My 6th and 7th reasons for the decline of The Episcopal Church both have to do with congregational development issues.
#6 The failure to plant enough new congregations to replace aging, declining, and dying Churches.
At the General Convention in Philadelphia, the Standing Commission on Evangelism offered a resolution that the Episcopal Church aim at a goal of planting new congregations at the rate of 1% of our present number. Just two months earlier, I had attended a conference of denominational congregational development officers and heard Lyle Schaller offer that denominations need a 3% new church planting rate to maintain themselves. Of course, fast growing denominations such as The Vineyard plant at a much faster rate, and ironically some of our off-shoot Anglican groups in the U.S. are doing much better too. So Even if we would have been able to reach the 1% number in those days, approximately 76 new Episcopal Churches a year, we would still have lost ground. Of course, this is also connects to an earlier point about reaching new ethnic folks by planting new churches among them.
#7 The failure to develop a systematic approach to the revitalization of present existing congregations.
There is, of course, a great deal of information on congregational revitalization, and a number of places such as the Alban Institute that can help this process. My point is that seldom does a diocese create a systematic plan for this. When I studied the history of new church planting in TEC, I discovered that the most recent period of extensive church planting was in the 20 years following WWII. This means that many of these congregations went through a predictable life cycle peaking between 1975 and 1990, and that now we have a large number of churches that need planned revitalization. This is not the same as waiting until such a parish has a serious enough crisis to ask for help. This is creative and intentional intervention. A diocese should not wait for leaders in the local community to come to the realization that their church is in decline and needs revitalization or re-visioning.
As part of this, in recent years we have seen in TEC is a large number of formerly “Pastoral-size” churches (ASA of between 85 and 150 Sundays) decline to “Family-size” ones. This will have a number of other important impacts on our community. One primary example is ordination because the Pastoral-size church is one able to sustain the services of a full-time seminary trained clergy person.
One last word on these two items: leaders often pit these two issues against one another. For example, when we started planting new congregations in the Diocese of Texas, we got a great deal of resistance from clergy in present congregations. They argued that if we invested such money in them, they had greater potential to grow. However, studies have consistently shown that new plants grow much more rapidly than existing congregations. More importantly is the knowledge that new plants (a) reach people that present congregations will not reach, and (b) new congregations often discover critical information on reaching new people that, when shared, help present congregations do better at reaching new people. So, new church planting and present congregational revitalization are parallel and complimentary works not competitive ones.
Next blog, “If, Then” what to do and where to start changing the future of TEC.