Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Continuing the Evolution of the Church

Rev. Lane Davenport
In recent decades the Episcopal Church has changed significantly to embody more fully its evolving vision of truth, inclusion, and justice.  Not all have shared this vision.  

During the summer, Ross Douthat, a New York Times op-ed columnist, expressed a conventional view: “the [Episcopal] church has spent the last several decades changing and changing and then changing some more.”  Its changes and “frantic renovations” have sapped it from “offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”  That explains its attendance trends: “something between a decline and a collapse.” 

In essence, the argument is that people have left the Episcopal Church as it has become unmoored from truth.  I don’t buy it.  Truth and numbers don’t have a proportional relationship.  Truth typically does not lead to popularity or growing numbers or even greater dedication.  Jesus offered truth, and he annoyed and repelled at least as much as he attracted people.

In my early 20s, I became a Christian knowing little theology, but appreciating the purpose and the way Jesus offered me.  To what seems a surprising extent now, I unconsciously adopted the identifying theology and aesthetics of those who had welcomed me and nurtured my early conversion.  Belief – our perception of truth – typically follows our emotions and our emotional attachments.

    Look at one of the nation’s fastest growing denominations – the Mormons.  They have had remarkable and sustained growth.  Their attendance and membership numbers are much more positive than the Episcopal Church’s, but not because the attractiveness of their beliefs and practices is inherently stronger than the Episcopal Church’s.

The Mormons are not growing because their army of missionaries makes cold calls.  But Mormon missionaries do have significant success when connecting with a person in the home of another Mormon.  Most Mormon converts are the neighbors and friends and family relations of Mormons, not strangers.  Most growth comes from social networks.

    We may have something to learn here about attraction and connection and ourselves.  In ways the Episcopal Church has changed dramatically in recent decades, but further deep and profound adaptation is necessary for us to reverse our numbers trends and for the gospel to have a greater impact through us.

    The most difficult part may be that it is not clear what ways we need to change, how our attitudes, values, and habits need to evolve.  It is not clear how our identity, our sense of self, our vision, needs to develop.  It is not even clear that we’d be willing to make necessary changes.  But it is clear that we are part of a Diocese asking and praying about those questions.

Rev. Lane Davenport is the rector at Ascension and St. Agnes in Washington, DC. We welcome your comments, questions, and reflections on Facebook.