Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Falling numbers

Over at Stand Firm, they are having fun on two threads [one] [two] regarding the latest statistics released by the Episcopal Church showing declines in membership and average Sunday attendance. Here is my take on the situation:

In 2001, the Rev. Charles Fulton, the evangelism officer for TEC, wrote an article in which he mentioned that the average age of an Episcopalian was 57 years of age.

Specifically, he said:
The average age of a person in the United States is estimated to be 34.6 years old. The average age of an Episcopalian is estimated to be 57 years old. In twenty years many of the “average Episcopalians” won’t be around to know if “2020, A Clear Vision” succeeded. The gap between 34.6 and 57 is often our own children. A big part of the real high-risk challenge is to reach out and negotiate how we worship with other generations who aren’t going to grow up to be like us.

If the average life expectancy is just over 77 years, then the average Episcopalian living at the time Fr. Fulton wrote his article will be dead 20 years later. In other words, roughly 50% of the members of the Episcopal Church will die in that 20 year period; and, to the extent that TEC has not replaced these members through evangelism and retention of its own children, TEC will decline by that same percentage.

Given that families of childbearing age are only a portion of TEC’s membership, and that those families that do have children have a birthrate of 1.3 children per couple, even if TEC succeeded in retaining 100% of its own children, it would still decline substantially. Coupled with the lack of evangelism among Episcopal congregations, one is left with looking at a patient who is quickly becoming terminal.

The latest set of statistics from TEC merely illustrate this demographic decline. It is not so much that the numbers reflect an exodus from the Episcopal Church (although that is the case where individuals and congregations have, in fact, left), the numbers primarily reflect the inability of TEC to replace its members who are dying by retaining its own future generations and evangelizing the unchurched so that they become members.

Thus, the decline is greatest in the North and Midwestern US, where younger generations have moved away. It is not the case, for instance, that Episcopalians left TEC in Springfield or Quincy (to cite two dioceses with which I am most familiar); the children of Episcopalians in Springfield or Quincy either did not remain Episcopalians or else moved away, and the congregations were not capable of evangelizing to the extent necessary to reverse the demographic decline as the older remaining members have died. “2020, A Clear Vision” was intended to promote strategies what would result in growth. But (in a nutshell) the whole program was diverted from evangelism to “inclusion,” and the result is becoming obvious.

Given the trajectory away from a theology that believes that all people need to be converted to faith in Christ, and the lack of a compelling message that will retain young people, it is difficult to see the trend toward decline being reversed.
But you and I, we’ve been through all that,
and this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now,
the hour is getting late.
~~ Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower

(Just thought I’d toss in a fitting Dylan quote to make Baby Blue happy.)

4 comments:

Matthew said...

I think what has baffled me most is the resignation with which the Episcopal Church approaches statistics like these.

Resignation is perhaps the wrong word. It's almost indifference. They seem to think that the decline is inevitable and there is nothing to be done about it. Some will make vague remarks about possible solutions, but no one ever actually follows through.

One fellow on the HoBD mailing list has caught a great deal of flak for mentioning the bad news from time to time.

It's all rather 'apres moi, le deluge' in tone.

Why is that, do you suppose?

Robert S. Munday said...

Matthew,

Yes, I have been struck by that same attitude in not only the Episcopal Church's approach to statistics like these but in a number of specific situations that discretion prohibits me from naming.

A fan of contemporary British and European fiction might perhaps notice the number of times that a story (even one that is supposed to be a comedy) has a tragic ending--all the good guys die and their existence is portrayed as having been quite meaningless (think of the final episode of the series Black Adder--although I could name dozens of illustrations).

It's like the lyrics of the Monty Python song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life:

"For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.

"Life's a piece of s***
When you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true.
You'll see it's all a show
Keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you."

I have not spent a great deal of time analyzing the European psyche, but there seems to be a large streak of Nihilism--the philosophical position that argues that existence is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

I would argue that this aspect of the European mentality is characteristic of American liberals as well. And that is hardly surprising, since once you have given up the assumptions of historic Christianity about the Gospel, sin and redemption, the nature and destiny of the human soul, etc., a kind of resignation about one's own decline and death or the destruction of human institutions takes over.

When one seeks to explain the differences between theological liberals and theological conservatives, I believe this subtile but very powerful dynamic is often overlooked.

Matthew said...

It's funny (literally and metaphorically) that you quoted the Monty Python song. I'd say most men of my acquaintance know it by heart.

I'd also add that the absence of God in the religious left's religion as exemplified by the absence of hope, is perhaps the main reason why they are 1) in need of evangelism and 2) why true Christians should not be yoked together with them.

I have some more thoughts over on my blog. And you have given me much more to think about.

TLF+ said...

Or perhaps TEC's leaders don't care. Congregational ministry isn't meaningful to them anymore - as long as there is plenty of money and property to liquidate, TEC is happy to subsidize its few activist true believers.