Among the tidbits:
--A drop from 1,923,000 members in 2011 to 1,770,000 in 2015.
--More alarming in Crusty's opinions is the number for Average Sunday attendance (ASA), which is, in many ways, the more significant one, since it reflects those actually engaged regularly in the worshipping life of a congregation. This has dropped from 657,000 in 2011 to 579,000 in 2015. That's 12% in four years.
--The average ASA of an Episcopal Church is 58. We are increasingly a collection of small churches.
Crusty has said before on this blog that the church on every level, from the parish to the diocese to the denominational structure, needs to address this reality. Crusty's said this several times. We need to be merging congregations and dioceses, strengthening ecumenical cooperation and collaboration, revamp our churchwide structures...basically just stroll through the blog posts that aren't bashing Justin Welby and you'll get an idea of what COD has been Cassandraing about for the past five years.
Hey, here's three times Crusty has written a post covering some of the same topics as this one, going back to 2011 when he posted on the release of the membership statistics back then. If you'd like some specific deja vu, read here, and here, and here.
|Once, twice, three times Crusty.|
OK, glad you're back. I had a lovely gin martini while you read those postings.
Here it is, five years later, and yet another round of terrifying attendance numbers. Crusty was not surprised in the least when he read them, and, hate to break it to you, Sunshine, but Crusty also thinks it is going to get worse before it gets better.
Couple of things to keep in mind:
1) This decline is a complex collection of various factors, involving some elements particular to The Episcopal Church, and some elements shared by all religious expressions in the United States, if not those areas culturally "Western" (Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, other similar places). Part of this is demographics. Some examples:
--Anglo components of the Roman Catholic Church show the same kind of decline pattern as The Episcopal Church, but the Roman Catholic Church's decline overall is much less (about 1% per year) because of growth in its Hispanic/Latino and Asian/Asian American components, Catholics that emigrate to the USA, and other diverse populations contributing growth.
--The Episcopal Church is overwhelmingly old and white (87% white and average age of 58 last time Crusty checked) in a country that is increasingly racially diverse and whose average age is much younger than the typical Episcopal Church (63% white and average age 37.6 according to 2010 census).
--We have seen tremendous internal shifts of population, and the Episcopal Church has had historic strength on the losing end of this: the Rust Belt versus the West, for instance.
--In a related vein, Episcopalians have never kept up with these shifts. Around the year 1900, 90% of Episcopalians lived East of the Mississippi. In the year 2000, a whopping 12% of Episcopal
|White was obviously not a Village People fan, given his reluctance to Go West.|
2) Part of this decline, however, is due to massive, systemic failure in evangelism and discipleship at all levels of the church. Our churchwide system seems to exist solely for the purpose of holding meetings. At the 2015 General Convention, the Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards (CCABs) were thoroughly overhauled, and we were constantly told this would make is more "nimble" and would save money. Well, we ended up budgeting MORE money for meetings at General Convention 2015 than GC 2012. We appointed a blue ribbon task force to consider restructuring, and then implemented practically nothing it suggested. Convention decided it would keep doing more or less what it had been doing, and spend more money on it.
This from a church as a whole that has slashed campus chaplaincies and Christian Education and formation. We seem to be increasingly a church that has a General Convention whose main purpose is to hold General Convention and pay for meetings in between General Conventions, and dioceses whose main purpose is to prop up single-priest parishes. We are blessed in having a new Presiding Bishop who is trying to return our focus to mission and evangelism, since we truly are part of the "Jesus Movement."
A fundamental question is whether it's already too late, and whether the structures for organizing ministry that we have simply need to collapse and we create new ones. Crusty wrote about this at length four years ago here, so won't rehash that posting. Suffice to say not much has happened in the past four years to change any of the thoughts COD had when he wrote that post.
Part of this decline is undoubtedly due to conflict in the past generation about theological matters, such as the ordination of women and the ordination of LBGT persons to the priesthood and later the episcopate. Please don't think Crusty is saying all of our decline is due to demographics or failure to evangelize; part of it is undoubtedly due to conflict in the church. But we honestly have no real way of knowing just how much. COD thinks that much of the decline in the past generation is due to members dying and not being replaced with newer members, but part of it -- maybe 5-10% -- has to do with persons leaving the Episcopal Church for theological reasons. But that's just a guess. COD is open to something other than unfounded polemical arguments that a decline from a peak of 3.6 million in the 1960s to 1.9 million today is due solely to the church becoming more liberal, but hasn't yet come across one that's convincing. The decline is due to a combination of factors, of which one is certainly, but not solely, internal conflict.
Now, Crusty would also like to point out that he also has no time for hand-wringing, pearl-clutching sobs that the "church" will somehow die out. Hell no. The church cannot die because it is of God, and God is not dead. What COD is saying that the church as we know it is probably already dead. The (by and large) racially segregated, denominational ghettos we call most American expressions of Christianity that we have lived in are crashing down. To that, Crusty says, thank God.
