The Push of Theocracy versus the Pull of Spirituality

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church has decided to put the church’s New York City headquarters up for sale.  This will surely count as a profound milestone in the long, slow decline of church membership, attendance and pledging.   The question is whether this is taken as symbolic of the beginning of the end of the relevance of The Episcopal Church, or a tipping point where the Church makes choices, hard, profound choices to adapt to the financial, technology, demographic, and strategic challenges it faces.

Challenges facing the Church

The church faces three broad strategic challenges:

  1. Changing demographics are changing the ‘market’ of the church.  One of the key lessons coming out of any analysis of the long slow decline of church membership is that demographic changes are having a profound impact on the church and that the church must adapt to those changes to remain relevant to the faithful.  Not only is the population aging, but the diversity of our communities is growing.  Traditional church planting no longer works. The church developed as a mission focused organization planting new churches along the way to minister to the people.  But these ‘vertical’ congregations are facing the horizontal power of technology, mobility and diversity. The challenge for the church is help the congregations find new ways to thrive by harnessing that same power of technology, mobility and diversity to see the Good News around us through collaboration (in church-speak this might be called area ministry), better programs designed and delivered to gain critical mass that enables ‘horizontal’ congregations to thrive by better meeting the needs of the faithful, and provides hands-on access’ to shared resources to enable traditional ‘vertical’ congregations satisfy critical unmet needs.
  2. Education is being disintermediated by technology and economics.  Higher education, including seminary training, is on the edge of transformational change at both the public and private level.  Change is coming.  Why?  The costs of higher education are rising faster than inflation.  The looming cumulative costs of pensions and health care are not sustainable given our fiscal realities and changing demographics and require new business models.  A declining church can afford fewer clergy and must depend more upon lay leaders and shared ministry programs.  The value proposition of higher education is eroding as high student debt cannot be supported by expected career earnings.  The ability of higher education to continuously raise tuition and fees is ending. The overhead and replacement costs of aging college campuses buildings, technology and infrastructure are growing.  The challenge for the church broadly is to define its strategy and execution plans to manage this process of change.  Resistance is futile but this need not be a ‘wake’ as technology can be your friend as well as your enemy.  The transformation in education will bring new tools and require new skills for the clergy.  The challenge for the church is to empower that transformation and training.  How?  By using the same technologies that are threatening the church to help re-imagine new ways to deliver the Good News, to engage people as there are, where they are, just when they need it most.   Examples of this disruptive innovation technology include, but are by no means limited to:
  • Knowledge management solutions to make mission and ministry programs, research, Bible study materials, sermons, parish profiles and much other information and knowledge of the church and its people accessible both vertically and horizontally and searchable 24/7.
  • Continuous learning programs as modules like Education for Ministry, The Restoration Project, and scores of others that deliver programs, curricula and resources, knowledge bases, best practices and learning modules to give clergy and lay leaders access to the widest possible programs whether it is a home church group of 10 or a mega-church of 10,000.
  •  Online communities that thrive in the extranet connecting horizontal mission and ministry program team across town with each other as well as with colleagues a half world away.  New programs and curricula can be created online from the crowdsourced knowledge and expertise of these online communities to address ministry needs, train professional and lay workers, and improve the results for the faithful participating.

Professional education in the church is not immune from these forces for change.  It can also benefit from progress in the private sector to adapt technology to meet new needs, reduce costs, and improve performance outcomes.  To survive in a smaller church that can afford fewer clergy, seminaries will need to become laboratories for developing and testing new programs and insuring that the intellectual property, and the teachings of the church are preserved and delivered to the next generation in ways that keep the faith alive in the hearts of the faithful through collaborative learning, ordained and lay community-building, and applications for ministry that turn the vineyard into the garden laboratory for faculty and students in new ways to deliver the Good News.

