Friday, March 2, 2012

The Church, The Steeple and Empty Pews

A few weeks ago an African Anglican friend asked me why so few people attended her Episcopal Church on Sunday mornings.  I gave her a few of my favorite reasons, set within the context of a rapidly changing world in which American Christianity is decreasingly relevant in a popular culture immersed in a digital, non-hierarchical world. But it wasn't until this past week when, I saw a survey in the Wall Street Journal, that I was truly blown away.

For many years I recall that the Gallup poll reported that most Americans believed in God and over 30% reported going to church.  The new WSJ poll is different in that it measures faith and attendance.  On the day I took the poll, 57% reported that they had no faith.  27% said they had great faith and regular participation.  8.5% reported faith but no regular participation and 7.5% said they had faith but no participation.  Results vary slightly each day as more people cast their vote. Roughly 17,000 people have taken the poll and it is still ongoing.

The startling thing about the WSJ poll is that it suggests that 73% of Americans are either without, faith or ambivalent about their beliefs and religious practices. The rest, 27%, are active participants in a religious group. Out of a US population of 311,800,000, 93,440,00 folks worship regularly. But only 687,831 Episcopalians worship on Sundays, which is 31% of our membership. These attendance figures for TEC have been shrinking rapidly in recent years, a trend that is likely to continue unless we do something different.

We can make anything we want to out of polls.  But allow me to suggest that the WSJ poll confirms what we already know:  Americans are increasingly agnostic and ambivalent about the Christian Faith.  This means that Christianity will continue to decline, which is consistent with recent trends in The Episcopal Church.  We are an ageing church and we will continue to die off.  That fact, coupled with an increased national agnosticism, spells disaster for our little niche church.

If we want to salvage the little we have while we renew a vision for this century, we must have enough resources left to allow the Holy Spirit to do her work.  This means that Dioceses and the Executive Council must cut costs dramatically. We can't afford all the bishops and their staffs.  We can't afford either Executive Council or General Convention.  If we are true to the gospel, we must trim our sails and wait for the Holy Spirit to unfurl them in a new way for a new generation.  If we don't do it now, then get out the Order for the Burial of the Dead, for we are all goners.. 

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