BCP and church growth?

A commenter raised the question on the Café about there relationship between The Episcopal Church's current decline and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Was the change from Morning Prayer to a more Eucharistic centered worship a cause. Ever curious about statistics we asked Kirk Hadaway, Program Officer: Congregational Research, Evangelism & Congregational Life Center, the church's keeper and collator of all things statistical. His response (shared with permission):

I suppose that someone would have had to look at change at the congregational level in order to determine if there was a correlation. However, we cannot go back in time to do that study.

Our lowest point in terms of statistical decline was in the early to mid-1970s, so things had begun to improve prior to 1979 and continued to do so through the late 1990s. Our short-lived plateau turned into a slight decline in 2002 and got worse thereafter. So I cannot see how HE vs. MP has anything to do with the membership decline. In fact, it probably helped us attract many disaffected Roman Catholics and seekers in the 1980s and 1990s.


Comments (38)

Quite frankly, it's Eucharist-centered worship and how well it's done in the Episcopal Church that's attracting me to the Episcopal Church right now. It'd be a loss if it weren't there.

First, it doesn't make sense to ask this question about a change we've made and its consequences as if our church was the only Christian church losing membership and participation. We're asking too narrowly is we simply compare our church now to our church a decade or two decades or three decades earlier.

In fact, at least as I heard it from colleagues around the country, we saw a spike in church attendance (and all kinds of other churches did too) in the months after 9/11/2001, and then the 2002 decline began.

Second, are all our churches in decline? No. Some Episcopal churches are growing. We're seeing some new church plants attracting people - including people who aren't simply Episcopal regulars who have moved into an area primed to seek a church. And some churches are continuing to sustain attendance numbers, pledges, and real mission and program.

Church-wide we share declining attendance numbers with the whole wide range of churches
- liturgical and non-liturgical,
- eucharistic and non-eucharistic, and even
- liberal and conservative/fundamentalist churches.

If we're going to ask the question of what's happening and how to address it, we've got to look more closely.

In a time of widespread decline in Christian religious practice, which churches are sustaining members and pledges and which churches are growing? What are they doing?

Here again, a look across denominations and approaches would be helpful.

We're in a missionary, evangelistic moment. Survival thinking won't help us and misses the opportunity. But missionary work always has specific cultural context.

How are "WE" communicating our faith? Who is responding?

And when we're talking about response -
what do we see demographically? ages? ethnicities? economic strata? education levels? family status?

Where people in crisis turning for support and community and hope? (crises like job loss, foreclosure, divorce, grieving a death).

What cultural assumptions and prejudices (or partly informed interpretations) about Christian faith and practice live in strangers to any church?

Those seem to be the questions that will help us think and plan.

Speaking only as a relative newcomer to the Episcopal Church, I think part of the "Church Growth" crisis comes from the fact that no one really knows who we are and what we stand for. Outside of a relatively few active congregations and clergy, we really don't have the exposure that more conservative churches cultivate. In other words, ADVERTISE! At the local and diocesan level, put a 15 second spot on the major networks in your area. On the national level, do a 30 minute spot emphasizing both our unique combination of ancient practices and our "Radical Hospitality" and commitment to social justice and equality for all. People won't come in the that "Big Red Door" if they don't know what's behind it!

Donald's questions are exactly the right ones? Is anyone systemically asking them ecumenically (not just in The Episcopal Church)?

It's no story that all denominations aren't exactly experiencing a period of growth in the US right now, but it would be refusing to look at reality if we can't admit that we are doing way,way worse. IMO, it has nothing to do with the BCP but some of those new canons.

I just saw this from Hartford Seminary...

HARTFORD, CT (March 27, 2012) - Congregations that have adopted innovative worship and contemporary worship styles are significantly more likely to have grown in the last five years, a new report has found.

In addition, worship is changing in another way, as non-Christian groups such as Muslims and Baha'i increase their presence and congregations of all faith groups attempt to become more sensitive to the diversity of members' schedules.

