The long slow decline of mainline Protestant churches including our own Episcopal Church is forcing us to re-think how we do church, the root causes of that decline and how we can turn it around. In God’s creation nothing stands still. Everything changes and grows or it slows down and dies. The church is not dying, but it is also not growing and thus not serving God’s purpose in our lives as it should.
Ritual and Renewal is Good but Not sufficient. We still celebrate the ritual and traditions of our faith, the feast days and celebrations of the church seasons and the spiritual power of our corporate worship when we gather together around the table as one family becoming the Body of Christ. But the church is clearly losing something that enables it to be responsive the needs of the people in the pews, or not in the pews anymore! We don’t have to give up on church, but we do have to keep it relevant in our lives and those of our kids.
This is the first of a series of thinking out loud posts about church vitality. The history and evolution of the church tells us the church itself was the center of community life in villages or neighborhoods as cities grew. The church was also the center of family life for a long time. But in our mobile lives today it is no longer the church buildings that center us. Instead we need ways to stay connected to each other, stay involved in the ministries and causes we care about and our life together as the Body of Christ even though we are not physically in the pews. That is what social networks are doing in our business and personal lives.
In March I wrote in 20/20 Vision: What Role for Social Media about the power of social networks in our lives today. These social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and others shrink our world by connect us in person-to-person ways we could scarcely imagine only a few years ago. We are not making effective use of these tools and they are a powerful force for good in helping arrest the decline in the growth of the church by getting people engaged, involved and empowered doing God’s work.
Putting social networking to work for the church
Perhaps the single most powerful thing the Diocese of California could do for church vitality today would be to create and nurture the growth of a social network to empower and connect its members .If we could get people in congregations connected together and then connect congregations together for each of our missions and ministries, programs and the institution of the church we could create a 2011 version of the parish hall. A virtual combination of an Episcopal Facebook of members combined with an Episcopal Linked-In for the mission and ministry work of the church.
In our virtual parish hall we can hang out and talk with our friends and much more. We can participate, do our mission and ministry work, collaborate and share ideas, offer our time and talent and connect with those who need them, do Bible study or be part of support groups tailored to our needs as part of “safe” place” we can always go to be at home together.
Imagining the church as a social network of the body of Christ does not, in the slightest, diminish the historic role or purpose of the church. We are merely adapting the technology of our lives to do the work of the church. Our lives today are full of disruptive technology, mobility, going off to college, moving for a new job, joining the military, getting transferred, retiring, losing a loved one, feeling alone. Each life event or change modifies the rhythms of our lives and at each life stage we need the love and support of the church and the entire body of Christ to live into God’s plan for us.
We’re learning from our experience with them that social networks do not isolate us or diminish our personal relationships—quite the opposite—they enrich them, intensify them and share them in ways we scarcely thought possible. Making the church accessible, empowering and a place to be part of something exciting in the lives of people we care about and those far distant we can help.
Because the church grew from the congregations up, it is tough for us to transfer our communities and familial ties to the greater church as a top down organization.
It follows then that as the congregations and parishes of the church struggle, age, decline and fail so does the larger church. The church as the social place we use to connect to others has been superseded by social media, tweets, TXTs and real-time communications.
Here are real examples of the enabling power of social networking in our mission and ministry:
- Making Youth Ministry Cool Again. Is your congregation struggling to keep youth ministry exciting enough to attract the kids you want to serve? Most parishes face this reality. Maintaining a traditional approach to youth ministry is getting tougher and even large congregations have trouble getting a critical mass of kids at each age grouping to have a youth ministry programs that is active, exciting and cool enough to compete with the other options our kids have today. It does not mean we should quit trying, but it does mean we should try different ways to meet the need. Let’s face it, hiring a youth minister for the Diocese of California is not likely to be very effective when the need in the pews is spread across 80 congregations. But those 80 congregations lack the critical mass of kids and can’t afford the resources to hire a full time youth minister.
- Episcopal Charities Action Networks. We learned a lot in the first round of action network grants for ministries in each of the six deaneries of the Diocese. We learned that many congregations are supporting the same causes while others go wanting. We learned that the needs are wider than the squeaky wheel of causes that we have known for years, still support but are going through the motions. We also learned that the church process was too cumbersome, too long and didn’t focus enough on recruiting the faithful to many causes instead of the narrow-casting process of giving a small grant to one final winner. Life does not work that way. There is room at God’s table for many hands, many hearts a fire, and many mouths that need to e fed. EC Action network is a good strategy we should perfect to be the Jobs Board of the Episcopal Church recruiting the faith to good causes.
- Dougherty Valley Mission Collaboration. As part of our 50th anniversary celebration St Timothy’s committed to planting a mission church to maintain its unbroken chain of faith begun when God called St Paul’s Walnut Creek through the Bishop to plant a mission congregation down the road in the San Ramon Valley. Now we are working collaboratively with St. Clare’s and St. Bartholomew’s Livermore to identify the mission and ministry needs of a fast emerging new community in the 25,000 homes being developed in the Dougherty Valley area of SE Contra Costa and Southern Alameda Deaneries. If we had a social network in place it would make it so much easier to spread the word to the congregations and the wider Diocesan community and use the ECN platform to introduce ourselves to the people of the Dougherty Valley.
From looking for new technology, new ideas, new ways to do church while not letting go of our tradition and ritual and history and joy at being part of the Body of Christ even if we tweet the good news, or invite a new friend to join us in a youth program by posting it on our Facebook wall. At Pentecost we heard the Good News in many voices, many tongue and today we’re are trying to make every day Pentecost for someone seeking Christ in their lives and a way to connect to a faith community that can help them along that journey.
We need an Episcopal Social Network that helps us bring out the best in us, that informs us of new ways to serve and new needs that cry out for help, that empowers us to action rather than telling us to sit down and be quiet. By putting us to work doing the work of the church, the church is doing more to enliven and enrich our spiritual lives than all the marketing brainpower on Madison Avenue.
We are the Episcopal Church but we need new tools and new ways to discover each other anew and to be connected as the Body of Christ in thousands of ways each day with tens of thousands of hands at work. The church will grow when the joy in the hearts of the faithful grows from one simple act of kindness, faith and renewal multiplied like loaves and fishes thousands of times in the hearts of those we touch in God’s name.
- Census 2010 clues for Growing the Church (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- Episcopal Realities: Getting Back to Growth (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- Turning Our Stewardship Fears into Easter’s Sunrise (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- Signposts of St. Timothy’s Future (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- Youth Ministry: YES or NO? (kevmill.wordpress.com)
- The Vanguard of the Empowered Faithful (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- Outsourcing the Message: Fragmenting or Unifying? – Church of the Resurrection and Mark Driscoll (hackingchristianity.net)