By Nurya Love Parish
I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. — John 12:24
The Episcopal Church is shrinking, and the world is warming. These two phenomena are disturbing to anyone who is concerned with the stewardship of Creation and the proclamation of the Gospel. Our mechanized age, in denial about our impact on future generations, is emitting historic levels of atmospheric carbon. Our church, in denial about the secularization of society, is acting as if the wider culture will handle evangelism for us.
Much real and virtual ink has been spilled on each of these challenges, but we often don’t realize how deeply connected they are. Reflecting on our climate-unstable age, biblical scholar Ched Myers says “the choice before us is stark: discipleship or denial.” These words also apply to those of us who hold in trust the Anglican tradition in North America.
Scientific consensus has established that overall global warming is attributable to human activities: change is needed to restore climate stability. There is an equally clear consensus in the church that our methods of organization are no longer appropriate to our age and that change is needed to keep faith with God’s mission.
In case anyone doubted the Episcopal Church’s current situation, the Report of the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church makes it clear. Just a few highlights:
- Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) has dropped from 80 to 61 in the last thirteen years.
- Nearly half (45 percent) of domestic parishes and missions are served by part-time clergy.
- The advanced — and still advancing — age of the Church’s membership, combined with a low birth rate, means that the Church loses 16,000 people a year — nearly the equivalent of one average-sized diocese per year through deaths over births.
Our most recently inherited church model is in crisis. But as David K. Hurst makes clear in his 1995 classic, Crisis and Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change, this crisis is simply the natural result of excellent adaptation to conditions that no longer exist.
Hurst posits that every human organization of any lasting tenure must regularly go through what he describes as an eco-cycle of renewal. This cycle has two loops: a performance loop and a learning loop. In the performance loop, the strategy of the organization in relation to its context is clear. The goals of the group are accomplished through excellent management to the objectives of the identified strategy.
But as times change, every strategy gradually fails. This leads first to confusion (“Are we really seeing what we think we are seeing?”) and later to crisis (“If this continues, we won’t survive.”). At this point, an organization that continues in the habits that led to earlier health will only fall further into systemic disease. What is needed is to enter the learning loop, in which experimental new actions are taken in order to identify the appropriate strategy for existing conditions. In the learning loop, every organization resembles Abram: We are being led from the land of our ancestors to a land we do not know. We will only see where God is sending us after we have arrived (Genesis 12).
One could say that the Episcopal Church was in the performance loop throughout most of the twentieth century. But now it is (past) time for the Episcopal Church to enter the learning loop. Through God’s grace, this is already occurring. Not only are initiatives beginning within individual dioceses, but General Convention 2012 agreed that “this General Convention believes the Holy Spirit is urging The Episcopal Church to reimagine itself.” More recently, the group that gathered to write a Memorial and draft resolutions to the church urged the church to “lose our life for Jesus’ sake so that we might save it.”
A new strategy is also in the conceptual stage. As the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC) put it, we are called to resemble the seventy that Jesus sent out two by two. We are to “follow Jesus together into the neighborhood, traveling lightly” (Luke 10). This call is echoed by the writers of the Memorial who add:
Like those early followers of Christ, we find ourselves being scattered out of familiar and comfortable places and ways of being the church. Rather than be ruled by memory and consumed by fear, we can embrace this crisis, trusting that the Lord of Life will give us everything we need to spread the Gospel, proclaim the kingdom, and share the love of God. May God grant great joy in every city and neighborhood into which we go.
Many specific resolutions for action accompany both the TREC report and the Memorial. I have summarized the TREC resolutions elsewhere and the resolutions proposed by the Memorial writers are summarized in their media release. Of the proposed actions by both groups, three are critical to move the Episcopal Church from crisis to renewal:
- Planting new and innovative churches
- Revitalizing existing churches
- Providing for new collaborations between dioceses
Susan Brown Snook has already written about the seven ways that new church plants make a unique difference for Christ’s mission. To her work I would only add that new church plants provide exactly the means for Hearst’s learning loop to be engaged. A new church plant must develop a culture and mission strategy appropriate to the time through a process of experimentation and action. For the church to move from crisis through learning to renewal, it is critical for the General Convention to authorize and fund the development of far more new churches than have been planted in the recent past.
The revitalization of existing churches is equally important. Many congregations long for nothing more than help to move from confusion and crisis to renewal, but many dioceses do not have the resources to offer this help. The Episcopal Church as a whole, in faithfulness to Christ’s mission, must share its common goods in order to steward and renew these cells of Christ’s body. Just as important, since the diocese is the basic mission unit of the church, it is absolutely critical to allow for greater flexibility for experimentation and adaptation at this level of the church as well — a priority identified by both TREC and the Memorial/Resolutions party. The goal of all of these initiatives is to enable the church to experiment with ways of being that are true to God’s mission today.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit entered the Church, not that we might shrink back into what was familiar, but to send us out into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s reign. We keep in step with the Spirit when we recognize that God has given us a message for the world. And this is a good thing, since it is not just the Church that is in crisis. Creation is in crisis as well.
Changing climate patterns as a result of human activity are leading to drought in California, destabilizing our nation’s largest source of food. Human activity is causing the greatest extinction of species since the asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs. Stronger weather events are hurting the poorest and most vulnerable peoples on the planet, through no fault of their own.
What the world needs now are disciples of Christ who know that:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers. (Ps. 24:1-2)
Creation waits with eager longing for the unmasking of the children of God (Rom. 8:19), who know that their lives are not their own, but that through grace they have been redeemed from sin to participate in the work of redemption.
The most recent performance loop of human history began with the Industrial Revolution. It has now led to planetary confusion and crisis. We recognize that human beings must find ways to live on earth sustainably, but we don’t yet know how to do so.
Moving humanity from this crisis through learning and to renewal will require people who understand that the earth belongs to God, not to a few generations of humanity. It will require people who are empowered by the Holy Spirit to learn from both Scripture and science. It will require people who know in their bones that the path to newness of life leads through sacrifice and death.
In short, moving Creation from crisis to renewal will require disciples of Jesus. Until our Lord returns, making those disciples is our job. There is no time to waste. Let’s get to it.
The Rev. Nurya Love Parish is associate priest at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, MI. She blogs regularly at Churchwork.
The featured image is “Primeval banknotes” (2008) by Joel Penner. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
Thank you for this thoughtful and important article. It’s making me think about the tension between our commitment as individuals to be in community as the church and the challenge in bringing about change in that community.
I wonder -to what extent are there technical barriers to innovation and creativity within our dioceses? Canons written in/for a prior era may not allow for or recognize models other than parish/mission = priest + building + territory + congregation.