One theme keeps driving online conversations among Episcopalians: How can we grow the church in the face of decades long decline? It doesn’t matter what the original subject was, only moments are required to turn it toward church growth. It’s a common marketing question just like ones asked at Kmart, Macy’s, J.C. Penny, McDonald’s, and even Amazon. It’s the same question asked in every consumer products company about every consumer product. Maybe that’s why it so easily becomes our question too. Its pervasiveness in American culture makes it appear as the natural, normal, necessary question every organization must ask about everything they do. The consultants say so.
Maybe so, but not for the church. At least not for the Episcopal Church. We’re not selling a consumer product. My nonreligious buddy disagrees. You are too, he says, you’re trying to sell me a religious product with “wait, that’s not all” promises, and I’m not buying. It that’s what we’re about, he’d be right, but we are in (or should be) the business of proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God as revealed in Christ Jesus. The right question is, How can we better proclaim the gospel? It isn’t our church. It’s God’s church. We don’t have to save it. Last I heard, God was not in need of a marketing consultant. What we need is to faithfully proclaim the gospel by word, sacrament, and and hard work of living into what we proclaim.
That thought seldom gets any lasting traction. Spinning tires? Yes. Traction? No. Our popular presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has been asking and preaching about it, calling us to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. His eloquent, down home enthusiasm is something to behold. If Episcopalians had altar calls, each sermon would end with crowds rushing forward shouting Amen. But heading into next day meetings of local parishes and national committees, the conversation rebounds to, How can we grow the church?, as soon as everyone takes off their coats.
I’m not worried about the church writ large, or the Episcopal Church in particular. It’s not dying. It’s not going to die. Not if the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus means what we say it means. We are called to bear the light of Christ wherever we are and in whatever we’re doing, no matter the odds of success. Size is unimportant. Following Christ, proclaiming Christ is. We Episcopalians have our own way of doing it that bring unique and special gifts to the table, on which also lay the special gifts of other denominations.
What needs to die is not the church but our reflexive compulsion to focus on consumer product marketing. Forget about growing the church. Focus on proclaiming the gospel and preparing others to do likewise. Our incarnational theology is rooted in learning how to love others as Jesus has loved us by examining closely what he did and said as recorded in the gospels. We probe the Hebrew Scriptures to discern the path that led to Jesus. We challenge the epistles to guide us in ways that speak to our own time and place. We seek wisdom from the successes and errors of those who preceded us. We listen with open hearts to what God is saying now. Without fear or doubt we proclaim that the risen Christ is with us and in us in the Holy Eucharist.
That is some substantial stuff. Stick with it. Preach it. Teach it. Live into it as best you can, don’t worry about church growth.
Having said all of that, and meaning every word of it, marketing techniques, well planned and executed, have a role, but it’s not to fill the pews. It’s to better proclaim the gospel and prepare others to do likewise.