Friday, February 8, 2013

The Episcopal Church Has a PR Problem

Last week, I read an article on the NPR about the causes of low church attendance by young people. According to a recent study, one-third of Americans under the age of thirty answered "none" to their religious preference. As a young person who attends church, I have noticed this trend for quite some time. I sadly say that I am almost used to being the youngest adult in church.

(In fact, I am so much younger than the rest of the congregation that I am often thought of as being even younger than I actually am. Just the other Sunday, a well-meaning older woman referred me to organization in Hawaii that helps young girls that have unwanted pregnancy. Imagine her mortification when I told her I was both twenty-three years old, married, and have another baby at home. Bless her heart.)

I was happy that the article was able to correctly identify the two-fold reason young people are less religious: social issues the church represents and the spiritual needs the church meets. I expanded on both of these problems in my early blog post, How the Episcopal Church Can Attract Young Adults. My post was focused more on how specific churches can attract young people, instead of entire denominations or religions. How the Episcopal Church can attract more young people is an entirely different issue, but I have a few suggestions.

1. The Episcopal Church has a PR Problem: One of the points that the NPR article made was that church leaders are on the right of social issues that the majority of young people are on the left of. But the Episcopal Church is one of the most socially liberal denominations out there! Really, if you are a person who thinks that God loves everyone, with absolutely no exceptions, then the Episcopal Church is for you. We embrace gay people, transgender people, and women in leadership positions. The Episcopal Church focuses on ministry to criminal prisoners, political prisoners, illegal immigrants, the homeless and poor, and those in disaster areas. The Episcopal Church shuns violence and war. But when I talk to non-Episcopalians about the Episcopal Church, I hear two stereotypes: the presidents' church and similarity to Catholicism. The Episcopal Church has a public relations problem; the public thinks Episcopalians are old, white, rich, and don't read the same Bible they do. As a person who is young, biracial, lower-middle class, and reads the New Testament every Lenten season, I know this is not true. But until the public knows there are Episcopalians like me exist, we won't be able to attract more Episcopalians like me.

2. We seriously need to stop fighting: Not everyone in the Episcopal Church has realized the similarities between "liberal social issues" and the teachings of Jesus Christ. A few years ago there were major schisms when a gay bishop was added to the House of Bishops. Now, the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina is trying to secede from the Church. I don't know how we can stop the outrageously public and embarrassing fighting that we are doing as a Church without just telling people to go read the Bible, for Christ's sake, you. are. wrong. But the more that we fight and refuse to compromise, the more people will not want to call themselves Episcopalians. I personally would not want to join a church that was always fighting; why would I want to join a denomination that does?

3. We need to do outreach to young adults: Some dioceses in the Episcopal Church have entire diocesan ministries to support local churches to attract and outreach young adults, but the diocese of Hawaii and Eastern Carolina do not. I have actually never been to a church that has a young adult ministry and, the few times I have mentioned it, I am told that the church ministers to college students. Hello? That is not the same thing. If you want to make the Episcopal Church a habit for young adults after they leave school, you need to minister to them. You need to create groups for them to socially interact. You need to be involved in social media. You need to find ways they can involve themselves in the function of the church. You need to have a nursery for their young children. You need to stop asking them to be stewards of the church when they are trying to pay off student loans.

"The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority." 

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that in 1963 and, like most of the things he said and wrote, has never been more true than today. Many Episcopalian churches are becoming a social club for old people. It doesn't need to be this way! But without the help of the next generation, the teachings of Jesus Christ will be forgotten or distorted beyond meaning.
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