Friday, November 19, 2010

7 Reasons for TEC's Decline

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.


  1. Thanks for this great post. Yes, we should be reading Hawking, Dawkins, and Hitchens and not letting their arguments steam roll over us, assuming they represent the last word in intelligent thought. I have read Hawking’s The Grand Design and Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and frankly these books do not stand up to an intelligent interrogation nor do they reflect the rational approaches that have characterized the noteworthy science these two writers have produced. I say this as both a professional physicist and as an Episcopal priest. Unfortunately, these authors have become celebrities in our culture, and their books – shams or not – sit prominently on the bestseller shelf in every Barnes & Noble in the country. Clergy should be learning about this in seminary and be taught how to point people toward the excellent and readable works of fine scientist-Christians such as Collins, McGrath and Polkinghorne. Maybe this can be part of the post-seminary mission training you propose, maybe it can help clergy and all believers to more boldly proclaim Christ as King to a straying world so desperately in need of his saving touch.
    In Christ,
    Jim Trainor (

  2. Kevin,

    I wonder if the success of the Anglican tradition and worship in overseas context mirrors our same demographic? Are the millions of African Anglicans also the "intellectual leaders and opinion framers" in their culture? That may tell us if the Anglican tradition is really best suited for one particular demographic. If because of our prayer book or structures we are wed to the demographic you describe then we will rise and fall with them. But if the uniqueness God has given our tradition spans demographic boundaries then perhaps part of our mission training is to figure out how to be a gospel community for all people.

  3. Clay, good questions. I think Archbishop Tutu, so yes, certainly some Africans reflect this although I think the Anglican Church in Africa more diverse than we. I often say that I am so old that I can remember when TEC had blue collar congregations, and large African-American congregations. Such comments tend to upset the powers that be however.

  4. Fr. Martin,

    Great post. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Hope you don't mind, but I wanted to tell you about my own blog. I'm an aspiring clergy-writer who's new to the Anglican tradition, and am trying to find Anglican readers. The title of my blog is "Musings of a Hard-Lining Moderate: The assorted thoughts of an evangelical Anglican."

    I write about theology, history, culture, politics, movie/book reviews, pet theories... anything that’s on my mind. Right now I'm doing a series on the doctrine of Scripture, which was prompted by the crisis in the global communion. I also recently wrote a post on the value of the christian calendar.

    Anyway, I don't know if you'd be interested, but here's the link: Have a great day.

    Grace & Peace,


  5. After reading this latest blog, I also re-read your August post on Hope for the Small Church and decided to post one comment here that takes both into account.
    I did a 2 year series on Small churches for the old Houses of Worship website several years ago (HOWS is now, and it is still a special concern and prayer of mine. The issues then were being revealed, but precious little has been done (in my estimation) to help. So I am glad for a call to a renewed effort to raise the issue. And let us pray!
    I just posted a comment to a TitusOneNine blog post regarding the Pension Fund, and my comment goes toward understanding the pastoral need of the small congregation and what resources are available. In light of your "modest proposal", Kevin, I should think a retooling conference for newly retired clergy who are willing and able to engage those smaller congregations would be extremely helpful, as well. Here is part of my posted comment:

    "The real beneficiary of the value of the Pension fund is the ability to keep in the work force those clergy who “retire.” 18% Pension payments are only a “pay forward” back to the Church. This is especially a time in the life of the Church for us to see the reality of that fruit. I’m saying, look at the stats. 70 to 75% of our congregations can be classified as small congregations. 75% of those are barely - if at all - able to provide a full-time compensation package (currently speaking; yes, things can change). Where will the money come from to beef up full-time ministries? It won’t be coming. Instead, we will rely EVEN MORE on those “retired” clergy who can pull a full pension AND receive up to $33,000 per year in compensation in another or a continuing ministry to those small, revenue challenged congregations."
    "This may actually be the reason for a Wellness Initiative! If we want to keep our smaller congregations in sacramental and trained pastoral care, we’re going to have to keep our ordained workforce alive for another 7 to 10 years after retirement."

    So this new thought -- the most influential group of people in the Church, as a block, will be retired clergy serving the small congregations. And now.
    A post-seminary mission training center will be have to encompass those who are REALLY post-seminary (and will need to take into account the wide discrepancy in number of years of active ministry that now exists).

  6. Rob,
    Very good observations. The ability to use retired clergy for such churches is a great benefit to the church and to the churches needing help.

