An opening presentation for the 192nd Convention of the Diocese of Georgia

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue

My task for these opening minutes of the convention is to briefly survey the landscape. I’ll share where we are, weaker as well as where we are stronger, in the Diocese of Georgia, but first I need to take in the changing context in which we minister. Along the way, I hope you’ll see why we dream of a mission-shaped church and get a glimpse of what that might look like in your corner of the Diocese.

So with that overall goal, I want to begin with traditional Christianity. When we say traditional, most of us actually mean “just like it was when we were kids.” So I’ll start with 1963, for no other reason than it is the year I was born. No stores open on Sunday morning. No sporting events took place. Nothing. Sunday mornings were reserved for church. Perhaps it wasn’t that way everywhere, but in the Deep South where I grew up, Sunday was church day. Stores were closed. The sound of lawn mowers was stilled. No soccer games were scheduled. It was Sabbath in America.

In The Episcopal Church of the 50s and 60s, Father Knows Best was the rule. Of course, there were still altar guilds, so no priest got his way all the time, but authority did come with the role. Since the 1950s and 60s authority has eroded all across society and the church has not been immune. I described briefly the South as it existed in 1963, when I was born. But don’t take my time period. Take any slice of time in the past century and you will find ways in which there was a steady erosion of trust and certainty. It could have been in the atrocities that came to light at the end of the Second World War, or the Cold War with Russia, or the assassination of JFK or RFK or MLK, or the fall of the Twin Towers. Somewhere between Ozzie and Harriett or Leave it to Beaver and The Simpsons or South Park, the culture shifted.

Mainline Christian churches including Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians have all seen declining attendance across my lifetime. And when we count people in the pews we find less than eighteen percent of Americans are in church on Sunday and the fastest growing religious preference is “none.” Worldwide, no religion lists number three in religious views behind Christianity and Islam.

Today, familiarity with the basics of the Christian faith can no longer be assumed. The biblical narrative is no longer part of the culture. Beyond this, the institutional Church is rightly no longer seen as immune to the problems of the world at large and so can be viewed with suspicion. Here in south Georgia where God is still a major property owner in most small towns and church life remains more prevalent than in other parts of the country, but even in a culture more amenable to our faith being an Episcopalian in south Georgia has never been an easy row to hoe. For example, it is not a new issue that our fellow Christians in south Georgia are not always sure we are Christians. In 1930, our own Bishop Frederick Reese, said,

“What I am immediately concerned with is the fact that our Church is not popular…doubtless partly due to the fact that vast numbers of people know little or nothing about it. And superficial familiarity with its services discloses the fact to them that it is strange and different.”

His successor, Bishop Middleton Stuart Barnwell felt the problem was that we had to do more than gather for worship if we wanted to impact our communities with the Gospel. In 1944, he said,

“I am satisfied that one reason for our slow growth in the little towns of South Georgia is that we have contented ourselves with morning and evening prayer and Holy Communion for dyed in the wool Episcopalians. This sort of program narrows our contacts to those who are already Churchmen. The few children which most Episcopalians have grow up and move away, the old people grow older, and when they die the mission dies with them. I can name you several places in this diocese which have passed through this entire cycle, and there are several more places which are on the same road. We are not going to grow in rural Georgia unless we adopt a more aggressive policy.”

In 1956, Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart did not mince words saying,

“It is high time the Episcopal Church rose from her dignified posture of waiting to be discovered and appreciated and went out into the byways and hedges seeking the souls for whom her Lord died.”

He went on to say that,

“We must destroy the barriers which separate the Episcopal Church from the people of the communities in which she is at work” and described this as a task for “the whole people of God.”

Fortunately for Bishop Stuart, he gave that stirring Bishop’s Address to this convention in 1956. The next year would be 1957 and that was a good year to be a leader in the church. It was the peak of the baby boom in an age of Christendom and churches were growing. The Diocese of Georgia saw the number of communicants grow by 40% in Bishop Stuart’s episcopacy and in doing so we more amazingly outpaced the population growth of the state, which grew by 33% over that same time period.

