Four things I want for the Episcopal Church

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The Episcopal Church breathed new life into my faith. The Eucharist, the liturgy, the people—I don’t know where I’d be in my journey without them. Most likely untethered, without a spiritual home.

Judging by the reaction to my last post, I’m not alone.

I’ve been part of this community long enough now that I should probably stop thinking of myself as a newbie. It’s been long enough for me to know there are challenges ahead. For all the good there is, we’re an imperfect community.

I don’t have answers to the challenges facing the Episcopal Church. But there are four things I hope will shape our response…

1. Don’t be afraid of the future.

The Episcopal Church is in decline, at least numerically. There’s no point denying or dismissing it. Yes, it’s part of a larger trend affecting all major denominations. No, it doesn’t have as much to do with the church’s position on divisive issues; it’s far more to do with demographic shifts and our failure to keep up.

But the decline is real. It cannot be wished away. My friend and Episcopal priest Nurya Love Parish has plenty of research providing the necessary context.

Decline is painful. We’ll see more churches close in the years ahead. We can either wring our hands about the future, or we can help shape it. Either way, things won’t be as they were before. Episcopalians will no longer enjoy privileged status in American society. And well… good. Privilege has a way of breeding apathy. God, on the other hand, has a way of diminishing the mighty to remind us of our weakness—often (and this is the good news) so he can work through us in new and better ways. We can resist, exhausting our resources to prop up a crumbling edifice, or we can build something new.

Death of one kind or another is coming. It always does. The question, as one of our priests put it, is whether we can “fathom resurrection” on the other side. I think we can.

2. Don’t be afraid to challenge people (as long as you have something worth challenging them with).

One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that it gave me space to just be. When I first arrived, there wasn’t a ton of pressure to sign up for this program or volunteer at that event. If you need a place to heal or acclimate or reset your spiritual journey, you can do that here. And you should.

At the same time, some of us have been coming for a while now, and we’re ready to be challenged. There’s a caveat, however: if the challenge you have for us is all about maintenance or survival, then we’re probably not interested. But if you have a vision for the future, a way to be part of what God is doing to renew and remake the world—then sign us up. We’re ready to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

Just ask. 

3. Don’t be afraid to proclaim the gospel.

OK, I’ll admit… I hate it as much as you do when the subject turns to evangelism. For me, it brings up too many memories of going door to door, handing out tracts and peddling Jesus to strangers. Episcopalians have good reason to be skeptical of much of what passes for evangelism.

We don’t have to manipulate people into the kingdom. We don’t have to be like Sandwich Board Guy outside Westlake Center in Seattle, with just about every doom-laden Bible verse scrawled onto his placard.

But evangelism, whatever else it may be, involves proclamation. Granted, announcing that a Jewish preacher came back from the dead doesn’t carry the same shock or novelty it once did. The proclamation that “Jesus is risen” doesn’t turn heads the way it might have 1,900 years ago.

The real challenge is to demonstrate how resurrection changes things. It’s a challenge that requires us to always move outward, engaging meaningfully with the communities and people around us.

Our proclamation will look and feel different. Thankfully, it’s not the heavy-handed sales pitch that others have used. (What do I have to do to get you into a relationship with Jesus today?) At its best, it’s an invitation to explore, to journey together.

But let’s not hesitate to share it. Let’s not forget, there are lots of people searching for something transcendent. (Check.) There are plenty of people who long to be part of a community where all are welcome. (Check.)

There aren’t many places that can say they offer both. We can. Let’s invite others to share the ride.

4. Don’t mistake “speaking up about injustice” for “standing with the poor.”

The Episcopal Church is not afraid to speak out on difficult and sometimes contentious issues: Ferguson, climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian refugee crisis, domestic poverty. There’s a whole public affairs office dedicated to addressing concerns like these.

I love that about my church. The kingdom of God is every bit as much about life in this world as it is the life of the world to come. We should speak prophetically to our institutions of power, and we should do so in solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society.

But we should not forget that speaking up about injustice is not the same as cultivating justice. Advocating for the poor is not the same as standing with the poor. As my friend Ian (one of my first guides into the Anglican tradition) shared recently:

The Church is called to stand with the poor, to be with the poor and even (as controversial as this may sound in our suburban bubble) to be poor in solidarity with those in need. Leaders in the Church should be modeling what it is to be with those in need.

This is not always easy when you have a reputation for affluence—or in a denomination where, according to the Episcopal Café, churches “that are truly flourishing are located disproportionately in affluent neighborhoods and have affluent members.”

Our best hope for nurturing justice is (again quoting Ian) by “modeling a better way, a new way of living that turns the conventions and values of the dominant society upside down.”

In the process, we may discover that some of our own conventions and values need turning upside down, too. We should remain open to that possibility.

—//—

I love the Episcopal Church. (But then, if you read the last post, you know that already.) I believe there is a bright future for us. But it depends on us seeing church as a movement first and an institution second. It will challenge us to reimage what it means to be the presence of Jesus in the 21st century—as each generation before us has had to do in their own time—without abandoning the traditions and practices that make our church such a life-giving place for so many.

