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    stained glass window in a church

    Zero Episcopalians

    A young minister in a declining church looks for reasons to hope.

    By Benjamin Crosby

    December 6, 2023

    Available languages: Deutsch, español

    • Paul Summer

      As written on the wall in Babylon; “You have been weighed and found short” (Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin). As written on a wall of a drunk tank of a jail in Texas; “G.O.O.S.N.” (Get out of Sodom now).

    • Colin Ross

      Honestly as a former Episcopalian, I have almost no hope for the future of that awful church. It’s brought so much abuse into our family that none of my brother stuck with it either. I don’t know a single person from my youth group that stayed. sin your home country of Canada the natives are burning the churches to the ground and it’s hard to argue they are in the wrong after the unspeakable crimes the church has committed to theirs and other children. It’s well past time the church founded on the family values of king Henry VIII just dies out. Very very few people will miss it and the world will move much as it has in the vast majority of time when the church didn’t exist. Best of luck though, I’m sure lying to children is a very fulfilling career path.

    • John Zemek

      In response to Benjamin Crosby's article, as revolutionary as it may be, the focus of Jesus' message was the Kingdom of God, not the church as we generally assume. Over a hundred times in the Gospels, Jesus refers to the Kingdom of God and three times he mentions the church. Unfortunately, we backward interpret the meaning of "church" in these instances by assuming that the church he is referring to is, of course, the organized institutional megalith we have come to accept as God's formula for being salt and light in the world. But what if the Kingdom of God is bigger than the church? What if He is allowing churches to atrophy to somehow enable His Kingdom to take center stage? What if he wants us to ask ourselves what His Kingdom really is? What if....?

    • David Chafin

      I hold great hope for the future, as long as we remain open to the ecumenical gospel. (Please note that Charles Wesley was the hymn-writer in the family. It was his brother John whose experience you quote.) Offered with love and prayers from a former Anglo-Methodist who found home at last with the Disciples of Christ.

    • Nile Sandeen

      Thank you for saying what many of us are thinking and worrying. Thank you for calling us back to the gospel of Christ crucified for you, and thank you for your hoping against all hope. It is a tough situation. As a pastor only slightly older than you, I share much the same concerns for ministry and a life of faith. I also share to some extent in the culpability of our decline. God forgive me.

    • Robert Aitchison

      As a Roman Catholic in the American Midwest, I see the same decline in my denomination all around me. I have the same bewilderment with my own denomination's leadership or lack thereof in even merely slowing the decline. That said, I appreciate the author's perspective, but I don't see how he's saying anything fundamentally different from those he critiques. Ultimately both cases are trust in God. He says we need to return to basics, he critiques those who say there is no issue. I suppose there is some difference in that the author wants a stronger creedal Christianity that critiques both the secular left and right. Instead of us bemoaning our respective denominations' decline, I ask what fundamental concrete steps this author thinks those in leadership should take? What steps should reasonably active lay people take? Until we can make these statements we're all just engaging in a bunch of navel gazing. I do think in an western secular society which has a growing epidemic of loneliness and lack of transcendent beauty the churches can lean into this and become outposts of beauty and in person community.

    • Dart Westphal

      I wonder how much of an issue, at least in the US, is the fact that most of the "mainline" denominations remain decidedly ethnic: Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans of German or Swedish or Slovak ancestry. Roman Catholic Dioceses still have "National Parishes" We are comfortable in our own groups, but perhaps as generations pass we no longer identify as "German Lutherans" or whatever. If one is not steeped in the ethnicity of a place it is harder to feel welcome. Church time is still the most segregated hour of life in the US. If God is making all things new, perhaps a more ecumenical spirit is calling us. It's not easy to give up the old wineskins but if they are falling apart anyway we should probably try and figure out some new ones.

    • George Marsh

      Reverend Crosby's essay is worth reading for the truth of its facts and the honesty of his spirit. Declines in church membership are indeed a matter for concern and humble prayer for people who value their church traditions, teachings and related rituals, hymns and so on. It's worth remembering, though, that the spirit of a religious body, when practiced faithfully and humbly, gives life, whereas the letter of the Law or dogma and dried out rituals tend to kill. As in the early days of Jesus and the disciples, the motto to recall is "Fear is unnecessary; what is needed is trust" in the grace of God, the pattern which the faithful will follow: the way, the truth and the life. Remember how often Jesus said, "Your faith has saved you."

    • Derrick Bonton

      You put men in dresses and you lost me (a confirmed Episcopalian).

