Mark D. W. Edington: Seekers care about connecting with God, not church ‘brand’

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Survey research, most recently the Pew Forum's United States Religious Landscape Survey, shows plainly that we and most other mainline traditions are losing ground. In our case, for every seven people entering an Episcopal church, 10 are leaving. That's not a sustainable trend.

The survey points up an interesting countertrend worth pondering. The one bright light of significant growth in the mainline group of churches is – are you sitting down? –"nondenominational."

We might summarize the trends the report identifies in a simple statement: The denominational structures that we inherited, those traditions once central to shaping our identity and sense of community, are answers to a question fewer and fewer people are asking.

In this era of spiritual air travel, the giant ocean liners of our traditional denominational polities are seen as inefficient, slow and generally unpleasant means of getting to where seekers – and even a good number of people born into our traditions – want to go.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)TEC Data* Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryEvangelism and Church Growth

Posted April 29, 2009 at 7:32 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. A Senior Priest wrote:

Overall, brand names are less important than what the product actually delivers. Some brands, by virtue of the excellence, coolness, and consistency of the product still are positives, like Apple’s iPod and iPhone, for example. But overall, strong product branding can be a double edged sword. In TEC’s case, the brand name has become a positively toxic liability. Thanks to the Internet the orthodox have been able to muster enough forces to render the Episcopal brand name synonymous in the public eye with theological absurdity, heresy, and institutionalized conflict. Mrs Schori, GVR, Bill Melnyk, Anne Redding, Genpo Forrester, and Mr Beers have cooperated immensely, of course, for which cooperation the orthodox owe them a debt of gratitude. Before the Net the powers that were able cover up and suppress the truth by use of their institutional clout. Today, however, any brand can easily be devalued by word of mouth, or in Net terms, viral anti-marketing.

April 29, 8:58 am | [comment link]
2. robroy wrote:

I was struck, firstly, by the “All is not well” honesty.

This line too: “Most of us would not wish to belong to, or even visit, the kinds of churches that are growing; we dismiss them as evangelical, conservative, right-wing, even backwards.”

Evangelical as an insult?

And this, “The gospel is the message. The church is only the medium.” It is clear in reading the article which is devoid of any Biblical allusions, “gospel” has a very different meaning for him than for me, an evangelical Christian. I am only a laymen, but I can’t talk for three sentences about my faith without quoting scripture. In contrast, this guy or Ms Schori can give an entire talk or sermon with either no reference or only a passing reference to a single verse of scripture.

April 29, 9:27 am | [comment link]
3. tired wrote:

[2] I agree - I came away not knowing what he considers the “gospel” to be.  I also appreciated this irony:

“Let me put my warrants out up front. I believe we’ve done exactly the right thing in upholding the ordination of all people in our church, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. For seven years I worked as an associate in a church where the senior minister was an African-American gay man. So there isn’t a lot of room for question about where I stand on the issues now so central in our life together as church.

The problem is that we seem to be talking about practically nothing else.”

So, although this issue is “central,” it shouldn’t be talked about so much that it might scare away potential tithers.  Too bad that it is all of a package.  John 14:15.

: - |

April 29, 9:51 am | [comment link]
4. TheOldHundredth wrote:

A truly fascinating article. Like robroy, I noticed the unusual frankness with which the author acknowledges the gravity of the situation in TEC (and in the mainline more generally), as well as the usual haughty contempt for traditionalists.

Despite his protestation that “The gospel is the message,” I can’t help but feel that the author sees this message as an “introductory offer,” a come-on to get “seekers” into the pews. What will they get once they’re on board? I get no sense at all from the article that he wants TEC to return to the preaching of Christ crucified, of sin and redemption, of daily taking up one’s cross and following Him.

John E.