Worship is no longer an exclusively Sunday morning affair -- people worship at many different times from Friday through Sunday evening.

These are among the findings in a new Faith Communities Today 2010 report titled "FACTs on Worship." FACT is releasing this latest analysis to help congregations understand how worship practices can affect their vitality and inspire their members.

Links to view the full report and related material are available at:http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/report-facts-on-worship

Rev. Kurt Huber
Monroe, CT

I don't know that there is a straight line between Eucharistically centered worship and decline in attendance. Our practice, however, does have implications for small churches, especially in more geograpically remote locations, which does impact our overall attendance numbers. For 200 years a parish could see and describe itself as a vibrant small lay led church with an occasional supply priest for monthly Communion. Now, that same congregation is more inclined to see itself as less than whole because they cannot afford and do not have a priest to celebrate the Eucharist every week. Too often this then leads to an inferiority complex and a sense of dispair (which impairs vitality and growth) and ultimately it can lead to another church closing its doors.

It is ironic that the same time our Church began embracing and proclaiming a greater sense of the ministry of all the Baptized, we said that the principal act of Sunday worship was to be the Eucharist--therefore necessitating the presence of a priest.

Alan James
Cleveland, OH

You can't help but look at the political turmoil the church has been through for a major explanation. After the ordination of women many conservatives stuck around to complain and try to stem the tide of change, but Gene Robinson's ordination finally pushed a lot of them out the door.

It happened in my church - we lost 15-20% of our congregation overnight.

Up to 2003 our diocesan youth weekends would get attendances of 100-120 high school youth - that dropped to 60-80 quickly and has never recovered. That was the families leaving, not the youth choice for the most part, btw. Many of the youth I talked to were sad about ti, but their parents were adamant, and so it went.

In that context the service format is a very minor effect, and in my experience many people prefer HC to MP by a wide margin.

Alan James--In response to your comment I offer this with a OCICBW and maybe someone will clarify if I am wrong.

I believe lay people can be licensed to distribute communion on Sunday and this is a part of our national canons. They cannot consecrate the elements. I do not know what the licensing and training requirements are. They would have to check with their bishop. If it is allowed I'm sure they could figure out the logistics for having enough consecrated elements on hand between visits from a clergy person.

Bonnie, I once suggested in my diocese, which covers a number of northern Mexican states, that we have a weekly Eucharist here in Monterrey, in what serves as our cathedral church (officially we do not have a cathedral) with the specific intent of consecrating elements to express ship to the parishes and missions that do not have priests for diaconal and lay distribution. I never could get anyone to take the suggestion seriously.

Bro. David

Canon James, that's an interesting point about priestess congregations' self-perception. Nothing's really changed as far as possibilities go (they could still have lay-led Morning Prayer) but the effect is different. Is there any way to change that?

Bonnie, distribution of Holy Communion is a partial solution, but doesn't fulfill the rubric about celebration of the Eucharist. (I think it's "just" a rubrical requirement - I can't find anything about it in the Canons).

Im beginning to wonder if it wasn't a mistake to impose the Eucharist as the "principal act of Christian worship on the Lord's Day" ECUSA-wide, after all. More Catholic-minded parishes didn't need the directive, and it doesn't seem to have resulted in a wider appreciation of the Eucharist in the Church at large; it's also led to the decline of MP and Anglican chant. Maybe Evangelical / "Low Church" parishes should have been allowed to make up their own minds. I wonder if there's any way to change the rubric so that Morning Prayer were legitimized as the main service, without backtracking on the importance of the Eucharist.

It was never the intent to use the sacrament in this way when the canons where changed to allow lay distribution - they were only meant as a sort of "extension of the altar" to those members who could not attend for various reasons. A deacon can do communion from the reserved sacrament but most bishops do not allow lay persons to do that. I am not saying it is a good or bad thing - just the facts of the intent of the canon. More changes would have to be made to allow for what you suggest David.

