There are a variety of reasons for the decline in the membership of the ECUSA–some obvious, some unfathomable. But a church that fails to articulate a broader agenda to influence society, national public debates, and the direction of public policy of the nations and the world–is headed towards irrelevance. Jesus did not come to simply zap individuals to eternal salvation-he came to inaugurate God’s Kingdom, here and now, on this earth, today. The Church cannot afford to sit back and avoid controversial issues of the day. It should be leading the charge to help provide a Christian perspective to critical public debates. Christians are to be salt and light, infiltrating the world, projecting the subversive message of the gospel, and challenging traditionally-held beliefs and values in the light of scripture. Disengaging from contentious public policy issues may protect us from the barb of controversy, but will render us impotent and irrelevant. So the Episcopal Church does not have a unified view on the difficult issues of our times–but the Church must at all costs make itself heard in every public policy issue that affects everyone but especially those who have no voice of their own and look to us to play that role.
First of all, I do not believe the decline of membership has anything to do with how we engage with public policy issues (whatever that means). I do believe it has more to do with successive generations of people who have less and less exposure to living in Christian community. Our grandparents never missed going to church. Our parents rebelled at being made to go when they were young. Now, we have a whole generation who don’t even seem to know we exist let alone what we say.
Unfortunately, many people seem to think “Christian” means conservative extremism. This unbalanced polarization leaves people to think all Christians are fundamentalist – much the way they have the idea that all Muslims are terrorists.
Personally, I do not like for clergy to get political. We profess that “everyone is welcome” and then ostracize either the Democrat or the Republican agenda, thus alienating half of our congregation. We are called to co-exist. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb”.
I believe society needs us to take a much higher ground. (Going against my own policy!) to give one example I, personally, am not very proud of how our country reacted to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Some of it smacked of raw revenge – “an eye for an eye” rather than Christ’s teaching of “turn the other cheek”. Rather than preach “for” or “against” a specific issue, I believe we should preach the principles rather than the particulars.
If we are doing our jobs well then we will have taught the Christian principle of not reacting by revenge when a specific event occurs. We need to work at building up the foundations before things happen. Then, we can apply our principles of forgiveness, non-judgment, and love to anything that comes our way.
The argument that discussion of public issues has caused our decline in membership seems to me unsupported by the facts: many of the enormous and fast-growing megachurches are extremely active in conservative politics as well. More prosaic issues contribute : the variations in the way parishes count “members” is certainly one of them.
I travel extensively throughout the country, teaching and preaching in many churches. I see that Episcopal churches do grow and flourish if they worship God with joy and devotion and make a difference in the lives of members and the neighborhoods in which they find themselves. This does not happen if they ignore large swaths of the local demographic, whatever it is, nor if they display a siege mentality with regard to people who do not belong. The ones that thrive understand that every sort and condition of person has both needs and gifts for the community, and provide arenas for the ministries of old and young, male and female, all of the either/ors present in the human family.
It is possible to exercise a prophetic ministry while remaining pastorally faithful to the charge to love and serve with equal regard for status or walk of life. A liberal and a conservative ought to find equal welcome in an Episcopal church. In my experience, people are not driven away by
a leader’s taking a stand, but they do leave if they feel they are being manipulated in a political way. If the pastoral relationship is strong, the community can handle considerable diversity in moral understanding and politics.