We Need a 12-Step Group
Sociologists of religion spent a great deal of time and ink thinking about the sudden and precipitous decline of mainline denominations in the United States beginning in the late 1960s. The Episcopal Church, along with the United Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and others seemingly entered into free fall, losing millions of members. By the end of that decade, 10 of the largest denominations in the United States were in decline.
In the meantime, many of the more conservative churches were growing, sometimes at an astonishing rate. Much of the largest growth was found in the evangelical, nondenominational, or charismatic churches. Of course, these latter churches were gleefully convinced that this was best explained by ideological difference between evangelical and mainline or conservative and liberal, in spite of the fact that most serious researchers debated whether there were any consistent factors to explain why most churches were declining, while some churches were growing. However, it was clear that, regardless of the denomination or ideology, it was true to say in North America that eight out of 10 congregations were stagnant or declining.
The church growth movement produced books, programs, tapes and seminars for church leaders desperate to stem the hemorrhage of members from declining denominations and congregations, and committed to enhance or maintain the growth of growing denominations and congregations. Other church leaders denounced the church growth movement as misguided and unspiritual, often defending the decline of their group as though it were a sign of nobility, a proof that their group were focused on higher goals, rather than succumbing to the temptation of empire building, religious imperialism, or confusing faith with accounting.
More time passed.
By the middle of the 1990s, the growth arc of the growing denominations and evangelical nondenominational movements had slowed, peaked, and began to decline, just as it had for the mainline churches. By the beginning of the 21st century, observers began to realize that this was the case. Denominational and census reports, as well as demographic studies, concurred that American Christianity was becoming a smaller slice of the demographic pie year by year. Although some congregations and denominations continued to grow, and some congregations have grown spectacularly, the growth of the few have not kept up with the aggregate loss of the many. Demographically speaking, organized religion, including mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, the evangelical movements, religious sects, Judaism, Islam, and Eastern religions, together made up a smaller portion of the population in 2000 than they did in 1990. The only portion of the population that had increased between 1990 and 2000 was the portion that identified itself with no organized religion at all.
Perhaps the most alarming reality in these observations is that the greatest number of people missing from organized religion were those between the age of 18 and 35. Many people reassured themselves that this wasn't really a problem, believing with all their hearts that young people tend to leave the church in their late teens, go off and explore the world, but then return to the church went they start having small children. And of course there are examples of such people in most congregations. Unfortunately, such anecdotal reassurance is whistling in the dark, for the relative absence of the 18 to 35-year-olds was very different in the last decade of the 90s and the first decade of the 21st century than it had ever been before. For now, the 18 to 35-year-olds were missing in numbers far larger than ever before, and the indication is that in most cases, neither they nor their small children were returning to the church. For the most part, organized religion in America appears to be aging. Congregations and denominations tend to have an older average and median membership than did the residential demographic surrounding them. In other words, Christianity in America was declining, partly because of attrition, but largely, and more importantly, because of its failure to replace its membership as its membership ages and dies off. The relentless reality of biology is that all denominations and congregations that do not intentionally seek out, attract, and incorporate the population around itself, will tend naturally and necessarily largely to evaporate.
The Episcopal Church, for example, grew quite rapidly in the United States during those times in history when bishops energetically established new congregations – at least one or two new starts each year. But it also consistently declined during those periods when new congregations were not energetically established. This was true for the Episcopal Church in general, and dioceses in particular, just as it was true for other denominations.
In recent history, most dioceses have given little attention, few resources, and no real commitment to the energetic establishment of new congregations -- at least one or two new starts every year. The concluding decade of the 20th century was called the decade of evangelism, and was followed by a well-publicized declaration that the Episcopal Church would seek to double its size by the year 2020. What appears more likely to any objective observer, is that the Episcopal Church is not serious about extending the energy or resources to accomplish that intention. Nor are other American denominations. Those few congregations and denominations that intentionally pursue outreach to the increasingly nonreligious population cannot on their own reverse the relentless reality of biology and attrition.
One may travel today across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, and visit the remains of organized Christianity from the ancient past. I have stood in places where there were once vibrant Christian communities, dominated today by a secularized culture, where the great majority of church buildings were abandoned, boarded up, or converted into crafts shops, museums or store houses years ago. Where today’s tiny handful of Christians feel depressed about their loss and hopeless about their future. I have stood in many other places where there were once vibrant Christian communities, where there is no hint of Christian faith today. The valiant 300 at Thermopylae (along with their friends and allies) could not hold off forever the relentless tide of invasion, even though their courage and determination are celebrated even today. Had the other Greeks not rallied eventually, Xerxes would have prevailed, most certainly. Rather than doubling by 2020, it is far more likely that American Christianity will follow the same arc of European Christianity. Some observers estimate that the current rate of attrition, combined with the biological certainty of our demographic age and rate of mortality, will result in a secularized American culture, identical with Europe's, where the Christian faith, accounts for less than 5% of the population.
Time will pass. Whether or not American denominations and congregations will also pass is being decided, either consciously and intentionally, or unconsciously and unintentionally. The greatest issue facing the Episcopal Church today is not the issue that dominates our national and church news. It is the issue of congregational development – the growth of congregations and the start of new congregations.
If we continue on the same path tomorrow that we have been following in the recent past, it is quite certain that we will end up where we are headed. The only question is whether we will pay attention to history, to the present, to reality. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were a 12-step group for American denominations and congregations, which would encourage them...
1. to admit that were powerless over the relentless reality of biology and attrition and that their lives had become unmanageable
2. to believe in a Power greater than themselves that could restore them to sanity
3. make a decision to turn their will and lives over to the care of God as they understood Him
4. to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of their congregational life, mission and program
5. to admit to God, to themselves, and to another human being the exact nature of thier wrongs
6. to become entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
7. to humbly asked Him to remove their shortcomings.
8. to make a list of all persons they had harmed and neglected, and to willing to make amends to them all
9. to make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. to continue to take congregational inventory, and when they are wrong promptly admitted it and take steps to resolve it
11. to seek through prayer and meditation to improve its conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out
12. to have a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, to to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all congregational affairs.
The Lord be with you,