Benchmarking the church

By Phyllis Strupp
Posted Jul 31, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] In the wake of the 77th General Convention, journalists from two esteemed pillars of the press (The Wall Street Journal on the right and The New York Times on the left) have leveled some harsh criticisms of the Episcopal Church, citing long-term decreases in church attendance and finances. Both writers attribute the church’s impending decline to the same cause: a failure to stake out theological positions that meet the political leanings of Episcopalians.

The Wall Street Journal op-ed suggested that conservatives, disappointed with the church’s expansion of gay rights, went home from convention empty-handed: “Its numbers and coffers shrinking, the church votes for pet funerals but offers little to the traditional faithful.”

The New York Times op-ed claimed the church has failed liberals by weakening the theological underpinnings of the liberal Christianity that fueled the social gospel and civil rights movements: “Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

Other voices claimed, “The church is falling! The church is falling!” after the 2003, 2006 and 2009 conventions, as well. Granted, the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations are fighting for their very survival. But to know how the struggle is coming along, you have to monitor the right barometer of success. And how happy conservatives and liberals are with the church is not the right measure.

For Christians, the things of God are to be prioritized over worldly matters such as politics. When Peter was upset with Jesus’ predictions of his own death, Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:23)

So, what is the best benchmark to assess the church’s attention to the things of God? In our skeptical post-modern times, hope is the best measure of spiritual vitality. Hope is a sign that we are keeping the Bible alive spiritually, according to Paul in Romans 15:4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

In terms of brain chemistry, hope is an indicator that fear is under control. But to have the inner strength to choose hope over fear, trust in God or another higher power is essential. The concept of trust in a higher power in the universe fits well with a secular worldview, as William James, twelve-step programs and U.S. currency have taught us (America has been printing “In God we trust” on its currency since 1864).

However, decades ago the mainstream secular institutions chose to trade a higher power for humanism, which has bred hopelessness in many forms. One of the most hopeless topics of the secular world today is the state of the environment. Scientists, concerned by the dire outlook presented by their climate models, have struggled to maintain the hope that would encourage others to take action. Some scientists have turned to faith communities for hope, as illustrated by this 2008 statement from Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment:

“Thirty years ago, I thought that with enough good science we would be able to solve the environmental crisis. I was wrong. I used to think that the greatest problems threatening the planet were pollution, bio-diversity loss and climate change. I was wrong there too. I now believe that the greatest problems are pride, apathy and greed. Because that’s what’s keeping us from solving the environmental problem. For that, I now see that we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we in the scientific community don’t know how to do that. But you [in the faith community] do. We need your help.”

Is the Episcopal Church nurturing seeds of hope for better tomorrow with regard to the environmental crisis and secular venues where hopelessness persists? Are church-going Christians more hopeful than the fast-growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd? Hope is contagious. Hope is the best yardstick to use for benchmarking the church’s performance and prospects. Hope opens our minds to the things of God—no matter what the current numbers say. All things are possible with God.

– Phyllis Strupp is the author of Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum and the author of The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert.


Comments (11)

  1. Thank you for that inspiring commentary! Another aspect of GC77 that we haven’t lifted up is that the measure of a church’s vitality is not average Sunday attendance (ASA). The Church is vital when it serves the community during the week, not just how many are drawn to the Sunday worship. I’ll use your comments in a sermon–and I will be sure to attribute them to you!

    1. Phyllis Strupp says:

      Thanks Sylvia–maybe we can start a viral hope meme!

  2. Tony Price says:

    Possibly one of the better articles addressing declining mainland church attendance.

  3. Art House says:

    We all know why church attendance has dwindled in the past ten years, no matter how much positive spin is put on it. The church leadership is far, far more socially liberal, sometimes recklessly so, than the the church-going population as a whole. We’ve already witnessed erosion of membership in our parish as a result of actions taken at the recent convention. When the hard-copy edition of Episcopal Life was discontinued, I was saddened; now I’m thankful. If the majority of Episcopalians were aware of what’s going on at the highest levels of church leadership (and believe me, most do not), we’d have even fewer people continuing as members.

