that Jesus cares too much about our buildings that are on the Register of Historic Places. Jesus came to bring us abundant life as people reconciled to God. All else stems from that!

  3. Bob Chapman says:

    This Episcopal Church is good at majoring in minors, as are all denominations. We have one difference. With our history, we can do it in evangelical, Anglo-catholic, or social gospel ways at the same time. Most denominations choose one of those in which to specialize.

    It is easy to place the secondary in place of the primary.

    The evangelical mistake is to put into practice what they sing in the song “Jesus Loves Me.” “The Bible tells me so” turns the converting work of the Holy Spirit into a form of Pelagianism. We are not able to make a decision to accept Jesus by reading the Bible. It is not our decision that makes us Christian; it was God’s decision that makes us Christian. We can only turn away from Love.

    The Anglo-catholic mistake is to take an experience of true worship of God and think that anyone will be worshiping God if they only do the same motions. The motions may put us into the right frame of mind to receive Grace, but we can’t force God’s hand. It is God’s action, not our action.

    The social gospel approach is the most slippery of slopes. Jesus says our delivery of that cup of cold water to someone means we gave it to Him. Well, who wouldn’t want to give Jesus a cup of water? The problem comes when we start delivering that cup of cold water to someone else in order to help us–instead of helping that other person. The act of kindness turns into an act of self-seeking greed.

    I only say this because, if General Convention acknowledges the elephant, then individuals will tend to prescribe what worked for them to everyone else. It doesn’t make any difference if it finding a way to tweat the Gospel, post-modern worship, or the MDGs: one solution does not fit all.

    Personally, I think particular one solution doesn’t fit one person. While I think everyone at General Convention would agree intellecutally, people tend to disagree with their hearts.

    My prayers are with everyone at General Convention. May they preach the Gospel to the world–using words, if necessary.

  4. John Gardner says:

    I stumbled on this article thanks to Pete Mayer. Thanks for writing this–I’ll make sure the deputies from Southwestern Virginia have a chance to read this!

  5. Your article targets the crucial issue facing this church and all the once “mainstream” Protestant denominations. I was just having at the Bishop of Newark about this very thing this morning, and will forward these observations to him. The evangelicals and pentecostals care about salvation, and more and more of them in the fuller sense that includes the social dimension. Most importantly, they have an entrepreneurial energy that is more important than their conservative theology. Well done!

  6. Phil Snyder says:

    Scott – good article. I believe that 40 years of Liberal ascendancy has left us without a Gospel Proclaimation. It seems that we have become a Church of Latitudinarians where what we believe is not so imporant as what we do – socially. The call I see TEC giving the world is to come and be made nice. It is not the call to come and let God kill you so that He can raise you to new life.

    Combine that with 33 years of very serious conflict (the BCP, Women’s Ordination, inclusinve language and the place of homosexual sex within the life of the Church and now TEC is know as the church that sues its members – I had a RC Deacon ask me why TEC was suing congregations and individuals in those congregations that held title to their own property last weekend when I was in prison) and you have a great recipie for decline in attendance and membership.

    What we need to recover is a witness to Jesus’ power ot make all of creation new – after it has been killed. We need to recover our evangelistic zeal and be very clear that, while we don’t know what doesn’t work when it comes to bring health, wholeness, salvation, and union with God; we do know what does – Jesus does.

    We also need to recover the meaning of faith as “trust” rather than “belief.” All too often we think of faith as accepting a set of theological propositions, but we never risk ourselves with them.

    Above all, we (particularly we clergy) need to recover our call and mandate to be instructors and guides in what living as a new creature means.

    Phil Snyder

  7. Rich Bardusch says:

    I second Peter’s comment! I will say a prayer that everyone at GC reads this post.