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Commentary: Membership decline = God’s own pruning

Commentary: Membership decline = God’s own pruning

Leigh Silcox has a provocative commentary on membership decline in the Anglican Church of Canada.

Some extracts:

The question I asked was this: as the Church of England had to grapple with the consequences of the Western church’s division—a contradiction to Jesus’s own prayer for concrete unity in life and witness—how could it go about discerning the truth in faithful witness?

What I discovered was that there was most certainly a strong drive for unity, called comprehension in the 17th century. But why unity? Why not simply scour for the truth of Scripture as individuals or congregations? Each of the mainline Church of England theologians whom I looked at, following Erasmus and Hooker, had a fairly straightforward underlying premise: an individual’s ability to discern the truth is obscured or obliterated by the reality of the effects of sin. And the more one “goes off on one’s own direction,” particularly with logical or emotional zeal, the more likely it is he or she will be deceived in pursuing the truth. The only way to mitigate (while not entirely removing) the effects of sin while trying to live faithfully in accordance with Scripture was to submit one’s actions to the discernment of the church (in this case, of England). 

I am happy for our decline. For too long, both Catholic and Protestant churches were filled with nominalist Christians for whom church has been a mere social club to exercise power, influence and money, rather than a school by which one is saved—that is, reshaped and reformed by God. I am happy for the decline because I see this as God’s own pruning: pruning not so as to exclude, but in chastening, in pressing into the humility of confession, of prayer, of thanks, to open those who are called and willing to persevere in leadership, in worship and in service, within the particular temporal fragment of the body of Christ they are in.

What should be done? What did God do? He remained unto death, put to death upon the cross, took the very peculiar and particular life he took on, assumed, was sent to live out, and remained to witness just there. He did not leave for the newest or different or presumed true group of worshippers. He remained with broken, often erroneous, poor, hungry, sad, rebellious, depressed, sick, abused, confused, and tormented people—those whom he’d been given simply because of time and place. And so then should we. Though we shrink, the questions that arise from our shrinking are more pragmatic: should we continue with full-time priests, should we do house churches, should we rent facilities rather than have huge overhead, should we increase or decrease the size of dioceses, etc. But these questions are irrelevant if we do not first commit to remain where we are, despite the heartbreak of decline.


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mike geibel

Membership decline is God’s pruning? Perhaps the answer lies not in God’s Will but in the inability of clergy in Canada and America to admit culpability. Self-righteous ideologues believe they are “right” and thus morally superior to those “nominalists” who only identify as Christians, but then they cannot understand why people don’t show up on Sunday.

Decline has resulted from:
• Elderly members are dying off and not being replaced.
• The Church’s politicking has alienated many members.
• Some in the Church have have pivoted to demonizing those who disagree with their social and political agenda.

Ardent activism on gender identity and social justice to those “on the margins” has left no connection to those in the middle seeking guidance on how to deal with the burdens in their daily lives. For many, the endless outrage in the media and from the pulpit is turning tedious, and Armageddon fatigue has set in.

Rod Gillis

Again, more political rhetoric that does not advert to the data directly, but rather uses it as a segue into one’s political opinions, in this case from the right, on social issues. What would be interesting is a comparison between Canadian church membership decline and surveys of the wider population’s attitude to religious faith and the God question in general. I suspect the comparison would be little comfort to those holding conservative religious views–at least in the Canadian context.

Rod Gillis

Discussion over demographic projections creates opportunities for the positioning of theological opinions that are not evidence based. This article is one example. The rhetoric about “nominalist Christians….mere social club …etc…”, while rather judgemental, is not empirically supportable. Its a tired canard. The author’s biblicist theological assumptions are not conducive to the provision of theological insights that may help us constructively adapt to the cultural shift in religious participation in Canada. There is tendency here to emphasize polarization between the church and the wider world. What’s missing is the need for the church to learn from a more socially progressive society. It would not rush to excuse slow or maladaptive institutional polices by rationalizing it as God’s ‘pruning’.

Simon Burris

(1) Yes: There is no doubt in my mind that the Lord is chastising us in TEC for divisiveness (and other sins).