  7. Now the question is, elicited from your Reason #2 and applied here, can those retired clergy as a block be trained to look for young ordinands, given they have not been helpful so far in that objective (again as per reason #2)?

  8. "past performance is the best indicator of future behavior." So I think you answered your own question. :-)

  9. RE: "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."

    I think, though, that the problem is that if there are educated elites who *are* faithful Christians -- the Episcopal Church is no longer considered by a chunk of those people to be an actual option for attendance.

    I don't know that the problem for us is that "the educated elite" are increasingly hostile to Christianity. I think the problem is that of the percentage of people in the educated elite who are faithful Christians, TEC is less and less of an option for practicing that faithful Christianity. I now have many friends and acquaintances who share that they *would* consider TEC as their #1 option for many reasons, but simply cannot because of the rampant heresy that has riddled most of leadership in the HOB, HOD, Executive Council, and of course 815.

    For myself, while I am a happy and contented member of TEC, I don't generally recommend TEC congregations to my educated friends any more, unless they *are already Episcopalian*. I just don't think it is right to encourage people to become a part of a denomination that is led by such corrupt leaders and that is augering into the ground as TEC is. This has left a pretty big vacuum, to be honest, for me, and I struggle to come up with non-Episcopal churches that would feature the kind of education and programming that would serve those friends of mine.


  10. Here's the way I see it Sarah. The world, particularly that of the educated, have been better at evangelizing Episcopalians than Episcopalians of evangelizing the academic world.

  11. Kevin, Thanks for the series of thoughtful observations and suggestions. I was struck in this "Reason #1" post by your concluding recommendation: "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." I want to expand your suggestion to include "multiple non-seminary mission training centers that prepare our members for effectively living on mission in all the spheres and relationships of their lives." My hope is that at least some of our congregations will be led by clergy who embrace as part of their Biblical reason for being a primary assignment/responsibility "equipping the saints for their works of service" (Eph. 4) and not just for the programs and operations of the congregation.

    Blessings and love to you and Sharon!

  12. The development of effective mission/evangelism ministries requires a strategic commitment of resources along with a realistic "business plan" that predicts organizational viability. In an age of diminishing resources, ministry models that are sustainable appears to be a critical factor in both the short and long-term. In a multicultural ministry setting the ability to quickly adapt and respond to fluid ministry dynamics is essential - but response times by ecclesiastical structures are often too slow, thus prohibiting the timely engagement of good news with opportunity.

  13. Amen indeed. "prohibiting the timely engagement of good news with opportunity!"

  14. Stumbled across this blog while doing some research on the decline of mainline denominations... Though I am Presbyterian (USA), went to Sewanee and fell in love with the Episcopal Church there.

    As someone who is in the process of discerning a call to ordained ministry, it is an interesting time to be entering leadership in the mainline church.

    One thought that I believe can help make a positive change is the need for further ecumentical interaction between all the mainline churches. Most people in my generation (20's) haven't the slightest clue about theological differences between Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. Denominational loyalty is largely out the window. I'm not sure how it would look, but I have a sense that if we entered into greater interaction and communion as the body of Christ, as THE CHURCH, not churches, positive change in mainline Christianity will take place. Kind of a generalist statement- wondering if you have any thoughts on this.

  15. Well, seems to me that there would be much to gain. I think back in the 90s there was more interaction between the various ministries of mainline churches. Probably too much staff turn over in recent days to keep current. Good comments though. We do live in a "post-denominational world"!

  16. Actually, I think materialism is on the ropes. The atheist Sam Harris' new book "The Moral Landscape" thoroughly documents the academies helplessness against the tactics of aggressive Islam. Biologist Bruce Lipton has shown in the "Biology of Belief" that there is a major crisis in molecular biology because of the abject failure of the Genome project to discover even 1/8th of the genes necessary to create the human protein complex. This was to be the "missing link" to explain the yet to be filled gaps in the fossil record so aptly described by Dr. Stephen J. Gould and Dr. Amit Goswami. The newly constructed CERN super collider has yet to and my never discover the "Higgs Boson" that is necessary to even explain the existence of mass in the universe. It was labeled the "God Particle" by Noblest Leon Lederman because if it is not found, there must be a "God" it explain any existence at all.

    Thus, this is a most exciting time if the leadership Episcopalian Church would get up to speed on the most recent trends in science and communicate these truths enthusiastically to their congregations.