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Won’t you be my neighbor?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

“Young families with children.”


Just as the priest utters the Words of Institution to mark Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, it often feels that people all over the Episcopal church want to believe that uttering the phrase “families with young children” will somehow make their presence manifest as well.


I’m not really sure why so many have become so fixated on this slice of the population.  People will say; “they’re our future.” And yes, on some level, today’s children represent our common future, this is usually thought of in institutional terms.  But really, how many people in our parishes actually grew up in that parish – or even in the Episcopal Church generally?  I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I recall coming across the information that said the Episcopal Church was especially bad at retaining as adult members, children who grew up in it.  I can’t speak to the truthfulness of that, but I can look around at my parish and see its truth (or at least its truthiness).  Out of 150 or so adult members, a bare handful, grew up in this parish, and only a few more are lifetime Episcopalians from elsewhere.


And I believe that’s been true at other parishes I’ve been a part of as well.  Most of the adults in our pews on any given Sunday, or in our mission and ministry efforts started out in some other faith tradition.  In my parish, most have come from either the Methodist or Baptist traditions.  Which makes sense as there are probably a dozen or more Methodist churches and dozens of Baptist ones within five miles of where we are.  And the next closest Episcopal Church is 20 miles or so away (we’re thin on the ground here in West Virginia).


I’d like to blame my fellow priests for this; and some are guilty, surely, but even most Episcopal priests likely didn’t grow up in the Episcopal church.  According to my informal Facebook poll with responses from 51 clergy colleagues, fewer than half (42%) have spent their whole lives in the Episcopal Church.  Two even grew up un-churched.  I suspect that’s a higher percentage of lifelong Episcopalians than in the average congregation, but still not enough to warrant aligning so much of psychic energy.


And each of those members whose pilgrimages have brought them here is here because they made a conscious choice to be Episcopalian and they are amongst the most active and engaged in our parish.  None of our officers are lifelong Episcopalians, nor are any of our Vestry members.  Love of our traditions and worship and support for our efforts towards social justice is what brought them here (and the Holy Spirit, of course) not an accident of birth.  As an aside, I hate the term “cradle Episcopalian,” because it comes across as a statement of superiority, a kind of inherited nobility, that is counter to a gospel of inclusivity for which we stand, even though I believe most who use it probably don’t intend that exactly.


So, can we let this particular fixation go?  I don’t mean stop trying to get families to join the church, not at all – just stop fixating on them.  If your church could regularly attract people in their 40’s and 50’s, and not just families, but empty-nesters, widows and widowers, divorcees, people who just happen to like living without a partner, you could still have a thriving church full of people who maybe have more time and resources to offer, and who, incidentally, are likely to be sticking around for the next 30 or 40 years.


Most of our parishes will be unlikely to compete with the big evangelical congregations that are seemingly overflowing with children and families in offering programming and youth oriented activities.  And that’s ok.  There will always be families who want what the Episcopal Church does offer, and we should do everything we can to let them know about us and to welcome them and include them in our communal lives.  But young families aren’t likely to be the savior of your declining parish (those fancy programs are expensive!!).  Focusing so much – too much – on them blinds us to the richness and diversity of our neighbors.


After all, forty-five year-olds are as much the future of the church as five year-olds.



Jon White is the Rector of Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Beckley, WV.


image: baptism of the author’s son by the Rt Rev W. Michie Klusmeyer, Bishop of WV


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Paul Woodrum

As people live longer and our aging population increases, there are a lot of lonely, older folks out there, especially in urban areas, who aren’t into electronic contact and social media. Should we not embrace the post-retirement folks as a part of the Jesus Movement? As I read the Pentecost 3, Year C Gospel, Jesus appears to be far more concerned for the widow than for her dead young son who he raises to life.

John Lewis

In the summer between high school and college (1959) I went on a student tour of the Soviet Union. In a cathedral in Kiev we met a priest who talked with us visitors briefly. Our tour leader moved into high gear with his Russian and then translated the gist of the conversation into English. He’d commented to the priest that most of the few worshipers there (not attending a service but visiting the icons) were old women. Wasn’t the priest concerned that the congregation appeared to consist mainly of women born well before the 1917 Revolution, that the congregation was dying off? Not really, the priest had said, because the core of any congregation was old women, had always been old women, and old women were steadily being created.

Kathy Franklin

I am one of those that have sought refuge in the Episcopal Church from the judgmental form of Southern Baptist religion. As a child they kept saying that I was a sinner in no uncertain terms, and I kept telling myself that I am just a girl, in my innocence, and believed that God simply loved me. After I was “saved” I hated the awkward altar call Sunday after Sunday because it was obvious to me that they were preaching to the choir. This burdened me for years. The Episcopal Church enabled me to choose to worship joyfully in the grace of God’s goodness. Its place in the constellation of denominations is unique in its rational yet passionate formality of worship style. I can’t say everything that is in my heart, but I hope that the Church’s wonderful sense of mystery in love could be conveyed to every person in need of it.

Steven Heisler

Jon, I did not mean to bash you personally or your parish. I cannot speak to the Church in general, just to the ladt two parishes I have been involved with in the past 20 years or so.
Kudos to you for increasing your membership. Keep it up. And I do apologize if I seemed to be snarkily attacking you.
My former parish was demographically diverse, with old and young and lots of “young families”. Of course, we did have a K-5th grade school attached to the church, so that had a good deal to do wirh that, I’m sure.
My current parish, where I have been only forthe past 18 months or so, desperately needs to attract more young people to be able to survive (and by young, I mean under retirement age). In the next 10- 15 years most of our parishioners will have passed on to their reward.
And I know it’ s not a research paper. Just bugs me when people throw out information without being able to cite a souece. Just my own geekiness coming out.
Please forgive me if I offended you at all.

Rod Gillis

The title of the article reminded me of an Eddie Murphy SNL sketch from years ago ( :

” ‘…Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee.’ But he answered and said unto him that told him, ‘Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?’ And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, ‘Behold my mother and my brethren.For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.’ ” ( KJV)

“All of the people around us they say
Can they be that close
Just let me state for the record
We’re giving love in a family dose

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up everybody and sing”

–Sister Sledge

David Allen

Rod, the title for the article is a song sung by the US children’s television show host, the late Mr Rogers.

Rod Gillis

David, I know. And Eddie Murphy did a spoof on SNL in which his character in the sketch “Mr. Robinson”‘ an African -American living in the projects, asks the trademark question. Hence my comment which was intended as a kind of riff on Murphy’s politcal sardonicism.

So perhaps I should mention that my reference to Sister Sledge ( great tune!) is intended as irony. The sisters ended up in a court battle latter; but the song has been adopted as an anthem by others for family like solidarity outside family ties.

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