    • Frances Dowell

      "The mainline, too, displays a willingness to replace the content of the gospel with a political program. It happens to be a political program I find more congenial than that of shofar-blowing insurrectionists, but social democracy or antiracism (as worthy as they may be) simply are not the gospel." Thank you for articulating something I've been clumsily trying to say when explaining why I stopped going to church circa 2018. Until very recently, I wondered if I was a "Done," but I decided to give it one more shot, with very low expectations this Advent season. It's hard to be a Christian outside of a community, but so many churches these days make it hard to be a Christian *inside* of a community.

    • Van Savell

      Thank you Mr/Priest Crosby for your article. What shall we do in the times we are in? Let us be faithful. May God grant you grace as you move forward.

    • Mary Thorpe

      Well stated! As I finish out my last eight months of ministry (I will be 72 in August) in a parish where we have had to learn the meaning of being the church again, I think more and more of our lack of heart for Christ, lack of sharing the Gospel, lack of instruction for discipleship. Perhaps it’s a tiredness with labels and programs at my age, but nothing galls me more than the annual parochial report, which says little about souls transformed, or communities given hope in Christ. It’s all about who has the biggest … numbers. I pray for you and I pray that the church recommits to its mission and ministry rather than seeking the one magical solution.

    • Jeanne Evers

      Amen!! Such hope in a God Who is ALWAYS with us and will NEVER forsake us!!

    • Ali Van Kuiken

      I’m curious about the role of ecumenism given the decline of the mainline? Might there be an opportunity to join ministries with area churches instead of working separately? I ask these questions as an Episcopal priest and psychiatric hospital chaplain.

    • Lucy Muller

      I would love to answer this young priest. I was born and raised an Episcopalian. I do not want a political church and that is what the Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians have become. I am in search of a church that focuses on Jesus’ teaching and hymns.

    • James Pile

      Thanks for the very thoughtful combination of lament and hope in your essay, Reverend Crosby. This is a wonderful reminder that although Christendom in North America may be in retreat, God isn't finished with us yet.

    • Nigel Parrott

      At the end of the 1939-45war The Archbishop of Canterbury was William Temple. He commissioned a work titled "Towards the Conversation Britain " Unfortunately he died before full publication and it was shelved and forgotten.I was fortunate to be able to read a rare copy . This article is saying the same situation and solution 70 years later. I am praying the Church hear and repents of 70 years with our fingers in our ears.

    • Timothy Dale Westergren

      I´m glad that you are hopeful, Ben, as you should be. You have the panoramic view of the long obedience in the same direction through history. The Church is always to be a remnant people, whether in times of apparent ascendancy with political power or cultural influence or in times of prevailing persecution or scorn. We are a pilgrim people who should live as resident aliens and sojourners. Our traditions and histories as church movement can serve us or hinder us, can form and inform us as the people of God or distract and destroy our nature as a spiritual community with Christ in the midst. Keep on, young pastor. Our Lord said to his motley crew: "Do not fear, little flock, for your Father is well pleased to give you the Kingdom." Peace of Christ to you!

    It is a strange time to be a young minister. I am thirty-two years old, and the church in which I am ordained, the Episcopal Church, has a mandatory retirement age of seventy-two, meaning that I have up to forty years of ministry ahead of me. I fully expect my denomination to be nearly unrecognizable at the time I reach retirement age. Our denomination is overwhelmingly old and white, and mostly made up of small churches in parts of the country that are not growing; our failures at evangelism and retaining the people born in our church mean that demographers predict that our numbers will hit zero around 2040. Of course, we won’t actually have zero Episcopalians in 2040; I for one expect to still be around, God willing. But over the course of about a century we will go from being a large, socially and politically prominent institution to being statistically insignificant. If current trends continue, our congregations will be few and far between, and the institutions which the church has supported – seminaries, charities, missionary societies, religious orders, and so on – either will cease to exist or will have to reimagine their roles.

    The collapse of mainline Protestantism, of course, is not a new story. The national Protestant churches of Europe, from which most North American mainline Protestants trace their heritage, have been in steep decline for decades. On this side of the Atlantic, their North American descendants have followed in their wake. But – and this is new – the data are not much more promising outside mainline circles. The only thing sparing North American Roman Catholicism from similar rates of decline has been immigration, especially from Latin America; the decline of Central and South American Roman Catholicism means that this can no longer be counted upon. And lately, the evangelical churches which long made the United States an outlier among industrialized Western nations for its high level of religiosity have begun to decline too. Even the charismatic nondenominational churches and Pentecostal denominations seem to be plateauing.

    wooden pews in a church

    Photograph by Vyacheslav Lopatin / Alamy Stock Photo. Used by permission.