A key problem for us is that this year is not 1956 and next year is not 1957. If it were, we’d be in great shape, because in many places we have the right programs and approach for 1957 and if it comes back around next year, we will be ready to go. But the point of my brief tour through history is to demonstrate that the Eisenhower years are over. Bishop Stuart was a tall and imposing man of great personal piety. When he put on the mitre, held the crozier and told you to get busy breaking down the barriers between the church and the community where she is at work, well you turned about smartly and got to work. And when he said this was the work of every Christian, even those in the pews who did not bestir themselves to action, at least believed him and got busy feeling guilty for not taking action.

Let’s jump from 1957, to the past decade and see how we are doing. Here is a chart of the past ten years of membership, attendance and giving for the Diocese of Georgia. It looks relatively flat and honestly it looks better than data from many parts of The Episcopal Church. But when we zoom in on the data, we see that we lost nearly 1,500 worshipers on a typical Sunday across the decade. We dropped from an Average Sunday Attendance of 7,577 to 6,109, from 67 adult baptisms to 44, and from 461 to 260 confirmations.

But don’t lose hope. There is another story and we all need to hear it. Episcopal churches still grow in south Georgia. Our congregations grow in our cities and in our small towns and they grow when they lean a bit liberal and when they lean conservative. Though everything I just said is true, we have examples in our midst of healthy congregations growing in a variety of ways in diverse places. In fact, growth is more common than decline in our churches at present. For the two years in which we have the most recent data, more than half of our churches remained steady or grew. And nine of our congregations posted growth of more than 20% in attendance as they posted two years in a row of increasing attendance from 2009 to 2010 and on into 2011. These churches all grew more than 20% across those 24 months: All Saints Tybee Island, Christ Church St. Marys, Christ Church, Savannah, St. Andrews Douglas, St. Anne’s Tifton, St. Elizabeths Richmond Hill, St. Luke’s Rincon, St. Patrick’s Albany, and St. Thomas, Thomasville.

Two prime examples are Christ Church Savannah which has grown in attendance by 162% from 2007 to 2012 with average Sunday attendance climbing from 75 to 199. Now, of course, their story is unique, but don’t dismiss their growth too quickly as they gained momentum while worshiping on Sunday evenings in another church and so had no signs by the road or ongoing space. And yes, they have grown forty percent while back in their historic home on Johnson Square, but lots of downtown churches would find that growth something to envy and it simply can not be explained by the building alone. It can better be explained by the joy found in the community that gathers there. Joy that built when their future was uncertain and has been sustained in a new setting.

And our host congregation of St. Anne’s here in Tifton is also a place of great energy and joy and they grew fifty-five percent as attendance went from 98 to 151 from 2008 to 2011.

Do not hear me saying that Sunday attendance is the only sign of health or that if your church is not gaining members that you are not being faithful. But I do hope that you will see plainly that Episcopal Churches can and do grow in our diocese right now from Tybee to Thomasville and Augusta to St. Marys. Our churches grow in the discipleship of their members and they grow numerically in attendance and in financial giving and most importantly in sharing the faith with people who didn’t know that Christianity really does live up to its promise and potential when we live out our faith in community.

Your diocesan staff travels a lot. Bishop Benhase is not the only one out in the byways. I have been in most of your churches and Canon Willoughby and I have been in every region talking with leaders. We do see the problems. We know how clergy compensation is a challenge and how benefits are even more difficult as insurance prices rise. Thanks to Mary’s hard work, we’ve actually seen our insurance prices drop, but they are still a challenge. We know the anxiety of a congregation with less than 25 people of Sunday that is one uninsured major building issue away from going under and the congregations under 50 people on Sunday working to figure out how to arrange a priest so they can have the sacraments reliably when there is no way to pay a full-time priest. Then there are the congregations under 120 on Sunday who are in varying ways struggling with keeping a full time priest, a part-time organist and secretary and a barely functioning copier. As our churches get larger there are problems in providing the programs people expect without the staffing that the Baptist and Methodist churches nearby can afford and then the issues with connecting with people meaningfully so that they don’t wander out the back door of the church without anyone noticing. There are issues with pledge drives and fewer people willing to commit to the pledge and fewer still who give like their parents and grandparents did.