We also cannot give ourselves over to weak resignation in the face of massive changes sweeping over the North American religious landscape. The number of parish clergy Crusty encounters who are quite aware of these changes and their implications for their congregations but are more or less just waiting it out till they retire is shocking and appalling. There is a lot we can and should and must do.
However, we didn't get here overnight, and we're not getting out of this overnight, if at all.
Crusty thinks ASA will dip to the 400,000 level, congregations to the 5,000 level, over the next 10-15 years. The church will get to a tipping point when it realizes -- or doesn't -- that massive, thorough, top to bottom change is needed in how we organize and structure ourselves for mission. The demographic tsunami (the Episcopal Church is shockingly old and white in a country that averages younger and less white) will have had more years to deepen.
Right now we are demonstrating the worst of both worlds. We are too decentralized right now to address the crises in mission and evangelism with any kind of coordinated effort, and on the local level (the diocese and parish), parochialism and insularity have the tendency to result in either denial or survival at the expense of the larger picture.
From a big picture perspective, Christianity in the 21st century in the West is entering into a post-denominational landscape, and we are living among the wreckage of denominationalism.
However, just like with other crises (climate change, or economic inequality) there are those who, frankly, aren't helping.
Crusty here is referring to the latest crap bomb from the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the North Korean journalism of American religion. When it comes to the IRD, Crusty should hasten to add it's a free country, and the IRD is perfectly entitled to their beliefs, opinions, and perspective. While COD disagrees with the IRD, he doesn't begrudge their right to exist or hold their opinions.
Let's take the so-called "Juicy Ecumenism" blog, and its recent entry on the latest round of statistics. IRD's narrative that it has been pushing for years is that the liberal trends of mainline Protestant denominations have caused its decline and is pushing members away. This narrative has been more or less debunked by reasonable, non-polemical sociologists and historians of American religion. Many, many theologically conservative denominations have been declining as well. The Southern Baptist Convention has been losing members for years, for example. Liberal=decline and conservative=growth is a canard that no responsible observer should believe.
The title alone reveals the Institute for Religion and Democracy's perspective: "Episcopal Church Continues Uninterrupted decline." Right from the headline, we can see that this article doesn't hold water: after all, the very text of the article notes eleven dioceses which have shown growth. So is it
|If we don't adopt some cool rules pronto, church growth is going to get more bogus.|
Also in the article, they themselves acknowledge there are external factors involved. They note that Bishop Michael Curry's diocese of North Carolina escaped decline because it was "aided by a booming state population" and point out that the pattern of decline in the 2015 statistics "is consistent with past years, in which dioceses in New England, the Rust Belt [COD feels need to go sic here because of the appalling lack of an Oxford comma] and predominantly rural areas post sharp declines, while diocese in the South either retain their numbers or decline at a more gradual rate."
These two statements show that IRD knows damn well that demographics are significant components in matters of church membership. As COD has said before, this cuts both ways. We weren't necessarily geniuses when the church was growing from 1920-1980, because we were riding a demographic wave. The town where Crusty is currently rector grew from 1,900 in 1950 to 20,000 in 1990. My predecessor at that time, now pushing 90, told me, "It seems all I had to do was open the door and people came in." Guess what? Since 1990 population in that same town has stagnated at around 20,000 (there just isn't much more land to build on), and has significantly aged. Census projections are that the only demographic in this town that will grow in the next 10 years will be people over 55. COD has spoken with Christian Education leaders in the parish that this doesn't absolve us of our responsibility to invest in Sunday School, youth group, and discipleship, but we also need to know the headwinds we are facing.
The Episcopal Church is not declining because of its liberal bent; there is no direct correlation between theological standpoint and growth or decline. The Unitarian Univeralist Association, far more liberal than the Episcopal Church, has shown stable membership in the past 15 years while The Episcopal Church's has cratered. Church decline and growth are a complicated blend of a number of different factors.
That said, the numbers are real. This is the fifth post Crusty has written on the shocking decline in membership numbers in five years for The Episcopal Church. The question still remains: are we willing to have an honest, open, and frank conversation, and make an effort to try to do something, or are we going to wait for the structures to collapse and build something from the ruins? And don't say we can't do anything; that just means you are unwilling. We have done this before. This is not the first time this has happened. Anglicanism collapsed after the American Revolution. Membership dropped by 50% in a DECADE (and we bemoan a 40% drop over nearly 50 years as the end of the world), the state of Massachusetts had one functioning congregation, and Anglicanism was in danger of splintering into competing, regional expressions. Our forebears did what was needed to revive the church: they kept some aspects of their Anglican heritage but radically reimagined others. Can we do the same, or will endless meetings and comfy CPG pensions keep us from being faithful in our own day and age? As the great hymn puts its:
Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore
left the gift of your salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grand us wisdom, grant us courage
serving you whom we adore
serving you whom we adore.