    And beyond the numbers of adherents, we are living through the denouement of the role Christianity played in Western culture since around the fourth century: we are seeing the end of culturally supported Christianity, in which Christian churches (whether formally established or not) and the Christian religion were seen as undergirding our common life.

    For some critics, Christianity’s retreat from the culture is long overdue and cannot come fast enough. Conversely, some Christians see it as such an emergency that they seek political power to re-entrench the trappings of state-supported Christianity (at least the version of Christianity they prefer). Historians, sociologists, and other scholars debate the causes and meaning of this secularization, producing learned tomes like Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). Theologians argue about whether the last fifteen hundred years of Christian history show churches fatally compromising with emperors and princes, selling their birthright of Jesus’ radical message for the pottage of worldly power, or faithfully (if incompletely) transforming both individuals and societies by the power of the gospel. Books like Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Ryan P. Burge’s The Great Dechurching (2023) provide careful analysis of the last few decades of church decline with an eye toward equipping pastors to win back those who have fallen away and to building durable Christian communities that can withstand the acids of secular modernity. But whether celebrated, mourned, or neutrally analyzed, the accounts all agree that organized Christianity in the West faces a crisis.

    A few years after the turn of the thirteenth century, a wealthy young man was praying in a ruined church called San Damiano in the Italian countryside. While he was praying before the crucifix, he had a mystical vision: a voice saying “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which you see is falling into ruin.” Initially, the man thought that the vision was in reference to the ruined church, which he rebuilt by hand. But Francis eventually came to realize that the vision referred not just to one ruined chapel but to the church grown worldly, corrupt, and obsessed with riches. And so in 1208, after attending Mass and hearing a reading from the Gospels in which Jesus tells his disciples to go without money, goods, or extra clothing and announce the coming of the kingdom of God, Francis put the Gospel reading into practice, gathering disciples around him and founding the community that would eventually take his name: the Franciscans, dedicated to preaching and poverty for the renewal of the church.

    Perhaps one of the most bewildering and frustrating parts of my experience as a young minister in the church in a time of collapse has been watching the broader institutions of the church seem blissfully unconcerned with this crisis, a crisis that I feel so keenly. It feels rather like standing on a lookout post of the Titanic, spotting an iceberg, and urgently signaling the bridge to change course only to be told that the real issue is a mentality that insists on seeing icebergs as threats rather than opportunities. Or even like being on a sinking ship and urging the captain to launch lifeboats, only to be told that the ship simply will not, cannot go under. On the basis of the functioning of the two denominations with which I am affiliated – the Episcopal Church in which I was ordained and the Anglican Church of Canada in which I currently serve – you would not know that both institutions are facing statistical nonexistence in less than twenty years. People may nod solemnly in response to grim reports of decline and express the desire that something be done, but these supposed desires simply are not reflected in the institutional behavior of the church. The most recent General Synod meeting of the Anglican Church of Canada, for example, failed entirely to discuss its (predictably grim) statistical report. In fact, those who seek to begin honest conversations about our crisis are often castigated for a “scarcity mentality” or a lack of trust in God. Honesty about the likely fate of our denomination seems to be seen as a bigger problem than that coming demise itself.

    It’s not just a matter of denying reality; I have seen my church actively make our situation worse, refusing simple measures that would aid in retaining or gaining members while praising supposed solutions that will not help, such as expecting full-time ministry on part-time salaries. This leaves pastors distracted by the need to make ends meet some other way; the Episcopal Church’s own research shows that churches led by part-time ministers are unlikely to grow and very likely to decline. In other efforts to cut costs, mainline churches have defunded campus ministries across both the United States and Canada, meaning that our churches are largely unable to connect with young people at a time in which many people either try on new religious identities or solidify existing ones. These things reinforce each other, as a church without new generations will have less and less ability to support any kind of outreach at all.

    church pews below stained glass windows

    Photograph from Hum Images / Alamy Stock Photo. Used by permission.

    Most distressing of all, some of our church leaders themselves think this decline may well be for the best, acknowledging the depth of our crisis only to celebrate it. I’ve heard clergy announce that Jesus had no desire to form a religion around himself, and so it is not such a bad thing that church institutions are dying. Worshipping Jesus is cast as a diversion from the more important work of following him, which is then understood as advocating for center-left politics. In a mainline culture that valorizes doubt as the most intellectually respectable way of engaging with the Christian faith, clergy seek to outdo each other in confessing their ambivalence about Jesus, uncertainty about God, and fear that Christianity has done more harm than good. Maybe God is doing a new thing, which doesn’t involve Christians gathering together for worship – and why should we assume that it matters if people are Christians, anyway?

