Church decline

A change of strategy — from failing institution to committed minority

Greg sheridan 

Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor of the Australian newspaper, and a Catholic, has some advice for Christian churches.

Face reality — you are now in the minority. 

In Western Europe, on the east and west coasts of the US, and in Australia, the new religion of aggressive secularism is on the rise, more self-confident and fundamentalist than ever.

Widespread, prolonged affluence has been more effective than oppression ever was in killing religious belief and practice.

You’ve been fighting a losing battle for 120 years.

Across the past 120 years, the Christian churches in Europe and Australia have lost every significant, long-term battle about social norms and legal measures to underpin them.

In these 120 years no victory was ever more than a temporary slowdown in secularism. While there seemed to be many tactical wins, the war was lost. In each case, the church misunderstood the extent and nature of its support and the long-term threat it faced.

The battles were lost because of a losing strategy.

They remind me of South Vietnam’s government in 1974. It over-estimated its strength and tried to hang on to all of its territory, including the long narrow neck of its north. It did not retreat to its formidable heartland in the south, which would have been vastly more defensible. Had it done so, it might have survived. Instead, the next year, the armoured divisions of North Vietnam invaded and Saigon lost everything.

Historic churches are most in danger.

The established churches are gentle institutions in a long, gentle decline. The Anglican Church in England shows the way. It has hung on to its status as the established church. Its bishops still sit in the House of Lords. It owns some of the most splendid buildings in Europe and is associated with the most prestigious institutions of its nation. It would say that it is involved in a respectful dialogue with contemporary society. Yet barely 700,000 English Anglicans, a trace over 1 per cent of the population, go to church on Sundays. It is dying

Christian churches must become a self-confident committed minorities.

The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.

Here’s an example. . .

Recently Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner was willing to hear a complaint against the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart for circulating a pamphlet which upheld the view that marriage is between a man and a woman. The complaint was eventually dropped. But what should the Catholic church do if the complaint had gone ahead?

If the churches saw themselves as a strong minority with clear values under attack they might respond differently.

A robust archbishop leading a self-confident community that believed in its future might respond to the attack on Don’t Mess with Marriage by finding the most public square available in Hobart and reading the document out in full, then instructing all the priests in his diocese to read it from the pulpit on Sunday.

Would the commission prosecute them all?

We can no longer regard ourselves as a powerful institution of society. We must rediscover who we are as a confident, committed minority. That’s what movements do.

"No religion" outnumbers Christianity in England and Wales for the first time

Justin Welby

Justin Welby

No-one is making any inroads at all into the non-religious population or non-Christian religions. The vast majority of all ‘conversion’ is inter-denominational musical chairs.

Dr Stephen Bullivant

For the first time on record people of no religion outnumber Christians in England and Wales.

No religion beats Christian in England and Wales

No religion beats Christian in England and Wales

The proportion of people who identify as having no religion has risen from 25% in 2011 to 48.5% in 2014.(It’s important to note that saying you have “no religion” does not equate to saying you are an atheist.)

  • London has the highest proportion of people who say they are religious due mainly to having high levels of people who identify with non-Christian religions.
  • Wales has the highest proportion who say they have no religion, largely due to the low number of immigrants.
  • The Christian population is ageing, half of all Christians in England and Wales are over 55 [ed. what’s wrong with that!]
  • The proportion of the population who describe themselves as Anglican plunged from 44.5% in 1983 to 19% in 2014.
  • While over a third of the population* were brought up Anglican, only a fifth now identify as such
  • For every new member they gain, churches are losing eleven existing members.
  • Most new members are Christians swapping from other denominations.

The Church of England expects attendance to continue to fall for another 30 years as its congregations age and the millennial generation spurns the institutions of faith.

Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury (above) has urged Christians not talk to people about their faith unless they are actively invited to do so.

Download the report.

Can good management save the Church of England?

A report from the Spectator 

A new mood has taken hold of Lambeth Palace. Officials call it urgency; critics say it is panic. The Church of England, the thinking goes, is about to shrink rapidly, even vanish in some areas, unless urgent action is taken. This action, laid out in a flurry of high-level reports, amounts to the biggest institutional shake-up since the 1990s. Red tape is to be cut, processes streamlined, resources optimised. Targets have been set. The Church is ill — and business management is going to cure it.

Reformers say they are only removing obstacles that hinder the Church from growing. Opponents, appalled by the business-speak of some of the reports, object to what they see as a ruthless focus on filling pews.

According to the report two reforms in particular have generated headlines.

One is the plan to swipe £100 million from the Church’s investments to pay for more priests (target: a 50 per cent increase in trainee clergy by 2020).

