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.