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!

Bishop Marc’s Call for Congregational Vitality

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ in the Diocese of California,

In our Congregational Vitality webinar on September 13, I asked you to consider making a continuing commitment to work together to develop growth strategies for the Episcopal Church in our diocese. This is not new work, but has been bubbling up since well before I arrived. From the diocesan profile that called for a new bishop in 2005, to our collective Beloved Community Visioning process, the people of this diocese have continuously placed a high value on congregational vitality, and your bishop and diocesan staff hold this as our central mission in the work we do everyday.

This Advent, your diocesan staff and I will provide new tools for teams from your congregations to continue this work in collaborative ways. It is my sincere hope that you will assemble your best and brightest to join us as we embark on this mutual learning beginning December 8.

I am writing now to ask you to take this next step with us. By clicking the link below, you will be taken to a web page to register your congregation’s team. These teams will be asked to join us monthly at locations around the diocese, either in person or online. The teams will be asked to do work between the meetings, providing case studies of vibrant ministries that they encounter in their own congregational settings. They will also be invited to be open to the working of the Holy Spirit, as we respond together to God’s call to mission.

Your diocesan staff is looking forward to this time of new collaboration and new growth.

Faithfully,

Bishop Marc
Congregational Vitality Team commitment form

Parable of the Wicked Tenants: What are the Lessons for the Church Growth Program?

The Great Commission
The Great Commission via Wikipedia

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.  Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another and stoned another.  Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  Finally, he sent his son to them saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “this is the heir; come let’s kill him and get his inheritance.’  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you ever read the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected

Has become the cornerstone;

This was the Lord’s doing,

And it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it all.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parable, they realized that he was speaking about them.  They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)

Have you ever noticed how of often the lessons appointed each Sunday has a message for you that you don’t realize until you are sitting there in the pews and it hits you between the eyes?  This happens to me often and it happened again today when I least expected it.  The gospel reading warns us to be faithful to God.  OK, I’m doing my best to be faithful, what’s the problem?

As the homilist interprets the Gospel reading from Matthew I realize that the message is that God’s redeeming grace is enduring but that to receive it we must live the lives of redeemed people.  That is—our weekly corporate worship is not designed so that we can just go through the motions of being part of the Body of Christ, we are expected to actually follow the way of Christ!  YIKES!  That means we can’t just coast we have to work for our share of the product of the vineyard, not be complacent but go out there and work the vineyard like you mean it! Right between my eyes, OK, Jesus I get it. 

Is the church growth program Jesus’ call to us to respond to the long slow decline in church attendance, membership and pledging?  Is Jesus telling not only the Episcopal Church but all the mainline religions that we are wicked slaves forgetting whose we are and taking advantage of an absentee vineyard owner?  Otherwise why would we be so neglecting of the church to let it run out of gas and into the ditch?  

Every major denomination has the same problem and is struggling to find the same answer—how do we keep the inheritance?  The people in the pews are voting with their feet and the message is clear—we don’t feel the institutional church is meeting our needs nor helping us find Jesus in our lives so we are searching for new ways to ‘do church’ that will meet our hunger to be part of the body of Christ.

After twenty years of steady decline, something amazing happened in the Diocese of California Up from the pews the faithful began to ask what are we going to do to get the church growing again?  The Holy Spirit must have been cheering because in a relatively short period of weeks that questioning and prayer, confession and hope for renewal had worked its way from the pews to the Bishop of California.

When Bishop Marc came to the August meeting of the Executive Council he told us he felt it was time to place our faith in God’s call to the faithful and to ask the collective wisdom of the laity to go to work in the vineyard to get the church growing again.  He was neither conditional nor tentative, he asked the Executive Council to take charge of this church growth program initiative and run with it. 

We are a little more than one month into the church growth program and the Pharisees are after us.  The church growth program empowers the laity to try new ways to do church.  It invites us to question programs that don’t work as planned, that do not get desired results.  It encourages us to take initiative on our own without waiting for permission.  But change is hard in the church just as it is in other parts of our lives.

