Monday, October 19, 2015

Getting the Evangelistic Fervor Right for Church Revitalization

Lately I've started reading in the area of church revitalization.  One of the resources I picked up is Bill Henard's Can These Bones Live? A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization.  I was immediately struck by the following statistics cited by Henard:


  • 1,400 pastors in America leave the ministry monthly
  • Only 15% of churches in the United States are growing
  • 10,000 churches in America disappeared in a five-year period
  • The number of people in America that do not attend church has doubled in the past 15 years
  • The vast majority of churches have an attendance of less than 75

Elsewhere in the book, Henard notes the following:

Without new people coming into the church, the church will eventually die.  On average, churches will lose people:
  • 2% by death (older congregations obviously will have a much higher percentage)
  • 4% by transfer to other churches
  • 6% by inactivity or by dropping out
Thus, if a church is not replacing 10 to 12 percent of its membership each year, it then begins to plateau and eventually fall into decline, especially as these percentages increase due to age or demographic changes.

This data is all the more sobering when we see that The Episcopal Church's average Sunday attendance dropped by over 25% in just 12 years.  We've declined from 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.8 million today, even as the population in the United States has more than doubled (see Jeffrey Walton's "Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Members, Attendance at Alarming Rate"). 

Clearly, we're doing something wrong.

So in light of all of the data on decline, what's the next big thing on the docket for The Episcopal Church now that General Convention has officially launched the project of revising the theology of marriage?  Why, Prayer Book revision, of course!

I've already shared some curmudgeonly thoughts on why Prayer Book revision at this time and with the ideas proposed would be a disaster.  I'll simply repeat here a fact of history: every time Prayer Book revision has been undertaken, it's been divisive and people have left The Episcopal Church.  Pushing for Prayer Book revision at a time when The Episcopal Church is in free-fall decline is suicidal.  It's a strategy for accelerating ecclesial decline unto death.

Instead of driving off this cliff of destruction, we need to invest our time, talents, and money in church revitalization.  Among other things, that means taking evangelism seriously.  Here's what Bill Henard writes about this:


Evangelism is the barometer of our theology.  In other words, if a person's theology does not lead to having a passion for doing evangelism, that individual needs to get a new theology.  The same idea holds true for the church.  If the church does not have a strong theology that leads to evangelism, the pastor then knows some of the preparatory work that must be done before the church will begin to reach those outside of Christ.  This one thought may be the entire reason that the church has declined and is in need of revitalization.  Without a strong theology of evangelism, the church finds itself on the precipice of a slippery slope that affects every work and every ministry of the church.  Get the evangelistic fervor right and the church begins to head in the correct direction.

The correlation between having a "strong theology that leads to evangelism" and church vitality or revitalization strikes me as dead on.  How can any church or organization grow and thrive if the members don't passionately believe they have something unique that should be shared with anyone else who doesn't have it?  

I don't believe that progressive revisionist theologies that jettison the Nicene Creed and downplay the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the problem of sin, and our need for salvation are going to help us "get the evangelistic fervor right."  On the contrary, such theologies tend to reinforce the norms of self-expression and self-fulfillment worshiped by our culture as self-evident truths.  And those truths are central to the creed of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that marks a decisive shift to a post-Christian (and at times anti-Christian) posture towards the Church.  

Instead of pushing ideological agendas that violate the Baptismal Covenant promise to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship," and rather than promoting the culture's Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the attempt to appear relevant, we need to recover a passion for the basics of the Christian faith.  We need to recover a passion for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  And in line with the Baptismal Covenant promise to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ," we need to be able and willing to share with people outside the Church why they need a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our survival depends upon it.  

3 comments:

kiwianglo said...

These 3 things still abide: Faith, Hope and Love. And the greatest of these is Love. But Hope, surely, cannot be far behind. Get a grip!

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

kiwianglo, it sounds like you are suggesting that in the face of massive institutional decline and church leaders hell-bent on making it worse by sacrificing the catholic, orthodox faith of the Church on the altar of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that we should bury our heads in the sand, trusting that "all shall be well." Perhaps you can clarify.

There are lots of reasons to have hope. Many among the Millennials have little patience for the kinds of progressive revisionist agendas near and dear to the hearts of many Baby Boomers. Instead, they are drawn to orthodoxy and catholicity in worship and liturgy. But if The Episcopal Church abandons orthodoxy and catholicity in our liturgies, those Millennials are unlikely to be a part of our church.

The Living Church Foundation and the faithful lay and clergy persons participating in the Covenant weblog of TLC give me great hope for the future of orthodox Anglicanism in North America.

The Anglican Digest is yet another beacon of hope, as are the parishes that participate in the Parish Partner Plan.

I'm sure there are many other reasons to have hope.

But that's no excuse for failing to resist attempts to destroy catholicity and orthodoxy, or for minimizing the seriousness of the situation in which The Episcopal Church now finds herself.

phillip woodfin said...

It seems some in particular roles of leadership and laymen have a distorted view of what love is and confuse it with tolerance with everything but the truth found in Jesus Christ.
If He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then we need to stick with the faith once delivered to the saints. Anything else or short of Jesus Christ will send people to hell