Sunday, November 6, 2011

We are the less than 1%!

Turns out the super rich are more numerous than Episcopalians. As the Occupy Wall Street protestors keep noting, 1% of the people in this country have seen their wealth increase while the remaining 99% have not.

Last week the numbers were in: the Episcopal Church's membership in domestic dioceses dropped by 54,000, or 2.7%, to about 1,951,000. Given the population of the USA is about 307,000,000, that means members of the Episcopal Church make up less than 1%, coming in at about 0.63%. Get all the fabulous details here.

This news has resulted in various yammering about the church, or so COD presumes, because I did not engage the blogosphere. COD did not get into it too much, since COD did NOT want to hear the usual, tired, and oft untrue spinning of these numbers. (In addition it was COD's installation as Dean last week, so there were deanly matters to which to attend.)

Besides, COD didn't need to see what the reaction would be. COD has heard it all before.

From some corners of the church, there will be the wail and lament that the Episcopal Church is dying because it is too liberal. Nonsense. Dissension over human sexuality has played a role, but a very small one, in membership decline. Other elements are involved: for instance, demographics (just one example: 12% of Episcopal congregations were founded after 1968; we are not where people are given massive shifts in population in the past 50 years) and larger societal changes play much more of a role (increased rates of disaffiliation from churches among younger persons combined with more funerals than baptisms will do it); the fact we are an overwhelmingly white church in an country which is becoming more diverse and multicultural, and so on. There are larger overall trends which are affecting (almost) EVERY denomination. Large denominations are shrinking; small denominations are shrinking; liberal denominations are shrinking; conservative denominations are shrinking. The Southern Baptist Convention has lost members for four consecutive years, for instance. In fact, of all denominations in the USA -- ALL denominations -- only four registered growth. Of those, the largest, the Roman Catholic Church, grew by an anemic 0.57%. This makes 2% GDP growth look positively staggering.

From other corners, there will be spin from different angles. Some will dismiss the numbers, saying statistic don't matter. Others will accentuate the positive, pointing to decline all over the place as evidence things aren't so bad, even reveling in the fact that the Episcopal Church's decline isn't as terrible as some ("oh, those poor Presbyterians!"). The reality is average Sunday attendance (the best measure of "real" members) has dropped an astounding 23% in the past decade. COD believes this has more to do with a staggering decades long failure in mission and evangelism, combined with an inward focus on matters broader society cares little about, along with membership loss coming from people moving to the columbarium, not primarily down the street to another church. Let's look at that number again: 23% drop in regular Sunday attendance in one decade. I haven't done algebra in the better part of 20 years, but I can solve X and see that at this rate the Episcopal Church has about 4 decades or 40 years left. Great, and I retire in 25. "After me, the deluge," can be my farewell sermon from wherever I am in 2036.

So let's stop the bickering about what's to blame. The fact is everyone and everything is to blame, and this problem has been emerging for the past thirty years.

Besides, it's pointless to lament or bicker, because the horse is out of the barn. COD believes we have lost any chance of arresting or reversing this growth. The time to do that was 10-15 years ago. You know, for instance, when we discouraged young people from getting ordained and told them to go get some life experience while cutting back on campus ministries and now we have the eye-popping statistic about the average age of Episcopal clergy (go look it up; COD can't do all your homework for you!): Good ideas all around! And BTW there were Cassandras at the time saying stuff like this back in the mid 1990s (COD once considered calling this blog "Episcopal Cassandra"). Instead we need to make strategic decisions about survival, not reversing decline.

COD's guess is that membership will continue to free-fall, dropping to 1,000,000 members and maybe 450,000 Sunday attendance in the next 15 years. The question is not reversing or arresting this loss, but whether we can position ourselves to be in a position to grow again not next year, but in 15 years. It takes time to reorient, restructure, and ramp-up.

Which is what COD is proposing, and what all those endless posts about General Convention and our structures are all about. We essentially need a Marshall Plan for the church, and revamping and streamlining governance is part of that. COD has focused on General Convention, but will be turning to provinces, dioceses, congregations, and seminaries in coming weeks. As CODW (COD's wife) well knows, COD likes to have a plan.

Here are some components -- a preview, if you will, of what needs to be part of that Marshall Plan for rebuilding the church:

--This will involve closing a lot of shrinking, dying congregations who are essentially ecclesial tontines, waiting until the last surviving member closes the doors, conducting themselves in a unintentionally similar to that chosen by Josephus to avoid surrender to the Romans in the year 67 during the Jewish War, the so-called Josephus Problem. (For a description of a tontine, see the comments made by Ox in The Simpsons here or go to Wikipedia here.) Use the resources spent on these hospices to help develop the massive mobilization in evangelism, youth ministry, campus ministry, social outreach, Christian education, revitalizing seminaries to train clergy in new leadership models, and so on. Issues of church revitalization and growth are complex ones, and require complex, interlocking solutions. To plant churches you need the kind of clergy who have the experience and skills in planting them, for instance, which means you need to train them, and need to provide lay formation and education -- you get the point.

