LITURGICAL RENEWAL AND THE BLAME GAME

I really don’t get it.  Every weekend, leading up to and following Sunday morning worship celebrations, I see a sufficient spattering of good news and joy across the Episcopal Church.  Well, let me clarify: scrolling across my Facebook news feed (like many, I’m ‘friends’ with lots of folks in the Episcopal Church whom I’ve never met, and maybe never will) I read about baptisms and confirmations and well-attended adult forums and good Sunday Schools and great teachers and strong attendance and dynamic worship involvement.  In the context of my own parish, as well, our numbers are up and have stayed up and our giving is increasing and participation in ministries is strong and, most important of all, there’s a real spirit of joy and openness and laughter and spiritual growth and exploration.

But the other numbers, the real numbers, some may say, keep going down.

We know the state of those numbers all too well.  The National Council of Churches, for instance, reported that between 1992 and 2002 the Episcopal Church lost 32% of its membership, dropping to 2.3 million.  At the close of 2012, in fact, membership dropped to 1.89 million, a loss over the course of one year of nearly 29,000 people.  Between 2011 and 2012, 69 Episcopal congregations closed, leaving 6,667 parishes in 2012, an average of only 283 ‘members’ per parish.  2012’s total Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) was 640,142.  Given that 68% of the congregations have an ASA of fewer than 100, whereas only 4% have an ASA of over 300 that means the median Average Sunday Attendance is only 64 people, and I’ll bet they are increasingly getting older.

Wait a minute.  In the midst of all those truly depressing numbers, I forgot my point.

Oh, right.  Who do we blame?

Given that these declining numbers clearly show that we were getting it right not that long ago — in 1960 there were nearly twice as many (3,269,325) Episcopalians as there are today — somebody’s got to get blamed.  Somebody failed.  For those who remember 1960 and its apparent heyday and those who have some modicum of investment in the maintenance of major American cultural institutions, the hierarchical leadership of those obvious institutions are, obviously, most at fault.  The conclusion, therefore, is that we blame the seminaries, bishops, and clergy.  Their apparent failure of leadership has dwindled the flock; they aren’t offering much of anything so the people walked.  (There is probably some truth to this argument.)

In turn, the leaders of those institutions generally offer some vague and fluffy retort about cultural shifts and the ways in which the world fundamentally changed between then and now, coupling that argument with complaints about how little power they actually have and that they’ve never really been able to bring about the changes the world so desperately needs anyway.  (There is probably some truth to this argument, as well.)  So seminaries remind us that they’ve only got these potential leaders for three years, and it matters so much more where they’ve come from and where they’re going.  And bishops complain that they can’t act unilaterally until and unless parishes and clergy say they want it.  And clergy on the ground say their hands are tied by unwilling lay leadership.  And the vast majority of lay leaders are increasingly walking away, such as the numbers suggest, while those who remain are hunkering down into positions of guardianships of what once was.

Can we stop now?

Look, nothing positive is going to happen until we do the work of restoration from within.  We know the trend that’ll continue if we keep up our present patterns of blame and behavior.

There’s no lack of great work being done in liturgical renewal and leadership development.  There’s no lack of great ideas.  There is, however, a fundamental lack of real and genuine trust, especially between the orders of the church: bishops gather with bishops, clergy with clergy, laity with laity, all planning and strategizing and, yes, we know it, complaining about the other bunch.

What we haven’t tried, thus far, is to restore the whole, to restore some basic level of trust.  We haven’t been so good about wondering aloud and venturing together and putting forward a proposition and seeing where it lands and where the Holy Spirit might take it.  We haven’t been so good, frankly, at thinking the best of the ‘other’, so we try something new — we may even find life in that thing — but we’re all too quick to remind ourselves of the one or two people who will resist it and crush it, in time, so we go into the situation guarded, ready for a fight.  Guess what we get as a result?

