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Groundbreaking Research on Episcopal Spiritual Vitality Reveals a "Hungry" Church

Groundbreaking Research on Episcopal Spiritual Vitality Reveals a "Hungry" Church
But only 4% of Episcopalians want a personal relationship with Jesus Christ
Voting bloc of religious conservatives in US is growing not shrinking among the faithful
Nondenominational churches are 99.9 percent thorough-blooded evangelical, reports Pew

By David W. Virtue, DD
January 30, 2018

Episcopalians, apparently, want to grow spiritually. Research from over 200 congregations and 12,000 Episcopalians conducted by Forward Movement was summarized recently in a published paper rooted in extensive work on spiritual growth and vitality.

This begs the question why this is only coming to light now, when for the past 40 years and longer TEC has been declining, while being consumed with myriad social concerns (more recently racism and white privilege) and brokering a variety of pansexual behaviors into the Church, behaviors that have torn the fabric of the Communion and separated TEC from the Global South and its GAFCON brothers and sisters.

Something calling itself RenewalWorks ministry of the Episcopal Church which focusses on the spiritual life of the Episcopal Church and fosters a culture of discipleship, says that it has discovered catalysts that can address that hunger. They believe that basic spiritual practices such as daily prayer, scripture study, worship attendance, and serving the poor will lead to transformation.

Among key findings:

Exploring Christians include 18% of Episcopalians. This stage includes seekers and new Christians. But in the Episcopal Church, some people who have attended church for decades are also at this stage.

Growing Christians is a stage where people have committed to their spiritual growth. 55% of Episcopalians fit in this stage.

Deepening Christians are those who articulate a personal relationship with God and whose life bears significant marks of their faith. This is 23% of Episcopalians.

Christ-Centered represents just 4% of Episcopalians. For this small group, a personal relationship with God in Christ is the most important relationship in their lives.

"Our research also shows specific catalysts that are likely to move people from one stage to the next," said the Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement. "So, if we want our congregations to be places where spiritual growth is happening, we need to teach and to nurture spiritual practices such as prayer, worship, study, and service."

The research also shows the importance of the leader's heart. "The spiritual health of the leader in the congregation is key," leaders say. "Too often clergy lose touch with their first love, with the reasons that they were drawn to ordained ministry. These challenges can have a negative effect on a church's vitality."

With the age of most Episcopalians now well into their Sixties, with more burials than baptisms, this is clearly too little too late, with only 4 percent interested in a personal relationship with Christ. How then can such a small percentage hope to influence the broader Church, make it grow and spread the Good News. Even orthodox dioceses are having a hard time growing.

The Diocese of Springfield had nearly 3,000 ASA in 2000, today it has 1551 and sinking. A loss of 49%. Albany had 8,248 in 2000 now down to 5,339 in 2016 a loss of 35%. Central Florida had 16,904 ASA in 2000 now down to 12,992 a loss of 23%. Dallas had 14,363 in 2000, now 10,943 a drop of 24%. Of these four geographic areas, Dallas and Central Florida are growing areas and ripe for growth. But it is not happening. The contagion of the Episcopal Church's collective sin of sexual liberation reverberates across all dioceses, even those still claiming to be orthodox in faith and morals.

What underlies TEC's decline is the failure of a clear gospel witness and proclamation. The Episcopal Church is its own worst enemy, hemorrhaging from the sin of nominalism.

New research published late last year by scholars at Harvard University and Indiana University Bloomington revealed that mainline churches, including TEC, are tanking and hemorrhaging members, not because they are leaving Christianity, they are simply going elsewhere. Because of this shifting, other very different kinds of churches are holding strong in crowds and have been for as long as such data has been collected. In some ways, they are even growing. This is what this new research has found.

The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today. These authors describe this continuity as "patently persistent."

The findings of these scholars are not outliers. There has been a growing gulf between the faithful and the dabblers for quite some time, with the first group growing more numerous. Think about the church you attend, relative to its belief system. It is extremely likely that if your church teaches the Bible with seriousness, calls its people to real discipleship, and encourages daily intimacy with God, it has multiple services to handle the coming crowds.

Most decent-size American cities have a treasure trove of such churches for believers to choose from. This shows no sign of changing. If, however, your church is theologically liberal or merely lukewarm, it's likely laying off staff and wondering how to pay this month's light bill. People are navigating toward substantive Christianity.

