By R. Channing Johnson
A while back, George Clifford wrote an essay titled “Is the Episcopal Church Going the Way of the Grange.” Like Clifford, I have taught undergraduate and graduate statistics (I call them “sadistics” in sympathy with students). I liked his analysis of the continuing decline of the Episcopal Church and of how budget allocations indicate that the main agenda of TEC is aimed at preserving the status quo of decline.
I maintain that the main problem may be that we tend to ignore the very rapid social change in America since World War II. We now have four different generations and a major cultural divide between those people above versus below the age of approximately 45. While many of us understand that there are some differences in worldview, beliefs, and values, we don’t understand how deep they are and cannot really articulate the differences that affect church participation and membership. As a result, we miss the imperative of change and the nature of appropriate adaptive response.
I became aware of the reality and pain of social change back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, first as chaplain of one of the Episcopal church-related colleges, then as a graduate student at large state university and as the vicar of an experimental ministry at a nearby Episcopal congregation. This was when we became aware that the children of the World War II generation had somehow managed to grow up without sharing their parent’s world-view, values, or beliefs. They declared the dawning of the age of Aquarius, celebrated Bishop Robinson’s little book on “situational ethics,” gathered as a mighty herd at Woodstock, and declared that “You can’t trust anyone over 30.” And now, we realize that this was just the beginning and that there was more generational change coming down the pike!
The experimental ministry at the nearby church brought me face to face with the pain of social change. We were seeking to break out of the “active clergy, passive laity” mode by providing an unpaid team of worker priests to conduct Sunday services but primarily to train the laity to carry out the greater work of the church, including pastoral, outreach and caring ministries. This “team ministry” was accepted with enthusiasm and participation by many, but barely accepted by others as an unwelcomed financial necessity. Then the riots at the nearby university broke out and the Episcopal Church got serious about the revisions to the Book of Common Prayer. I’m not sure which caused more pain and anger, but my Social Science response was to conduct a survey.
One survey statement alone identified two distinctly different groups within the congregation. That statement was, “In a changing world, the church ought to be a place of quiet and unchanging stability.” The group that affirmed this statement opposed the team ministry and the changes taking place in church and society, emphasized church building and staff, and were confident that “Young People growing up today will accept the ways of the traditional church.” The group that disagreed with this statement, supported the team ministry and the changes taking place within the church, supported social activism, and tended to define the church primarily in terms community rather than place. These differences between the “Quiet group” and the “Change group” were statistically significant at the point .001 level on the Mann Whitney U Test. (There, I’ll never mention statistic again!) There was no evidence that these differences were based on age.
This study was reported in 1971. Does it sound familiar today? The point is that, although change is staring us in the eye, change is unwelcomed and threatening to a significant number of people. This is the message of Toffler in Future Shock (1970). Change in modern society is coming so fast and furious that some people simply cannot adapt and are overwhelmed. Change is a threat when the church is seen by some as a place of quiet sanity, to be defended as such.
It’s probably fair to characterize older communicants (who make up the great majority of many congregations) as perfectly happy and at home in their churches. After all, their churches fit their cultural values and they tend to “do church” in the old familiar ways that they have come to love. The only problem is that they are growing older and the younger people and children are missing. Weren’t Little Bo Peep’s sheep supposed to return home after they grew up and married? What’s wrong with them, and why is it so hard to carry on a civilized conversation with them? The typical older communicant is happy with their church because it was shaped by the culture they grew up with.
We need to distinguish between the Gospel of Salvation and the culture within which the Gospel is presented. The Good News of God’s love in Jesus remains the same from age to age, but the culture within which the Gospel is presented has always changed with time and location. The Episcopal Church is 1800 would probably seem as strange to a typical Episcopalian as that strange (you fill in the denomination) church down the street. The Gospel is an unchanging gift. The packaging varies with our culture.
But American culture has changing rapidly from generation to generation. I believe that the rapidity and depth of change is something new, something that happened after World War II. The result is that the cultural packaging of the Gospel that is comfortable to the older generation, that they grew up with and came to love, is strange and unwelcoming to the younger generations. Simple statistics document that the younger of the young are the most deeply alienated from the church and that the overall level of alienation is increasing year by year. Statistics from Un-Christian (2007) by David Kinnaman shows that these young, disaffiliated persons agree that Christians are antihomosexual (91%), judgmental (87%, hypocritical (85%), and old-fashioned (78%).
This past April, Tamie Harkins, former Episcopal Chaplain to Canterbury Club at Northern Arizona University posted a blog item that went viral in its popularity. She outlined 20 actions that are “guaranteed” to bring young persons to your church. It was a magnificent cry for changes by a young post-modern voice. We ignore these changes at the price of our long-term survival.
The changes between generations in our society threaten us with decay and loss if we do not respond. But changes poorly selected and imposed can generate opposition and destruction and “the last state of that congregation is worse than the first” (see Luke 11:24-26).
I believe that change and how we address it is the heart of the crisis faced by the traditional churches today. I know that the problem can be addressed because I have experienced congregation coming alive. I have also seen congregations dying that ignore the challenge and other congregations dying because they did not understand the threat of change and the damage from opposition to change. I’ve written elsewhere about the nature and management of adaptive change. We don’t have to follow the style of the large evangelical congregations. We have a wealth of catholic diversity to dip into as we seek to live the Gospel with a change in the cultural packaging of the Gospel.
Consider the following changes that are far-reaching but non-specific enough that they can be designed for that individual congregation in its uniqueness:
Emphasize the church as community, not organization.
Recognize that life in Christ is more about relationships than following rules.
Understand that I am a forgiven sinner and treat others without condemnation.
Be far more attentive to human need and the brokenness around us.
These four adaptive changes seem to me to relate to learning to live the Gospel. We need more emphasis here. There are two other that seem to be more related to changes in our culture.
Promote greater informality in church.
Realize that worship is moving from the cognitive toward the expressive and joyful.
How can we attract the disaffiliated and the stranger if we do not live the Gospel with joy in their midst? Repentance is changing my life direction from one path to another. How can the stranger repent if he has not seen the great alternative of Newness of Life lived in his presence?
The bottom line is that adaptive change to reach out to the younger generations will involve change is us and how we live toward others. What a glorious opportunity! As we walk the path between death from inaction on one side and death from squabbling on the other, we discover the Shepherd who guides us and leads us into his promises. As Father Abraham said to Sara, “Come, Let’s get packed and find out where He’s leading us! Yeee Hah!”
R. Channing Johnson, PhD, is an Episcopal priest working in the Diocese of Arizona and the author of Where have all the Young People Gone, (2011).