Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Grim Milestone for the Episcopal Church

More bad news about the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room, this time from The Courier Journal:

The Episcopal Church has marked a grim milestone when it reported membership has dipped below 2 million within the United States for the first time in decades.

It had 1,951,907 stateside members in 2010, down 3 percent from the previous year, according to its research office.

Membership has been steadily declining since the 1960s, when it and several other historic Protestant denominations were at the peak of their membership and cultural influence. There have been long-running debates over the causes of the declines. Theories include liberal trends in theology and/or sexuality, the wearisome fighting over those issues and the declining birth rates of the denominations’ largely white, better-educated membership.

Read it all.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are there any statistical studies comparing the TEC with the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, UCC with regards to measured decline? Is the tide going out at the same rate for all boats or not? There seems to be a general dechristianization going on in US culture, so large church bodies almost have to be expected to show a decline in the past 10-20 years.

That said, the stats suggest that if the TEC sees as part of mission reaching the 'spiritual-but-not-religious' crowd, the fastest growing religious category, it isn't working.

The detail and openness of the TEC church statistics available are quite impressive, and probably significantly better than many other Christian churches. Although the membership data might be a bit suspect; ASA probably is a much better indicator of the true health of the church. Our family left the TEC 3 years ago, but based on the mailings we get, we may still be on the books.

Steve

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Steve. I'm not an expert on the studies you're asking about, and I don't have the relevant literature at my fingertips. But I do know that there are analyses of the causes of mainline decline out there.

From what I can tell, the causes of decline are bigger and more complicated than the mainline's adoption of "progressive" theological/political causes. We are in the midst of a seismic shift in Western culture in which Christianity is not only no longer a "glue" that helps to bind together the social fabric, but is increasingly viewed with skepticism, suspicion, and in some quarters outright hostility.

While there is no direct causal connection between "progressivism" and decline, I don't think it's been terribly helpful for sustainability and growth in the long run, largely because the younger (and increasinly unchurched) generation can find champions of such causes in plenty of other arenas that don't ask them to pledge their dollars to pay for clergy and lay staff salaries and maintain/repair buildings and grounds. And for folks who aren't invested in institutions per se (and especially religious institutions), those other arenas are far more compelling.

I think it's worth noting that it's not just mainline denominations like the Episcopal Church that are in decline. I've heard my bishop mention data about the Southern Baptist Church that shows a decline in baptisms. It's not nearly as far gone as it is for us, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodists, etc., but the shift to a post-Christian culture is affecting more conservative denominations as well.

Kelso said...

Well this is just odd indeed. The last time I went to church, our parish was just packed in the nave like fishes. You could hardly find a vacant kneeler.

(Slaps Forehead)

Oops! How dumb can I be?

The last time I went to my parish was when we used the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

Sorry! Never mind!

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Kelso. When was the last time you went to your parish when y'all used the 1928 Prayer Book? Just curious.

Thankfully, there are local exceptions to the general norm of decline. I note, for example, that the parish I currently serve has seen tremendous growth over the past 4+ years, particularly among persons in their 20s and 30s. And we use the dreaded 1979 Prayer Book! :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Bryan,

That's great that your parish is experiencing growth. Is there anything you are doing that may not typically be done in your average Episcopal church, that might account in part for your success?

I would agree that the causes for decline cannot be attributed to a single factor. It seems all the churches are experiencing some sort of decline, and it isn't always the case that the most liberal parishes/dioceses are the worst off. In the last TEC church we attended, for example, the priest did a hard left turn near the end of our stay, embracing Marcus Borg and belately finding inspiration in JS Spong, but the attendance numbers are about the same now, according to TEC stats, as when we left. By now probably most of the people who have decided the TEC is, as a whole, a lost cause are gone.

I also cannot see how progressive theology can sustain growth. I can see how it would be appealing to someone raised as a Christian, but has many doubts and can't accept the traditional answers, but I can't see why anyone raised outside of the church would find any of the liberal theologians compelling at all. As the number of church going families drops, the number of children who later as adults have a sentimental attachment to the hymns, the liturgy, and the buildings but also have intellectual stumbling blocks, has to decrease as well.

- Steve

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Steve. Thanks for yet more perceptive comments.

I'll try to respond to your question about how the parish I currently serve has managed to experience growth, although I'm not sure we're doing anything that's much different than other Episcopal churches.

I'm currently serving on the staff of St. Andrew's Cathedral in downtown Jackson, MS. That makes us largely a destination church, although downtown revitalization is occurring and more people (particularly younger adults) are living around us. During my almost 6 years here, we've worked hard on several fronts, including: being proactive in welcoming and incorporating newcomers in the life of the parish; keeping track of newer members by linking them with a "buddy" (someone who's been here for a while); publicizing parish events through various media; focusing on ministry with children, youth, and young adults while continuing to offer programming appealing to adults from their 20s into their 70s and 80s; aggressively staying on top of pastoral care; consistently good to outstanding preaching (we're blessed with an amazing clergy staff), coupled with solid liturgy, one of the better organist/choirmasters in the area, and amazing choirs; throughout the year we offer numerous opportunities for outreach ministry (including feeding the homeless, Habitat builds, etc.) - I could go on and on.

