Sunday, April 29, 2012

Deck Chairs

Here’s a multiple-choice question for you.  As the Titanic encountered some difficulties the night of April 14-15, 1912, the problem was:

A.  Deck chairs were getting disarranged by the way the ship was listing at an odd angle.

B.  It was rather cold outside, and the chill in the air wasn’t helped by the cold water splashing up over the side of the ship.

C.  All those noisy people up on deck were creating quite a traffic pileup as people tried to get into the lifeboats.

D.  The ship had hit an iceberg and was sinking fast.

If you guessed D – bing bing bing!  You’re right!  Those other difficulties were not the problem – they were symptoms of the problem. 

Now, let’s try another one.  As The Episcopal Church faces some challenges in the next triennium, the problem is:

A.  General Convention costs too much.

B.  The budget process is incompetent, untransparent, and error-ridden.

C.  The churchwide structure has gotten too big and too costly.

D.  The church’s membership has declined precipitously over the past 10 years, leading to steep drop-offs in attendance and financial support at all levels of the church organizational structure.

Surprise, surprise – the answer once again is D!  Bing bing bing!  Those other difficulties aren’t the problem – they are symptoms of the problem.  We have declined in attendance, membership and financial support, and the resulting anxiety has led to huge budget difficulties and the need to revamp our church structure.

Now, it is important to address all the difficulties we face.  But let’s don’t fool ourselves that the problem is, say, that General Convention costs too much, or that the Church Center employs too many people.  The problem is much bigger than that.  The problem is that the culture has shifted around us, we have not shifted with it, and therefore we are in decline.  That’s the problem that underlies all the other problems, and that’s the problem we need to address. 

This is a problem that is shared by all other mainline denominations, and it is a problem that the non-denominational mega-churches are beginning to face, too.  We live in a post-Christendom society, where people don’t see any reason to be “cultural” Christians – those religious, but not necessarily spiritual, regular church attenders and pledgers who filled the pews back in the 1960s.  We don’t have those folks any more.  And our way of evangelism (uh, whatever that is) has not reached the growing immigrant and non-Anglo population in our culture.

These are reasons - they are not excuses.  They are not excuses for our failure to do evangelism with emerging generations and new cultures.  We have not shifted with the culture and learned new ways of doing evangelism.  We have just relied on the surrounding culture to bring people to us.  Times have shifted and they're not coming any more.  We need to learn new ways of reaching new people, and we haven't done it yet.  Because of these failures, our church is in decline.

We can react to this fact in two ways: we can wring our hands, rearrange deck chairs, reorganize structures, and settle in for a long and graceful good-bye.  Or, we can refocus on mission, ministry, and evangelism.  We can focus efforts on people under 35 and on immigrant cultures.  We can look for a spiritual reawakening that will allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into a new era of the church.

Yes, we can react to the other problems too – but until we refocus on mission, ministry, and evangelism, we will be just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  

This is the first in a series of posts about The Problem.  Next up: Will the Real Subsidiarity Principle Please Stand Up?


  1. Thank you Susan, insightful as always.

  2. Actually, Susan, Option "D" is also a symptom. It is not the root cause. Why the decline? Why have we closed multiples of the Churchs that we open? Why has the decline accelerated after 2003?

    I submit that TEC's leadership has lost the vision of what it means to be a Christian Church. It no longer has a reason for being (and I say this as an ordained Deacon in TEC). We need to recover Jesus both as Savior and Lord. We can't just have Jesus as the Spiritual Guru or Jesus the Nice Guy or Jesus the Socialist/Conservative/Activist.

    But too many people don't want a Lord and don't think they need a Savior. They want a friend who will approve of what they do no matter what.

  3. I think we are on the same page, plsdeacon. You will see in the last post in this series that I am really calling for a spiritual reawakening and for us to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit. Thanks for commenting!

  4. I am a member of a diocese in decline and distress. Last night, I had dinner with eight long-time, active and faithful Episcopalians. All eight have recently decided to leave TEC and are variously attending other denominations, listening to sermons on their iPods, or just spending Sunday mornings watching Meet the Press. Both spiritual AND religious, they miss their church community, but not the institution. Not one of their adult children is a practicing Episcopalian. Symptom? Root cause? Does it matter? The deck chairs analogy has occurred to me many times lately. And we all know how that story ends.

    1. I am sorry to hear that sad story. I do believe that this ship will not sink, however, but we have to learn to open ourselves to the Spirit's leading and get our own egos and structures out of the way.

  5. Rev. Susan - there is hope and a future with those under 35 and our immigrant cultures. We just need to recognize when it's time to get out of the way and let them drive! I believe with the guidance and today's tools, the force of their faith, can right a sinking ship. Your insights are as thought-provoking as ever.

  6. Robin, I agree! I don't think the ship will sink. But as I commented above, I think we need to open ourselves to the Spirit's leading and get our own egos and structures out of the way. Thanks for your comment.

  7. The Dcn is right - the extreme nose dive that has taken place since 2003 can no longer be ignored. Unless, and until TEC deals with this problem the hemorrhage will continue on unabated. The Church is not 'going away' but the national leadership of TEC certainly appears to be doing all that they can to self destruct.

  8. Thank you for this ... can't wait for the next installment.

    Pierre Whalon

  9. You are right on target! Thanks for getting us focused on the right things.