Counting Christians

Bishop Martins has a good post up on Covenant about ecclesiometry: how we count the people in churches and what these mean for us as a church. Do read his article as he makes several good points about why and how we measure.

A central point that he makes is that we have to wrestle with the new realities of a post-Constantinian age. That is, in previous decades, we could assume that most of the people we were working with were baptized believers who knew the Christian story and what we were doing was inviting them into our version. That will no longer be the case in a post-Constantinian world and, as a result, a crucial metric will be adult baptisms.

I totally agree with that.

That having been said, I’ve been thinking something slightly different around this same issue… I completely agree with the ideas around the post-Constantinian age and also about the criticality of adult baptism—no argument at all from me on those points.

However, I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re on the cusp of a post-Constantinian age and not yet fully inhabiting it. Instead, I’d suggest that before we come to a true post-Constantinianism, we are currently inhabiting—and have been for the past couple of decades—an intense reshuffling of American Christianity in a Church Marketplace. Denominational loyalty used to be a real thing: you were what your family was. With the collapse of grand narratives and joining patterns, that paradigm fell apart.

The biggest movement was, of course, out altogether. Having less social pressure to stay in churches, many people left. Some, because they never really believed to begin with and felt more comfortable saying that; others, because they had other commitments, other demands, and church didn’t seem that valuable.

I’d argue that the other important movement besides the movement out was the movement across: the reshuffling of people into other denominations based on preference or fit. And, given the heavily political polarization of American Christianity since the rise of the Religious Right in the ’80s, those decisions have been as much political as theological.

I’d love to know if we have been keeping records on receiving and confirming people into the Episcopal Church.

Both M and I were received and from different church bodies at that. Many of my IRL and online Episcopal friends also came from somewhere else. Many are former Roman Catholics who came to a place where women could be ordained; others were Evangelicals or Fundamentalists who came to a place where their sexual orientation was not a matter of continual attack.

The combination of these two movements—movements out and movements across—I imagine that at this point we have the lowest percentage of Cradle Episcopalians (i.e., adult members raised from childhood in the Episcopal Church) that we have ever had.

This matters in a lot of different ways. In the context of ecclesiometrics, it means another important stat to keep our eye on. But—perhaps just as or more important—this feeds into the current identity crisis and the anxiety of identity that I contend is driving so many of our contentious issues right now including the debates around Communion Before Baptism and Prayer Book Revision.

5 Replies to “Counting Christians”

  1. I suspect another problem is the low number of Episcopal clergy who are cradle Episcopalians.

  2. Sister Mary Winifred,
    I’m not sure that’s necessarily the problem. There are plenty of people raised in the Episcopal Church who don’t have a lot of understanding of it while there are quite a number of those who joined later (like myself) who consider the Episcopal/Anglican ethos an integral part of their identities. (And vice versa.)

    A bigger issue is our apparent inability to form that identity within people regardless of how long they’ve been in the church, but that especially applies to those who grow up in it.

  3. The Table of Statistics shows confirmations, both child and adult, and receptions. I’m going to make a wild-ass-guess and say that the latter number is unreliable: I’m guessing that (for instance) Catholics who start attending and become members aren’t counted as “received” unless the bishop shakes their hands.

    Back in the late ’70s I came across the statement that over half of adult Episcopalians were converts (albeit mostly from other denominations). I think this came from a book by John Krumm from the Forward Movement but I couldn’t tell you which one, and I have no idea where whoever said this got their info from. It’s possible that this was a post-Humanae Vitae fluctuation and has since passed. But I would not be surprised to learn that we have a higher percentage of members who were not raised in the denomination than do most denominations.

  4. And I’m afraid I’m going to have to a dissenter about the value of ASA. It comes to this: what are people doing, if they are not coming to church? If it were the case that they were not coming because they could not get there, due to age or infirmity or whatever, that would be a different matter. My sense is that if people aren’t moved to engage in communal worship, they don’t replace it with private devotion or some other religious acts; they lapse into being spiritual but not religious, or slide into Moral Therapeutic Deism, or reduce religion to ethical–not moral– behavior.

    It seems to me that the biggest effect of post-Christendom is to remove the social imperative to attend, and lacking that, a lot of people lose interest. It is also the case that social institutions do not leave space for church attendance as they used to, so that for instance my kids are commonly expected to work all or part of Sunday morning, and when I was acolyte master, I had some kids who could not be relied upon because they were on teams that would schedule games against church. And I see a lot of clerics who tend to cast “religion” solely in terms of morality and who minimize the numinous presence. But in the end, it doesn’t make a lot of difference: attendance at Sunday services is, for nearly everyone, the minimum of participation in church; so if ASA suffers, other participation is likely to suffer in proportion.

  5. Interesting discussion, but, on a side note, at a recent retreat with the Order of Julian of Norwich, I was surprised to learn that several of our affiliates were raised in completely secular households. No religion at all, and now, not only are they devout church members but also living under religious vows/promises.

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