What I suspect I’m seeing, at least anecdotally on social media, is the emergence of a new order of business.  I’m hearing about people, laity and priests and deacons and bishops alike, who are thinking out loud and asking truly open-ended questions:  Why do we do Christian formation only on Sunday morning?  Why do we do our pledge drive this way?  Why do we only worship in a church building and only on a Sunday morning?  Why do we hold our Annual Meeting / Diocesan Convention this weekend?  Why don’t we share ministries with other local congregations?  Why do we say that only these people are ‘members’ of this church?  In  countless parishes and communities and dioceses, there’s a growing interest in paying attention to the banal, the day-to-day, the lived experience of those people in that place.  And that’s been a long time coming.

For the first time, I’d say, we’re starting to carry forward into the local, lived experience of Episcopal Christians the ideas and ideals of the 20th century liturgical renewal.  That movement which gave birth to an ecumenical Council as well as, for us, a new Prayer Book had much more to do with the nature of church, writ large, and the vision of what it means to be the People of God, the Body of Christ than it did with how we worship, what furniture goes where, and what words we use.  The Rev’d John Oliver Patterson, then headmaster of the Kent School in Connecticut, wrote in a 1960 volume about liturgical renewal that “we deal…more with the rather drab realities of the situation at hand.  ‘Mystery theology’ must somehow be related to an 8:00 AM service; the doctrine of man must somehow be applied to Mr. John Jones’s specific situation; liturgical art must be thought of in terms of an exisiting building; and the holy fellowship, the mystical Body of Christ, in terms of St. John’s or St. Paul’s or Grace Church parish, its vestry, auxiliary, and men and women in the pews or absent from the pews.”  “My task,” he wrote, “is perhaps to bring that satellite out of orbit, back to earth in such a way that it will not disintegrate and disappear when it comes up against the friction and hard reality of this world’s atmosphere — nor land on a church and blow up the very people it is intended to inform and assist.”  (“The Pastoral Implications of the Liturgical Renewal,” in The Liturgical Renewal of the Church, 1960, pp.123 and following)

Patterson’s thinking is really quite creative and, from what I can tell, hardly put in practice; not then, not now.  He spends no small amount of ink, for instance, writing about creating a parish council — a collective group that would meet periodically to coordinate the interests of the whole, a group which would pay as much attention to relationships as the vestry does to those necessary and important fiduciary concerns.  A parish council could become, he argued, “an exciting, effective technique for drawing out and expressing the loyalty and talent of every cell of the body, if it is used as a means toward the great end.”  Why is it that in so many parish churches the vestry is the be all and end of all power and decision making?  The Canons have very prescribed duties for a vestry, and they are quite few.  Even if we’re not going to create another level of parochial bureaucracy (God help us!) couldn’t we organize ourselves in such a way to better share power and ministry and oversight, a vastly more decentralized system than we’ve had to date?

“Until we have set up the kind of parish in which each member has a chance really to be a parishioner, we are not going to get very far,” Patterson contends; continuing: “Until we have faced fairly and squarely the nature and function of the parish, we cannot successfully move forward in our work.”  It’s on this point, then, that he goes on to talk about worship and liturgical renewal — the list including architecture, furniture placement, involvement of children, Morning Prayer versus Holy Eucharist (this was 1960, after all) and a whole host of other issues.  That our worship life should reflect our common life and that the functions of the organization we’ve created should show forth what we believe about power and authority — whose it is, ultimately, and how we share it, being given it — seem, to me, to make perfect sense.  “Just as we must rethink our techniques of organization and administration, so that our parishes will show a sound doctrine of the Church,” Patterson writes, “so we must rethink the whole matter of ‘common prayer’ so that our services will reflect what both Scripture and tradition agree to be the Christian liturgy.”  In fact, I’d say, not only do these need to happen together but attention to the relationships and power and structure of the congregation, itself, has to happen before we go carelessly ripping altars from the east-facing wall or introducing new Eucharistic prayers or leading new songs.  A budget or an Annual Meeting is just as much a sermon, or is potentially so, as what happens in that designated slot in the liturgy on Sunday morning.

In this ongoing transition perhaps what those communities and congregations I see experiencing renewal on my Facebook news feed, irrespective of whether they’re balancing their books or packing their pews, are really doing is centering their common life on a few profound convictions.  For his part, the Rev’d Patterson offered three and they’re pretty compelling — enough, for me, with which to close this post:

“First: Jesus Christ is Lord.  He is the King of Glory and loyalty to Him must transcend all other loyalties of Christians.”

