Being a Good Loser

It's no secret that many mainline churches have been losing members in a steady stream since the 1960's. (I guess I should take comfort in knowing that it had already started before I was ordained!) The issue is far too complex to be addressed here in this post, though I've seen many attempts to convince us that it's due to a single cause, usually something a particular parish or denomination is doing wrong. The thread I'd like to pick up is a double ply one. First, the assumption that losing is bad and must be related to something bad that's being done, and second, that gaining members and having full pews is a sign that a church or a denomination is healthy. The goal then becomes to do whatever increases the numbers, and to stop doing whatever is making them go down.

Perhaps we obsess on this here in this culture more than in others because of our American indoctrination that bigger is better, the more the merrier, etc. I can remember ads in the past that employed phrases like "50 million people can't be wrong!" to convince potential consumers that a product was good. McDonald's still uses this tactic in its "billions and billions sold," to imply that if so many people keep going for this thing, it must be good.

All this has its influence on our minds, not to mention our souls, even when it comes to what we decide to believe, or what church we'll align ourselves with, or how correct our theology is. The majority rules is our touchstone, and going counter to the direction that the rest of the crowd is traveling takes us way out of our comfort zone. This is especially true if, having made the decision to take the road less traveled, we lose something: friends, a church, a way of life, a clear direction.

I see this dynamic working in the present turbulence within the Episcopal Church and the so-called Anglican Communion. It's a fact that the Episcopal Church has lost members over certain decisions it has made, and this is a cause for glee among those who have chosen to set up alternative choices to being in the Episcopal Church. The assumption is that TEC is losing members because it is doing something wrong, and that it deserves to lose people. After all, this is only to be expected of a church that goes its own misguided way, counter to the road the crowd has decided to take (the "right" one, of course).

It's hard not to falter in the face of this widely-held belief. But as I wrote on Mark Harris' blog, in response to his question, How important is it to belong to the Anglican Communion?:

"In all the hoo-ha about covenants and restraints and consensus, etc., I keep thinking about the life of Jesus and how, as he went about challenging the unhealthy systems, his group of supporters got smaller and smaller. He didn't wait for the system to come to consensus about him. In fact, the only consensus it came to was to get rid of him. It feels to me as if something like that is happening to TEC. If we believe that we're following in the way of Jesus, then we may have to come to terms with being crucified. We may end up as a very small group, at least for a while. I feel our challenge is to decide if what we believe is worth "dying" for. Quoting The Rev. Darryl Dash, 'Jesus may want to lead us as churches to places that will hurt our church's growth and health. He may want to lead us to places in which our churches won't even survive. The issue isn't church growth or health. The real issue is whether or not a church is willing to follow Jesus. What about this - a church that is willing to die to its own interests and welfare, to pick up its cross, and follow Jesus? What about a church that, if faced with a choice between following Jesus into unknown and dangerous territory, and taking a safe route that would lead to growth and health - what about a church that would willingly take the dangerous route in order to follow Jesus?' "

Is it possible to believe that we can lose because we're doing something right, not because we're doing something wrong? W.R. Inge says, "We are distressed because our churches are half empty; and many of them would be emptier if the Gospel were preached in them." Perhaps we should take heart that we're losing. It just might mean that we're doing something right.

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