To get a broad-based sense of congregational vitality, we have used a number of measurements including church school enrollment, marriages, funerals, child baptisms, adult baptisms, and confirmations. These speak to a parish's integration in the community and the possibility for future growth:
Change in church school enrollment: -33%
Change in number of marriages performed: -41%
Change in number of burials/funerals: -21%
Change in the number of child baptisms: -36%
Change in the number of adult baptisms: -40%
Change in the number of confirmations: -32%
While these numbers may not capture the totality of what is happening in the Church, we do not have a measure that is moving in a positive direction.
I wonder if any of this will come up at this summer's General Convention. As I recall, there was similar sobering content in the report from the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church submitted to General Convention in 2009. But unless I missed it, I don't recall any serious public comment about it.
Responding to these depressing statistics, Fr. Tony Clavier offers insightful thoughts:
No doubt our loss of parishioners – I dislike the word “member” – has been compounded by the desertion of so many since 2003 and the ensuing law suits. However what seems clear is that the greater problem is our inability to retain younger people or to seem to offer a faith which inspires people who believe in growing numbers that what we offer in our parishes has not a thing to do with what they believe to be the reality of daily living. We have become victims of the culture wars which divide Americans and we don’t seem to speak to those who want something more than a ritual affirmation of their political views. ...
In the 19th Century, at least in Britain and the US, we lost working women and men because we wrapped ourselves in the culture of affluence, ‘conservatives at prayer’. We were the church of the wealthy and the upper classes, the people who built or adorned most of our church buildings and paid the rector. Nowadays we appeal to upper middle class intellectuals and where these people are in short supply, in cities and towns where the businesses run by such people have evaporated and where their proprietors have gone elsewhere – to the sun – a dwindling, graying minority struggle to keep the roof on crumbling piles and meet the significantly growing cost of paying a priest.
Around our buildings, or on the edges of communities now distanced from our buildings are a new constituency, made up not of unchurched families, but of no-churched families, a generation or more from the their ancestors who filled our buildings and regarded them as significant centers of their lives and devotion. The burning question is just how we frame our ministry, lay and ordained, to contact this pool of people to whom the Faith is as mysterious as the goings on in a masonic lodge. We continue to try to attract by our causes people who look with growing distrust to politicians and political parties. What we don’t seem to offer is a faith which changes lives and gives them the strength to navigate the bewildering complexities of modern life. Christian faith has much to say about relationships, how to raise children, how to cope with tragedy, how to minister to the poor and those made victims of unemployment and financial disaster. That Gospel begins with introducing people to God, the relevance of Jesus and the life of the Spirit.
Christian Faith presents the Way through the complicated reality of daily living and yes daily dying. Our Prayer Book wondrously supplies that Way within the community of those called out by God to herald the Kingdom and winsomely demonstrate God’s compassion and purpose. Yet we seem to be offering the stone of adequate governance rather than the Bread of Life.
In the midst of church decline, the following practices strike me as at the core of a much-needed approach to evangelism and formation that can offer the Bread of Life:
- Returning to our roots and rediscovering how the ancient wisdom of the Christian faith applies to our world today.
- Emphasizing all of the Baptismal Covenant (and not just the last two questions of promise).
- Reaffirming a non-negotiable commitment to (in the words of Derek Olsen) "the spiritual system of our Book of Common Prayer," "the common prayers agreed upon there," and "the structure of the church that we have received."
- Engaging the world by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison.
- And of absolutely central importance: teaching and preaching the Person and Work of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior without shame or apology.
Doing all of this things may not fit the "progressive" agenda. They won't necessarily insure that our pews and coffers overflow. But these practices represent authentic Anglican Christianity that is faithful to the Gospel. And I believe that such authenticity and faithfulness will speak to the hearts of those who hunger for the abundant life that only Jesus Christ can give.
ADDENDUM - Check out what Tune: Kings Lynn offers in info and analysis on all of this in a posting entitled "Statistical Day of Reckoning."