Do Episcopalians Have a Church Planting Problem?

on July 14, 2014

Theological differences aside, there are few things that divide evangelical and oldline Protestants more so than church planting. While Evangelicals practically require the birthing of new congregations as the sign of a healthy church, oldline Protestants almost completely ignore the practice. It is even possible that some oldline Protestant decline can be traced to a failure to establish new congregations.

Over on Episcopal Café, blogger Jim Naughton recently asked the question: “Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church plant more churches?”

Arizona Episcopal Priest Susan Brown Snook sparked the conversation by pointing out that in 2012, the entire Episcopal Church planted just three congregations. To place that into perspective, since its formation in 2009, the relatively small Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) — which reports one-eighth the attendance of the Episcopal Church — has planted 488 new congregations. My understanding is that most of the other oldline churches are in a similar state – the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) planted a total of four congregations in its most recent reporting year.

It isn’t too surprising that an oldline church would plant less than a newer denomination: oldine churches often have established congregations in most communities (Episcopalians had 6,667 parishes and missions in the most recent reporting year of 2012, while the ACNA reports 926).

The Episcopal Café piece displays a mentality of decline: Naughton writes of the importance of closing existing churches so that resources can be re-directed to promising church starts.

“I don’t think we can plant more [churches] until we close more [churches] freeing up assets and energy,” Naughton suggests. “But closing and merging parishes requires a bishop to spend a lot of political capital, so I can understand why many avoid doing so.”

“But I am also wondering whether the church–perhaps rightly, in some instances–is hesitant to plant more congregations because most traditional congregations are in decline.”

On the contrary, starting new churches first will probably help the existing churches in the same community. Pastor Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church notes: “studies have shown that if there is one church per ten thousand residents, approximately 1 percent of the population will be churchgoers. If this ratio goes to one church per one thousand residents, some 15 to 20 percent of the city’s population goes to church. If the number goes to one per five hundred residents, the number may approach 40 percent or more.”

In short, a rising tide lifts all ships. In Northern Virginia, I’ve long observed a flurry of successful church planting activity, even as the largest congregations – such as McLean Bible Church – continued to grow.

I would also take issue with Naughton’s assertion that the resources freed up by church closures will enable more successful church starts. Studies on church plants show that, over the long-term, larger sums of money devoted to new church starts do not correlate with a substantially higher level of success. If you recruit entrepreneurial young church planters, it might even be to their benefit to be bi-vocational, where they may be more likely to interact with potential future parishioners.

The idea that for one congregation to succeed, another (or two – or three – must fail) is a zero-sum view of church growth. In my own immediate area (D.C.) we’ve seen some examples of this mentality. In the mid-2000s, a large evangelical Episcopal parish, The Falls Church, sought to plant a new congregation in the city of Alexandria.

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, of which The Falls Church was a part, had a policy that new churches could only be planted if the neighboring parishes in the same deanery gave their permission. With about half of Alexandria’s existing Episcopal parishes in decline, The Falls Church was unable to secure support in the deanery for planting in Alexandria. The existing parishes were concerned that a new evangelical parish would siphon away parishioners, and they didn’t want competition.

After departing the Episcopal Diocese, the Falls Church did formally plant Christ the King (CTK) Anglican Church in Alexandria – which recently celebrated its 7th anniversary and has an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 175.

Now, CTK is about twice the size of the closest Episcopal parish, St. Clement, which reports an ASA of about 80 persons. But did establishing a plant nearby pull from St. Clement’s membership? Probably not. The two churches appeal to different groups, and I’d be surprised if there was any movement between them. While St. Clement did report a drop of about 30 persons from its ASA between 2007-2008, its numbers have been stable since, even as CTK has more than doubled in size.

New plants don’t usually siphon significant membership off of existing parishes – instead, they offer a lower barrier to entry, evangelizing new congregants or attracting recent transplants from out of town.

“The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for 1) the numerical growth of the Body of Christ in any city and 2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city,” says Keller. “Nothing else – not crusades, outreach programs, para-­church ministries, growing mega-­churches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes – will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting. This is an eyebrow raising statement. But to those who have done any study at all, it is not even controversial.”

Yet in the Episcopal Church there is significant pushback against the planting of new churches. Since late 2006, when The Falls Church and several other congregations departed the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, there have been no new churches planted in that diocese. In a 2010 address, Bishop Shannon Johnston observed that many in the diocese were “quite ‘gun-shy’” about new congregations and that it was “no surprise” how church planting ranked last in a survey about diocesan priorities.

Earlier this year I wrote about how the Episcopal Church has faced a staggering decline of 40 percent in baptisms over the past decade. With the absence of hardly any new Episcopal churches, maybe we know why: new churches baptize more people.

Church researchers Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird describe in the book Viral Churches that established Southern Baptist churches baptize 3.4 people per 100 resident members, while church plants average 11.7 per 100. While SBC and Episcopal congregations are different creatures, it isn’t too much of a leap to suggest that some of the oldline Protestant decline can be traced to a failure to establish new congregations. That’s something to think about.

  1. Comment by Nick Porter on July 14, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Why plant a church that no one is going to attend? They have no reason to plant because no one is showing up at the parishes that are already there,duh.