And this is precisely the situation in The Episcopal Church. An issue focused church like TEC is not and will not draw in people because of its constant rant on a range of social justice issues, doctrinal lukewarmness, its constant focus on pansexuality which is still anathema to most Americans, dare we say to most aging Episcopalians who stay rather then leave because they are comfortable where they are and won't take the risk of leaving family and friends.

Those who take their faith seriously are becoming a markedly larger proportion of all religious people. In 1989, 39 percent of those who belonged to a religion held strong beliefs and practices. Today, these are 47 percent of all the religiously affiliated. This all has important implications for politics, indicating that the voting bloc of religious conservatives is not shrinking, but actually growing among the faithful. The declining influence of liberal believers at the polls has been demonstrated in many important elections recently.

The folks at Pew have been reporting for years that while the mainline churches are in drastic free fall, the group that "shows the most significant growth is the nondenominational family." Of course, these nondenominational churches are 99.9 percent thorough-blooded evangelical. Pew also notes that "evangelical Protestantism and the historically black Protestant tradition have been more stable" over the years, with even a slight uptick in the last decade because many congregants leaving the mainline churches are migrating to evangelical churches that hold fast to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

When so-called "progressive" churches (like the Episcopal Church) question the historicity of Jesus, deny the reality of sin, support abortion, ordain clergy in same-sex relationships and perform their marriages, people desiring real Christianity head elsewhere. Fact: evangelical churches gain five new congregants exiled from the liberal churches for every one they lose for any reason. They also do a better job of retaining believers from childhood to adulthood than do mainline churches.

The Other Key Factor: Faithful People Grow More Children. Episcopalians are not having large families, in fact most are not having families at all. Millennials are virtually non-existent in the Church. The growth of serious Christian belief is as firmly rooted in fertility as it is in faithful teaching and evangelism.

It comes down to this: God laughs at the social Darwinists. Their theory is absolutely true, but just not in the way they think. Those who have the babies and raise and educate them well tend to direct the future of humanity. Serious Christians are doing this. Those redefining the faith and reality itself are not.

What About All the Millennial Ex-Christians?

But what about our young people? We are constantly hearing that young people are "leaving the church in droves," followed by wildly disturbing statistics. This also requires a closer look at who is actually leaving and from where. Pew reports that of young adults who left their faith, only 11 percent said they had a strong faith in childhood, while 89 percent said they came from a home that had a very weak faith in belief and practice.

It's not a news flash that kids don't tend to hang onto what they never had in the first place. Leading sociologist of religion, Christopher Smith, has found through his work that most emerging adults "report little change in how religious they have been in the previous five years." He surprisingly also found that those who do report a change say they have been more religious, not less. This certainly does not mean there is a major revival going on among young adults, but nor does it mean the sky is falling.

Add to this Rodney Stark's warning that we should not confuse leaving the faith with attending less often. He and other scholars report that young adults begin to attend church less often in their "independent years" and have always done so for as long back as such data has been collected. It's part of the nature of emerging adulthood. Just as sure as these young people do other things on Sunday morning, the leading sociologists of religion find they return to church when they get married, have children, and start to live a real adult life. It's like clockwork and always has been. However, the increasing delay among young adults in entering marriage and family is likely lengthening this gap today.

More Americans Attend Church Now Than At the Founding

What is really counter-intuitive is what Stark and his colleagues at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion found when looking at U.S. church attendance numbers going back to the days of our nation's founding. They found that the percentage of church-attending Americans relative to overall population is more than four times greater today than it was in 1776. The number of attendees has continued to rise each and every decade over our nation's history right up until the present day.

The number of church attendees has continued to rise each and every decade over our nation's history right up until the present day.

People are making theological statements with their feet, shuffling to certain churches because they offer what people come seeking: clear, faithful, practical teaching of the scriptures, help in living intimately with and obediently to God, and making friends with people who will challenge and encourage them in their faith. To paraphrase the great Southern novelist Flannery O'Connor, if your church isn't going to believe and practice actual Christianity, then "to hell with it." This is what people are saying with their choices.

If your Christianity is reconstituted to the day's fashion, don't be surprised if people lose interest in it. Few are seeking 2 Percent Christianity. They want the genuine deal, and the demographics on religion of the last few decades unmistakably support the fact.

The Episcopal Church should take note; So should the folk at RenewalWorks.


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