April 29, 9:56 am | [comment link]
5. Mark K. Williams wrote:

Dear Fr. Mark:

Enjoyed your recent article, “Time to switch vessels”.  In it, you said, “The
problem is that we seem to be talking about practically nothing else. Seen from
the outside – from the perspective of seekers just looking for a place with an
open door where they can make their own relationship with God – it seems like
all we have to offer is our positions on various issues. We are becoming a
smaller and smaller church of fewer and fewer people who can agree to a longer
and longer list of positions on issues.”

It seems that the recent clergy conference you attended was a bit of a paradigm
shift for you and the others in attendance.  I too attended conferences on the
same topic here in the Diocese of Georgia some five years ago.  I appreciated
your article and agree very much with the paragraph above….both five years ago
and now.

Another paradigm shift for you.  There are several areas of the Anglican
Communion where the trend of losing ten for every seven lost is not true.  The
churches in these areas are seeing large growth in numbers and, in fact, have
the largest church membership and attendance anywhere in the Anglican Communion. 
These are several of the Anglican Churches in northern Virginia, the TEC Diocese
of South Carolina, the Anglican Diocese of Fort Worth, and much of the continent
of Africa.  They are becoming a larger and larger church of more and more people
who can agree to a short list of God’s positions on His issues.

For me, this begs the question, “Why can TEC not look at those areas of the
communion that are, in fact, growing, attracting seekers in record numbers, and
support and learn from those areas?  What they are doing is just the opposite in
trying to eradicate and marginalize many of those areas.  Until this trend is
reversed I believe that TEC will continue to, “become a smaller and smaller
church of fewer and fewer people who can agree to a longer and longer list of
positions on [their] issues.”  I am most sincerely

Yours in Christ,

Mark K. Williams
Parish Musician
Christ Church (Anglican)
Savannah, Georgia

April 29, 11:31 am | [comment link]
6. Jordan Hylden wrote:

Excellent and charitable article.  I know Fr. Edington from college—he’s a good man and good priest.  I fondly remember one sermon he gave at the Memorial Church that ended with what I can only describe as the closest thing to an altar call that is possible in the Memorial Church.  He’s missed on campus.  I wish we heard his voice more on church matters.

April 29, 2:37 pm | [comment link]
7. Franz wrote:

The Rev. Mr. Edington writes (as #2) notes:  “The gospel is the message. The church is only the medium.” 

I don’t know that this is correct.  When I was an ECUSUian, I heard a lot about the church being the body of Christ.  That is also a concept one will hear from our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends.  But, if the Church is the Body of Christ, doesn’t that mean that one does not have carte blanche to re-make the church in one’s own image?  And doesn’t it mean that the means by which one conveys the message affects the message?  I hate to say this, for fear of offending Protestant sensibilities, but the distinction between church and gospel rings false.

Robroy also noted above that Edington’s article lacked biblical references or allusions.  In addition, it lacked any reference to the person of Christ, to the reality of the sacraments, or to anything which might make Edington’s vision of a church look like, well, the Church . . .  instead of a pleasant, tolerant and broad minded voluntary association. 

Pleasant, broad-minded, and tolerant voluntary associations are fine things.  They are probably a fundamental component of a decent civil society.  So I can join the Rotary, the local Chamber of Commerce, or the local Friends of the Library.  I don’t know what one would get out of his vision of ECUSA that one could not get out of those three.

Edington also writes:  “We feel passionately about our positions, whatever they may be, on a variety of subjects – nondiscrimination, stewardship of the ecology, issues of war and peace, economic justice.”  It’s not clear that he feels passionately about sin, death, resurrection or salvation, or about the Person who (according to the Christian proposition) solves these fundamental issues, next to which the issues he lists are small beer and weak coffee.

Think about it – if you lived in or near Dover, Massachusetts, would the prospect of engaging with some pleasant folks who felt passionately about their positions on non-discrimination, stewardship of the ecology, issues of war and peace and economic justice get you out of the house on Sunday morning?

