The Episcopal Church recently released its statistics for 2019. They paint a grim but familiar picture - membership numbers continue to decline, to a point that is unsustainable. The trend is no longer arguable.
In an article about these statistics by the Episcopal News Service, the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, a respected author, researcher, and priest, who studies and teaches congregational vitality, said,
'At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.'
No one. In worship.
It's not just the Episcopal Church, already the smallest US mainline Christian denomination, that is struggling. They just have some of the best - and most publicly accessible - statistics. Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and even the largest US denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, are all in serious, consistent decline.
The institutional denominational church - top-heavy in its organization, remarkably similar in its manifestation (a building, salaried clergy leadership, and a set of programs, all organized and financially supported by one distinct membership), is now in its fourth decade of demonstrating it cannot survive into the 21st century - at least not as the primary life of the Christian community.
We have argued about this, we have mourned it, and in many ways we have tried to deny it ('my church/denomination is growing' may be true, but not at a rate that changes the overall situation).
And in some ways, we are starting to change. The pandemic has forced us to reimagine who we are, how we gather, and the message we are called to share. Some of this started well before 2020, and now it is gathering momentum.
It is not too late to reimagine church - the body of Christ - how we gather for worship and sacraments, how we proclaim the love of God, how we organize and communicate among ourselves and in the world.
It is too late to pretend that everything will be the same, or that if we just get a few more young people or enough money to pay for a full-time clergy person, we will get back to where we used to be.
It is too late to be anything but intentional about how we want to be church.
If we are ok closing our doors when the last one leaves (and that is ok...), then we should be thinking about what we need for our last years. For some, this can be a relief - and a chance to 'die with dignity', to complete our ministry on our own terms.
But if we are ready for the next chapter of church - how we will be the disciples of tomorrow, there are a few things we can consider right now that will help us move in that direction...
1. Digital Ministry
We have been launched into the online world by the strange year of 2020, and many of us have become quite adept at live streaming services, virtual meetings, and hybrid low tech/high tech Christian education. Lots of us are feeling 'tech fatigue' now, but we can stop and see how far we have come in just a matter of months, and think about where else we can go from here. Who needs to hear Good News and how can we share it with them?
We are no longer limited by geography and that is exciting. We are also not limited to just sharing worship online.
2. Rethink Membership
Members used to be those who showed up on Sunday, who pledged financially, who joined a particular branch of the church. Now it is possible to belong to several churches at once, to find a home in more than one denomination, to be a virtual member or subscriber to a particular ministry. Churches - even denominations - can join together in ministry and oversight, can become teams of disciples sharing Good News with the world.
Considering all the ways people can belong to a church means considering new ways we can cooperate in our ministry, share resources, and serve more people.
3. Clergy on contract
Most congregations can no longer afford one full-time clergy person's salary, with benefits. And truthfully, most congregations don't need full-time ordained ministry. If clergy are free to serve more than one congregation in sustainable ways (2 Sundays a month, Digital and in-person, etc), more communities get clergy support and more clergy get paid for ministry. Clergy can also serve beyond the congregation, especially online.
Creative Ministry is crucial for a sustainable future..
4. Share the Space
It's time to reimagine our buildings. So many of them are beautiful, historic, deeply meaningful places. And they stand empty most of the time, and have maintenance costs that can be burdensome.
We can think creatively about sharing space in ways that support a worshiping community and offer space to others, especially others looking for sacred space.
5. Entrepreneurial Evangelism
Now is the time for us all to share the story of God's love for us, for the world. Fewer and fewer people are in church, and more and more of us need Good News. Every member of a congregation has a faith story to tell, and so many who need to hear it. Social media makes it easy! We have something so valuable to share - love, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, resurrection - that no matter how many members we have, we need to share with more.
Churches can become 'gyms' for discipleship development - so we can all live our Christian vocation.
Some of these ideas may seem radical, some may seem simple. And this is certainly not a comprehensive list of ways we can reimagine ministry. But if we are to live into the mission of the church, we need to do it from beyond our pews, where fewer and fewer of us are every day.
It's not too late be the church God is calling us to be in the world today. It is too late to pretend not to hear it.