What Can the Church Become?

A few weeks ago, through the generosity of the Chabraja Foundation,  my colleagues Diana Butler Bass, Bill Sachs and Bob Bottoms and I met at Christ Church, Ponte Vedra, Florida with a large gathering of Episcopal lay leaders and clergy drawn from many churches and congregations in the region.  We are especially grateful to Seabury alumnus Rick Westbury, rector of Christ Church, and his colleagues, for hosting this gathering.  Our topic was “Claiming the Episcopal Future,” with a particular focus on the new demands of leadership in a rapidly changing 21st century church.  The conversations were rich and deep.  Many participants expressed a strong desire to keep the conversation going on line.  What follows is the first in a series of reflections that we hope will stimulate further discussion, both among those who were with us in Ponte Vedra as well as with a wider on-line audience.

Roger Ferlo
President, Bexley Hall and Seabury Western Seminaries

On October 9, the Pew Research Center released a new survey on American religious life, “Nones” On the Rise.  According to Pew’s findings, one in five Americans now identifies him- or herself as religiously “unaffiliated,” the largest number of us to ever report belonging to no religion.

The unaffiliated comprises atheists, agnostics, but the largest group of the unaffiliated are nothing-in-particular, most referring to themselves as “spiritual.”   The Pew data also reveals that most unaffiliated Americans report being comfortable with their choice.  Almost 90% of them say they are not looking for a faith or any kind of traditional theological certainty.  Although the Ponte Vedra gathering occurred before this particular report was issued, the trends have been clear for several years.  Together, we explored some of this territory, as I tried to open up questions raised by these folks, who now form a significant part of American culture.

Reading the new Pew report, however, is an eye-popping a collection of data that any church leader could ever try to read, mark, and inwardly digest.  The four major religious groups in the United States are now: Roman Catholics (22%), Unaffiliated (20%), Evangelical Protestants (19%), and Mainline Protestants (15%; point of information—Pew classifies Episcopalians in this category).  Taken together (along with Black Protestants and other minority Protestants), America’s once dominant Protestant majority has now slipped to 48% of the population, meaning that no single religious tradition (granted the words “single” and “Protestant” never fit together terribly well anyway) is 50% + 1.  In other words, sometime in the last year, the United States became—for the first time in history—a genuinely pluralistic nation.

When encountering such data, the response of many good church leaders is “How are we going to get them back?”  But I wonder if this is really the question we should ask.  Instead, I would like to suggest that the most important question facing the church is not how to increase our market share; rather, the question facing the church should be “How should we live in a meaningful way as faith community given these shifts?”

Despite the changes, much of mainline church life is still patterned on being in the majority and depends for moral formation, character development, and even Christian education on the support of a surrounding Christian culture in politics, media, schools, and arts.  Indeed even the name, “mainline,” recalls glory days of being big churches with big influence on the culture.  Our churches functioned best when the world around the church supported the church’s general vision, mission, and ethics.  For several decades, of course, mainline churches have not been the majority.  But, when all Protestants churches were considered together, we were still the largest religious group.  We could still take emotional comfort that our churches were still part of American’s mighty historic Protestant (used in the sociological sense) center and participate in the benefits of cultural leadership.

But now there is no center.  None.  Every group exists as a minority in a community of minorities, including everyone from Mormons to Muslims to atheists and evangelicals.  We are a country of many faiths, many truths, and indeed, many Gods. In the new setting, we need to know who we are with great clarity and personal commitment and, at the same time, be able to love our neighbors and work beyond faith boundaries to create a new shared sense of common good.  This will call for a different sort of church than the one we knew in the centuries that came before.

The Episcopal Church is being called to new life.  We must recreate our identity using the wisdom of the past and by embracing the questions of an emerging future—all of this played out in sure confidence that both the church and the world are arenas of God’s reign.  There is nothing wrong with being a minority; nothing wrong with living in a pluralistic society.  Christians have often done so.  And, judging from history, we are often more faithful, more creative, and more biblical when we are not in charge.

The Pew report shows clearly that there is no going back to what once was.  In the midst of these changes, the question is not “What is the church going to do?” but the question is “What can God’s church become?”  We live in times that are not a problem to be fixed, but times that are an opportunity to be embraced.

Diana Butler Bass
October 25, 2012

One thought on “What Can the Church Become?

  1. How should we live in a faith community in a vibrantly pluralistic world? It seems like the first choice is whether we choose to live among all God’s children or whether we choose to live essentially segregated, special and apart. I believe Jesus and his disciples clearly lead us to a model of living “in the midst.” I think we need to spend as much spiritual energy looking outward as looking inward

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