The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council has been looking at statistics of declining attendance. Peter Carrell and Episcopal Cafe are two places drawing attention to the report. My first degree is in Mathematics – my first comment is take the greatest of care in interpreting statistics, it is not for nothing that we speak of “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Secondly, from a missional perspective, there is a particular mindset that comes with focusing on church-centred statistics. We generally gather no statistics of the number of people we serve or care for. Certainly it is beneficial to have more people within the Christian community in order to help those outside it – but there is not necessarily a direct correlation between numbers in the worshipping community and numbers of people being cared for outside worship.

Mary Frances Schjonberg reports:

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council heard here Feb. 21 that church membership and Sunday attendance continued to decline in 2008, but also heard a call for the church to promote knowledge of the characteristics of growing congregations.

During his statistic-laden hour-long report, Kirk Hadaway, the church’s program officer for congregational research, told the council that congregations grow when they are in growing communities; have a clear mission and purpose; follow up with visitors; have strong leadership; and are involved in outreach and evangelism.

Congregations decline, he said, when their membership is older and predominantly female; are in conflict, particularly over leadership and where worship is “rote, predictable and uninspiring.”

Those who put a particular spin on TEC’s declining numbers need to take note that “the most recent trend of declining membership began in 2000 and 2001, “long before the actions of General Convention 2003.”

I already see the response suggesting that women should stay home in order to help the church to grow! My own (clearly limited) personal experience is that when I visit a community the quality of attention paid to music, to the sermon, to welcoming, to the worship including the environment can often all be easily improved and doing so would be a significant step towards having visitors desire to return. Whatever draws someone to visit a worshipping community – that need has to be met. Hence, worship cannot be too tightly themed or we will exclude visitors. Sermons need to address our emotions, our minds, and have a point we are able to put into practice in our concrete, everyday lives. The regular congregation needs encouragement and possibly formation how to welcome newcomers and visitors and make them feel comfortable, welcomed, and with their desire to return nurtured. All this is not difficult. It is just too often not done, thought about, talked about.

My hackles were raised at blaming worship that is “rote, predictable and uninspiring.” The other side of seeing worship as “rote” is seeing it as “by heart”. Worship “by heart” has been the Judaeo-Christian tradition for at least 3,000 years. I would like to see the peer-reviewed statistical evidence that there is a correlation between “rote, predictable” worship and causality of decline. I have participated in plenty of “rote, predictable” worship, from Taize, through great cathedrals, to China, and the heart of Zaire, where there is clearly no correlation to declining numbers. The danger of linking “uninspiring” to “rote and predictable” is it feeds a prejudice that in order to grow numerically in our “new context” we need to abandon the liturgical tradition of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, etc. Nothing, IMO, is further from the truth. In this context it is worth noting the recent announcement that the proportion of Roman Catholics worldwide has increased. IMO we need training and formation as leaders and communities to celebrate worship that is “by heart, common worship, and inspiring.”

It interests me that Peter Carrell suggests complaints that “TEC’s declining stats may, at times, be hidden from sight.” This from a province that has for nearly two decades collected no statistics provincially, and where decline is often in the most surprising places (eg. the self-described “Evangelical” diocese of Nelson). In a province which clearly suffers from the idolatory of incessant novelty (“We used ashes last year, what can we do differently for Ash Wednesday this year?”), about as far from “rote and predictable” worship as any Anglican province is able to get, it would certainly be fascinating if it could be demonstrated that we have the formula for numerical growth! I suspect, however, that we would find similar, if not more alarming decline in the NZ province highlighting my contention that there is no statistical link to liturgical worship but that the causes need to be sought elsewhere.

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