    1. Phyllis Strupp says:

      Hey Art, maybe God is more socially liberal than you or me, and the church leadership is on the right track! Keep the faith.

  4. Marylin Day says:

    To Art House – you are correct that most church going members have no idea about the policy decisions, recommendations, etc. that go on in the national levels of the church. However, each of us, if we care at all, has a responsibility to stay informed about the “goings on” at the national and international level. This is just like our desire to stay informed about Congress and the government – at the local, state and national levels.
    For some though, like you said, maybe it is a good thing to be uninformed – sticking their heads in the sand and maybe, just maybe, this new church will go away.
    I believe our Episcopal Church has gifts for everyone – conservative and liberal alike. You choose your parish to fit your yearnings and needs and the best way you might serve. Each parish is different – each has their own personality. We don’t have to attend the church nearest our home and we can become as involved as we like. Thank God we don’t HAVE to do most everything this church decides at the national level – we can decide locally how we serve God and find spiritual comfort.

    1. Michael Palazzolo says:

      I really don’t understand the people who long for an Episcopal Church of the past which wouldn’t welcome me or my gifts. I’ve been an Episcopalian for about 30 years now, and was happy to join a non-dogmatic church centered on common prayer. I thought we didn’t need to agree on everything we believed in, but came together to pray and have communion. Now there are some in the church who think we’re baptists or Roman Catholics … What happened? Even though there is evidence that the Scripture passages used to condemn gay people are really talking about ritual prostitution, conservatives are willing to treat people badly and break their baptismal vows for what, some political motives or attempt to hang on to power in the church? All I want to do is be a full member, like you, of my Christian community, which happens to be an Episcopal church.

      1. Phyllis Strupp says:

        Michael thank you for bringing your gifts to the church, including patience. We need them!

  5. Grant Abbott says:

    As Episcopalians we do not need to hide from the fact that our church has lost significant numbers of members. There are costs to the positions we have taken. Our 1979 Book of Common Prayer that moved us closer to the Catholic tradition that centers worship on the Eucharist rather than morning prayer cost us members. Our opening of ordained ministry at all levels to women cost us members. Our opening of the church to gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered persons cost us members. That is true. But it is also true that those decisions also brought new members to the Episcopal Church.

    As the author writes this church is about being faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and giving hope to all, especially the poor and the outcasts, just as Jesus did. Let those who wish to reinforce their political positions celebrate the Episcopal Church’s loss of numbers. We need to focus on letting the world know that the Episcopal Church is an open church that comes together to worship an awesome God who is beyond our comprehension but who offers an abundance of grace to all. We may disagree about theology and politics, but we are taught “to respect the dignity every human being.” We nurture faith that “seeks to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.” If this faith means that the Episcopal Church loses members for the time being, then that is a cost I am willing to pay, even while others gloat.

  6. Jane Linn says:

    Thank you, Grant, for beautifully expressing for me what I’ve always loved about the Episcopal Church. After reading the articles in the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal I spent several sad hours realizing that vast numbers of people just don’t get it. The Episcopal Church in our time is trying mightily to live out the core teaching of Jesus which is that EVERYONE is worthy of acceptance, inclusion and love. Pure and simple, but hard. I, for one, feel so humble and grateful to be a member.

  7. Doug Desper says:

    Let’s remember, during all the talk about justice, inclusion, setting things right, responding to the culture’s itches, etc, etc, that the Church was given a Great Commission: “Go, therefore…make disciples…teach…” If we are doing that we will see numbers because numbers represent individuals – people who have been formed as Christians. The Church IS about numbers, not just causes. It is very likely that people have been walking away from our Church – as increasingly noted – because it has often been found that there is little difference between what is being preached and taught in our churches, and the secular liberalism that embraces (and just as quickly discards I noticed) the radical demands of society like in the Occupy Movement (which has now largely discredited itself despite being covered thoroughly here on ENS). A better mind than mine noticed this years ago and said prophetically and accurately that the Church that marries this present age will become a widow in the next.

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