The other is to give business-school training to bishops and deans and, more controversially, to identify a ‘talent pool’ of future leaders — in the official language, people ‘with exceptional strategic leadership potential for Gospel, Kingdom and Church impact’.

What can we say about all this from a movements perspective?

The Anglican church is right to be worried. All the signs are evident of institutional decline and decay.  Even worse, they are lagging indicators of a  demise that has been going on for a long time and there are no signs that it is going away.

On the not necessarily brighter side, religious institutions are incredibly resilient. Even if the trends show a terminal decline, life is more complicated than statistical predictions. The Anglican church is likely to be around for a very long time.

The Anglican church in Britain is not a movement. Movements risk what they have for a cause beyond themselves. Institutions protect what they have for their own survival.

By all means, cut red tape and rationalise resources. Sure this is good business practice, it’s also good family practice, good sporting club practice, good local school practice. Nothing wrong with that.

What about spending £100 million for a 50% increase trainee clergy by 2020?

More paid clergy does not equate to more and better leadership for the church of England. Dynamic movements are led by “lay” people unencumbered by traditional constrains. Yes, John Wesley was an ordained Anglican clergyman, but overwhelmingly the Methodist movement was led by ordinary people who did extraordinary things. They signed up for a cause, not a career.

The plan is to identify a talent pool of future leaders and develop people ‘with exceptional strategic leadership potential for Gospel, Kingdom and Church impact’. But what on earth does that mean?

So Jesus walks up to a bunch of ordinary fishermen mending their nets and says, ‘Lads, I’m looking for some people with exceptional strategic leadership potential for Gospel, Kingdom and Church impact.’ And they left everything and followed him.

Jesus didn’t commission any reports on the decline of God’s people. He didn’t have access to £100 million pounds to invest in future leaders. He wasn’t trying to save an institution. If there is any hope for new life in a declining institution it is by making an innovative return to tradition. Get back to first things—what did Jesus do? What did he train the Twelve to do? What did the risen Lord empower Paul and the early church to do in Acts and the Epistles? Get back to that heritage and ask, What does that look like today?

Mission is not about us, or saving our institutions. It is about God revealed in Jesus Christ. God’s mission is always advanced when his people obey his call and put their hope in the power of the Gospel — his dynamic Word, and the Spirit — his dynamic presence. Obedience to the Great Commission is just the beginning. God has not given up on Britain.

UPDATE: Church of England defends sale of assets for recruitment plan

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Another year of Episcopal decline

Skull Gravestone 700x475 Jeffrey Walton reports on another year of decline for the Episcopal church.

The 2013 reporting year saw a continuation of the downward trend, with a membership drop of 27,423 to 1,866,758 (1.4 percent) while attendance dropped 16,451 to 623,691 (2.6 percent). A net 45 parishes were closed, and the denomination has largely ceased to plant new congregations.

The new numbers do not factor in the departure of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, of which the church continues to report over 28,000 members and over 12,000 attendees, despite the majority of South Carolina congregations severing their relationship with the Episcopal Church at the end of 2012. If South Carolina departures were factored in, the membership loss would be closer to 50,000 persons.

The decline offers contrast with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which reported growth in membership, attendance and number of congregations in its 2013 statistics this June. ACNA was formed in 2009 by departing Episcopalians who disagreed with the liberalizing direction of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church.

more. . ,

 

Another year of Episcopal decline

Skull Gravestone 700x475 Jeffrey Walton reports on another year of decline for the Episcopal church.

The 2013 reporting year saw a continuation of the downward trend, with a membership drop of 27,423 to 1,866,758 (1.4 percent) while attendance dropped 16,451 to 623,691 (2.6 percent). A net 45 parishes were closed, and the denomination has largely ceased to plant new congregations.

The new numbers do not factor in the departure of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, of which the church continues to report over 28,000 members and over 12,000 attendees, despite the majority of South Carolina congregations severing their relationship with the Episcopal Church at the end of 2012. If South Carolina departures were factored in, the membership loss would be closer to 50,000 persons.

The decline offers contrast with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which reported growth in membership, attendance and number of congregations in its 2013 statistics this June. ACNA was formed in 2009 by departing Episcopalians who disagreed with the liberalizing direction of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church.

more. . ,

 

Uniting Church acts to prevent offense

Uniting Vote 08 An update on the sad story of Francis Macnab and St Michael's Uniting Church.

The Uniting Church Synod voted today to request St Michael’s remove freeway signs and other media related to its “new faith” advertising campaign because it causes “deep offense to many Christians, Jews and Muslims”.

