What Grows & Kills Churches?


Yesterday my colleague Jeff Walton posted about the opening of Falls Church Anglican’s glorious new sanctuary outside Washington, DC. Their history is extraordinary. George Washington served on the parish vestry, and the original historic sanctuary dated to the 1760s. After the Episcopal Church elected its first openly homosexual bishop in 2003, igniting a schism, The Falls Church, one of that denomination’s larger congregations, quit to help form the new Anglican Church in North America, aligned with growing Anglicanism in the Global South.

After litigation, Falls Church Anglican lost its property and was forced into seven years of roaming, which included often meeting at a Catholic high school in Arlington, Virginia. Its new sanctuary, costing more than $20 million, has a very prominent place in Fairfax County, its steeple now looming over busy Route 50, a major commuter route. It’s also now closer to ethnically more diverse communities.

Despite litigation, losing its original historic property, and having no permanent base for much of the last 7 years, Falls Church Anglican has continued to thrive. As Jeff noted, it has more than 2000 members, and its new sanctuary seats up to 1,000. But more impressively, even after losing its property, it founded eight new congregations in the DC area and beyond, which now have collective membership of nearly 1500. The Episcopal congregation that retains Falls Church Anglican’s old original property cannot match this record. Of course, the Episcopal Church like all liberal Protestant denominations in America and around the world, is fast declining. It’s lost half its membership since the 1960s and 27% just since 2003.

A recent column featured this headline: “Is Political Activism Responsible for the Decline of the Episcopal Church?” It explained: “The Episcopal Church, and indeed most of the mainline Protestant denominations, have traded the wants and needs of their parishioners for alignment with the social and political views of what passes in this country for the intelligentsia.” There’s a lot of truth here. The social and political views of Mainline Protestant seminaries closely align with secular academia, and many if not most Mainline clergy parrot those views.

But the politics predominant among Mainline Protestant elites are not, I think, the utmost cause of their 55 year-long implosion, although the membership decline correlates with their increasing political radicalization in the 1960s. The politics in many cases became — if not a complete substitute — then at least a supplement to the Gospel’s call for salvation, repentance and transformation. Early in the 20th Century the Social Gospel, in its frenzy to reform society, shifted from soul saving to political utopianism. The Liberation Theology of the 1960s-1980s amplified this shift.

Theological Modernism, which minimized or denied Christianity’s supernatural aspects, is now mostly over. Liberal Protestantism is now comfortable with miracles and divine interventions. But soul winning still is not very large on its agenda. The LGBTQIA++ movement with which nearly all of liberal Protestantism now identifies is especially focused on affirmation rather than transformation. Under this rubric, church becomes a self-celebration. But the historic Gospel is ultimately about self-denial and following Christ to the cross.

Self-celebration with its wide and easy path superficially seems more appealing. But religions that demand little to nothing typically command few adherents and little energy. They make few converts. Why should they? Everybody is already wonderful! And everyone can self-celebrate at home, without need of church or other institutions. Growing religions, Christian or otherwise, intuit that all humanity realizes in some sense its spiritual quandary and is in search of redemption. Movements and organizations, religious or not, that are energetic and growing call for sacrifice in pursuit of a higher good. They don’t focus on self-celebration, which only leads to futility.

Growing churches like Falls Church Anglican understand their mission ultimately is to seek and save famished souls with the Gospel’s unique message of redemption in Jesus Christ. Much of the old Episcopal Church, at least in its national policies, and like the rest of USA Mainline Protestantism, is largely captive to self-celebration. For the churches that have historic liturgies, or hymnals, the old language about sin and salvation is still there. Doubtless many still hear it and believe it. But it’s not the dominant message. Governing conventions of liberal Protestant denominations don’t focus on calls to soul saving. They prefer, more banally and vaguely, to stress inclusivity, without fully explaining the inclusion’s ultimate purpose. Most of their seminaries are similar.

For much of liberal Protestantism, politics fills some of the vacuum left by vague theology. If the church is not about soul saving, then it can be about saving the environment, or expanding the welfare state, or reducing USA military spending. But contrary to the headline of the earlier mentioned column, I don’t think political advocacy is a major focus in typical Mainline Protestant congregations, or of itself a major cause for decline. Most clergy prefer to avoid needless controversy. The political stances of national denominations are mostly unmentioned in typical local Mainline congregations. But also mostly unmentioned is the imperative of winning souls to Christ. And without evangelism, churches stagnate, decline and die.

Churches in liberal denominations aren’t the only ones failing to evangelize and consequently declining. Plenty of conservative churches, while theoretically committed to spreading the faith, have become insular and evangelistically indifferent. Evangelism is not just about adopting a stance, it is commitment to action. Growing churches almost always act on this commitment. Falls Church Anglican, based on its steady growth, and confirmed by my personal observation in the community across decades, is dedicated to winning new people to Christ. Most of the old declining Episcopal Church that it left behind, and to which it lost its historic property, is not.