Again, I think my friend Ian put it well: “The church is at its best when it is open, humble, and sacramental.” May we be all of these things and more as we move into an uncertain future.

Photo by Greg Westfall on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

22 thoughts on “Four things I want for the Episcopal Church

  1. Dear Ben, As a long time Episcopalian, may I respectfully suggest that you gain much more knowledge about TEC than you presently display before you give too many instructions on how we should proceed to change. Perhaps you’ve attached yourself to a stagnant parish with uninspired leadership. If that’s the case, I suggest you move. If you have any interest in seeing what Episcopalianism is like at its best, I suggest you spend a sometime, week by week, examining the parish that I am involved in. You will find us online at http://www.christcathedral.org.
    I wish you godspeed as you find your way to the heart of the gospel of Christ as it is embodied in the Episopal church and not in the way your brought it with you from evangelicalism. With all best wishes. Sincerely, Joe Giles

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joe, if you’d like to point out specifically where you think I got it wrong, I’m happy to be corrected. However, I think I was more nuanced than your response suggests. I never said, for example, that “Episcopal churches never challenge people” or “Episcopal churches never share the gospel.” I said we could afford to do more of both. There are others who’ve been part of the church longer than I have who are saying the same. So I think it’s a bit unfair to dismiss what I say because of my relative newness to the denomination.

      In any case, I’m glad you’re part of a thriving community. Like you, I’m fortunate to be part of a growing parish and a diocese that has many good things going for it. In fact, many of these thoughts have been shaped by the strong, visionary leadership I’ve seen there.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Joe

      I’m writing as an Anglican (of the CofE variety) who sang in the Church choir as a child, disappeared in my later teens and ended up back here through a circuitous route.

      I think you’re mistaking Ben’s “what I want” for “this never happens” which is an incorrect assumption. I would encourage the most generous reading you can to see what he is saying.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Joe, I think you were too hasty in your response to this blog piece. I have been a member of The Episcopal Church since 1962 and have worshipped in or served in more than 20 Episcopal churches. I agree with every thing Ben writes. Also, you may recollect that the general church is doing work on reimagining TEC. I think it is not so much of being different now as doing more of what we are already doing, doing more of what we are called to do and be.

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  2. Thanks for your response, Ben. I thought you painted with too broad a brush and generalized too freely. The parish I’m in preaches the gospel of Christ in words, but more importantly in actions.
    It was hurtful to me to hear you generalize about the church. TEC thrives in the life of Nashville and and brings meaning to Christ’s gospel to my heart. I hope you will find the same thing. Mother Theresa is quoted to have said something like, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you”. From my brief stay in evangelicalism,
    I found their emphasis always to be on quantity (the numbers). In TEC, I find it to be on quality. I do not hesitate to prefer the later. God’s peace to you. I’m glad you found TEC and I hope it will be as inspiring in your Christian walk as it has been in mine. Joe

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Joe, I appreciate you taking time to elaborate further on what troubled you. Please know my intent was not to over-generalize about the church. (I tried to avoid saying how much of a problem I think any of these for things are, precisely that reason—the answer will differ from one parish to another.)

      For what it’s worth, I share your desire for quality over quantity. I’ve worshiped in a 6,000-member megachurch and 150-member parish, and without question I prefer the latter. My point about the numerical decline of TEC (which is not in dispute…there was a >100,000 drop in avg. Sunday attendance from 2006-2010) is that it can actually be a good thing, if we allow it to further sharpen our focus on mission.

      Again, the situation will vary from one parish or diocese to the next. I’m very glad to hear that the church is thriving in Nashville. Thanks again for the good dialogue.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I appreciate your dialogue as well. I have a friend, a bright man holding a PhD, who was Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and who is now “unchurched” whose theory it is that the degree of Christianity present in any group exists in inverse proportions to the size of the group. I tend to think that may be true. But any changes that take place can only take place in indiviual parishes and individual hearts and minds. Thank you for responding to my initial admittedly strident comments and for the dialogue since. Most problems are solved by talking about them. Grace and Peace. Joe

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a thoughtful and meaningful conversation, worthy of following and paying attention to, at many levels. I, too, have followed a lengthy and, at times, circuitous path. Every turn has increased my insights and depth of perception. Let’s continue this conversation and observations, based on each of our own, highly individuated experiences.

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  5. Ben, thank you for your writing. I am enjoying the posts. I really like what you say here as a 15 year Episcopalian. I have been a part of 4 congregations during that time–due to moves or career changes. My family is an artistic one. We love how this tradition embraces art in its highest forms, but we struggle with a place to serve out of our particular artistic talents and God-given passions. I appreciate your points 1 & 2 in light of that and would love to be a part of a conversation about the future of the Episcopal church. I don’t see the congregations around me engaging in that topic, but perhaps something is happening behind the scenes I don’t know about. I don’t want to go to a church that is less tied to liturgy, but I also have the desire to see the artistic community engaged more at Episcopal churches in general without being put in some sort of “modern worship” column or service.

