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In nothing we trust

In nothing we trust

The National Journal features a compelling analysis of American’s deepening sense that the major institutions that held our society together are broken. That includes the church. Under the subheading “From Guttenberg to Google”, writers Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton compare a Sunday morning at a Methodist Church is Muncie, Indiana to Sunday morning at a nearby megachurch. They write:

Away from his pulpit, Mendenhall confesses that his own downtown church is struggling to regain its direction. The 176-year-old institution is emblematic of a trend in Muncie and America: Mainline churches are losing relevancy and worshippers because they have failed to adapt to the changing needs of their communities. From 1981 to 2011, High Street’s membership dropped 52 percent to 700. The average Sunday attendance declined 27 percent to 379.

That decline reflects the experience of older religious institutions around the country. Those who have left the Catholic Church, for instance, now outnumber those who have joined it 4-to-1, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2008 survey. The large Protestant denominations have lost more than a million members in the past decade or so. The most telling statistic may be the number of Americans who declare themselves “unaffiliated” with any church tradition; it has been rising since the 1960s, and it topped 16 percent in 2010, according to Gallup.

The goings-on at Union Chapel Ministries, just a few miles away, help explain why traditionalists are languishing. Sitting on a 40-acre plot, Union Chapel is part of a fast-growing multibillion-dollar religious industry in America that is adapting one of the world’s oldest institutions to fit modern times—by giving congregants a sense of connection many had ceased to feel elsewhere. These so-called mega-churches are led by charismatic pastors with the skill set of corporate marketers; they sell not just the word of God but also the utility of God’s teaching in an era of atomization and economic change. What would Jesus do about long-term unemployment, school bullying, and Facebook? These churches help worshippers figure it out.

Union Chapel’s pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you’d expect from an M.B.A. (“I’m in the word business”) or a sociologist (“We’re going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world”). He keeps his sermons simple because “you can’t assume everybody knows the Lord’s Prayer,” and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life’s challenges. His church offers counseling for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, marriage problems, alcoholism, and sexual abuse. Union Chapel heavily promotes its social clubs to buoy connection-starved people. The services are casual, hip, and focused on middle-class Muncians who feel abandoned amid economic change. “My job,” Parris says in an interview at his office, “is to fill in the gaps where our institutions have failed us.”

Those of you who partake in the discussion about the decline of mainline Protestant churches, the rise of the megachurch, and related issues, may not find this section of the story especially fresh. But it is worth reflecting on the fact that the decline of church membership is taking place in the context of a decline in faith in institutions of all sort. The emerging church movement speaks to that in some ways. Yet, to some extent, liturgical churches are what they are, and can only adapt what they offer on Sunday mornings so far before surrendering their identities. Does anybody have any bright ideas about how we do that while still speaking to the raider loss of interests in institutions? Or does the answer lie, perhaps in augmenting, and (I offer this very gingerly) perhaps deemphasizing what we do on Sunday mornings in favor of spending time and energy on other sorts of gatherings?


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Dennis, I think you are right on with your comparison. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of 3 congregations that were all thriving, multi-generational communities. Though they were all different, where they were similar is that they did exactly the kinds of things you’re describing. Being truly welcoming, taking what they did seriously, including everyone to the extent they were willing to be included, providing mentoring and guidance, and having a real presence in the wider community.


(sorry that this is long. It seems applicable.)

I want to comment on this from a different perspective. I am a member of a fraternal organization that has gone through some of these same issues, and I think I have seen a few lodges thrive by doing a few things really well. Perhaps there are lessons here for Episcopal parishes.

In recent generations a lot of the lodges of the organization have been dying out all over America. In many places they have become simply a gathering place for old men who remember the past. But in a few places (such as around Seattle, a few places on the east coast, and in a few college towns here and there) I have seen lodges filled with young guys in their 20s and early 30s. Those that thrive do a few things right: they are radically welcoming (straight and gay, men with business suits sit next to those with a lot of piercings and tattoos, young and old are friends in the lodge, etc), they go out into community events with information tables in street festivals and fairs (which would never have been done by the old school lodges), they have good fellowship and great meals (good food is important – especially if you want men to be active) and organize lots of gatherings at local pubs and restaurants (again, unheard of in the old school lodges), provide active mentoring (new members are assigned someone who will meet with them, work with them, and guide them through the stages of membership) and finally they are really focused on getting the ritual work done well. ((Recent generations thought that the traditional ritual of the organization didn’t matter. Baby boomers thought it too dated and Gen-Xers like me thought it not individualist enough, but this up and coming crowd (Gen Y or the millennials) have a real appreciation of ritual work and want to do it well.))

None of these things work in isolation. One must do all of them together (along with a few other things such as providing a chance to do service work for both the organization and the community.) But when all of these things are in place, change happens and lodges become fun places that have a large crowd of active members.

The lodges that do these things (give a full and excited welcome to every man of every background, put themselves out there and let men know that they are wanted, have lots of fun gatherings and serve meals with good food, provide mentors, and do good (really good) ritual work) are thriving. Young men are willing to come more often to meetings, to pay more for lodge dues (sometimes twice as much as the old boring lodges!) and put in a lot of time to keep the organization running.

I’ve moved back to Chicago where I am a member of a more traditional lodge without any of these attractions. I show up every so often, more from memory of what could be rather than anything available here. Yet I keep my membership at my lodge back in Seattle just because I still want to be connected in some way to one of these thriving lodges.

I am willing to bet that there is something in this experience for Episcopal churches to consider. I rarely attend Episcopal churches, now. Episcopal churches (most churches) have little to tell the visitor that they will be welcome to become a part of the community, no guidance in how to enter the organization, little opportunity for fellowship, no mentoring, and the ritual is in the hands of a few specialists and their supporting choir. Episcopal churches that don’t change things will be like the old lodges filled with a few old guys wishing that they could have the old days back again.

I know that it is odd to compare the experience of a fraternal lodge and a parish church. But group dynamics are group dynamics. I’ll bet that an Episcopal parish might have some success with doing this sort of thing, too.

Dennis Roberts

Laurel Cornell

Instead of giving up our hymnal, why don’t we teach people to sing? A group which met to do that would be “a kind of … social club to buoy connection-starved people.”

Jonathan Grieser

My blogpost on this article, which came after I learned about the budget fiasco at Executive Council is here:

I think Alex Pareene’s diagnosis of the problem being elites is perceptive, both for Muncie and for The Episcopal Church


My two cents. I think you’re right that to significantly abandon our liturgy would be a surrender of our particular charism and, I believe, a tragedy. I do think though that you hit the nail on the head with your suggestion that we need to focus on the formation of community outside of Sunday morning. We need to be more than a worship community – we need to be a community that worships.

Pragmatically, from my admittedly limited experience, we need better and consistently good preaching (maybe some varied voices as well?!) and music. Much of our hymnody is challenging for the increasing numbers of people who can’t read music (FYI: they don’t teach that in school much anymore). We also need to take faith formation seriously and find ways to help people see God at work in their daily lives.

Jon White

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