Church Growth Program causes trouble by asking hard questions.  It gives us permission to challenge conventional thinking.  That was apparent to me at the Contra Costa Deanery meeting as I described the upcoming workshops of the membership growth team.  When I said the November meeting would discuss the issues of East Contra Costa County I got hit between the eyes by the concerns of several of the congregations in that area that the real agenda of the Diocese was to consolidate them into one bigger congregation, but that they felt the needs of the area were too diverse, the geographic too distributed and the communities of interest too different to work together.  Really?

Change is threatening and so is the church growth program, just like the Pharisees felt threatened by the preaching of Jesus and the disciples.   But if the church growth program is the laity’s attempt to be the Body of Christ and do the work we are called to do by the Great Commission, questioning is going to happen.

  • Empower the Laity. The change envisioned in the church growth program shifts the responsibility for improving attendance, membership and pledging from the Diocesan staff and clergy to the laity.
  • Set Measurable Results for Growth. The church growth program encourages a new focus of Diocesan congregational development to work on our best opportunities to grow the church rather than its current mission effectiveness focus on our least effective ones.  We do a poor job of measuring results and facing realities that we can no longer afford to keep supporting programs, missions and congregations that are not sustainable.
  • Encourage Collaborative Ministries. The church growth program embraces collaborative efforts to work with struggling congregations to try new ideas to help the congregation pursue its best opportunities to thrive without subsidies.
  • Invest in Growth instead of Subsidizing Failure. The church growth program promises to shift the spending priorities of the Diocese from top down Diocesan programs to bottoms up support for congregational efforts to grow by matching the investment and time commitments congregations are willing to make in a mission or ministry program with matching support from the Diocese on a competitive basis across the Diocese.

I do not know what the right answer is for the East Contra Costa County area is.  But I do know this, the Diocese of California has a big opportunity in the changing demographics and growth patterns emerging over the last ten years that are now being documented in the 2010 Census.  The rapid growth and now stalled economy of East CoCo has given us a new diversity of multicultural richness layered into the underlying fabric of the community.  The Episcopal missions and parishes in Contra Costa County working together are well positioned to respond to those needs with the help of the Diocese.  But alone none of them is able to deal with the size, complexity and diversity of the need.  Some congregations are thriving, others are struggling but few work together in any meaningful way to do the work of the church in this area.

Out of the Pews and Congregation Silos into the Vineyard

Our challenge is to bring together the missions and congregations serving the Contra Costa County deanery area to explore ways they can work together to do God’s work in this part of the vineyard and to define the Diocesan support needs to make it happen.  The difference in the approach to this program with and without the church growth program makes this a perfect laboratory for experimentation with new ways to do church in this part of the vineyard.

The traditional congregational development and misson effectiveness approach is to wait for the Diocese to decide what to do.  The church growth program approach turns that strategy on its head and calls upon the lay leaders of the area to come together, work together, develop a plan to ‘plant a vineyard, put a fence around it, dig a wine press and build a watchtower’ as Matthew described it in the parable—that is to develop a plan and invest in doing God’s work then tend it faithfully until the vines take root and bear fruit and offer it to God, the owner of all of our vineyards.

Do you see the power of this different approach?

The traditional approach to church growth through congregational development and mission effectiveness is to sit in the pews and wait for the Bishop, Diocesan Staff and clergy to tell us what to do.  The truth of our church decline problem should be telling us —-this is not working!

Why?

Jesus is calling us to get up from the safety of our pew to work in the vineyard.  Jesus wants us to work up a sweat by doing the work He gave us to do.  The ‘build it and they will come’ approach to church planting has not worked for a long time.  The buildings of the church are NOT the church.  The church lives in the hearts of the faithful whose lives are touched and transformed by the unconditional love of Christ in our lives and across our community.

To grow the church we must not be afraid to throw open the doors —and our hearts to those who love God and seek Christ and be working in the vineyard where these new seekers and faithful live, work, struggle and pray.  We are wicked tenants because we have failed to follow that call and church decline is part of “putting those wretches to a miserable death” and warning us that God will “lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”  if we don’t get up and get out of the pews and do some honest and holy work in the vineyard he has been calling us to do.

The challenge for the Church Growth Program will be to survive the action planning phase and speak to the hearts of the lay leaders across the congregations to roll up their sleeves and do God’s work in the vineyard.  But the absentee owner promises to come for his produce.  What will he want?

