Benchmarking the church

July 31, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] In the wake of the 77th General Convention, journalists from two esteemed pillars of the press (The Wall Street Journal on the right and The New York Times on the left) have leveled some harsh criticisms of the Episcopal Church, citing long-term decreases in church attendance and finances. Both writers attribute the church’s impending decline to the same cause: a failure to stake out theological positions that meet the political leanings of Episcopalians.

The Wall Street Journal op-ed suggested that conservatives, disappointed with the church’s expansion of gay rights, went home from convention empty-handed: “Its numbers and coffers shrinking, the church votes for pet funerals but offers little to the traditional faithful.”

The New York Times op-ed claimed the church has failed liberals by weakening the theological underpinnings of the liberal Christianity that fueled the social gospel and civil rights movements: “Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

Other voices claimed, “The church is falling! The church is falling!” after the 2003, 2006 and 2009 conventions, as well. Granted, the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations are fighting for their very survival. But to know how the struggle is coming along, you have to monitor the right barometer of success. And how happy conservatives and liberals are with the church is not the right measure.

For Christians, the things of God are to be prioritized over worldly matters such as politics. When Peter was upset with Jesus’ predictions of his own death, Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:23)

So, what is the best benchmark to assess the church’s attention to the things of God? In our skeptical post-modern times, hope is the best measure of spiritual vitality. Hope is a sign that we are keeping the Bible alive spiritually, according to Paul in Romans 15:4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

In terms of brain chemistry, hope is an indicator that fear is under control. But to have the inner strength to choose hope over fear, trust in God or another higher power is essential. The concept of trust in a higher power in the universe fits well with a secular worldview, as William James, twelve-step programs and U.S. currency have taught us (America has been printing “In God we trust” on its currency since 1864).

However, decades ago the mainstream secular institutions chose to trade a higher power for humanism, which has bred hopelessness in many forms. One of the most hopeless topics of the secular world today is the state of the environment. Scientists, concerned by the dire outlook presented by their climate models, have struggled to maintain the hope that would encourage others to take action. Some scientists have turned to faith communities for hope, as illustrated by this 2008 statement from Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment:

“Thirty years ago, I thought that with enough good science we would be able to solve the environmental crisis. I was wrong. I used to think that the greatest problems threatening the planet were pollution, bio-diversity loss and climate change. I was wrong there too. I now believe that the greatest problems are pride, apathy and greed. Because that’s what’s keeping us from solving the environmental problem. For that, I now see that we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we in the scientific community don’t know how to do that. But you [in the faith community] do. We need your help.”

Is the Episcopal Church nurturing seeds of hope for better tomorrow with regard to the environmental crisis and secular venues where hopelessness persists? Are church-going Christians more hopeful than the fast-growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd? Hope is contagious. Hope is the best yardstick to use for benchmarking the church’s performance and prospects. Hope opens our minds to the things of God—no matter what the current numbers say. All things are possible with God.

– Phyllis Strupp is the author of Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum and the author of The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert.

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