On Sailing Sinking Ships pt. I of III

On March 12, 2018, The Episcopal Café tweeted a distillation of Pew’s research about the “age structure and median age of U.S. Religious groups” (see it here). The actual text of the tweet generated by The Episcopal Café: “Data from 2016. Episcopalians edge out splinter group Anglicans in youthfulness.”

First of all, let’s at least be honest: That’s only true in the most technical sense. Median age for breakaway Anglicans  is 57 and it’s 56 for us. But before we take any pride even in that, remember that this only happened because we Episcopalians have a slightly higher percentage of our folks in the 50-64 category and they have slightly more in the 65 and up. Other Anglican groups actually have a higher percentage of their folks in the 18-49 category. So congratulations us I guess.

Now I’m not faulting The Episcopal Café for reporting information. But, I know that there is no shortage of people who would take great pleasure in the notion that breakaway groups are doing worse than us Episcopalians. And don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of schismatic groups, particularly those that leave because of single social or theological issues. I often profoundly disagree with the stated reasons for schism (more often than not opposition to women’s ordination or LGBTQ inclusion/ordination). Plus, defining your identity negatively, based on how you think another group gets something wrong, doesn’t seem like a recipe for long-term viability.

Sidebar: I recognize that many schismatic groups would argue that these single issues represent only the straw that broke the camel’s back and that they really left because of a much larger complex of issues.
Fine. But I don’t really buy it.
In my more cynical moments, I’m not even sure that those leading the charge for schism care that much about these single issues. Instead, splitting a community based on a theological or social issue just looks more acceptable than doing it because of petty interpersonal conflict or even just a conflictual disposition.

Ok, sidebar over.

However, we in the Episcopal Church aren’t any better off when we use marginal demographic victories over breakaway groups as a benchmark for vitality. Now, let me reiterate that I’m no fan of the impulses that initially lead to breakaway denominations. Still, once established, their individual congregations often prove perfectly capable of attracting and discipling people. I’ve had a number of friends who have found supportive, faithful Christian community in breakaway Anglican congregations.

We should absolutely feel free to disagree with other Christian groups, even vehemently, about social and theological issues; one of the great and distinctive features of the Anglican spiritual tradition is its ability to let faithful Christians who disagree, sometimes profoundly, on matters of theology, liturgy, and social organization remain in communion with each other.

What’s unacceptable from my standpoint is evaluating our success on “beating” other groups of Christian. Why? Because we should really be judging our success based on the growth of the Kingdom of God (or if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of manifesting the Kingdom of God, and I often share this unease, then let’s say growth in the approximation of the Kingdom of God in this world). Unless we’re prepared to limit the manifestation of the Kingdom of God to the growth/health of the Episcopal Church (or our particular flavor of it), then we can only really see our health in the context of the overall health of the Church in the world, of which we are only one part.

So absolute growth in numbers shouldn’t really be a gauge of vitality, particularly when we look at our congregations or denominations in isolation. Why? Imagine a scenario where 50% of the members of other Christian traditions leave their churches and 40% of them join the Episcopal Church, but 10% are return to no Christian community at all. True, the Episcopal Church would likely increase in numbers at an astonishing rate – but the Church as a whole would still experience a significant net loss. Amuch better number for evaluating vitality would be the number of new professions of faith and (preferably adult) baptisms. I don’t say “preferably adult” because I’m secretly campaigning against paedobaptism, but only because infant baptisms generally indicate that people who are already members of your community are having children. Unless your congregation reproduces at at least 101%, and you can guarantee that all those children will remain faithfully committed to growing in their faith, then at best what you have is a model for slowed (quantitative) decline or stabilization – not growth.

Now, I can already sense the arguments being mustered against this kind of quantitative focus. “But Chris, isn’t it possible to grow in ways other than numbers?” “But Chris, are you taking into account the breakdown of a Christendom Culture.” “But Chris, are you discounting people coming from other Christian traditions?” “But Chris, aren’t you underplaying the real problems that exist in other denominations?”

My answers: Maybe, yes, no, and I hope not. I don’t mean this to be glib; to the contrary I think these questions deserve serious consideration and I plan to address these concerns in another post where I talk about significant caveats to quantitative measures of vitality.

Many of you may now be asking a really important question: “Chris, you’ve implied that churches that have a lower average age are ‘better.’ Isn’t that ageist?” That’s certainly a legitimate concern, and I want to be clear about what I’m not saying. In the same way that it’s unhelpful to believe that being younger in and of itself disqualifies you from having leadership qualities or talents to offer the community, its equally unhelpful to see young people as the silver bullet that will solve all the Church’s problems. I’m a “young person” and some of my best friends are “young people,” and I’ll let you in on a little secret: Young people are, funny enough, people. Some of us have tremendous leadership capabilities, wisdom, and worthwhile experiences, while some of us are immature, inexperienced, or unhelpful. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s probably true of any age group.

My claim that a younger church is better, all things considered, doesn’t come from idolizing a particular age group; it comes from the relative age of the Church in the United States. That Pew data that shows that the Episcopal Church is (barely) younger than breakaway Anglicans in the US also shows two other things: All but three Christian groups in the US have a median age that is above that of the US as a whole (median age: 46) and the “nothings in particular” (“none”) are younger on average than all Christian groups (median age: 38). This is significant when you combine the data with three other factors. First, 69% percent of all “nones” were raised in a Christian tradition (compared with 10% raised in non-Christian religions and 21% raised as non-religious). Second, more “nones” were raised in either a Catholic (28%) or Mainline Protestant (21%) household than in an Evangelical (18%) or Historically Black (4%) one. Finally, the average age of “nones” is not only lower than that of any Christian group, it’s going down. In other words, Millenial and younger folks raised in Christian households, and especially in Mainline and Catholic ones, are leaving the Church at a disproportionately high rate. This may go without saying, but this is a problem if we believe that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling Godself to the world, and that relationship with God through Jesus Christ is only, or at least best, accomplished through participation in the Body of Christ. But it's also a problem from a pragmatic standpoint: your church doesn’t exactly look poised for survival, to say nothing of thriving, if it keeps hemorrhaging its youngest members.

Herein lies my real concern with taking any pride in “beating” breakaway Anglican churches by only being on average roughly one year younger. All this does is give us a false sense of superiority and “told-you-so-ness” that excuses us from attending to the real challenge facing all Christians in the country. It’s as though we were on a sinking ship and a group of people (let’s call them ACNA) said, “We’re sinking because of gay people,” built a raft out of pieces of our ship, sailed off on their own, and now we’re pointing and laughing at them because they’re now sinking slightly more quickly than we are.

So yeah, maybe they were wrong about why we’re sinking, and yeah, maybe we’re not sinking as fast, but we’re both still sinking, and pointing out that someone else is sinking faster than us doesn’t do anything about the fact that we’re sinking too.

If we’re concerned primarily with maintaining a sense of superiority over another Christian group that has caused us pain - and I’m not debating that point - then congratulations: we’re declining at a marginally slower rate than they are.

But if our real concern is with exposing as many people as possible to God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ, then maybe we’re better off looking to those three traditions that are able to gain and retain young members: Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, and the Orthodox.

In my next post, I’ll compare those traditions to ours to see if there’s anything they’re doing differently from us in the Episcopal Church that maybe we could learn from. So stay tuned.


  1. I completely agree. The concept of beating anybody in the holy war of church attendance is just messed up. It illustrates the complete absence of attention from the work of reconciliation.


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