“Second: The holy Church is the earnest of His Kingdom.  In the holy Church, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christians are to realize on earth what they will manifestly be when Christ appears in glory.”

“Third: the Eucharist is the great action of the Church.  It is both the pleading of and the showing forth here and now of the accomplished act of redemption.”

MILLENNIALS, THE CREATIVE CLASS AND THE CHURCH

A new television series aired this week.  Adding to the plethora of shows about saving and fixing restaurants and bars,  ‘Church Rescue’ features three church consultants who help local congregations improve their mission, build their flock, resurrect their mission and market, and find ways to improve their offering.

From Episode 1 of ‘Church Rescue’
Mondays at 10pm on the National Geographic Channel

Congregations and faith-based organizations are facing a storm of issues, not the least of which are the new economic realities of this 21st century.  These changes feel scary and there’ll be a greater deal of turbulence to come, but the reality is pretty simple: the old, established world and worldview and, add to that, economy – an economy in many ways created with no small amount of blood, sweat and tears by visionaries like Henry Ford; the economy which led to the birth of an American middle class – is coming to an end.[1]

The world as we know it has shifted.  And we are shifting with it.  But we’re not alone.  Take the Millenials, for instance, the generation of young adults who were born in the late 1980s and 90s.  This first generation to come of age in the new millennium – hence their name – will also be the first generation in modern times to make less money than their parents.  They’re not lazy or narcissistic, and it’s not that they’re ineffectual, having been coddled by their so-called ‘helicopter parents.’  It’s that what the institutional Christian church is dealing with now, as a first-world, not-for-profit, somewhat secularized institution, the members of this generation been dealing with their entire adult life.  Ever since the early 1970s, since just before they were born, there’s been an increasing and encroaching wealth gap in America along with a fundamental stagnation, if not regression in the economy.  Around that time, the mainline institutional church had already measured its high-water mark, being aware because their numbers were sliding downward.

Here’s a thought: why don’t we, the church, learn from the members of the first generation that is, already, living into that new world, a situation, for them, that isn’t better or worse or changed but is pretty much reality?

The Millenials know, firsthand, what economic stagnation and regression feels like.  On the whole, they’re incredibly well-educated; after all, their parents told them that college and graduate degrees were key to success.  But “the price of attending a public four-year college rose 54% from 1998 to 2008 while the typical American household earned less in 2008 than it did a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation [sources: College Board, Leonhardt]. Therefore, to pay for the education touted by parents, teachers and the government as critical to future success, millennials took on massive debt, a record-breaking $35,200 on average for each 2013 U.S. college graduate.”[2]  These young adults have also been hit hardest by the nation’s worse economic collapse since the Great Depression.  Because those Baby Boomers who were thinking about retiring sometime in the first decade of the new millennium held on to their positions, being suddenly faced with diminishing nest-eggs, the debt-laden Millienials, who thought they could get a good job to pay off their student loans,  found themselves facing huge unemployment or under-employment.

What the American economy has realized – the 2010 census revealed that overall household income, across the board, has stagnated  – Millenials have been dealing with their entire adult lives and most middle-class Americans have faced for at least a generation.  According to The Economist, “Current incomes are at roughly the level of the late 1970s. [But] the cost of everything from housing to education has risen steadily in recent decades. From a real income perspective [for] the median household, the picture is one of a generation of stagnation.”[3]  “From 2000 to 2010, when many millennials entered the workforce, median household incomes fell for the first time since World War II,” Dave Roos adds, continuing: “It’s hard to make more money than your parents when jobs are paying less for the same work.  The wealth gap between older and younger people has also widened significantly over the past 30 years. A 30-year-old in 2013 is worth 21 percent less than a 30-year-old in 1983. Meanwhile, the net worth of the average 60-year-old today is more than twice as high as 1983. In other words, young people keep getting poorer, while old folks get richer.”[4]