Mo. Fontaine, thanks for clarifying that. It's sort of ironic that in this the Episcopal Church is more rigid than the Roman Catholic.

Bill - "that's an interesting point about priestess congregations' self-perception. " Not sure what you mean by using the term "priestess" -- women clergy are not "priestesses" but "priests" -- please refrain from using sexist titles. And btw -- you may call me Ann - I do not use the title Mo. -- it may be common in your diocese - but I believe my baptismal name is enough.

Damn autocorrect to Hell! "Priestless" - without a priest of any gender or sex, sin sacerdote... How effing mortifying!

Thanks for clarifying Bill. My blood pressure has returned to normal.

Re: Mother - i'd be happy to call you Ann if that's your preference. I would have until recently, when I was accused of sexism for addressing by first name a female priest on FB with whom I had interacted a lot, while referring to a male priest I did not know (and who was not on the thread) as "Fr So-and-so". She straight up demanded I call her Mother, so since then I've tried to be extremely careful to call all priests by title whenever possible.

Bill - I appreciate your attention to care of address to clergy -- for me I don't think we should have any titles. Jesus warned against it (call no man father but your father in heaven) and for me it is building a false relationship - I am not a mother to other Christians. We are colleagues in ministry. Power imbalance is very real in the church but to me the titles do not help. YMMV

"Ann" it is, then. As long as I don't have to call you "Bishop Ann" if you happen to find yourself consecrated. I'm not really a first name kind of guy, and the combination of Bishop + first name strikes me as too precious by half.

I too did a double take on "priestess" Bill, but quickly rereading Canon James' comment led me to understand it was a typo, rather than the topic Ann surmised! However, for a moment it did give your comment a crazy spin, surmising that parishes that felt pressured to employ a priest for Sunday Eucharist would opt for a less desirable "priestess," rather than have no one.

I often have issues with auto-correct on my Mac. I am waiting for Apple to goose it up much more to be able to detect the language in use, as Google translate appears to have achieved, because I often end up with some crazy corrections when autocorrect becomes confused about whether I am writing in English or Spanish at a particular moment. I gets completely befuddled with Spanglish!

Bro. David

First, apologies to CANON James. Nothing like preaching to the choir, she says with a very red face.

I am in favor of Sunday Eucharist for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it keeps me humble. A gift to us all that I would not pay the price that Jesus payed for us to have it.

Also, I am a LEV and have been for many years. There are no words to describe the joy it gives to those we bring this beautiful gift to.

Ann, thanks for the clarifications.

Bro. David, I don't seem to have that problem so much on my Mac, but my iPhone has the weirdest spelling ideas. Among other things, it thinks that "Anglucan"" and "Epuscopal" are the correct spellings of those words. This is the first time I've not caught a bad "correction" before hitting send - and sure enough, it tried to correct "priestless" to "priestess" on my clarification!

Bro. David--Don't give up. They, those who are disenfranchised, need your voice.

First, I find it hard to believe that having Eucharist each Sunday in lieu of Morning Prayer is the cause for declining membership in TEC. I don't see people standing in line at the churches that do have Morning Prayer more frequently. Morning Prayer is a lovely service, but it is not all that attractive to the 21st century unchurched.

Far more likely is the fact that TEC has not done any sort of job of letting outsiders know what we believe and what we are about. Then there is STILL the sad fact that some who are "cradle" Episcopalians view newcomers with disdain, and that is not the way to grow ANY church.

I hate the 1979 Prayerbook. I hate it and I am still outraged about the way in which it was rammed down our thoats. What do I hate about it? (1) contemporary English and (2) the Peace.

