House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church

The Church is Not Dying, It Is Changing: A Message from the House of Deputies Theologian

As leaders in the Episcopal Church, you have all heard a good deal about the so-called “decline of the church.” The number of both church members and dollars contributed to the Episcopal Church, locally and nationally, has been decreasing for decades. This has ignited a good deal of concern in church circles. Many are worried about the long-term viability of the church. Numerous programs meant to stimulate “church growth” have been launched. Strategies for the proper use of resources have been developed. Hard choices are being made. All of this is well-intended and some of it is necessary. But it also calls for care and caution, because paying too much attention to this narrative of decline may, in fact, be contributing to that decline itself.

Now, before I say anything more, I need to ask in advance for you to forgive me for the gross generalizations I am about to make. This is a short column and I do not have the space to lay out the nuanced case this topic deserves. That said, I think there are some crucial considerations to keep in mind while legislating for a church that, in large part, seems to believe that it is going extinct.

It is of no comfort at all to note that loss of membership is hardly a reality faced by the Episcopal Church alone. Even so, it does make it clear that no denomination—no, not even the evangelical ones—is experiencing explosive growth. (You can review the data collected by the Pew Research Center on this, if you are interested in digging down into it.) Individual congregations and even some dioceses are growing, however. And that actually does hint at where our energies are best placed. More on this in a moment.

My central point is that I encourage you to resist succumbing to the narrative of decline for one simple and extremely important reason: we do not make good decisions out of fear. When the driving question is about getting butts in pews, the answer tends to take the form of all sorts of ploys to convince people they want to come spend their limited time with us, doing the things we already do, in the forms we already do them. When the controlling emotion is fear or even panic, we can end up resorting to ineffective “programs” that do not address the real, deep issues that are in play. The idea is to preserve what we have, to keep it going, rather than to take the risk of moving in new and sometimes uncharted directions because that is where the needs are greatest.

Why are the congregations that are growing growing? Because they realize the church is not dying, it is changing. The fear that change provokes can feel like the approach of death. So can the loss of many things about church that we love, and I am under no illusion that some of those things are being lost. However, church is not something that exists for us alone, for those already in the family. It is more properly framed as something dynamic, a movement, a force for the transformation of the world. Our work is not to preserve an institution, as critical as the institution that is the Episcopal Church might be. Our work is to proclaim the gospel and bring it to a world that is desperate for what the gospel promises and the healing that it brings. The growth of congregations where that is precisely what is happening shows how powerful it is when we concentrate on answering people’s deep spiritual yearning and hunger rather than on creating marketing strategies that try to sell church as a desirable consumer commodity in the marketplace of available options.

We are now in Advent. Just as Mary was told not to be afraid because something revolutionary was about to happen to and through her, we will soon hear the angels tell the shepherds the same: fear is the wrong response to the coming of the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World. The proper response is joy—a joy that is meant to be shared. Moreover, we are Christians, believers in a God who has brought life out of death before and promises to do the same again and again. Both death and the change that can feel like death, while real and grievous, ultimately hold no power over us. So, go boldly into this work, holding the narrative of decline at arm’s length, resolved to take the risk of doing what will bring the gospel to the people rather than the people to our established way of being church. Jesus promises to be with us in this work (Matt. 28:19–20). We have nothing to fear!

A blessed Advent to you all!