  1. The Theocracy of Push versus the Spirituality of Pull  In the technology business there is a creative tension between the concepts of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.  Push is the traditional top down process of providing direction, of establishing norms and disciplining their observance.  Most of the rules of civil society, business and governance of the church are ‘push’ concepts.  In the surveys of why people don’t go to church and their changing views about religion we found in the work of the Diocese of California Church Growth Program that there is a growing disconnect between the rules of the church and their judgmental application and the sense of welcoming, support and fulfillment those surveyed sought.  This is not a problem of a diminished belief in God.  It is the perception by the faithful that the church is not facilitating, supporting, or nurturing our experience of God’s unconditional love.  A good example of push is the traditional expectation that we assemble for corporate worship each Sunday at the same time and place, sit in the same pew and listen to the same boring sermon, take communion and go home.  Repeat weekly.  But what we are learning from technology and experience is that there are other ways to ‘be in community’ with each other in a corporate sense that can be equally or more compelling for both the faithful and the church.  In tech speak we would call this adaptive functionality.  But Jesus taught us the fundamental that whenever 2 or 3 are gathered in His name He is with us.  So at the last meeting of the Diocese Executive Council we approved a new ministry program called Sacred Spaces which takes the Eucharist out onto the street into parks, alleys and other places far from our traditional Sunday corporate worship experience.  The stories of Sacred Spaces are full of joy, hope and grace—pure and perfect grace. We also learned during our Church Growth Program strategic planning phase about programs like The Restoration Project that helps build community though small group pray, learn, worship, and serve experiences designed specifically to create a holy, healthy, affirming corporate worship experience for a network of hundreds of small groups sharing the same resources, experiences and joy of being the Body of Christ.  The church needs more pull and less push to arrest the process of decline.  It needs to train the next generation of ordained and lay leaders to be creative, see the vineyard as it is not as it ‘was’ and to experiment with new tools, methods and applications. It must empower and encourage the clergy to create their own Sacred Spaces of the future offering new ways to apply old lessons to make the Good News as relevant tomorrow in the lives of the faithful as it has always been.

These are the prayers of the people

In our church growth program strategic planning process we found hope in the reasons people gave for coming to, or coming back to church:

  • Help me find my way on my own spiritual faith journey.
  • Help me give my kids a faith foundation to guide their lives.
  • Help me to pray, worship and serve others as I am able.
  • Help me be in community with others and welcome me as I am.
  • Be by my side to support me and hold me in my times of need.

They are also answers to our prayer for a renewed church vitality.  Some of the decline in the church is driven by the social fabric tensions in our society including how the church has handled issues of race, sexual orientation, divorce and other factors.  But some of it is also that the church is still delivering the Good News in the same way while the experience, knowledge, and expectations of the faithful are changing.

Let the Good News speak for itself and focus the work of the church on the prayers of the people.  When they find Jesus in their hearts the church with be on fire with vitality—and nothing else matters.

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Vestry Retreat Season: Lessons about Church Vitality

It is the season for vestry retreats across the Diocese and I hope the issue of church vitality will be on every Vestry‘s agenda.  Part of my wrap-up work in phase one of our Diocesan Church Growth Program has been to prepare some slides for use in these Vestry Retreats to guide the discussion.

Thanks to Kathy Wills for the great ‘forward together’ stewardship graphic being used at St. Timothy’s this year.

Before your vestry retreat go to the national church website and download the Diocesan and congregation charts about your own membership, average Sunday attendance and pledge unit statistics and take them to your retreat.

If your congregation wants help from the Executive Council of the Diocese of California in planning your own course of action to address the church vitality and growth potential in your congregation please call ANY member of the Executive Council.  We have church growth and revenue growth team members ready and willing to work with any congregation that seeks our help.

So far 30 congregations across the Diocese of California have responded to Bishop Marc’s call to action to develop a church vitality action plan, participate in the Diocesan webinars and programs and get every member of your congregation involved in something that calls them to be the Body of Christ.

Peace be with you!

Guarding the Vision of the Church’s Future

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keeps the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18

Where there is no vision, the people perish seems plainly clear. But the second part of the verse about keeping the law could also be translated as guarding the direction of the vision, then the word happy literally means blessed. So, people perish when there is no vision, but those that guard the direction of the vision are blessed.

For the past five months the Bishop and Executive Council, of which I am a member, have been engaged in a process of discernment about the future of the Episcopal Diocese of California.  That discernment is focused on whether the church will grow or die.  I know, to say the church is dying is a shocking and provocative use of words.  But how else can you describe a nearly twenty year trend of steady average decline in membership, average Sunday attendance and pledging of -3.3% per year.

At that -3.3% per year rate of decline the church shrinks by 50% every decade.

In August 2011 when Bishop Marc Andrus came to the Executive Council of the Diocese of California and asked for our help to breathe new vitality into the church and get the congregations growing again, he did not tell us how to do it—he just said we need to do this!

Sitting around that Council table we all understood the existential threat we face.

Fast forward nearly six months after study, prayer and consultations across the Diocese.  The church growth program sought to raise the awareness of the clergy and laity to this problem by naming it, talking often about it, asking questions about why this is happening and challenging the lay leaders across the congregations to take up the challenge of getting the church growing again.

We held four workshops focused on church attendance and membership growth.  We held a workshop on revenue growth challenges.  We went to each of the six deaneries of the Diocese to name the problem and ask each congregation to commit to working on a proactive plan of their own they will beginning to implement in 2012 to set clear and measurable church vitality and growth goals.