    Here is why it matters: everyone is beloved of God, who sent his Son to bring good news to a fallen and suffering world. There can be no doubt this world is suffering from evil and despair. So why on earth would we, who have been entrusted to share the hope of Christ, withhold or obscure it where it is so clearly needed?

    On April 4, 1742, Charles Wesley ascended the pulpit at St. Mary’s in Oxford to preach. He took as his text Ephesians 5:14, which reads in the Authorized (King James) Version as follows: “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” Wesley’s sermon was an earnest plea to his hearers not to content themselves with a merely nominal Christianity, an understanding of the Christian life that demanded no true transformation of life. “Awake, thou everlasting spirit, out of thy dream of worldly happiness! Did not God create thee for himself? Then thou canst not rest till thou restest in him,” Wesley cried, promising that those who turn earnestly to God will never be rejected, but will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and be filled with new life. The urgency of the sermon is arresting even today. “It is high time for us to awake out of sleep,” Wesley declared – and this same message would fuel the explosive growth of Methodism across the world.

    To serve God’s people as a pastor right now in the West is to be painfully clear that the work of ministry is a work of repair. This is true not just in my own mainline denomination, but across the board. Some of this is a matter of taking advantage of low-hanging fruit. For example, in a recent conversation with Father Everett Lees, rector of one of the fastest-growing Episcopal churches in the country, I was surprised to learn just how effective consistently following up with visitors and inviting them to an introductory class and a small group was in terms of gaining and retaining new members. If there are parts of the broader church that focus too much on slick production values and an energetic-but-vacuous visitor experience (and there certainly are), that is hardly an excuse to avoid careful attention to how to evangelize or teach discipleship more effectively. But more deeply, we are called to do something radical, in the sense of getting to the root of the matter: our churches need to be called to repentance and to a renewed focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    One of the most obvious shortcomings the church needs to repent of is its failure to take seriously its mistreatment of its own people. It has become terribly clear that no branch of the church is free of the abuse of vulnerable people by the very clergy charged with their care. Every Roman Catholic I know is painfully aware of the horrors of the abuse scandals revealed in the last twenty years: not only the fact of abuse itself but its cover-up by Catholic leaders at all levels of the church hierarchy. More recently, the Southern Baptist Convention has been in the news for that body’s failure to suspend abusive pastors. Mainline Protestants sometimes like to think that our social liberalism or embrace of women in ministry prevent abuse, but they do not. Both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada have recently been rocked by allegations of bishops’ misconduct and the failure of church institutions to respond appropriately upon being informed of abuse. It may well be, as is sometimes alleged, that churches have no higher rates of abuse than other organizations that involve work with vulnerable or marginalized populations. But “we’re no worse than anyone else” is hardly a compelling message for the church to share with an increasingly skeptical world. For abuse not only damages those subjected to it, but it also turns others away from the church in moral revulsion. This means people are rejecting Christ because of what has been done in his name.

    The church is also in desperate need of resetting its focus, repenting of its continued succumbing to the lures of power, relevance, and control. John Calvin was fond of saying that the human mind is a factory of idols, and the church all too often gives credence to that dictum. It is impossible not to think here of the descent of huge swathes of the Christian right, and especially Pentecostals and charismatics, into a wholehearted embrace of Trump idolatry, conspiracy theories, hostility to public health measures, and apocalypticism over the last few years. As with the prosperity gospel, the Christian faith is reduced to a sort of technique to achieve political or personal success. It is a scandal that the term “evangelical” increasingly means a set of political positions rather than a focus on the gospel of the overwhelming grace of God, not only for those who reject it but also for those who embrace it. Lightly Christianized fantasies of political domination are not only a temptation of the evangelical masses, moreover. Elite interest in fantasies of “integralism” or “Christian nationalism” shows that conservative Catholic and Protestant intellectuals are just as capable of being seduced by dreams of political power.

    stained glass window in a church

    Photograph by Sherman Cahal. Used by permission.

    The mainline, too, displays a willingness to replace the content of the gospel with a political program. It happens to be a political program I find more congenial than that of shofar-blowing insurrectionists, but social democracy or antiracism (as worthy as they may be) simply are not the gospel. And indeed, the mainline has the dubious distinction of having leaders who in the name of relevance explicitly recenter the Christian faith away from the confession of the God-man Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection toward wholly this-worldly political goals.