But there’s hope and I’d say it’s real, Christian hope.  When polled, the Millenials report astonishingly high degrees of happiness, contentment and optimism.  According to the Pew Research Center, “a whopping 88% of people ages 18 to 34 said they had enough money or would have enough in the future to meet their long-term financial goals. …Even among those who said they were unemployed and financially strapped, 75% said they would someday have enough money. Overall, nearly three out of four believed they would achieve their goals in life — or already had — which was slightly more than among older adults,” the Los Angeles Times reported, quoting Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew project: “It’s hard to imagine a time when there was this level of optimism among a group so hard hit by economic conditions,” Parker said.[5]  To find out why their optimism is so high, look at the way the Pew survey question was worded, Roos cautioned: ‘Do you now earn enough money to lead the kind of life you want, or not?’ “The Pew survey found that the youngest generation is surprisingly old-school in its life priorities,” Roos wrote; “Millennials chiefly want to be good parents, raise happy children and give back to society. How much money is ‘enough’ to meet those admirable, but not necessarily expensive goals? That amount will likely be different for everybody.”

The Millenials will earn less than their parents, according to the old economic model, but they are also the first generation in a long time to be engaged in creating a wholly new, substantially different world and, as a result, a newly ordered economy.  That explains why, according to Roos, “their elders are less hopeful for them. Fifty-four percent of Americans over the age of 55 thought young people today were unlikely to have a better life than their parents, compared with 42% of those ages 18 to 34.  Over the last two decades, people in their 50s and 60s have tended to be less upbeat about the chances of their children living as well as they do, according to data from the General Social Survey.”[6]  What the Millenials’ Baby Boom parents name pessimistically as loss is really just something they fundamentally cannot see.  They can’t see that the old, ‘Fordian’ economy has passed away.  They can’t see that, perhaps, such an economy is not the be-all and end-all of the world, itself, and they can’t see that something else, something creative, may very well be emerging out of the rubble heap of the old order.  They can’t see that that something new is, in fact, emerging.[7]

The world as we know it has shifted.  And I want to step out here and say, in fact, God is in this change.  The excitement embedded in the new ‘creative economy’, to borrow the compelling phrase from economist Richard Florida, and the ways in which social media is just the tip of the iceberg of these emergent voices is reason enough, for me, why their optimism holds real hope – real Christian hope – for our planet and society and, yes, for Christ’s church.  For the first time in a long time, there are adults who know how to cross-pollinate ideas, how to truly collaborate without fear of ownership or sabotage, how to interact and ‘friend’ others – regardless of whether they work for the same company, went to the same school or share the same politics – and how to find a greater, common good and enter freely into relationships with people of different backgrounds, races, religions, traditions, and sexual orientations.

You better believe this is going to change the church, the way the institution we created in modern memory and beefed up in very recent years operates and functions.  You better believe that this will feel, to many, like unsteady turbulence.  With those, we will be patient; for them, we will make space.  But you’d be wise to believe that God is also in this: that the Creator actually intends to reconcile it all, one with another; that Christ who lived and loved as one of us actually wants the vast human family at His expansive table; that the Spirit which has been moving in our midst for this long actually meant to light this fire.  It is hard, so very, very hard, to resurrect a worldview and, with it, to rebuild an economy.  But what’s so hard is also so good, so very, very good because it takes the holy risk of vulnerability – risking to share, risking to believe that God is in the future, just as He’s been in the past, risking to be set free from all that once weighed you down.

 

Adapted from a sermon at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 10 November 2013; click here for the link to the full sermon.


[1] Insights shared from Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class; see footnote below.

[2] Dave Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?” http://money.howstuffworks.com/personal-finance/financial-planning/millennials-first-worse-parents1.htm

[3] The Economist Online, “Cutting the Cake,” http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/09/us-household-income

[4] Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?”

[5] Emily Alpert, “Millenial generation is persistently optimistic,” Los Angeles Times, 7 July 2013  http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jul/07/local/la-me-millennial-optimism-20130708

[6] Roos, “Are Millenials Really the First Generation to do worse than their Parents?”

[7] Attributed to Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative ClassRevisited (Basic Books, 2012)