“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