Shortened version of a piece originally published by David Virtue on VirtueOnline.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
If you have not been reading our church and diocesan statistics, you should.
The Episcopal Church is rapidly declining at both the national and diocesan level.
We have now dipped below 300,000 in average weekly attendance, and if things continue as they are, we will not have much of a church by 2040. (In 2019 the ASA was just over 547,107, today it is under 300,000.)
Covid was a huge negative, but things were going south before Covid and Covid just pushed us over the edge. We have simply not recovered from Covid in any meaningful sense.
Our diocese has lost more than 40% AWA (average weekly attendance) over the last decade and is sinking.
We have more than a dozen parishes without priests, and we must resort to aging, second career priests to fill the parish gaps. These clergy are not geared to church growth; they are just holding down the fort with few discernible skills to make the parishes grow. A significant number of parishes are simply treading water with little or no outreach into the community. Many will become mission parishes in the very near future.
And let me say I have no interest in taking them over just to see them further deteriorate and I am forced to sell the parish to some saloon owner who has little interest in the church and its mission.
Writing out checks to needy ministries is all well and good, but it is not putting butts in the seats. Our churches are rapidly emptying. Later this year, we will have to put our diocesan headquarters on the market. This should help cash flow, but that is not the answer to our long-term survival.
Most of you are seeing about one third of your congregants showing up weekly. Yes, I know you see spikes at Easter and Christmas, but those are artificial gains and are not reflective of the true situation in your parish.
I am aware that a small handful of you are doing well financially, at least for the moment, but I can assure you that will not last. Endowments do not last forever. The average age of an Episcopalian is over 68 and many will start to move to warmer climes, move into long term care facilities or simply die. In time, your columbaria will count more occupied niches than the number of backsides in the pews.
But all is not completely lost.
Here is what you are going to do starting Monday.
You will look around your congregation next Sunday and check who is NOT there.
When you have discovered who has not shown up, come Monday morning you and your staff will sit down in your offices, pick up the church directory and make calls to every person in the parish, regardless of when you last saw them. If need be, send a TXT or e-mail, but make every effort to speak to someone.
If you talk to someone, you will first apologize for not staying in touch and you can use COVID as an excuse. But then no more.
You will find out why they are not attending; offer them prayer, a pastoral visitation if necessary, and don’t stop till you have contacted every known person in your parish. I don’t care if you have to cancel the Wednesday mass/liturgy/eucharist. You won’t stop ’til you have contacted every member of your church.
After establishing that many of these “members” have died or moved away, then you write to each of those who can be the nucleus of new growth offering a visitation. You will set up new Bible study times for men and women. A men’s group, a women’s group, with the sole purpose to discover what the church says about evangelism. You can work through the Book of Acts, that will be your model. Catechizing is part of our Anglican DNA.
If you need a specialist to teach you how to evangelize and disciple people, talk to my office. We will find you someone. I have a list of people who can help you.
You will then organize daily prayer circles, so there is never a time when the church is not praying for someone who might be in trouble or distress.
Start a food program. Find out in your neighborhood who is food deprived and offer them canned goods. Get a foot in the door, and when you have established a relationship and earned the right to speak, offer to pick them up for church next Sunday.
Reach out to young people. Get the few kids in the church to reach out to their fellow students and offer pizza and basketball on Saturday mornings and sleepovers, where they can hear the gospel and talk about Jesus.
Put an Action Bible (a Bible in picture form) in the hands of every child in your parish and do Sunday sermons from the Bible expressly geared to them. Encourage them to read the Bible daily.
Start an ALPHA ministry outreach to the community. Stop talking about racism. Nobody is listening and for the most part, it is little more than a guilt trip, designed to make YOU feel good when there is not a black person in the congregation. Climate change might get someone to switch to a TESLA, but that will not change the dynamics of your church.
Most of you have a ‘come and hear’ mentality. The truth is nobody is coming and nobody is hearing. No one gives a damn. You need to develop a ‘go and tell’ mentality. Get out of your comfort zones. Go where people are and gossip the gospel. Go to delis, bars, beaches, restaurants, prisons, homes for battered women and children, wherever people congregate and pray God will open a door of opportunity for you to tell the new story of Jesus and his love.
Be fearless without being pushy. Think Mars Hill, but localized to your neighborhood.
Now if you start doing just the most basic things I have mentioned, you will start to see results. I promise you, because I have seen it work.
The first thing you will do on Monday morning is email my office with your weekly AWA attendance numbers. I want it on the record.
Then you will implement some or all the things I have outlined today. You will make a start in your community to facilitate change.
I expect to see results within four months.
If I do not, and I will certainly find out in time, as you will email me again four months from now, a decision will be made about your future.
If nothing has changed, your voting rights will be restricted at diocesan convention and then I will fire you. Your church is going to die anyway, and I am simply expediting it. You can get a job at an Amazon fulfillment center where you will be expected to work 8 hours a day and where you are not permitted to sit on your bottoms waiting for people to come to you. They won’t.
Please understand me when I tell you that I am not remotely interested in mega church philosophies. They are basically entertainment centers with a Jesus gloss. And don’t start preaching a health and wealth gospel, that won’t work either.
Moments before ascending into heaven, Jesus gave His disciples their marching orders. He told them to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all His commands.
Do the hard work of one-on-one evangelism and discipleship. Start small and pray like hell, because if you don’t, the hell you face might well be your own.