We've also had success with attracting students from MS College School of Law in downtown Jackson. After a couple of students started attending about 3 years ago, word got around that we're a pretty cool place and many others started showing up. Between the students and other folks who are checking us out, there's hardly a Sunday that goes by that we don't have tons of visitors at our 11 AM service.

We're not by any means perfect and we don't have all of this down pat, but we've made incredible progress in the last six years in doing things that are faithful to the Gospel and attractive to people searching for a church community.

Bryan Owen said...

A few more thoughts in response to your question about our success, Steve. While I certainly cannot prove a direct correlation between this and our growth, I note that when I first arrived, the Adult Christian Education was dominated by persons heavily invested in figures such as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and other "progressive" figures and approaches to the Christian faith. That began to slowly change after I arrived (mostly because I'm not into that agenda), and then rapidly changed when the new dean arrived about 4 years ago. We didn't "outlaw" that material, but the people who were wanting to teach that stuff ended up leaving because they no longer controlled the reigns. As a consequence, our Sunday morning programming has become more diverse and more centrist. And also more responsive to what people actually want and need (I note that we offered an adult education survey a couple of years ago from which we received good responses, and we'll probably administer another one in the near future). And as we continue to grow among young adults in their 20s and 30s, I note that I have never once heard one of them lament: "Why aren't we doing more with Borg and Crossan?" It's just not what they're looking for.

C. Wingate said...

Bryan, a substantial proportion of the losses in the past few years are accounted for in the departing dioceses: a quarter of the ASA loss in 2009 was due to Ft. Worth and Pittsburgh alone. I ran some analyses for 2007 and 2006 which suggest that failure to retain of adult members is a significant if not the greatest part of the losses.

What it means in terms of what we can do, I don't know. My parish grew like mad in the late 1980s and into the next decade; according to the charts, over the last three years we've lost 55% of our ASA. Some of that is surely year-to-year fluctuation, some of it is probably due to the departure of the rector. Can we pull out of it? Well, a lot must surely depend upon whom we get for a new rector.

Bryan Owen said...

Good points about the departing dioceses playing a role in TEC's decline, C. Wingate. That's just one of the many reasons why those losses are tragic.

Kurt said...

From what I have read and seen over the past few years, all major denominations in the USA are generally losing members. Both liberal and conservative denominations are declining in tandem; it’s not just a liberal or a TEC phenomenon (as some would have it) by any means. What’s taking place is a true cultural paradigm shift; the 1950s appears to have been a fluke period in a number of respects.

In my own little, liberal Anglo Catholic parish in Brooklyn, however, we have experienced modest growth in the past three years. In addition to the 10 am Sunday Mass, a year ago we added a 5 pm Mass as well. Baptisms are also up, and we have a growing number of young families in the parish.

I occasionally attend other parishes in the NYC area. My (outside/visitor) observations of major parishes such as Trinity Wall Street, St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, St. Mary the Virgin, Grace Church etc. lead me to believe that while they may not have grown appreciably in the past 15-20 years, they have not declined appreciably, either. They are holding their own. This is also true in most of the smaller parishes I have visited in the past two or three years (St. Luke-in-the-Field, St. Clement, Transfiguration, etc). On the other hand, a few churches I used to occasionally attend have closed (e.g., Church of the Redeemer—founded 1854).

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

slink said...

As someone who was raised Evangelical and moved into the Mainline in my adulthood I lament the membership problems in the Mainline but I am also continually surprised at how often the Mainline looks back to Evangelical churches to say, "See, they know how to do it. Look at how many members they have."

If you were to come to my town I could point you to any number of Southern Baptist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Grace Brethren, and Independent Baptist churches which are all struggling with attracting and keeping members. They're all conservative and they're all shrinking or barely hanging on. Also, one doesn't have to look too hard online to find many Southern Baptists who claim that less than half of their reported 16 million members are actually members anywhere other than on paper.

I'll echo Bryan Owen; it isn't just the Mainline churches which are having problems. The only difference that I see between the Mainline and Evangelical churches in this regard is a difference of degree. I believe that it's worse in the Mainline because the Mainline began experiencing losses earlier but I think that Evangelicals are poised to catch up in the near future.

C. Wingate said...

If you believe Hadaway's old analysis, the biggest source of loss is simply that white people simply aren't having enough kids. It's an interesting analysis particularly because it implies that there's a certain lossiness in the whole process: now that the birth rate is low (and I believe it is still slightly above replacement, unlike in Europe and Japan), there is also a loss of total believers which seems to accompany it.

What is most striking and depressing to me is how pervasive the pattern of decline is. In my diocese (Maryland) there are maybe a couple of parishes which show growth over several years; every other parish is either holding its own or is showing a decline at some greater or lesser rate. And we have well over a hundred parishes.