The denomination is in a dilemma. Macnab has pushed a secularized “faith” to it's logical conclusion. If we're free to recreate the Christian faith in our own image, what's wrong with Macnab's “new” form of Christianity?

The statement says nothing about the truth or otherwise of Macnab's beliefs as a minister for life at St Michael's. He was not censured because his message is untrue but because it may cause offense to some people. But if Macnab offends some Christians, Jews and Muslims by calling the 10 Commandments “negative”, what if he puts up a banner commending the 10 Commandments and that offends other people?

Macnab is out of step with the Synod because his actions have “the potential damage to ecumenical and interfaith relationships”. But what if the Uniting Church's own statement of beliefs proclaims “Jesus is Lord” causes offense to other faiths?

Uniting Church moderator, Jason Kioa called for restraint by outraged church members, saying it was important to be aware how public statements would be perceived within and beyond the church. “I remind all members that we are called to be a fellowship of reconciliation,” he said.

In its Basis of Union, the Uniting Church aligns itself with the Holy Scriptures and the witness of the Reformation and the teachings of John Wesley.

It promises to:

. . . commit its ministers and instructors to study these [Reformation and Wesleyan] statements, so that the congregation of Christ's people may again and again be reminded of the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture.

The Uniting Church is in serious decline. Within the next 15 years, it will lose half of its adult constituency. Macnab is not the problem. He's a symptom of a movement that has lost its way.

If he can not longer support the core beliefs of his denomination he should have the integrity to resign or be removed. If the church congregation wants to go with him, let them have the building.

The Uniting Church should return to its evangelical heritage and seek God's forgiveness for straying from it. It's not too late. And even if it is too late for the institution, God's favour is worth far more than institutional survival.

Blankity blank!

istock-000002336235xsmall-tm.jpgI got mad the other day and wrote this piece. Fortunately I had the wisdom to check it with Michelle before publishing. She told me "don't you dare!" Too negative. Too many names named.

So it sat here amongst my drafts with instructions to publish it when I die. But I got tired of waiting to die so I've decided to publish a fictional account of decline which bears no relation whatsoever to reality.

Here it is.

I heard recently of a [blank] church interviewing for a new pastor. They asked about his current ministry. It was a story of continued decline under his leadership going back almost a decade.

I mean, why should this church now appoint him to led them in the same downward direction?

His answer?

Churches all over the western world are in decline—with the exception of a few "mega churches." The trend is inevitable and my past ministry just reflects that.

Here's a leader promising decline. What did the church do? Hired him anyway. The denomination assured them there was no one else available.

It got me thinking of the way we hide from reality and shield ourselves from the need to change.

I remember a leading expert on the [blankity blank] noting how hard it was to reach "postmoderns." In fact, it just wasn't happening. So we've critiqued the modernist, consumer, attractional church and come up with a solution that doesn't work. What do you do with that?

How about,

Maybe it's as hard to reach postmoderns as it is to reach Muslims. Maybe we'll minister for a lifetime and see only a handful of new believers.

[Blank] churches are putting a lot of time and money into research and even more effort into hiding from the implications of that research.

The [blanks] are in serious trouble. So what do you do with the research? Try ignoring it.

Research on our declining church attendance over the last few years. . . remind us that we are becoming smaller in numerical strength and depict an ageing demography. In a world obsessed by the mega and the new, there is value in smallness and in the old being honoured.

In a market-driven environment, we must be wary that the numerical scales used to measure productivity do not govern the concept of Church growth and the influence we have in the world.

If that doesn't work, try undermining it.

In the [blank] Church we are said to have experienced a 4% decline in worshippers in the last five years. We know, however, that the census form of one of our churches went astray. Had it not done so, perhaps our results would have shown a nil decline?

If that doesn't work, go completely bonkers and say,

As [blanks] we tend to be better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. We aren't interested in replenishing our ranks by having children. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

The [blank] Church is in free fall. What should it do? Lose its fear of dying according to their denominational leader [blank].

If we follow our calling, like Jesus we may die. But be assured, it will change the world. Our commitment has to be, whatever the outcome, to be people of grace, who do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God and if that means we die so be it.

His counter part in [blank] agrees.

The downsizing of Christendom is a welcome and good thing: it gives the [blank] Church missional opportunities.

That's not missional "downsizing" that's missional destruction.

What's the alternative to the "inevitable" decline of the church in the West? Have a good look at the church in the developing world. You'll find movements there that are concerned with three major elements—Spirit, Word and world. They don't just confront reality, they shape it.

Whenever the church has been strongest in the West it has held this synthesis together. Unlike those leaders whose vision of the future is continued decline.

I feel much better now. But don't tell Michelle I published!