  2. Comment by SCBluCatLady on July 14, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Very true! I think TEC needs to work on first understanding the Gospel then they can work on proclaiming it and then plant churches!

  3. Comment by Ray D. on July 14, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    This article does not get to root causes.

    The Episcopalians do not plant churches because they do not have a clear message that they believe is worth proclaiming. The denomination as a whole is the white liberal wing of the Democratic party at prayer, and many local congregations are effectively operating as social clubs.

    Meanwhile, the Anglicans believe it is their mission to spread the gospel to the USA and the whole world. To do this, they are willing to meet in cheap rented facilities, and their pastors are willing to work two jobs if necessary.

    The result is that the conservative Anglicans are likely to outnumber the Episcopalians in a generation.

  4. Comment by Gabe on July 14, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Great points, Ray. I would also add that a significant portion of the TEC and other mainline denominations have been so infected by post-modernism and liberation theology that they see the spread of Christianity as some kind of European oppression or other racial act. This leads them to not want to spread the Gospel because they truly are ashamed of it. A sad state of affairs in these denominations.

  5. Comment by Liberal Kuhn on July 14, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    I don’t think the Episcopagans will last even that long.

  6. Comment by Jeff Walton on July 15, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Ray, we are in agreement: the spread of universalism within Episcopal Church circles is a key reason for the denomination’s decline. Few will take the social risk of sharing the Gospel with friends and neighbors if they don’t believe a person’s eternal soul is at stake. My goal for this article was to set aside the theological differences and evaluate the consequences of a failure to plant new churches, using data that progressive and traditional Christians could conceivably agree upon.

  7. Comment by geoffrobinson on July 15, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    So except for the that how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?

  8. Comment by geoffrobinson on July 15, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    I’m guessing most denominations serious about planting churches believe in hell and believe a lot of people actually go there.

  9. Comment by dougd on July 15, 2014 at 9:47 am

    The reason that TEC (along with other Mainliners) has lost members over the last several decades is due to demographics. This has been well documented (see Greeley, Hout and Wilde). Other factors, such as religious switching, have had very little to do with the decline.

    Also, when measured by religious self-identification, TEC has fared no worse over the last 10 – 12 years than the Southern Baptists or the Roman Catholics (when immigration isn’t included).

    I’d like to see TEC plant more churches and was surprised to see that only three were planted in 2012. But a lack of church plants doesn’t go far in explaining what’s happened in the past.

  10. Comment by fredx2 on July 15, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Well, you are partially right. To some degree, the fact that Episcopalians are contracepting themselves out of existence certainly has an effect. But they are also pushing people out by the thousands by becoming so liberal that they appeal to virtually no one.
    Certainly the fact that many parishes want to break away from the main group is not caused by demographics.
    It is caused by the main churches blatant disregard for anything that does not match their liberal political views. Therefore, they only appeal to the very liberal set in society.

  11. Comment by dougd on July 15, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Pew and the Public Religion Research Institute both estimate that around one-third of those raised RC’s have left the church and that around 10% of Americans are ex-RC’s. I don’t think they would see this as good news.

    My point is not to criticize, actually, but to point out that if I were you and the others on this website, I would be hesitant to draw bright lines when it come to explaining church membership losses. You make a lot of unproven assertions and your assumptions are questionable.

  12. Comment by Ralph Weitz on October 21, 2015 at 2:58 am

    The demographic reality is that the mainline churches (where I grew up) neither kept the children who grew up in their churches nor attracted all the families that surrounded them. That is the demographic reality; they could have exploded with growth with baby boomer kids like me but instead we found nothing spiritual in the church. We abandoned the church and some of us found a spiritual life elsewhere.

  13. Comment by Tiger on July 15, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Found an interesting item on Wikipedia:
    In the Protestant Church of the Netherlands, the largest Protestant body in that nation, 1 of 6 clergy identify as atheist or agnostic, and 42 percent of its laity are “non-theist.” Big surprise: the church is losing members. Church as a cultural artifact just isn’t much of a draw. This is the situation of the mainline churches worldwide – agnostics pushing a far-left political agenda. If everyone is going to be saved – or if there is no afterlife – or no God – who wouldn’t prefer to play golf on Sunday, or eat a late breakfast?

  14. Comment by Courretort on July 16, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Maintenance of the “status quo” in any church keeps one’s comfort zone intact. Also, one Mennonite once wrote that one has to examine if he or she is joining a congregation as part of a psychology of belonging to the “right group” or as a result of conversion.

    I suspect that part of the reason some churches don’t want to plant churches is at heart a turf battle both in terms of sending out a message about who should and should not be brought into one’s midst.

    A clergy friend of mine was recently told by his congregation not to use the word evangelism…not P.C. for the neighborhood the church was in.

  15. Comment by Syttende Mai on August 24, 2014 at 9:14 am

    The Episcopagan sect is going to die. No if-ands-buts about it. God will not reward wanton sin.

  16. Comment by Ryan Hall on October 14, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    The situation is quite simple really. You grow the church in one of two ways: you have children or you evangelize persons not previously in the church. The Episcopal church is good at neither, and hasn’t been for quite some time.

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