--This will involve closer, coordinated cooperation between dioceses and denominational agencies and structures -- OR the exact opposite: reducing denominational structures to the bare minimum and devolving mission work to dioceses, letting them use those resources sent to denominational structures to do what is needed to position for growth by 2025. One or the other: this in-between balance between a denominational structure that tries to work with 109 dioceses that consider themselves independent makes any coordinated strategy impossible. Denominational organizations can churn out resources dioceses blissfully ignore to spend time and money recreating their own. Conversely denominational structures can be slow to see what is catching fire at the grassroots or be hamstrung by resolutions from a Convention three years earlier dictating their work. Either let dioceses do whatever they want (realizing a good number will choose to die slowly) or make a last ditch effort to reshape the church for mission and streamline and centralize that work.

--This will involve collaboration with ecumenical partners. COD sometimes sees full communion partnerships as a bridge between the church we are now and the church we will look like in 100 years. COD will be posting some lengthy remarks given at ecumenical conferences in Michigan and Alabama these past few weeks to which unpacks this in greater depth and detail. We can share in mission and ministry with Lutherans and Moravians, and are moving ahead slowly and carefully in conversation with Methodists and Presbyterians. The days of driving down Broad Street in Columbus and passing a Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Lutheran church within a few blocks of one another (which COD did last Friday) should be a thing of the past: all that wasted duplication of space, energy, money, and personnel. COD thinks that in 50 years or so (sooner, hopefully) there will be serious conversations about creating a Church of North India-like model, or a United Church of Canada-type model. Both were mergers of a number of denominations (the Church of North India included Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists; the UCC, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists) into a single structure, but which tried to allow for diversity in theology and worship in its formation.

I once asked a bishop of the Church of South India how they were able to pull together so many different denominations. His reply: "Two reasons. First, in a country of over a billion where only 2% of the population is Christian, we simply needed to work together. Second, they were not our divisions, they were ones Western missionaries brought to us." I wonder sometimes if people under 20 right now, or people being born right now, will say in 2050 or 2060 about the ELCA and PCUSA and United Methodist and Episcopal Churches -- "These are our grandparents' divisions, not ours." COD sees churches which share a tremendous amount in terms of history, theology, and tradition -- say, the PCUSA, United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, ELCA, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ -- as logically being the ones to merge their structures into a single entity which allows for some local and regional variation. In a perfect world this would involve historically African American Methodist Churches as well (COD speaks more in depth about our failure to solve race & class divisions in the remarks to be posted later).

COD hopes that we will make the radical changes needed to adapt to post-denominationalism in a post-Christian, mutlicultural society, or otherwise the persistent cough of statistical reports will worsen to the death rattle of irrelevancy. And one day a successor to COD will be posting, "We are the 1/10th of 1%! But damn do we feel good about it!"


  1. Now that I'm back from spending a half-hour browsing TV Tropes (that is a dangerous website to link people to, for we sometimes can't find our way out!)...

    The biggest organizational problem I have with churches, which greatly inhibits their mission, is that they function as businesses. We judge our "performance" based on how many people we keep IN the building as opposed to how many we have sent out. I would love to see all Christian denominations in a town share one church building and throw out the cursed membership role.

    The strict lines between denominations must be broken down if the church is to survive.

  2. I personally believe that if an Episcopal parish wants to survive and then suddenly start growing they would hire a priest who has served for years in Central America.

  3. I believe that there are a lot of unreported factors that I believe will save the Episcopal Church. As a statistician by trade I will be the first to say that anecdotal evidence is next to worthless but here are some anecdotes. One, the careers and social life of young professionals requires that we be places Sunday morning like, work, volunteer 5Ks, farmer’s markets, parent’s church, etc. I know that when my wife and I start having children we will move from the occasional attendee to a regular, because children will keep us from the frivolous Sunday morning activities. Two, in my church in Washington, DC and then in Cleveland, OH I noticed a large number of gay Catholics in the pews. My two friends in this category (that I should offer a ride to church more often) probably attend the Catholic Church with their parents more often then the Episcopal Church. Therefore they are not counted as members. They attest that when they settle down they will begin to attend the Episcopal Church. I believe that the liberal and open stance of the Episcopal Church will save it. I also believe that a commitment from every member to invite their friends to church with them, especially the 30 something members.


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