In today's paper I read an interesting column by New York Times author David Brooks the title of which is We're going solo more, but leaving more behind. In the article he writes, A few generations ago, most people belonged to a major religion. Today, the fastest growing religious category is unaffiliated. The trend is clear. Fifty years ago, America was groupy. People were more likely to be emeshed in stable, dense and obligatory relationships. They were more defined by permanent social roles: mother, father, deacon. Today, individuals have more freedom. They move between more diverse, loosely structured and flexible networks of relationships.
The key words here are diverse, loosely structured and flexible networks. Let's take these words and think about doing "church." The majority of the folks who attend Episcopal churches are old school. Mostly over 50, they are groupy folks who like the idea of belonging to a fixed church community in one physical location with a set liturgy and good friends. I belong to this group and hence, I am comfortable attending a traditional parish church. But younger people tend to gravitate towards either mega churches where they can move in and out with ease or some sort of local community that is less defined and includes multiple networks of friends. Social networking has, of course, contributed much to the situation. In addition, younger people are not tied to their childhood religious heritage and move easily between denominations.
Emerging churches may be one way to go. Virtual churches may be another way. There are many examples of "doing church" differently to meet diverse and flexible networks of people, but at this point they have not been really mainstreamed into the functional structures of denominations. Until this is done, major denominations, including The Episcopal Church, will continue to decline. While we still need to have traditional churches for groupys, at least until we all die off, but at the same time move quickly to transform church structures to meet the diversity of our loosely structured networks of relationships.
The New Testament church is a great example of an emerging church. Leadership was loosely defined as elder/presbyter/bishop. It was not hierarchical, but flat. Christians worshiped in homes and synagogues, and as far as we know, did not have a special building in a special place set aside for worship and fellowship. Jumping forward to Pre-Roman Britain and Ireland, the organization of the Celtic Church was originally tribal. Tribes moved around. They were ministered to by a presbyter/bishop who acted like a spiritual helper to the people. They were neither tied to locality nor to congregations, and were free to perform the functions of the office wherever Christian people might desire it. Under the jurisdiction of no authority, they were found wandering throughout all Celtic lands, must to the disgust of the later Roman led bishops who wished for the discipline and organization of diocesan authority.
Here then, is my point. Mainstream all emerging churches and creatively develop new ones. The Episcopal Church should adapt to the realities of the diverse, loosely structured and flexible networks of relationships. The Celtic model may be the way to go. To do this we need to let go of the monarchical hierarchy and install presbyter/bishops who wander throughout the maze of post modern society, ministering to the post modern Christian who moves from network to network, depending on their immediate needs.