by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
I read a provocative essay published a year ago about the accelerating decline of the Episcopal Church (TEC). The piece was written by David Goodhew, visiting fellow of St. John’s College, Durham University (UK), and co-director of an organization called The Centre for Church Growth Research. Among the sobering statistics cited in the article were metrics of Sunday attendance, marriages solemnized, and baptisms of children in TEC since 1980 with projections to 2030:
Baptisms of children:
To suggest these trends are sobering would be an understatement. They should be causing alarm bells to go off all over the church. Alas, I am not sure that has been happening in most parishes and dioceses of the denomination. It is often in the nature of decline to be in denial about it. And I note that these statistics do not yet reflect the effects of the pandemic which are further accelerating decline.
All this is not to be cynical but rather to highlight the great opportunity before us at St. John the Divine. We seek to be a vibrant counter-witness to these trajectories. Goodhew argues that decline is a choice. I would add that growth is a choice as well. We want to grow. And we want to grow not simply to be a larger church but to enlarge the Kingdom of God for the sake of others. This is at the core of our missional identity and shapes our way of contemplating a hoped-for future wherein we are a brighter light for the city of Houston.
As Goodhew points out, “arresting so well established a trajectory will be extremely difficult and take time. It owes not a little to entrenched factors, notably the aging demographics of TEC members, forces of secularization, prolonged conflict within the denomination, and a limited readiness to plant new congregations. . . By 2050, [TEC] may technically not be defunct… but without fundamental change, it will be absent from the bulk of America. . . If Episcopalians wish their church to live, there has to be change. And change has to start with a change of theology… There is abundant evidence worldwide that churches which are a pale imitation of the surrounding culture do not thrive.”
In my historical study of periods of renewal and revival in the history of the church, a consistent pattern to observe is believers’ return to the fundamentals of the faith revealed in Holy Scripture. While all church growth is first and foremost a gift of grace and fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, my reading of church history is that communities of faith committed to the study of the Bible are the ones that grow and lead change in society. Churches that return to the Scriptures as the source of the real story of our world describe those that thrive. Congregations that are counter-cultural precisely in this way tend to be the ones that bless culture most deeply.
In this still-new year when many of us are considering new habits, routines, and disciplines to deepen our faith, I encourage you, as your pastor, to recommit to daily Scripture reading and to consider joining a small group of Bible study if you are not already in one. You can find a listing of current and upcoming studies here.
I am so thankful to serve a parish community well-formed through many years by a robust program of small group ministries and outstanding Bible teaching from the laity as well as clergy. However, I am praying for a parish-wide renewal movement of growing numbers of people engaged in more and more groups. If you are not currently involved in such a group or study, please let any of us on staff know and/or go to our parish website for information on ways you can join one.
My thesis in this brief reflection is that recommitment to Bible study as a parish family is not only a means of edifying and growing our parish community. It is also a means by which we enter more deeply into the very person of Christ, get incorporated more passionately into his ongoing mission for the sake of others, and thereby become an ever-brighter light for the city and the world. As the great early Church theologian and bishop St. Augustine prayed: “Let us appear like stars in the universe by clinging to the firmament of your Scripture” (Confessions 13:22 and ref. to Philippians 2:15).
“Needed most are not good methods for reading the Bible, but good people reading the Bible – that is, people deeply embedded in faithful communities of discipleship, people in whom the Spirit is actualizing the Word of God and, thus, for whom the Word of God is authenticated.”
—Joel B. Green in The Wesleyan Tradition: A Paradigm of Renewal (2002)
A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament by David R. Nienhuis (2018, Baker Academic)
I realize this title suggests a dry academic book more than a resource to savor as spiritual devotion. In fact, this is one of the best guides to aid the layperson’s Bible reading that I have come across in a long time. Nienhuis, Professor of New Testament Studies at Seattle Pacific University, offers in short, readable chapters an accessible introduction to the theme, context, and purpose of each book of the New Testament. And he appropriately embraces the view that the Bible is the church’s primary faith-forming inheritance. Out of a great desire that our members are continually growing in our capacity to read the Bible for ourselves, I offer a very high recommendation of this book.