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  6. I left the Roman Catholic priesthood 2 years ago and was looking for a home. Never have I experienced such a welcoming place as TEC. My wife and I love our faith, our parish, and our amazing priest!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Ben,
    Thank you for this post! I am a lay leader of our shared church and want you to know how grateful I am for your vulnerability and courage to write such a thoughtful piece. I am very fortunate to have been elected The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council–that’s the board of directors of the denomination between General Conventions–at our last convention in 2012. At the next convention in Salt Lake City this summer, I will serve on a legislative committee on congregational vitality. Your thoughts are very helpful and I would invite you to consider including the “three-year family reunion” a.k.a. General Convention in your plans this summer and come for a visit. I wish you well on your spiritual journey and hope you’ll continue to offer your thoughts! I would welcome additional thoughts and am happy to be in touch. I’m sharing your blog on Facebook too. Feel free to contact me with more thoughts and ideas.

    Thank you!

    John B. Johnson, IV
    Diocese of Washington
    Executive Council class of 2018

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for essay, Ben! Two thoughts came to mind as I read: 1. My bishop said at convention that he’s changed his mind about decline; he’s concluded that Christendom is in decline but The Church is very vital; 2. Everything nice has a price: as we preach a prophetic Gospel, some people of privilege will not like it and go elsewhere. It is the price of authenticity. Pax! – Deacon Kevin McGrane

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  9. Thank you for your post…and thanks to the other people who shared their comments as well. I’m currently serving as supply clergy in diocese in the mid Atlantic…i could only agree with you in encouraging us not to fear and future. If anything, the many transitions and changes faced by congregations can foster fear and make all of us lose sight that even with our smaller numbers we can faithfully proclaim and live out the gospel of Christ. After all it is in his promise and abiding presence that we find our strength. I like how you pointed out that church is a movement first before it is an institution–i could only recall that the first followers of Jesus were called “people of the way.” Yes, we do have challenges related to our institutional structures; but even those can be overcome if we allow ourselves to re-imagine and be revived by resurrection faith. It was never promised to be easy; our faith sustains us…and dialogue like this helps us widen our perspectives as well… thanks and blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ben, thanks much for an inspiring article and for all the comments. I’d like to expand on your first point and ask about your thoughts regarding: “it’s far more to do with demographic shifts and our failure to keep up.” How would you, )and anyone reading) offer insight and ideas to “keep up” while still holding fast to the Gospel and the good things about the Episcopal church. I have heard that our worship services should have more contemporary music, more programs geared to youth/college ages. My concern is by changing to more entertaining music and events we run the risk of watering down the beauty of the Gospel and the time-tested traditions to worship as our forefathers did. How important is music? How important are new programs? What are you and others seeing that works? Thank You again.

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    • I think your concern is valid. Like you, I’m not sure the answer lies in edgier music or in programs that cater to a particular demographic. (Though neither in itself is necessarily a bad thing, in my view.) I would echo what Rachel Held Evans wrote in a CNN article on why millennials are leaving the church: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church. I think younger generations are looking for authenticity and transcendence in their religious experience. I think they’re actually growing tired of Christianity in clever packaging. I think the Episcopal Church is in a very good position to offer precisely what they’re searching for… if (a) we can stop killing each other (to paraphrase something my bishop said recently) and (b) if we don’t fall into the trap of an “if we build it they will come” mentality.

      I see some of this at work in my own church. We have a healthy mix of ages…and most of our growth in recent years has come in the form of young adults, many of whom have grown dissatisfied with consumer Christianity and are looking for something more transcendent. I think our church has done a good job drawing people like this because we’re intentional about welcoming newcomers into the liturgy (a lot of our spiritual formation offerings are essentially introductions to the Anglican tradition), and because we offer a number of community opportunities for young adults and young families. But we need to do more to proactively reach outside our walls, rather than waiting for people to show up. (Fortunately we are working on this.)

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  11. Pingback: 6 ways mainline churches should respond to decline | Ben Irwin

  12. Dear Ben,

    I only recently came to know about you. I believe that the General Convention 2016 did exactly what you are hoping for in the election of the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry to become our next Presiding Bishop. Reading his book “Crazy Christians” I believe you will find that we are being called to be a very different church and a to become very different Christians, ones that will be not just into Social Justice but to become “poor” and love all persons no matter what their status. I know that when I joined the Episcopal Church in 1976 from the Roman church, I felt quite at home but did not find the challenge that I needed but today, at age 67, I hope that the Jesus that lived 2000 years ago is now my everyday companion and calls me to follow and risk everything. We must risk losing everything in order to gain what is important and that resurrection comes with death of old ideas and ways of living into a bright new light of loving all. May you find that the Episcopal Church is changing and that it comes from all ages and walks of life.

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