Reflecting on a news article and broadcast on NPR recently, we continue to hear about how churches are declining in number and in the number of people choosing not to participate in Christian traditions, or any organized religion for that matter.
I would like to share with you an article written by the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Kansas, the Rev. Canon Torey Lightcap. In the recent publication of the "Harvest", the diocesan seasonal news letter, Canon Lightcap enlightens all of us to put into perspective what these numbers and data can really mean for practicing Christians in this era of wondering where there is real truth. I encourage all of us to digest what he is sharing with us in his writing. My thanks to Torey+ for his permission to reprint his letter:
"In what has become an annual Eeyore Moment, the Research & Statistics arm of the Episcopal Church recently released the latest attendance numbers. You may want to sit down for this.
Over the ten-year period 2008-18, overall attendance in congregations was down about one-fourth, at -24.7%. That's slightly lower than for the Diocese of Kansas, at -29.9%, and a bit higher than the one for Province Seven, at -22.9%.
What do you make of those figures? Do they cause despair, self-pity, alarm? Turn you into Episcopal Eeyore? Make you want to run and hide like Winnie the Pooh from the Heffalump? Or do you figure to double down, and like the old cart horse in Animal Farm, vow to simply work harder every time the news gets worse? I'm only asking because maybe I did all of those things myself when I saw the numbers. Any one of those reactions seems perfectly normal. But give yourself a minute. Take a walk, get a cup of coffee, clear your head, say a prayer. Perhaps these numbers are not about Henny Penny at all. Perhaps this is simply a call for us to come to our senses.
First, consider the theology that often comes bundled with this news, and how so very often, it's just terrible theology that you might have to set aside for a more mature perspective. It's an attempt to theologize loss, which is human nature; but that doesn't mean it's true. For example, you don't have to believe that God is causing people to leave and that that's somehow a sanctioned testing of the church. In the same way, you don't have to give air to those who (sometimes gleefully) report this as divine punishment for being apostate.
Second, realize there are many ways to understand the reporting of numbers. If you are skilled, you can tease the true elements of a narrative from a column of numbers, but in and of themselves they will ever only tell a portion of the whole story. Perhaps we need new metrics. Even one meaningful encounter can turn a life to God, but not all stories can or should be quantified. Despairing over things that can be counted is easy; by contrast, tales of transformation and deep soul-work and real evangelism are harder to tally, but that doesn't make them any less important or joyous to behold!
Third, trust Scripture for guidance. Today I find myself in John 15, where Jesus commends many things to his closest followers on the night preceding his death. Using a metaphor with which they are familiar, he reminds them that branches must be pruned to remain productive and healthy - that every fruit-bearing branch has to be pruned "to make it bear more fruit."It's easy to obsess on the pruning part and in the process forget about why it needs to happen, or indeed what shape that fruit may take.
Fourth, remember, as Paul says so eloquently, that we don't grieve "as those who have no hope." We profess through creeds our belief in the resurrection. After years of repeating those words, perhaps it's time to ask in faith whether that was one time only and just for Jesus, or if a sense of resurrection and of a time beyond this temporary moment is also possible. May we pray for the vision to take us there. I am staked firmly to this vision both for myself and for "that wonderful and sacred mystery" known as the Church.
Fifth and finally, we have each other, and apart from the power of God no greater tool exists for ministry. Together we have incalculable creativity, spirit, and love. We are deeply bound and obligated to one another in ways only God understands.
So do not despair. Look around you. Everything we need we have already been given, and this is cause for great joy. Thanks be to God!"
The Reverend Canon Torey Lightcap
Canon to the Ordinary; The Episcopal Diocese of Kansas