Church Unfazed by Conservative Defections
Next Steps: More prayer, "intentional evangelism"
Query: When was the last time a bishop barnstormed for Christ?
In a recent Christian Century article reporting that in the period 2003-2005, the Episcopal Church membership rolls dropped by 115,000 with average Sunday attendance down by 7,800 in 2005, church officials sounded a cautious but upbeat note. Kirk Hadaway, director of research, said the increase in losses from 2004-2005 was "precipitous." James B. Lemler, Episcopal director of mission, said in the interview with the Century that the losses were "not more than we expected."
More than half the losses, they said, were attributable to parishes already in conflict over the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in 2003.
The Episcopal Church's membership now stands at 2,205,376, they said, meaning that out of a U.S. population of approximately 300 million, approximately 0.75 of Americans belong to the Church. In 1995, the numerical percentage was 0.92 of the population. Over the past 176 years for which reliable records are available, Church membership has ranged from 0.03-2.1% of the population, with 0.6-1.0% being the typical range for most of that time.
Lemler, the director of mission, indicated in the report that the Church plans to make "intentional evangelism" resources available to dioceses and parishes. The claim is rather vague and mysterious, and in fact quite hard to believe, given the way the Church permitted the 20/20 initiative (to double membership by 2020) to wither so terribly on the vine.
One must also wonder at the success and scope of such "intentional" measures given the lack and quality of training in evangelism per se, offered in the leading Episcopal seminaries. The church must examine, at the highest levels, meaning this must be a charge of the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, its efforts, skills, and training at evangelism.
To the question of absolute membership numbers being a gauge of anything, some may respond, "We offer a quality product." Indeed. This is a good first step in "intentionally growing" our Church. Some may respond, "Giving has stayed above the rate of inflation." Very good. So there is plenty of money to grow our Church. Some may respond, "XYZ has been accomplished in the xyz manner for 50 years." Very good. So the value of establishing strong, generous foundations is understood.
The Church must be prepared to move on evangelism in the spirit with which it approached it in 2000 and with the concrete work of the 19th century, when bishops like William Henry Hobart and Jackson Kemper single-handedly barnstormed across the valleys and plains and with the power of the Word, made thousands of disciples for Christ. The reason the Episcopal Church continues to this day is in no small part because of bishops such as these. Their lives, work and spirit breathed life, work and spirit into the Church.
It is such life and spirit that has too commonly drained from our Church in this season of semantic volleys and retreads of the same arguments. The Church has a new Presiding Bishop and she must move forcefully to spread the sails of our Church.
This time, the Church must follow through on its evangelism efforts, and do so forcefully, by returning us to the days when bishops themselves led evangelization efforts. It is high time the bishops stepped out of property meetings, refinancing meetings, and meetings where they consider how much they may like each other in a future meeting, and into the air, to do the Lord's work.
A bishop is a focus of unity and doctrine. Their authority derives from the apostolic succession. The apostles were evangelists. For evangelism to be a focus of our Church, we must have bishops who evangelize.
Bishops, deacons, priests, lay people--every order of ministry in our Church must be outfitted with the faith and courage to make disciples for Christ.
It is a too common refrain that "evangelism is a parish issue." This is a very fine, abstract statement that means, "If you are growing, let us know, and we will have the bishop make an appearance."
Evangelism is a Church issue. Now more than ever.