What church statistics conceal

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I’ve read with interest and appreciation a post from Living Church’s Covenant blog on “The Growth and Decline of the Anglican Church in North America.”  Jeremy Bonner and David Goodhew make some helpful big picture observations on ACNA church membership and attendance statistics.  So my observations here should be taken as a supplement, not a criticism.  (And I should confess at the beginning that I am no statistician.)

My main observation is that although church statistics, when compiled diligently, are a good measure of baptisms, those joining, those attending and those dying, they are not and really cannot be a good measure of those being repelled.

Yes, when a denomination is bleeding members like The Episcopal Church of recent decades, one can be sure there is a lot of repelling going on.  But in more normal situations where growth or decline is slow or, as in ACNA’s case, the numbers are overall holding their own, it is largely conjecture how many are being repelled and why.  With the reader’s forbearance, I will use myself to illustrate while not presuming how common or uncommon my experience is.

Too many years ago, it was time for me to move away from my college town.  There I was an active member in a mainline Presbyterian church.  But I was so provoked by the apostasy and Leftist political activism of the denomination that I determined whatever new church I joined would not be in that denomination.

Now the church statistics eventually reflected I left the Presbyterians, but never told why I left. And that is no fault of the statistics nor of that local Presbyterian Church.  (I let them know I was moving, but do not recalling telling them I was done with the denomination.)  For all the statistics reveal, I did not have a Presbyterian Church near my new home or could have fallen away from churchgoing altogether.  Other than when someone departs to the church triumphant, church statistics usually reveal little about why someone leaves.  How many are repelled is a guess and perhaps a wildly inaccurate one.

Even more beyond the reach of church statistics are those who might have considered joining a church but were repelled even before visiting.  That has been the case between the Episcopal Church and me . . . twice.  During the aforementioned move, I rejected TEC quickly for one reason: Spong.  Influenced by Francis Schaeffer in my youth, as I still am, I was convinced that a church that doesn’t care enough about truth to discipline the likes of John Shelby Spong doesn’t care enough about truth, period.  So the toleration of Bishop Spong wrote off TEC for me immediately.

Some years later, as I was moving again, my attitude toward TEC was more complicated.  By that time, I had become very interested in Anglicanism.  I was even open to joining the Episcopal Church providing the diocese I was joining was strongly orthodox.  But when I saw that the TEC bishop in my new area was wimpily orthodox at best, I bypassed the several Episcopal Churches in town to join the only non-TEC Anglican church in town.  (And I thank God that has been an excellent church home for me.)

Thus the Episcopal Church by its lack of orthodoxy and discipline drove me away so that I did not join in the first place, along with untold others who might be interested but consider it a no-go denomination due to heterodoxy.  But we will not show up in their statistics.

With this and similar problems with church statistics in mind, let’s take a quick look at one of several issues in the Anglican Church in North America for which statistics provide little guidance.

To put it bluntly, ACNA has something of a Spong problem.  No, ACNA does not have any heretic bishops.  By a “Spong problem” in this context I mean that the most prominent public voices of ACNA, with the exception of Archbishop Foley Beach, tend to be to outside or barely in the mainstream of ACNA.  They are not apostate, but they tend to be less traditional and more Neo-Evangelical than most orthodox Anglicans, and they tend to be more wedded to Liberal/Left political activism.  Thus, like Spong, their profiles and words are of a kind prone to drive traditional Anglicans and many other orthodox Christians away

To be fair, there is no question these voices have attracted some people to ACNA.  I personally know of a woman drawn in by Tish Harrison Warren.  And the diocese home to several of these voices and somewhat notorious within ACNA for being less traditional and more politically active, the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO), has been growing and fast.  The same could not be said for the TEC Diocese of Newark, which practically imploded under Spong’s leadership.

The rest of ACNA is treading water statistically as the Covenant article examines.  There’s been growth in some areas, shrinkage in others, but overall the numbers are about the same.  Yes, that is better than most U. S. denominations can say.  One could conclude from the statistics that the rest of ACNA should become more like C4SO, as some pockets already have.  I can confidently say from the inside that would be a disastrous conclusion.

For C4SO is akin to what many orthodox Anglicans have fled from and will flee again if forced. I know of several who have either left other ACNA dioceses or are thinking about leaving due to “wokeness.” Personally, I know that if I were to move now to an area with a good ACNA church and a good Continuing Anglican church, I would likely pick the Continuing Anglican church.  But, again, whereas statistics reflect C4SO’s growth well, the statistics do not measure how much Neo-evangelicalism and wokeness from C4SO and elsewhere in ACNA are repelling people.  The situation may be better or worse than I suspect; we just do not know, and the statistics are not much help.

One may already notice these observations beg some important questions.  Among those is how much should one focus on numbers in the first place.  Healthy ambition for the growth of the Lord’s work is commendable.  But it has been noted that the heavy emphasis put on numerical church growth at ACNA’s founding has led to trouble.  Fr. Raymond Kasch has expressed this well:

“The problems facing ACNA go back to the DNA set in 2009. When I heard the numerical goals as a delegate in Texas I thought that was a mistake. Numerical goals tend to make you compromise to meet them. Faithfulness to the truth should be the goal. Numerical goals have you ordain and consecrate folks who are not ready because they hopefully help you reach the goal. Numerical goals have you abandon sacred traditions in lieu of “missional” options in hopes that they will prove more user friendly…. Numerical goals have you ignore biblical standards for ordination to include those who should never be ordained in order to avoid schism. Numerical goals promote politics rather than apostolic authority…”

And the ministry and teaching of Jesus at times drove away as many people as it attracted.  We probably should not try to drive away people, other than predators and false teachers.  But if our orthodoxy and faithfulness does not repel some, we should question if we really are being orthodox and faithful.  People walked away from Jesus; some will walk away from us if we are faithful. (Yes, I do think our Southern Baptist brethren are experiencing this now.)  But if the faithful themselves are the ones walking away or looking for the exits, that should alarm us.

Discernment in how to achieve numerical growth is necessary.  And ACNA’s approach so far reminds me of a town so eager to grow that it invites a large bar and outdoor music venue and hastily locates it in the middle of a residential neighborhood, impelling the residents to move away.  The new misplaced venue may be a great success in itself, but at what cost to the community?  But now I have touched on a larger subject.

Back to the original subject, church statistics can measure growth well, and the Diocese of C4SO is clearly doing something right.  What church statistics do not measure well is how ACNA’s approaches to growth may be harming the church as a whole and driving faithful people away.  The need for ACNA’s bishops to take this to heart may be more urgent than statistics reveal.