Church growth books, even with the present crisis Evangelical Christianity finds itself in, are still in good supply. But one from an Episcopalian, whose church’s ASA has been dropping the entire decade? That’s the idea of retired Bishop of Texas Claude Payne’s Reclaiming the Great Commission. Written before much of the excitement in TEC (The Episcopal Church, the current moniker) following Gene Robinson’s consecration, perhaps it gives pause to the Evangelical: maybe someone in TEC gets it, or at least got it. Before getting into the book itself, let’s begin by considering some Episcopal history.
TEC is effectively the “orphan” of the Church of England, having been forced to form an autonomous organization when the U.S. won its independence from Great Britain. It was hit with an additional blow with its disestablishment in the Southern colonies (Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.) From a Southern perspective, one of the reasons we became a nation is so that Americans wouldn’t have to be Anglicans!
By 1930, the TEC found itself at the end of a long decline, with 1.6 million members (after 140 years of existence) and only 1.6% of the population. From there it went on a thirty-five year long spurt of growth. By 1965 TEC had 3.6 million members, which constituted 1.9% of the population. Not only had the TEC more than doubled its membership; its portion of the total population had increased as well. From this time the church has been in a steady downward trend; in 2005 it had 2.4 million members, or 0.8% of the population.
In its growing stage, Episcopalian Christianity provided a stable, respectable religion that made few lifestyle demands on its members. It was an ideal haven for a generation that endured the upheaval of the Great Depression and World War II. Its downward trend was the result of the triumph of several generations of liberal instruction in seminaries which had effectively undermined the faith of the clergy, combined with the explosive social changes of the 1960’s, which the ECUSA’s membership felt more strongly than, say, Pentecostal churches. The resulting changes in liturgy and the abandonment of basic Christian belief led to a loss in membership which is hard to fathom.
Now comes the Diocese of Texas through its (now retired) Bishop Payne, with a plan to revitalize the church. Is this plan sustainable? And is it something we can learn from?
To begin with, the application of methods from the corporate world in the church is not the first province of the Diocese of Texas; it has been applied in evangelical churches for far longer than this, through the influence of people such as John Maxwell. In fact, even before Maxwell, evangelical churches have taken the lead in introducing new techniques and organizational methods into the church, going back to the “new measures” in Charles Finney’s day. Evangelical ministers in general and Pentecostal ones in particular are predominantly far more “performance oriented” than the TEC’s have ever been. It is ironic that the TEC, with its prosperous membership, has been so slow in taking up these methods. The book acknowledges this debt, but not very gratefully, and only to the megachurches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback.
This leads to the second weakness, namely the refusal of the authors to acknowledge their own church’s abandonment of the faith as the root of their present malaise. The authors, as with many other liberals in the church, have finally realized that you cannot build a church on your doubts, but their view of objective, eternal reality leaves much to be desired.
And this leads to my main concern, which relates to their concept and definition of evangelism. They are very strong on making disciples, but nowhere—nowhere—is there any idea of reaching and winning the lost. They have no vision to win people from other religions unless they have effectively left those religions. There is no concept that people must ultimately make a decision for Jesus Christ, reflecting a line of thinking that becoming a Christian is a process, not an event. And there is no mention that those who do not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour face eternal torment.
This last point doubtless reflects the fact that many in TEC are universalists. They are very strong on the benefits of Christianity in this life, but with the undifferentiated eternity they imply they undermine their own case. Why, for example, promote small groups when one can join a religion built on small groups like Wicca? Or, instead of following a carpenter from Nazareth, why would it not be more appropriate for the TEC’s upper class core constituency to follow a real “rich kid” like Buddha? Once you deny (or ignore) the eternal consequences of your beliefs, you undermine your own credibility. For this reason, the program they espouse for themselves is, in the long term, unsustainable. Moreover their unwillingness to deal with the pansexual issue will only amplify this situation. In the book itself they explicitly refused to deal with it; in the 2004 diocesan convention, both Payne and his successor Don Wimberly refused to allow resolutions affirming traditional Christian views of human sexuality to even come to a vote.
As for the lay “apostolate” (a term they borrowed from Roman Catholicism,) they are correct in that laity interacting effectively and evangelistically with those outside of the church is the best method of making disciples and growing the church. To do this, lay people must be trained in evangelistic and discipleship techniques. Pentecostal and evangelical churches has been doing this for years, but their fear of “proselytising” leads them away from investigating these methods and programs.
In Philadelphia, the term “mainline” refers to the area of the city where its most exclusive suburbs are. TEC has traditionally been a mainline church in this sense; one wonders if this is in reality much of the source of the high handed attitude one finds in the book toward much of Christianity. High handedness, however, won’t play well in empty churches, be they by abandonment of their own congregations or simple dwindling. Reclaiming the Great Commission, as played out in the reality of TEC in general, is a sobering reminder that methodology can only go so far.