April 29, 3:18 pm | [comment link]
8. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Like robroy and others above, I was struck by a refreshing degree of honesty in this critical self-assessment of TEC’s self-defeating ways by a liberal priest, and I was pleasantly surprised that it appeared in Episcopal Life.  But while rejoicing in even that degree of honesty and humility, I find it still woefully inadequate in its diagnosis of what’s wrong with TEC and why the denomination has been in such a steep and relentless decline (for over forty years).

Yes, brand name loyalty has basically disappeared, especially among younger people.  And the old, historic, formerly dominant denominational brands have been caught resting on their laurels and failing to compete successfully.  For one of the basic facts of life is that today’s religious marketplace is much, much more competitive than ever before.

Personally, I think that the astute evangelical expert on American church history at Duke, George Marsden, hit the nail on the head over twenty years ago when he was quoted in a major Newsweek article on the decline of the Protestant oldine (ex-mainline) churches.  He said something like this.

“Brand name loyalty has disappeared.  People have discovered that it doesn’t matter what name is on the gas pump.  All that really matters is the price, the selection of octane levels you want, and how fast you can get in and out.”

And then Dr. Marsden added the killer line at the end…

“And the mainline churches don’t even sell high octane religion anymore.”

Ouch.  Bingo.  Bullseye.  It’s all too true.

Essentially, the oldline denominations, like TEC, have substituted a political and social gospel for the real thing.  That fateful, disastrous switch basically happened in the 1960s, and those formerly dominant Protestant groups have been paying the price for it ever since.

Fr. Edington’s opinion piece rightly acknowledges that TEC has become more of a social action outfit than a church that helps seekers connect with God and find meaning and purpose for their lives.  So far so good.  But, as robroy and others have pointed out, just becoming more “spiritual” and less political won’t suffice, for not any old spirituality will do.  We have to offer the authentic gospel, the biblical one, and not the watered down, colturally acceptable, relativistic, false gospel so prevalent in much of TEC.

The people who are SERIOUS about following Christ have increasingly discovered over the last four decades that TEC doesn’t have much to offer them.  Our state church heritage and our desire to be inclusive havew led us to constantly lower the bar of expectations.  Thus, increasingly you don’t have to be baptized to receive communion in many congregations. 

Or as Prof. Marsden put it, We don’t even sell high octane religion anymore.  And it’s literally killing us.

David Handy+

April 29, 6:15 pm | [comment link]
9. Fr. Dale wrote:

Yes, they spend less time talking about issues of the temporal world, issues of justice and equality – issues important to us. But they devote more time to talking about things we seem to be much less interested in, at least to those thirsty newcomers – sin and forgiveness, how to engage the Bible at a deeper level, how to raise a Christian family, how to find joy (joy!) in Christian faith.

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” Rev. 11:15 Which Kingdom is TEC primarily dealing with? Isn’t it ironic in their effort to be inclusive and relevant, they have become exclusive and irrelevant.

April 29, 6:28 pm | [comment link]
10. robroy wrote:

This needs repeating:

Isn’t it ironic in their effort to be inclusive and relevant, they have become exclusive and irrelevant.

Susan Russell was bragging on her website that 28 diocesan bishops are for blessing sin. Hooray!

April 29, 10:17 pm | [comment link]
11. robroy wrote:

I should point out (before I get zapped by elves for being OT) that my point about Ms Russell’s bragging point is that the TEClub is becoming very homogeneous and unwelcoming to any who doesn’t tow the homosexual line.

As Kendall+ says, when things are going right, it is time to ask suppositional questions. Edington sort of does this, but he refuses to consider that the “Gay is OK” is the problem. The UCC was the fastest declining church this year. Last year, it was the TEClub (this year it was fourth, but one has to remember that those are self-reported membership numbers). With the exception of the Missouri synod, the gay-er the church, the faster it is declining.

Speaking of numbers, where did he get the 7 entering, 10 leaving factoid? From what I can assess, average age is increasing by one, each year, meaning no new blood.

April 29, 10:51 pm | [comment link]
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