My husband had a conversation with one of his Methodist colleagues in the Democratic Republic of Congo this week. His friend was getting ready for their annual convention meeting. Taylor asked what they would do at this gathering. His friend replied, “We have several sessions dedicated to evaluating God’s work among us. Then we do other things.”
This Sunday at my congregation, St. Thomas in Columbus, Georgia, as part of our preparation for General Convention, we will talk about the report from the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church. This committee gives a presentation like this at every General Convention. They also develop the annual parochial report, which seeks to gather data on every congregation in the Episcopal Church. The full 38 page version of their report is available here. A summary is available here.
The report states what we already know. Church attendance is down – median Average Sunday Attendance was 80 in 2001 and 61 in 2013. While 14% of US population is age 65 and up, 31% of the Episcopal Church is 65 and up. 45% of our congregations are served by clergy who are not full-time. Our low birth rate combined with a high death rate means we are losing the equivalent of one diocese of year in deaths over births. We make up some of those losses through transfers in from other denominations, but not at the rate we did in the past.
But that is not the whole story. As my husband’s friend from DRC reminded me, the starting place is not what WE are doing – it is what GOD is doing.
The parochial report and other church statistics have tended to focus on what we do – Sunday attendance, giving, programs for different age groups in the church. Meanwhile, GOD continues to be at work, often in ways not measured on the parochial report. God is leading us to greater collaboration, to a deeper appreciation of the ministry of all the baptized, to new configurations for worshiping communities, to greater generosity, to different models for clergy formation, and more.
One attempt to try to help us focus more on what God is doing is a resolution to develop an index of congregational vitality. This is easier said than done, I know, but it is a step in the right direction. In addition to attendance and giving, what else might we measure?
My vestry and I talked about this a few months ago. What else might we measure as signs of the life of God at work among us? We named things like adult baptisms and mature professions of faith, diversity in our worshiping community, engagement in faith formation at all ages, use of our facility by non-church groups, public witness, outreach that makes an impact, and more. I suspect most of our congregations have a story like this to tell, even if attendance and giving are declining.
It is easy in the anxiety of the moment to lose sight of what God is doing among us. The report on the state of the church reminds us –
We’re different. We’re smaller. We’re less well-to-do. We’re older. Our clergy are deployed differently and do ministry through roles that are changing. Our laity are leading in mission and congregational life. We’re connected in new ways to partner in Mission nearby and far away. We’re learning new ways to look at ourselves and new pathways to sustainability.