(2) Yes: I also believe that the denomination was full of many, many nominalists in the past, and that this accounts for much of the decline these days when there is so little social advantage to be gained from mere attendance.

And yet…

(3) Much of the decline in TEC cannot be accounted for by reference to former nominalists. An awful lot of people left (and are leaving, and will leave) not to sleep in on Sundays, but to go to churches that seem (to them) more faithful.

Given this fact, I for one am not happy about our decline, because it points to a real division between Christians, not merely to a process whereby believers are distinguished from non-believers.

(4) Even if you have a beef with my point (3), don’t you think the church has a good influence on nominalists whether they attend, whether they realize it or not? (I am thinking of Paul’s statement that non-Christians are “made holy” by being married to non-Christians.) And don’t some nominalists actually become believers? (Don’t all Christian infants start off as nominalists?)

Can we really point to a line separating “accommodation of nominalists” from “evangelizing to people visiting the parish”?

Kurt Hill

Much of the decline in TEC and in Mainline denominations in general is “spillover” from the revulsion that many people have for the bigots in sheep’s clothing that have infested our society for decades. This revulsion is especially felt by young people under 40 years old, at least in America. The fundamentalist Evangelicals and shyster mega-church preachers–particularly the Pentecostal sort–have turned many people off to any religious affiliation.

mike geibel

It is too easy to rationalize the fall of the Episcopal Church by blaming the excesses of evangelical “megachurches” rather than acknowledging the shortfalls of liberal theology. Political activists within both progressive and evangelical churches have used “freedom of religion” to promote certain candidates and to produce single-issue voters. They cut and paste partisan talking-points into Biblical phrases and reduce God’s word to political punch-lines. It should be no surprise that the growing “nones” trying to raise families have rejected the peddlers of partisan religious-babble and will search for guidance elsewhere on how they should live their lives and raise their children..

Kurt Hill

Oh, please Mike. The “fall” of the Episcopal Church? Get real. Compared to some eras in the past (e.g., post-Revolutionary War and Civil War periods, for example) the Episcopal Church is in fairly good shape. Conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, are not growing, either. If it were simply the “shortfalls of liberal theology” one would see something else. If you don’t like our modern Anglican Catholic approach, there are plenty of Protestant sects you can join and feel more at home.

mike geibel

“The ‘fall’ of the Episcopal Church? Get real.”

The TEC had 3.4 M members in 1967, but now only one third (553,000) of the remaining 1.7 million members regularly attend church. Since 2015, the TEC lost over 120,000 members. The median ASWA is 53, and that number includes clergy, who are counted twice if there are 2 services. 74% of Episcopal churches have an ASWA of less than 100.

The median age of congregants is around 60 most of whom may be dead within 25 years. The USA population is 330 million and the percentage of Episcopalians is 0.05% and shrinking. The report predicting the ACofC will disappear by 2040 echoes predictions for the TEC.

I would call this the “fall” of the Episcopal Church—but maybe I and others exaggerate.

mike geibel

“There are plenty of Protestant sects you can join and feel more at home.”

Correct, and I and other former Episcopalians from my local church have done so. I have moved on to a local, non-denominational church attended mostly by millennial’s and young couples with children, that holds services in a pavilion tent, and has an ASA at about one hundred believers with only a smattering of grey hairs like myself. We don’t talk politics or secular issues, but we do welcome each other in the common bond that we are Christians who love God and are thankful for our blessings. We do not label each other as liberal, progressive or conservative—just as Christians. An Episcopal Bishop once said: “There is no room for ‘them’ and ‘us’ in the Church, because in God’s economy, there is no ‘them.’” Author: B+ Gene Robinson.

Simon Burris

Darn errata:

(4) “…when they attend, whether they realize it or not” and “by being married to Christians”.

Pot, meet kettle. Argh.

JoS. S Laughon

One wonders if its really God’s hand in the mass secularization of western (formerly) Christian societies.

Kurt Hill

It’s more a failure of Christianity as a whole (conservative and liberal trends alike) that is the root cause of its decline in Western culture.

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