We do want to assist with these varying issues and we do what we can with a small staff. But as long as we focus on insurance and staffing and building maintenance, we will never get to the real issues which we face. Many of the approaches we are taking are designed to get at issues up under these issues. Our Church Development Institute, and annual conflict management workshop and the soon to be announced EQ workshop which works on emotional intelligence are all about helping prepare leaders, lay and ordained, to work in this changed context I have been describing. Our Peer Coaching Initiative which you’ll hear more about later is all about acknowledging the strengths already present in the wonderful priests and deacons of this Diocese and giving them the tools so that we can better support on another. Our new programs like Columba House are built from the ground up to empower young adults to be salt and light to their own generation. Our emphasis on Signature Ministries is simply working to follow through on the good ideas already put forth by Bishops Barnwell and Stuart.

We, your staff, don’t have all the answers. In fact, with our weekly email newsletter From the Field we try to share the wisdom already present around our Diocese. Each week, you can see what other congregations are doing and discern if it might be right for your context. This is decentralized information sharing designed to keep best practices out in front of us all, knowing that the Holy Spirit is our working all around the Diocese now and sharing what is going on can only help multiply the health and vitality.

Make no mistake, there is no simple way forward. The cultural changes are not a werewolf and so there is no silver bullet. While I am not sure what will work in your context, because context matters so much, I do know what won’t work in any church anywhere for long. Do not try to do things in order to grow church attendance or the church budget. The things you do for the purpose of growth or evangelism will be hollow. And if you, heaven forbid, attempt to be the church of what’s happening now, you will fall flat and should.

Whatever we do, it must be genuine, authentic, real. We should not do anything in order to grow the church. We should seek to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, working to be about his work in the world. There is no game to be played here. Being authentic matters a lot. All of us have highly sensitive BS alarms when someone is really just trying to sell us something. Making a difference will have to flow out of authentic Christian community and that is messy. And in that messy community of imperfect people, something marvelous will arise not when we concern ourselves not with doing church and certainly not with growing our churches. Something marvelous comes about when we let all that go and are the Body of Christ in our community.

And again, this is nothing new. Our longest serving bishop was the Rt. Rev. Frederick F. Reese who shepherded this Diocese from 1907 to 1936. In his 1929 address to this convention he said,

“Christianity is either a missionary religion or it is nothing,
and every Christian is a missionary
or he denies the faith in his life, if not in his words.”

The context may be changing and there may be more people claiming no religious affiliation than ever, but this only makes his words more true, not less. We either live into the faith that is in us, or we don’t. And if we do follow Jesus as we ought, then we will be an increasingly missionary diocese once more. Personally, I find this exciting. And looking to the good examples of faithful communities already in our midst bearing fruit, we should all be hopeful. But we need to be realistic about the challenges we face and then turn to face them together as we move forward in mission.

The theme of this convention comes from the exponential change that occurs when we don’t try to simply go about mission as if the mission of God is nothing more than food banks and clothes closets and soup kitchens. Likewise, we do not want huddle in our churches reading, studying and praying, as if God did not deeply desire that we go out into the world to make a difference in our communities. Instead we need both/and. We need to both know Christ and to make Christ known. We live into the mission of God as we both come to better know Christ through worship, prayer, scripture reading and study and to make Christ known as we go out in evangelism and service.

This dual focus on both building up the Body of Christ and going out into the world in love and service is the faithful Christian life which yields exponential results—sometimes thirty, sixty or even one hundred fold. When we say mission during this convention, we mean all of the above according to the gifts God has given you. And as we set about this work, we have every reason to be hopeful.