Growing the church again after years of steady decline in membership, attendance and pledge support is a challenge facing every mainline denomination. For the Episcopal Church in the United States the decline has averaged -3.3% per year in the key metrics. For the Diocese of California, the implications of this are profound.
At that current rate of decline, DioCal will have one-half the pledge units (<5000) in 2022 than it had in 2000. Similar decline in membership and average Sunday attendance means the Episcopal Church faces an existential threat to its relevance let alone vitality.
The reasons for decline are varied ranging from changing demographics, changes in family religious traditions as secularization pushes faith out of the public square, our schools and other places. And there are the self-inflicted wounds of churches who still believe they have a monopoly on people’s religious faith experiences. Then there are the endless conflicts of church politics, religious strife and other bad press that make church seem less inviting, less safe, less home.
A message of renewal not despair
The church has a big problem, but the Holy Spirit is calling us to put aside these burdens and follow our own Great Commission to go out there and make disciples of all the nations—starting with our neighbors. This is not a message we hear very much in the Episcopal Church because we have not had a theological tradition of being evangelists. Instead our congregations are often silos that shelter us from an outside world we fear rather than unite us with a wider community we should embrace. The fact of church decline is testimony that this strategy is not working. We now recognize church decline as the #1 problem facing the church today.
Over the past several months, we have been working in the vineyard trying to assess this problem of church decline right here in the Diocese of California and listening for God call about what we can do to fix this problem.
This is what we are hearing in the Church Growth Program:
- Help me discover Jesus in my life and support me on my personal faith journey.
- Help me give my kids a good faith foundation that will guide their lives.
- Give me options to pray, worship and serve others on my terms, in my time available.
- Help me be in community with others who share my faith and welcome me as I am.
- Spare me from church politics and the hassles that get in the way of my faith journey.
These simple yet powerful messages are the hope of the church. They symbolize the deep spiritual faith of people who love God and seek Christ but often see church practices as out of touch and in the way of true community.
The Good News is still good news and people still want to hear it. The graphic above is a new way of visualizing church the way we are—-in community with each other. This is a simple —and far from complete representation of two growth opportunities for the Diocese of California waiting for us to discover ways to meet them. In East Contra Costa and Southern Alameda amazing changes are taking place. The rapid growth of new communities in the last boom market followed by the rapid halt to that growth in the current recession and slow recovery is transforming the Diocese of California demographically, geographically, and economically. Yet the Episcopal Church has a fragmented and weak presence in these new centers for Diocesan growth.
How will we respond?
That is the big question and the big answer to our church growth problem. God has laid before us a canvas rich in multicultural and ethnic diversity. The current economic hardships see people hungry for a community of faith where they can find hope, renewal, support and love when they need it most. The question for the church is—are we going to sit in our congregational silos and wait for all these people to find us—or are we going to reach out and invite them to be part of our communities of faith?
Growing the church is about growing community—and being in communities that thrive on faith. It is Jesus calling us to live into our own Great Commission as disciples invites others to join us. To do God’s work we have to put aside some of the old ways of the church that divide us, separate us from our mission in the vineyard and remember that we are sisters and brothers of the body of Christ.
Membership Growth Team Workshops
DOUGHERTY VALLEY COLLABORATION MINISTRY PROJECT. On October 15th at St. Clare’s Episcopal Church in Pleasanton, the membership growth team workshop will focus on the Dougherty Valley growth opportunities for church growth brainstorming with St. Clare’s, St. Bartholomew’s and St. Timothy’s members about new ways to ‘do church’ and build community to be the Body of Christ in truth as well as in name. Join us 9am to noon.
EAST CONTRA COSTA COUNTY GROWTH INITIATIVE. On November 12th at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church Brentwood, the membership growth team workshop will focus on the growth and community issues and opportunities in East Contra Costa County we hope that we will also have members perspectives from St. George’s Antioch, St John’s Clayton, and St. Michael and All Angels that bound this growing area and others interested in serving its needs. We will also have a presentation from Rev. Aris Rivera, Vicar of St. Alban’s on his work using the Shaping the Parish program. Join us 9am to noon.
CHURCH2GO: NEW TECHNOLOGY OPPORTUNITIES FOR CHURCH. On December 10th at Holy Innocents, San Francisco the Membership Growth Team workshop will focus on social networking, communications and other new technologies that can be used to bring the community of faith together in new ways. From adaptive uses of customer relationship software such as St. Mary the Virgin’s use of salesforce.com to facilitate stewardship, we plan to have a church geek experience to whet appetites and send you home with new ideas for doing church in interesting and exciting new virtual ways. Join us from 9am to noon.
- Episcopal Realities: Getting Back to Growth (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- CHURCH2GO: Connecting the Body of Christ in an Episcopal Social Network (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- Census 2010 clues for Growing the Church (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- Church Decline or Growth: Pick One! (churchgrowthprogram.com)
- Farmers Market Casual Evangelism (diocalparishgrowth.com)
- Membership Growth Team Workshop #1 Feedback (diocalparishgrowth.com)