Growing the church again after years of slow 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 been a steady -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 at the beginning of this new millennium in 2000. Similar reductions in membership and average Sunday attendance are forecast and the result is that the Episcopal Church faces an existential threat to its relevance let alone it vitality.
The reasons for decline are varied ranging from changing demographics, changes in our religious traditions as secularization pushes faith out of the public square, our schools and many other places. And there are the self-inflicted wounds of churches who still believe they have a monopoly on people’s religious faith experiences and act like lords rather than worshipping our Lord. Then there are the seemingly endless conflicts of church politics, religious strife and other bad press that make church—every church— seem less inviting, less safe, less home.
This is a message of renewal not dispair
The church has a big problem, but it also has the Holy Spirit 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. That we are coming to recognize church decline as the #1 problem facing the church today is the Hold Spirit at work guiding us to fix it.
Over the past several months, the diocese of California has been working in the vineyard trying to assess this problem of church decline right here in the Diocese of California and listening for God to show us 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 hierarchy and bureaucracy as out of touch and in the way just as Jesus found the Pharisees in his own time.
The lesson is The Good News is still good news and people still want to hear it. The graphic above is a new way to see 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 community. 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.
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.
- 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)