What Are We Talking About?
When the title of a book broadcasts that something needs “renewing,” the first and obvious question is: who says so?
Good question. Were this announcement about liturgical churches to be made by a disgruntled parishioner or an upset former employee of one of these churches, we would dismiss out of hand the idea that anything but growth and expansion characterizes liturgical churches today. The facts, however, reveal it is these same churches that are showing the problems they are facing in their own reports. These reports show that for the six largest Liturgical denominations, from 1965 to 2005, church membership losses ranged from 15% to 46%. Those are not happy results for anyone.
When a denomination reports that for year after year, decade after decade, all reasonable measures of health and growth are in negative territory, that is worthy of serious discussion. If this were some industry in the private sector, there would be inquiries from investors, suppliers, distributers and even product users as to what was going on. Can any of us rely on this product or service being available in the future? Has it seen its best days, and are we in a spiral of decline?
These kinds of questions would be normal to a business operating in the open market. Often, of course, the public sector (government) escapes this kind of scrutiny or is able to deflect adverse investigation through various means. These can include such well-worn strategies as, “We have formed a committee to study and report back in two years;” or “It was one of our own people who discovered the problem and we are allocating more resources to deal with it.”
Why mention the public sector (government) when writing about liturgical churches? For two reasons—one apparent and another not often considered. Government in almost all cases has a “top down” governing system. The first two rules in this kind of structure are: 1. The Boss Is Always Right, and 2. If the boss is wrong, check rule number 1.
Another difference between these two groups is that government usually hires from an open group of applicants. Liturgical churches only hire clergy from applicants that have been trained and validated prior to being offered employment. You can’t enter the system until you have graduated from seminary, preferably ours. Yes, there are exceptions in both cases, but in church denominations, that is rare.
We mention these points to hint at the difficulty in any top-down organization to bring about remedies or adjustments unless the “boss” initiates them. And there is always potential pushback from predecessors, traditions or the resistance to change from the folks down below, clergy or not. A tour into European countries may convince you of some of these issues when you see grand church buildings, once full of worshipers, now being used as museums, shops, youth hostels, or just boarded up after the stained glass windows have been salvaged. Even so, not much has changed within those denominations in proclaiming the Gospel.
Is America the next Europe in regards to Christian faith? No one has that kind of crystal ball. Yet, it is the numbers provided by the denominations themselves that are the indicators of the direction liturgical churches are headed in attendance, membership, giving, numbers of students entering their seminaries and other important factors related to church vitality.
Regardless, what are we talking about? There does not seem to be a means of getting through to the top whether that is the Pope, Presiding Bishops or other designated leaders. However, are there strategies for renewal that are available without blowing up the current top-down structure? That is what we will be looking towards in the pages that follow.
Even so, this is not about saving your denomination. It’s about reaching people in a way that produces individuals and communities of faith that are contagious to the “unchurched” in the 21st century. Whether that can achieve a revitalization of a large denomination is open to question. But it must begin with a pastor/priest/church that is willing to go outside the box, as it exists today.
Is it worth trying? Well, if the goal of entering into vital relationship with God is primary, then it is worth trying. Much like a famous football coach once told his team, “Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all the time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while…you do them right all the time” (Vince Lombardi). That is called leadership—calling the team to focus on what is truly important and keeping at it.
It’s like Jesus told a group of followers on one occasion, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jesus to his disciples in John 14:12).
Indicators of What We Are Facing
Before wading into the waters of questions that should be asked, what are the indicators that will lead us there? And as asked above, who says so? The membership numbers that are available are from the denominations themselves. While it is often difficult to get comparable statistics from all churches, there are enough to give us reliable numbers for most of the churches we are looking at.
What is listed or charted below is a combination of information gleaned primarily from denominational sources themselves. Not all churches provide information at the same time so there will be some gaps in this material. Under the circumstances, it is still a fairly accurate picture of what is currently happening in North American churches. As stated, these membership numbers are from the denominations themselves in a context of significant population growth in the country.
YEAR MEMBERSHIP CHANGE %
PCUSA 2003 2,405,311
2013 1,760,000 -(645,311) -(26.8 %)*
ELCA 1987 5,288,048
2011 4,059,785 -(1,228,263) -(23 %)**
TEC 2007 2,116,749
2011 1,923,046 -(193,703) -(9.0 %)***
UMC 2011 7,481,383
2012 7,390,691 -( 90,692) -(1.2 %)****
PCUSA Presbyterian Church USA
ELCA Evangelical Lutheran Church In America
TEC The Episcopal Church
UMC The United Methodist Church
*Presbyterian Mission Agency
**The Institute on Religion and Democracy
***The Episcopal Church
****UMC General Council on Finance and Administration
Obtaining up-to-date figures for some churches with declining membership is difficult. What is indicated above shows the direction these denominations are going in membership. The same trend is also reflected in numbers of churches, attendance and, with some exceptions, offering receipts. Dollar inflation makes giving percentages less of an indicator. Nonetheless, these trends do not inspire enthusiasm.
Many denominations outside of the liturgical block are growing, some at dramatic rates. As you might expect, these churches want to spread the good news about them. Perhaps for this and other reasons, their membership statistics are more readily available.
Regarding the United Methodist Church, one official with the General Council on Finance and Administration for their denomination reported that while the UMC is growing in the southern hemisphere, it is declining in America at a rate of about 90,000 members annually. Over time, those numbers become significant. Their overall membership numbers since 1988 reflect that kind of loss.
Other smaller Liturgical churches are not included in this statistical chart. Their membership statistics show comparable losses in line with the larger denominations listed above.
Overall, and not unexpectedly, reasons for this decline are all over the map. Even individual members, sometimes dissatisfied with an event or a position taken by their denomination will give full vent to a variety of reasons. That is understandable, particularly after years of faithful giving and service.
It is the intention of this writing to provide some solid background as to how these denominations are loosing ground. Then, we’ll spell out some basic changes that can and should be made to turn things around. It may not be easy for many and it won’t be without angst. However, we are dealing with far more than just the denominations’ pension funds. We are inviting conversation about what Scripture declares to be issues of eternal life and death. That requires us to put aside our superficial disputes and respond to the task given us by God himself.