Is the Church Dying? Part 1

A few weeks ago, on the heels of the Episcopal Church’s General Council, Ross Douthat wrote a column in The New York Times asking that question. A dear friend of mine sent me an offline email suggesting I consider the topic for a blog since we’ve had a number of discussions of a similar vein and she knew I’d have an opinion or two. I’ve been stewing about it since. Here’s where I’ve gotten so far.

I’m a social scientist by passion and training, skilled in both the art and practice of the scientific method and the critical thinking required to identify patterns and trends and attempt to assign meaning to them for the purpose of diagnosis and prognosis. It only made sense to me to approach the question from this vantage point.

One of the first tasks involved in designing an experiment is to define, for clarity’s sake, what it is that one intends to study and how it is that she will measure it in quantifiable terms. We call that an operational definition. For example, if I am studying the comfort of a chair, because the word “chair” evokes a different picture in the mind of different people, I must try to ensure that anyone who reads my report knows exactly what I mean when I say the word. Before I go off half-cocked (as far as you’re concerned) and conclude that a chair is comfortable, you need to know that I’m talking about a recliner, and not a folding chair. Likewise with regard to the word “church.”

This word has two very different meanings for me. One is an entirely man-made institution, complete with rules of membership, measures of good-standing, a board of directors, and a CEO. It’s measured either by the size of the building in which meetings take place, the number of people in the seats on certain days of the week, and the number of dollars in the bank account. Let one of its CEOs write a book or get on TV and usually, for a time, all of the numbers go up.

The other has members, too, but the measurement of its health is much more intangible. Money may be involved, but not necessarily. Sheer numbers may be involved, too. But mostly, this church is measured by the fruit of the labor of its members. It’s not always obvious–sometimes the fruit appears quickly, sometimes it’s years later before the seeds sprout into plants. And sometimes, nobody sees it at all except God.

For the purposes of description, let’s call the first one CHURCH 1 and the other CHURCH 2.

There are some who are members of both, some who are members of only one, and some who are members of neither. I think of it, mathematician that I am, as a Venn diagram:



Envisioned in this way, I would suggest that CHURCH 1 is made up of those who would call themselves “religious” and CHURCH 2 is made up of those who would call themselves “spiritual.” Those in the red region might call themselves both spiritual and religious. Those in the blue might call themselves neither spiritual nor religious. You get the picture.

Based on these operational definitions of “church,” here’s my best shot at answering the title question: Yes and No. CHURCH 1 is dying. CHURCH 2 is alive and kicking and ain’t going anywhere.

Stay tuned.

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