ECUSA is winning…the race of decline

From the Washington Post Belief Blog, this just in:

It’s always intriguing to see which churches have grown and which denominations have faded in the past year. According to the 2008 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (a Bible of sorts for us religion writers), the fastest-growing religious body in 2007 was the Jehovah’s Witnesses at 2.25 percent.

Following them were the Mormons at 1.56 percent and the Roman Catholics at .87 percent. Compare this to last year’s states that had the Catholics out front at 1.94 percent, followed by the Assemblies of God at 1.86 and the Mormons at 1.63.

The denomination with the biggest decrease is the Episcopalians at 4.15 percent.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. Most conservatives in blogospheria Anglicana like to describe ECUSA as crisis terms, doomed to near-certain extinction at any moment. Most progressives like to say that everything is just fine in Episcopal-land. Nothing to worry about here! Move along, move along.

I think both sides are right, and wrong. Mostly, the church is doing OK. Except for a few parishes (led by a particular type of grumpy clergy), people don’t seem to care about the current crisis. They just want to do the things the church does. In fact, in many congregations, one would experience a sense of deep vitality in faith, mission, and action. On the other hand, we cannot deny the fact that there is a very real problem.

We are in numerical decline. If this does not change, things will not be fine. Why are we declining? I think there are lots of reasons, and even more excuses. Here’s my take (at least today, and this will be the subject of future posts, no doubt). We are declining because we have forgotten why we are here. We are not in the world to bring justice to the world. We are not here to preserve the past. We are not here as a social gathering. We are not here to make people feel good. We are not here to make people feel bad.

We are here to bring people to God, and God to people. We are here as an icon of the kingdom of God. We’re in the salvation biz, not the justice biz. We had better get more serious about God’s love than about institutions.

Here’s the test. Next Sunday, ask people at your church why they got out of bed to come to church. Better yet, ask people who didn’t go to church what it would take to get them there. Ask these questions. I’ll bet the answers will be illuminating.

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6 Responses

  1. Josh Indiana says:

    I don’t know of any church that has forgotten why we’re here. But I know many that suffer for lack of a parking lot.

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Well, sure. Everyone in a church can come up with a reason why they’re there. But my experience is that it’s (a) often not a compelling reason and (b) the church doesn’t share a common purpose. The result is that a few comfortable insiders show up week by week, and the congregation withers, slowly.

    Mind you, this is not the case everywhere. I’m doing my part in Rhode Island, along with a few others. Our worship attendance is 30% higher so far in 2008 than for the same period in 2007.

    So, my question remains: why do people bother to come to church? Is it a reason that involves transformation? New life? Salvation?


    P.S. We don’t have a parking lot either, but growth is still happening.

  3. Frank C says:

    I am currently attending an Episcopal Church in CT after many years as a lapsed Methodist. I actually enjoy the Episcopal Church for their inclusivity! The pastor was so worried that the split culminating in the Episcopal Church would deter me from joining (as well as converting, which I am doing—you can change that percent of 4.15!!) It is actually nice to go to Church and just enjoy it–I particularly do not care for Churches that discriminate or become so politically overinvolved with issues that they forget the entire purpose of Church as well as Christianity.


    Frank C

  4. Rob says:

    Rev Scott, you stated that growth is still happening despite not having a parking lot. I looked on the Episcopal website and found that Christ Church, Lincoln’s stat page here:

    I would call that precipitous decline, not growth.

  5. Scott Gunn says:

    Fair enough, based on the data you can see. There are two things that mitigate that data. First, that single year of precipitous decline (after several stable years, which should indicate a data anomaly), was mostly due to a reporting variance. There was a change in the method of recording attendance. Previously, a children’s service was recorded, and that didn’t happen. Second, during the interim period, no one knew about properly recording Sunday afternoon and vigil services as part of Sunday, so there was a decline.

    Here’s what I can tell you. So far in 2008, our worship attendance (not counting a children’s service) is up about 30% over last year. Apples to apples. We added 23 new pledge units for 2008.

    That’s growth. You just can’t see it online.

    I don’t know what the pattern will be in 2-3 years, but for now we are adding new families regularly.

    Growth is inherent to the faith. If growth is NOT happening, there’s a problem. That’s just my $.02.


  6. Rob says:

    Dear Scott , I did indeed see the stability (which I would not call growth) followed by a big one year drop. I figured that there was something going on behind the numbers. Thanks.

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