When I go to church--and I no longer go because I detest the 1979 prayerbook so much--I want to get into a never-neverland fantasy completely removed from the real world--a fantasy world that's flashier, more interesting, more intense and loaded with aesthetic goodies. I want to escape form the dullness of ordinary life. So I don't want to hear ordinary language. I fancy language--I want church to be maximally FANCY. And exotic, and thrilling.

And I can't stand the Peace--that alone would be enough to keep me away. I want church to be completely impersonal--if I want personal contact I can go to coffee hour. Contact undermines my aesthetic/religious experience.

HE Baber, is there no parish near you with the occasional Rite I service? The differences from 1928 are for the most part minor.

The issue is not finding a service that will appeal to me. My point is that A LOT of people want this sort of thing--mystery, mysticism, metaphysical thrills, the exotic and spectacular, the intense religious experience--and the church has taken it away from us. So they look for it in New Age bs or whatever.

Oh, indeed there are Rite I services--at 8 am, without music. As I've been told, they do it "for the old people." sorry, that isn't good enough.

If people want to be evangelical, there's no reason for them to go to the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church should play to it's unique strengths--doing high church, doing the woo-woo, exotic, aesthetic. Why not?

Wow, that isn't worship, that's Cirque du Soleil. The Christian faith and Christian worship is not impersonal.

Bro. David
KONY 2012

Well then Bro. David, you can keep your ever-shrinking righteous remnant of pious goody-goodies who have a taste for "community" and edification while the rest of us to to Cirque du Soleil--or Burning Man or any of the other grand public entertainments.

Funny how the Powers in the Episcopal Church (and other dying mainline denominations) claim to be interested in church growth but then sniff at the idea of giving people what they want as "consumerism." Nowadays we aren't forced, by state sanctions or social pressure, to go to church so why should we go if we don't get what we want?

They have the peace in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In Catholicism, it's the last thing you do before you take Communion. Personally, I'm shocked at the thought that it SHOULDN'T be there. And Br. David's right, the Christian faith isn't impersonal. Heck, I'm an introvert, but I still gladly exchange the Peace when I go on Sunday. If I want a private spiritual practice, well, that's why I pray at home. The liturgy is for praying in community.

Gah, sorry again for not signing. -- Alex Scott

I'm in my late 20s and I love Rite I. I wish it was a regular thing at my parish, alas, only Rite II with no music at the early Mass.

@Keromaru5, so what do I care if Catholic and Orthodox churches have the Peace? I just plain don't like it and I am not alone.

As far as Christianity not being "impersonal", yes, it isn't just a matter of getting a fun experience or metaphysical thrills--it imposes moral obligations to help people who are badly off and to work for a more just social order. However that doesn't mean promoting "communal" experience during the liturgy, nor is there any empirical evidence showing that this touchy-feely stuff in church promotes generosity or left-wing politics (which I fully support).

You can't have it both ways: you can't ignore what people want, push practices on them that they don't like, and then expect them to come. Look at that post by 20-something Nicole Porter. Will you listen? I doubt it. Reminds me of how when I was in my teens we were continually told that we wanted folk masses--and middle-aged clerics' sanitized version of youth culture. We didn't--and we voted with our feet.

My parish uses Rite I all the time (via the Anglican Service Book). But we also pass the Peace - although usually not ad nauseum as in some places, where it becomes a chance to keep up with your fellow parishioners (something better left for coffee hour, IMNSHO).

I sort of understand HE Baber's point about impersonal worship a little. When I was an RC the part of the Mass I really disliked was holding hands at the Our Father. I don't want to be touched that long by strangers, thank you - and no, I will not be volunteering to have my feet washed at the Maundy Thursday service, either, thank you very much. ;-)

Usually I receive Commnion on the tongue in my home parish. When receiving elsewhere, though, I receive it the way I was taught in Confirmation class, in my outstretched hands, so as not to draw attention to myself or freak out the priest. Until recently, that is. I was on vacation and went to church as usual on Sunday morning. As the priest came around distributing Communion,, he took the opportunity to squeeze everyone's hand as he placed the Host in the person's palm. In order to avoid that gratuitous piece of touchy-feeliness, when he got to me I stuck out my tongue. That's my default position now. Let 'em think I'm a visiting RC or something!

