I think I’ve thought this out loud before, but it’s worth saying and pondering again…
We have to recognize the reality that the church in America finds itself in.
- Our own church is shrinking.
- The age-cohorts of clergy should be of concern to us. A word of context on this. The Senior Pastor of the congregation where I did my internship taught my invaluable things about church practicalities and church growth. One of the principles he laid out was that clergy could minister to anyone older than they were but only to people up to 15 years younger. For folks younger than that, they were simply out of touch. That’s why this matters; fewer younger clergy means fewer connections with younger people and their social groupings.
- The closure of mainline seminaries—especially our own—should concern us.
At the same time that mainline membership is dropping, we get the attendance anomaly reading between the lines of the last big Pew Research study.
- Only 33% of mainline Christians say that they attend church weekly. But…
- 54% of mainline Christians say they pray daily and, if you add in those who pray weekly (23%), you get 78%.
Let’s face it—we all know people who are turned off by organized religion. I know people who say they are Christians yet don’t darken church doors because the services don’t occur at convenient times, they feel that people would judge them, or because they feel unworthy/guilty (thinking particularly of some veterans I know). While I’m firmly in the camp that says that Christianity is a team sport and we need to gather together for important spiritual and theological reasons, we also have to ask ourselves about the pastoral and spiritual care of Christian non-attenders.
What can or should churches/dioceses/denominations/people who care/etc. be doing to extend resources to people who want and need them? How do we enable daily prayer or prayer practices to touch, inform, and form non-attending Christians? Sure, it’s be great if they also joined themselves to communities—but if they continue to choose not to, how do we nurture even a nebulous kind of community to support their faith?
That clergy cannot minister effectively to folks more than 15 years younger than they are may be generally true, but in my experience some older priests do very well with much younger people. Effective ministry to those younger than 40 or so, though, does require skill in using the communication tools of the young, smart phones, Twitter, Instagram, and all the rest. The mainstream churches are withering because they are concentrating almost all their growth effort in trying to pour more wine into old wineskins. Why are trying to save dying congregations to the exclusion of starting new ones? Christianity is indeed a team religion, but the team doesn’t need to gather exclusively at 10 or 11 on Sunday evening. It doesn’t even need to gather in a church building, although for me that helps.
We keep hearing these statistics about decline, and yet some places still manage to thrive. I sometimes wonder if it simply comes down to the work ethic of the clergy. A small business owner often has to work many extra hours to make their business thrive, and they only go on vacation when it makes business sense to do so. I don’t believe that the church should be a business, but perhaps clergy need more of the passion for work that successful business leaders often possess. Churches are often closed during the week, and yet, the same churches employ full-time staff. The reality is that our basic work practices in the Episcopal Church do not support growth.