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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.