Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Praying for growth in the Episcopal Church

Duke Divinity's blog Call & Response has this from Bishop of Georgia, Scott Behase:

While on holiday this summer I found myself praying about the growth of our church. What initially prodded my prayers was looking at the website of the United Methodist Church’s North Alabama Conference. My old colleague from Durham, Will Willimon, is the Bishop there.

Bishop Willimon publishes weekly statistics on things like membership, attendance, outreach, and the giving of each of the conference’s churches. It’s all there for everyone to see. As one might guess, the conference clergy don’t universally love this. But regardless of how one feels about such reporting, growth in membership, attendance, outreach, and giving matter. A lot. Jesus unambiguously pronounces the Great Commission. We are in the disciple-making business. And if we are not making disciples, then we need to change something we are doing (or start doing something we are not doing) so we make disciples (see also here, here and here on this).

Here are some random reflections on this challenge:

  • My hunch is that most people in our congregations think growing would be just fine but actually give little energy to it. The energy is around the people who are already there and their formation in faith. That’s energy well-spent. But we need to free up more people in our congregations to focus on making new disciples.
  • As a church we Episcopalians have been involved in some international and inner-church conflicts. This has taken a lot of time and sapped our energy for making disciples. This has to change. I don’t believe that our international church issues are a valid excuse for our lack of growth. There are a fair number of Episcopal churches that are growing, so there is no legitimate reason why each of ours can’t as well.
  • For too long we have looked to non-Episcopal, mega-church models to tell us how to grow. That hasn’t worked because it does not fit our identity and potential new disciples can sense the lack of congruency.

So what can we do? Let’s look at the congregations that are growing by making new disciples and see what they have in common. In these churches, growth is a by-product of manifesting their mission in a way that is consistent with their identity. They have a clear, shared understanding of their mission. They are not growing because they focus on growth as such, or because they will die if they don't get more people pledging their money (people are too savvy to want to join a church to share in its debt). They grow because they are clearly and unapologetically engaged in mission.

Growth in membership, attendance, outreach, and giving then are important metrics to see how we are doing at manifesting our mission consistent with our identity. They can never be the goals in and of themselves. Get mission going (not just be “mission-minded”), focus on making disciples, and then the growth will come.

Scott Benhase is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia.