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From Columbus: Growth measures seek to build membership

By Carol E. Barnwell
6/20/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  Personal evangelism, campus ministry and church plants form the cornerstone of the General Convention's effort to achieve the goals of the 20/20 initiative.

The Convention passed a resolution proposed by Bishop David Jones of Virginia, chair of the Evangelism Committee, to study the Joint Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism's concern that the Episcopal Church "may be in systemic decline." The resolution charges the Standing Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism with initiating "a national consultation on methods and strategies identify best practices to reverse the decline in mainline denominations," and making recommendations to the 76th General Convention on ways to reverse that decline in all denominations.

The 2.4 million member Episcopal Church lost 8,000 people in 2005 in average Sunday attendance (ASA), Kirk Hadaway, director of research, Congregational Development for the Episcopal Church Center, reported to the Evangelism Committee.  Hadaway called the decline "systemic," attributing it to more than one factor.  A 2005 projected loss of 40,000 members (not ASA) he said, is due to the aging of congregations and a decline in new members.  Previous to 2002, 15 dioceses were in decline.  Within the last triennium that number has climbed to 80, he said. 

The Episcopal Church is a social system where 90 percent of membership is white and a large percentage is above childbearing years.  According to Ted Mollegen, committee member from Connecticut, 27 percent of Church membership is of age 65, compared to 22 percent of the U.S. population. 

Church planting

Future growth in the Episcopal Church depends on evangelism efforts to a diverse population of unchurched people, including Asians and Hispanics.  Further testimony at committee hearings identified campus ministry as an important base for church growth. 
The Rev. Victoria Hurd, a church planting expert from the Diocese of Virginia, told the committee "Church planting is strategic planning for the Gospel."

"While there was a drop in membership, it would have been much worse without the new church plants," she said, which accounted for more than 4,000 average Sunday attendants. 

She said that new church members are young; more interested in getting mission teams to needy places than in arguing about issues.  Hurd advocated for teaching church planting in seminaries and placing seminarians into new church plants as interns.  Diversity is also critical.  "We need to plant Hispanic congregations or we will not reflect the face of the country in 2025," she added.

College ministry

Young adults spoke passionately regarding their place in the church.  College is a time of transition when people relocate, and need counsel and guidance to make life-changing decisions.  Campus ministry allows a leadership opportunity that doesn't exist elsewhere, said the Rev. Mary Hileman.  A campus missioner at Oklahoma State University and a member of the Evangelism Committee, Hileman also supports campus ministries becoming diocesan missions where possible.

Reynolds Wayland, an alternate for the Diocese of Missouri, had to join a church near his campus ministry at Washington University in St Louis, in order to stand for election as a deputy.  Active in diocesan affairs, Wayland said, "The work of God moves in me. Students are interested in the wider church, we want to be involved … I would like to be a voice for my church home."

The Rev. Lee Anne Watkins, a member of the Evangelism Committee from Minnesota, said, "We need to recognize campus ministries as more than outreach programs.  This is a mature mission."  Part of the 2020 vision, she said, is a vision to have ministry on every campus.

In an interview, Hileman emphasized the importance of campus ministry as a place of leadership development for the Church, as well as a vital mission field.  She highlighted the need to use technology in reaching out, as well.  She baptized a student after he had checked out the campus ministry online, looked up the Episcopal Church in the Internet and read the Book of Common Prayer online.  He asked Hileman how to become a member of the church.  "His encounters on the Web and his welcome at the front door gave him the courage to ask to be baptized, and he was - the next day!" Hileman said. 

When Hileman did a wedding for former students some time ago, one of the bridesmaids asked if she could come by for a visit.  The young woman eventually brought her roommate and they brought their boyfriends and someone else's roommate.  "It started with an invitation and branches out," she said.  "Then they need a place to go that will be welcoming."

Campus ministries are real congregations with unique character to that particular place," Hileman said.  "Young adults make choices about [denomination membership] by the time they are 25 years old," she added, saying that growing the church in the future depends on attracting college-aged members and giving them an active role in the church. 

20/20

Sarah Lawton is 40 but she started working on the 2020 initiative in her early 30s.  As a member of the Evangelism Committee from California, she believes that the initiative has "become part of the DNA" of the mission focus in the Church today.  "We can't make icons of programs," she said in an interview. 

While the 2020 nomenclature may be missing, Lawton said, "Who owns it, who defines it doesn't matter--it is the mission of Christ.  There is no need to label it.  We must respond to the spirit, the mission of revitalization.  It's about a vision for the future." 

The Rev. Charles N. Fulton, III, director of congregational development at the Episcopal Church Center, said a desire to grow does not necessarily lead to growth.  "The willingness to change and adapt and involvement in social justice leads to growth."  He said he doesn't believe the 2020 movement has gone very far, because although it "was a powerful vision, we tried to put it in an old purpose."  His prescription for growth is a four-fold frame that includes purpose, vision, faith and values: "Why are we, what are we going to do, what do we believe and how are we going to behave." 

"We have to start with Jesus," Fulton said.  In a culture where nearly 80 percent of the population does not actively practice any faith, it is possible for the Episcopal Church expand its outreach and evangelism.  When the United States was a Christian culture and most people attended church, the goal of the Episcopal Church was to reach two percent of the population.  "Our primary evangelism was to take Christians and teach them about the Book of Common Prayer and the church year."

Fulton believes church growth hinges in the ability of people to share their faith story with others.  "We have to find a way to communicate the God in our lives, the God who has been with us all along," he said.

Everyone's ministry

"Our genius is intellectually engaged, centrist and comprehensive," said the Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, a member of the Standing Commission on Communication and a deputy from the Diocese of Bethlehem. "We must give back our gifts to those around us," according to Knisley, who also says he won the genetic lottery as a white male, Anglo Saxon, protestant with ivy league education.  "I found Jesus Christ in an ex heroin addict who was trying to get off stuff so she could keep her kids.  My church adopted her, and in doing that work she showed me Jesus and I saw Jesus in the people around her," he said, noting that our work is in the culture. 

In order to grow, Knisely suggests a short list for each person in the pew:

* Invite our neighbors to church
* Pray that our church will grow
* Learn what we believe and be able to articulate it
* Know why we are Episcopalians and know their own faith story
* Pray our church will grow and
* Serve Jesus in our every moment

"People see that beacon, and will follow them to church. That's missionary," Knisley said.

Legislation:

Resolution A037 is specifically directed at the 2020 goals and calls on each bishop to cast a vision for his or her diocese; calls on all orders of ministry to speak about what God is doing in their lives; invite others to worship, and seeks to identify and develop practical resources for personal and congregational evangelism through the Church Center staff.  More importantly, it is to be published in all congregational and diocesan media.  The resolution is pending in the House of Bishops.

A church planting initiative now pending in the House of Deputies (A042) includes provisions for a major gifts campaign, which would be the first since "Venture in Mission" 25 years ago.  Another resolution, A043, encourages dioceses to identify "priority opportunities and estimate costs" for new congregations to fulfill 2020 goals.  A043 includes a feasibility study for a capital funds drive to help build these new churches. It is also pending in the House of Deputies.

Resolution B011 partners the Episcopal Church, Episcopal Relief and Development and the Church Pension Group with the Diocese of Louisiana to develop a missionary initiative to support evangelism and 2020 goals, and as a model for areas of natural disaster or impoverished areas.