I want to build on my article in The Living Church to point to seven reasons for the continuing decline of the Episcopal Church. I am going to spend time in my blog covering these items over the next several weeks.
#1 Our society is becoming increasingly more secular particularly among the people who we have historically attracted.
This may seem surprising to mention this when 82% of the population continues to believe in God and a very high percentage believe that Jesus was divine, but the numbers are secondary as to who believes these things.
The truth is that increasingly our society functions as a secular society and this is driven by intellectual leaders and opinion framers. Importantly for Episcopalians is that our demographic – highly educated people – are the most secular of all. In the U.S., the higher someone is educated the more they tend to disbelieve.
This is even made more difficult for us by what Peter Steinke calls “The Rise of Militant Atheism.” While only about 6% of the population claim to be atheists, those who are, particularly in the University setting, are much more openly critical of religion.
Recently Bill Maher was asked if he was opposed to building the Mosque near ground zero. His reply expresses the popularized atheistic view. “Yes, I am opposed to building a Mosque. I am also opposed to building a church or a temple of any kind anywhere.” He then went on to express that humanity needs to outgrow religion and a belief in God, and then he expressed the further belief that religions have become a danger to humans – a popular expression of Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great!”
This is all an expression of a growing hostility to religion in the public market place. All this hurts mainline Christians and especially Episcopalians because of our strong connection to education and the educated elite. So, the people that we often reach are becoming less and less likely to find any need for religion and especially the church.
What is needed in the face of all this is a more assertive proclamation of the value of our faith than many Episcopalians, especially clergy are comfortable giving. Certainly our “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” expresses the DNA of a once socially acceptable Church (dare we say DNA of a State Church) that sees little need to justify our existence.
What we should be doing, of course is reading Dawkins, Hawking and Hitchens and learning how to develop a current apologetic for the place of Christianity in our culture. What we seem to be doing is trying to strike some sort of cultural accommodation to this shift. Of course, a multi-cultural and inclusive church welcoming of all people is irrelevant to people who question the good of any church whatsoever.
Behind all this are both theological and mission issues too complex to go into here. What I am saying is this. One major reason TEC is in decline is because our society is becoming more and more indifferent to the church and in many ways hostile to it.
One modest proposal I keep making to folks is that we need to develop a post-seminary mission training center that prepares our clergy to be mission clergy in a secular world rather than chaplain clergy to a believing world. Maybe if I keep saying it, some will begin to listen.