Seriously, though, I question the wisdom of clergy who (evidently) think, "What this liturgy needs is a human touch. Specifically, it needs more *me* in it. " And people's need or desire for being touched varies widely. Please don't assume I want you touching me unless the rubrics tell you to.

I went to Saddleback (on assignment for a paper for whose religion section I write). One of the features that I thought was excellent was the extent to which they give participants a choice about the way in which they want to be involved. You can go, as I did, as an observer without making contact: you can participate in as impersonal a way as you would going to a shopping mall, park or any other public place. Or you can become involved in any one of a variety of small groups Saddleback runs. Or anything in between.

There's nothing wrong with "community" if that's what you want. But not if it's not what you want: we need choice, not being pushed in the direction that the Powers believe is good for us.

BTW I teach at a Catholic college. Every noon there is mass at the chapel down the hall from me. Sometimes I feel like going, but I'm put off by the Peace and the hand-holding. I don't belong because I'm not Catholic. I'd like to go if I could just sneak in and not be noticed. But the "community" at this mass locks me out. Yes I know I'd be welcomed, but I just don't feel comfortable with being noticed. And even in Episcopal churches, where I do belong, where I know I have a right to be, I don't want to be noticed or have to interact with people--any more than I want to interact with people at my local supermarket or in the street.

The Church needs to be a little more tolerant and recognize that this is a legitimate preference--not a symptom of mental illness or sin or something that needs to be fixed.

Every so often we visit our relative's church, she's AME. They do a lot of hand holding "touch your neighboor and tell them blah blah,lol" there. I'm not a fan of it but I take part because that is their way of doing things. As far as passing the peace in my parish, a simple handshake is alright by me. My husband and I keep it simple. We left the Baptist church in our teens for a reason,lol!!

When I started going to my present parish I had been away from the Episcopal Church (and, indeed, Christianity) for some time. I didn't know exactly if I wanted to come back, but I found myself cautiously slipping into a back pew, near the door, one Sunday morning. I'd made the mistake of visiting an Episcopal parish in a neighboring town not long before, and signing their guest register; not only did I get lots of mailings, but they called to invite me back so much that it almost felt a little like being stalked. Anyway, I wanted to check this church out, but I wanted to be able to make a quick getaway.

The ushers were polite but not pushy; there was no socializing before the service, and no one tried to be my new best friend during the Peace. At the end I beat my hasty retreat, but there was no reason to be quite so hasty: no one was trying to corral me.

The next week, or maybe the one after, I went back, and then the next week, and then the next. People recognized me when I came in and nodded "hello," so I wasn't invisible, but I still kept to myself, and the congregation let me. I would shake the priests' hands after the services, but didn't go to coffee hour or stick around to chat. It wasn't why I was there.

Eventually, when I was ready, I became less - skittish? closed? distant? shy? - and started opening up more. I met more people. I became involved. I had my letter if transfer sent from my old, long ago parish. That was all about seven years ago. Now I know lots of people, I'm a regular acolyte/lector/subdeacon, and a member of the vestry. But it might not have turned out like that if the parish had been unwilling to give me my space.

We're involved in a parish development process, complete with outside professional consultant. We would like to increase our membership, and the consultant has given us advice on how to welcome people and ideas about how to grow community. I'm a little afraid lest we become a parish that won't give newcomers - or, indeed, old hands - their space if they want it. Sometimes and for some people, it's very important.

"and promulgate them ("the truths of the Christian Gospel") in the clearest, plainest and most affecting manner" -- the Preface to the 1789 BCP = majestic simplicity . . . all lost in our desperate effort to attract folks, "do things MY way" and other abberations. There is a place for dignity, respect AND "charisma."

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space