Jesus wants the vineyard to thrive and produce good fruit

He want the laborers in the vineyard to see the Kingdom as one of abundance not a zero sum game where when the landowner gets more the laborers in the vineyard get less. 

God’s economy is NOT a zero sum game and neither is the church growth program.  But it does require honestly facing up to the issues in getting the church growing again.  It does call us to throw open the doors and welcome the faithful from many nationalities, many cultures and languages who love God and seek Christ.  It does call us to stop doing things that no longer work, do not help the church grow or empower us to be the body of Christ.

The consequence of not facing the church growth issues is also clear—-by 2022 the Diocese of California will shrink to a point that it becomes largely irrelevant  from the steady -3.3% decline each year in attendance, membership and pledge units from business as usual.

That is the lesson from the vineyard—be faithful to God, listen to Jesus call to us to make disciples of all nations, and to know that as we do that work in the vineyard, Jesus will be with us until the end of the ages.

Visualize The Great Commission

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:

  1. Help me discover Jesus in my life and support me on my personal faith journey.
  2. Help me give my kids a good faith foundation that will guide their lives.
  3. Give me options to pray, worship and serve others on my terms, in my time available.
  4. Help me be in community with others who share my faith and welcome me as I am.
  5. 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.

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The Parable of the Open Mic

As I was writing up the notes from our first Membership Growth Team workshop where we discussed the issues of the long slow decline in church membership, attendance and support, I kept coming back to the story of the Open Microphone program going on at St. Luke’s San Francisco.

The Rev Dana Corsello told the story so passionately describing the courage of her congregation to stick with a program that attracts people ‘not like us’ for a nontraditional way of doing outreach (DON”T USE THAT TERM, PLEASE!!!)  That was one of the admonitions from the person who is the glue that holds that program together with its own community of faithful.

Our Spiritual Tension in Growth

The problem of church decline is not just one facing the Episcopal Church but for every mainline denomination. I kept coming back to that ‘spiritual tension’ between doing things we know—that no longer work, and doing things we don’t know and may not even like—that might work.

The Parable of the Open Mic is one of the powerful themes from our Membership Growth Workshop because it forces us to confront the Pharisees in our midst that are holding back the church from growing to meet the needs of those it is supposed to serve today.

In our discussions we also asked ourselves why was this decline happening and what could we do to turn the situation around and get growing again.  The why is this happening question is a tough one.  Among the reasons people give for not being part of the church include:

  • I feel like I am going through the motions of the ritual but I still don’t have Jesus in my life.
  • The hierarchy and rules of the church are not relevant to my life.
  • I am seeking spirituality in my life that the church does not fulfill for me.
  • The church is more about politics and not about faith.
  • I can still believe in God and pray without getting up Sunday morning to go to church.
  • The people in church are not like me.

The common denominator in all these sentiments is that the church as we have come to know it does not always satisfy the hunger in our hearts for a more personal connection to Jesus, or make us feel that God loves us because we feel uncomfortable in the place he calls his house of worship, or ignite that passion that makes us feel embraced by unconditional love.

The truth is Jesus does not live in church and was turned off by the rules of the temple and the elders of the time, but instead of staying in bed and feeling sorry for himself  He got up and went out to create places in the hearts of each person he touched, or healed or broke bread with that transformed their lives.  He taught us that our faith not only sets us free but enables us to see that the “technically correct but completely useless” situations of our lives don’t have to be that way.

Sometimes today the church is off putting because we go through the motions and rituals of faith being “technically correct” but then go out and do the same “completely useless” things that brought us to the Table for renewal in the first place.

The church growth challenge is not about the church, it is about each of us. The church fails in its mission if it does not help each of us discover Jesus in our lives and see the wonder and miracles that happen around us each day.  To get the church growing again it must be able to ‘connect with people’ in ways beyond the ritual and ceremony.

Faith is not something we do on Sunday morning, faithful is something we are every day.  Practicing our faith is that ‘rhythm of life’ experience that reassures us that we are not walking alone no matter where we are or what we are doing.

The lesson of the first membership growth workshop is  to help people find Jesus in their lives on their own terms, in their own ways and in community with others seeking to discover Him too.  Otherwise we’re just practicing spiritual correctness and it will be “completely useless” and completely obvious to everyone.