Today more than 30 of the 80 congregations in the Diocese have committed to participation in the Bishop’s church vitality challenge by participating in monthly webinars, develop action plans and sharing the results of their efforts with others.

It turns out that “sharing” is harder than it should be.

The traditional church model is built around small parishes.  When we wanted to grow the church we simply built a new church assuming if we did the people would come and for generations they did come.  But much has changed in the world and in the way the world affects our lives.  Today we depend more on technology to communicate in our fast paced, mobile society.  The church is not the common meeting place it once was for communities.

The Good News is we still want Jesus in our lives.  We still want to give our kids a solid faith foundation.  We still want to be in community with others.  We still want to be surrounded by people who accept us as we are, and support us in our times of need, and pray with us and for us.  We still want to serve others.  And we still want the church to make this possible for us and to be there for us.

But as with the rest of the institutions that touch our lives we also expect the church to ‘keep up’ with changing times and walk our journey of faith with us as we pray, learn, worship and serve others.

The Good News in our discernment process is that the problem of church decline is not a failure of faith on the part of the people, it is a failure of the institutions and methods of the church to grow with us, change with us, be in community with us—as we are TODAY—and where we are going TOMORROW.

How do we get the church growing again and breath new vitality into the old bones of the institution? The answers have been right in front of us all the time.  God has been whispering the knowledge of what to do in our hearts for a long time—the words just have not traveled to our ears and head so we can turn them into action.

What do I mean?

The Church is the Living Body of Christ entrusted to the People who Love and Serve the Lord.  It is our responsibility as members of the Body of Christ to do the work God has given us to do.  All we have to do to get the church growing again is get up out of the pews and quit going through the motions. Bishop Marc’s call to each congregation to “get with it, people” is all the permission we need to empower our actions.  Talk to your neighbors and find ways that work for your congregation to throw open the doors and invite the community to join you.  Reach out to those in need and be the Body of Christ for them.

Empowering the People to Act means the Institutions of the Church Must Support Them.  Waiting for direction from the Bishop and Clergy is not the answer for people who already are empowered to do God’s work.  We can’t ‘delegate up’ the job God has given us to do. He expects us to do His work in the vineyard ourselves.  It may be more than coincidence that the steady decline in the church membership, attendance and pledging parallels the growth in the professional staff of the church.  Most congregations still are small enough that they can only afford a priest.  The rest of the work of the congregation gets done when its members roll up their sleeves and get it done.  Part of the decline of church membership and attendance may be a perception that showing up does not make a difference.  Until every person counts and the absence of any member is noticed, the church is just a routine and not a community we feel called to.  That is the challenge for every congregation—make every person count, make them feel indispensible to the Body of Christ because to Christ every person is loved unconditionally.

Investing in Our Community Faith Journey Together.  Increasingly the tedious ways we ‘do church’ turn us off because in the rest of our lives we use technology, build and nurture community, and share information that lives into our values and goals.  The church must get with the technology program if it wants the people to work in the vineyard.

  • WE NEED NEW TOOLS FOR WORKING TOGETHER COLLABORATIVELY. I repeat my observation that the single most empowering thing we have learned from the church growth program action planning phase is that the Diocese of California NEEDS a social collaboration system on line that encourages us, empowers us, supports us to break out of our congregational silos and work together across congregations, across deaneries, across ministry programs to do God’s work.   We need more than a wall on FaceBook and Twitter.  We need virtual work spaces to share idea, hold meetings, share information.  We need one common place to go for church information not a thousand sites we must remember.
  • NEW WAYS TO DO BIBLE STUDY.  In our church growth program we learned about The Restoration Project, a wonderful small group ministry focused on Bible study.  And we learned about YouVersion, an online program that connects small Bible study groups around the world.  If the Diocese created ONE social network where we could go to access these and scores of other prayer, study and support programs and services think how much easier it would be to BE IN COMMUNITY WITH EACH OTHER.
  • NEW WAYS TO DO OUTREACH. We need new ways to design, support and do outreach such as the way sites like Volunteer Marin or kickstart.org to allow people to directly support outreach projects across the Diocese.

You can find more ideas on the church growth program homepage for how technologies that we use in our personal and business lives every day can e adapted to meet the needs of the church to breathe new vitality into our institutions, throw open the doors to new people eager to find their way on their spiritual journey and get people involved in doing God’s work in the vineyard that will change the lives of those they touch and help them find Christ in their hearts where he’s been all along.

You don’t need permission—just do it!