    There are any number of other things the church desperately needs to repent of, from the shameful acquiescence of Canada’s largest Protestant churches in the face of a rapidly expanding euthanasia regime to US churches’ long complicity in every aspect of that country’s sordid history of racism. Such sins do not disprove the gospel but demonstrate the very need for it.

    What brings all of these together – what represents my deepest hope and desire for the North American church – is that we need to be recentered in the good news of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus, to let go of our favorite sins and preferred substitutes for the gospel in the face of the real thing: that God, the creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be for us in Christ Jesus, that by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection he grants us the forgiveness of our sins and new life, so that we can follow Jesus now and, transformed into his image, worship him for all eternity. For in the end, it is Jesus, not the manifold failures of the institutions that bear his name, that makes the church worthwhile. It is the reason why I refused to give up on a church that often feels sick unto death: because I believe that God established the church to be the means by which we receive the salvation that Jesus Christ won for us.

    In crucifixion scenes, John the Baptist is often (anachronistically) depicted with an elongated finger pointing up to Christ. This is what the church is called to do, no more and no less: to set aside distractions and temptations and always and everywhere point to Jesus. This is what a repaired Christian church in America would do.

    On the evening of April 9, 1906, the Black minister William J. Seymour and seven others were in prayer on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles, California. Suddenly, something incredible happened: they were knocked to the ground and then stood up praising God and speaking in strange tongues. Soon, others came to see this strange and wonderful thing. As people gathered –  men and women, of a variety of races – they started to be changed too. People fell to the ground, began speaking strange words that they did not understand, and were healed of their illnesses. The assembled group found a building on Azusa Street where they held a continuous revival for some three years. Neither the secular nor religious press knew what to make of an interracial Christian gathering with wild stories of miracles and the Holy Spirit’s power led by a poor Black preacher. But the Azusa Street Revival launched the Pentecostal movement, and millions of Christians today have similar testimonies of the power of the Holy Spirit renewing their individual lives and those of their churches.

    Fortunately, we are not without examples of the church being renewed, repaired, and reformed. The vignettes from church history in the sidebars of this piece are just a few of many examples of God recalling his church to faithfulness. Indeed, studying church history provides salutary reminders that the problems the church faces today, even if they are in some ways unique, are similar to those other Christians have faced faithfully in their own times. The desert fathers and mothers of the third and fourth centuries and great reformers of medieval religious life of the high Middle Ages have a great deal to say about existing within a church that feels corrupt, worldly, and unfocused on Jesus – as, in very different ways, do the leaders of both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the sixteenth century. Christians wondering about how to exist as a minority within a broader society that views Christian claims as foolish might have a lot to learn from the Oriental Orthodox churches that have survived under Muslim rule in Africa and the Middle East. If the repaired church is a remnant demographically compared to what it was at the height of Christendom, it may yet be more faithful and focused on the things of God.

    And we don’t even need to look to the past! If Christianity seems to be fading in the West, there are other parts of the world where things look very different. The vibrancy of East African Pentecostalism and the growth of Christianity in China under conditions of state persecution ought to fill us with hope.

    I believe that such restoration or renewal is possible even for the North American church. I am excited about evangelism, about discipleship, about church planting – and I am glad to know other ministers and laypeople, young and old, who feel the same way. There are still too many stories of lives transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit in our declining, struggling church to believe that God has abandoned us, even if our current dire straits may well be divine judgment for our sins and failures. Indeed, God promises to always be present where two or three are gathered in his name, in his Word, and in his sacraments, even in churches that feel bereft. The church may be a mess, but God’s promises are forever! And fortunately, the repair of the American church is not up to us but rests wholly in God’s power. We should certainly be repenting of our failures and refocusing ourselves on Jesus, taking up the tasks of evangelism or discipleship. But what is even more crucial is to pray to God that he would send his Holy Spirit upon us. It’s true: our church often feels like the church in Sardis described in Revelation: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” But hear the good news: we worship a God who raises the dead!

    I don’t know what the next forty (God willing) years of ministry hold for me. I don’t know what my church body will look like when I retire, or how many of the congregations that have nourished me along the way will still exist. The scope of the crisis sometimes feels too heavy to bear. But Jesus makes it all worthwhile. Amidst the trials of ministry today, I have so many precious stories of God’s grace and power, tenderness and love, both in my life and in the lives of those I have served as pastor. Our God is good and he is faithful, even when we are faithless. To paraphrase the old hymn, his grace has brought his church this far and his grace will bring it home.

    Contributed By BenjaminCrosby Benjamin Crosby

    Benjamin Crosby is a priest in the Episcopal Church serving in the Anglican Church of Canada and a doctoral student in ecclesiastical history at McGill University.

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