In the mid 90s, the Diocese of Texas hosted an annual series of gatherings named The Clear Vision Conference. Eventually, three other Dioceses joined us as sponsors. The audience was leaders of the Episcopal Church and especially Bishops and leaders of Dioceses. These conferences built upon Bishop Claude Payne’s vision for the Diocese of Texas, One Church United in Mission and its goal to increase the membership and attendance of the Diocese. In the last few years, the Join Commission of General Convention on Evangelism would hold its annual meeting at these conferences and from it they put forth a bold challenge to the Church. It came to be known as the 2020 Vision; to double the size of the Episcopal from 2000 to 2020. I was honored to be one of the members. This idea began to gain momentum and received the support of the Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold and the President of the House of Deputies, Dean George Werner.
In order to give this proposal a strategic plan, a diverse group of eight Episcopal Leaders were appointed to write out such a strategy. This was presented to the wider Church via the Episcopal Church Executive Counsel, and although there was a concerted effort from some of the members to stop this proposal seeing it as “an evangelical wooden horse,” the work was extended to a much wider and even more diverse Commission (66 members) to write out specific resolutions to the 2003 General Convention. Almost 20 resolutions were produced by this group that had considerable range. Only two of these resolutions ever made the floor of that General Convention.
As every Episcopal leader knows, these resolutions were put on hold as the General Convention debated the place of Gay and Lesbians via the election of Canon Gene Robinson to be Bishop. To a large extent, the current situation for TEC is largely still occupied over the resulting fracture of our denomination and the efforts to reimage the Church as a primarily diverse and inclusive Christian body.
It is now 2020. I have heard people on both the conservative and progressive sides of the Church laugh about the 2020 goal, but the momentum was genuine and by 2000 many Dioceses had benefited by putting into action information learned at the Clear Vision Conferences. An unknown fact is that from 1995 to 2000, The Episcopal Church was the only mainline denomination showing growth in both Baptized Membership and attendance. There was reason to be hopeful although even those of us on the Commission saw actually doubling our size as a very bold and even audacious goal.
So where is TEC now? We have done the opposite of the 2020 goal and are about half the size we were in 2000. And we continue to decline. While it is clear to everyone that the conflict in the aftermath of the vote on Gene Robinson was a major factor in this decline, but it was not the only one. In this blog I want to talk about the other major factor that has affected all denominations and is still affecting TEC.
The second major factor that is still affecting us, is what Bishop Dole of Texas recently called “the Tsunami of Death.” By this he is referring to the lost of most of the GI Generation. This Generation that Tom Brokaw rightly called “the Greatest Generation” were forged in the furnace of the Great Depression and World War II. These forces produced a remarkable community of leaders in the US both in the wider society and the Church. This generation was 60% Churched. As they are passing from this world, they are being replaced by the Millennial Generation and the following one that are 10% or less Churched. Since Church membership in the US had remained consistent after WWII till 2000 at between 40 and 44%, it isn’t hard to do the math. Remove the GI folks and add in the Millennials!
In fact, I projected back in 2000 that if we did nothing but hold our current membership, this demographic destiny would be two-fold. First, by 2020 Church Membership in North American would drop to about 20%. We reached this in 2019. Second, the two largest Christian bodies in the US would be the Roman Catholic Church and a largely conservative group of churches called “Evangelicals.” This is exactly what has happened. And it has happened despite the RC scandals and the highly published support of some prominent, but by no means all, Evangelicals leaders of President Trump.
I like to add, that it is interesting that both these two Christian groups tend to hold the same values regarding social issues in our society. This should serve as a warning that merely accepting the wider more secular views of society would allow a denomination to grow. This is reinforced during this shifting demographic because the former mainline have now become the sideline of American Christianity statistically speaking. One need only remember the famous prediction by one of our Bishops that the consent to Gene Robinson’s election would open the door to hundreds of thousands of new church members.
This, by the way, wasn’t a great insight on my part, but rather information that I had gleaned from Lyle Schaller and other leading consultants and teachers in the America. And here is the critical point in all this. Even given the decisions and actions of the past, how is TEC doing in reaching the two newer generations in America. Despite all our language about inclusiveness and our efforts to make ourselves relatable to current social values in North America, with very few exceptions, we like most of the rest of Christian denominations, are failing terrible at this task. Even Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are, with very few exceptions, failing at this task.
I am also suggesting that even if we had not had division in TEC, we were after all a relatively small denomination even back in 2000, we would today still be faced with this most overwhelming challenge. In my next blog, I will begin to hint at some actions that we could take to change this, but for now, let me close with this observation.
Is the Christian Church failing to reach the next generations here in North American because we are focused on the wrong things and are largely indifferent to the spiritual needs and aspirations of these next Generations? Whether you stand on the right or the left (or somewhere else entirely) in the Church today, the evidence seems to be overwhelming pointing us to these sad truths!