So much of the conversation about the challenges facing the church today is missing the point. In all the discussion of how to spur renewed participation and giving, activate members, or even get people to connect “missionally” with the neighborhood, the underlying spiritual crisis in many churches never gets named or addressed.
Renewalworks, a ministry of Forward Movement that uses a survey instrument to assess the spiritual growth of congregational members, has just completed a white paper summarizing their learnings from 12,000 Episcopalians in 200 congregations across the country. It offers a devastating picture of the spiritual health of The Episcopal Church that I suspect could likely apply to many other mainline denominations.
Most of the survey respondents are longtime members who fit the denomination’s demographic profile (older, white, relatively affluent). Many attend Sunday services but don’t feel personally responsible for practicing faith outside of worship. Some are interested in going deeper spiritually but don’t know what steps to take.
On a spiritual continuum from initial spiritual exploration to spiritual maturity (God as the most important relationship in one’s life), here is how the respondents located themselves:
- Exploring a life with God in Christ: 18%
- Growing in a life with God in Christ: 55%
- Deepening in a life with God in Christ: 23%
- Centered in a life with God and Christ.: 4%
In other words, nearly three quarters of these Episcopalians are stuck in the first two stages of spiritual growth, even though the majority have been part of their churches for a decade or more. Many want help learning spiritual practices (for instance, how to pray) but feel their congregations are not providing this. They look to clergy for spiritual leadership, but the majority have never discussed their spiritual life with them. Many clergy feel overwhelmed and distracted by other tasks.
Episcopal congregations fit into three primary archetypes:
- Troubled (55%): Their members are restless and desire more spiritual growth, but they feel that congregational life is not helping them.
- Extroverted (23%): These congregations are deeply committed to serving their neighbors but struggle to connect this service to God.
- Complacent (21%): These congregations have low expectations and are resistant to change.
My own work with congregations has convinced me that talk of missional transformation often meets resistance because many church members don’t know the Christian story very well, don’t have functioning spiritual practices in their lives (beyond Sunday worship), and are ambivalent about embracing discipleship as their core identity. Those willing to take a deeper missional journey have often been through intentional spiritual formation experiences like Cursillo or EFM (Education for Ministry) or have backgrounds in evangelical churches or connections to monastic communities.
There are no quick fixes. The issues are much bigger than congregational life; they derive from late modern culture itself. But now is the time to turn our collective attention to the challenges of forming Christian community and apprenticing people into the Christian life in today’s culture. This must become our primary focus. So much energy is being spent on renewal and vitality efforts (to say nothing of reorganization and restructuring) that never get at this deeper crisis. In The Episcopal Church, it’s wonderful to talk about being “the Jesus Movement,” but unless we help people understand and operationalize what this means in their daily lives, it will be a mere slogan.
The Renewalworks study offers some hopeful pathways forward: the centrality of engagement with scripture, the introduction of simple spiritual practices, the importance of the Eucharist, and the critical role played by spiritually-centered leaders. I’m grateful to Renewalworks for the service they’re providing the church with this work, and for the congregations that have taken the risk of discovering where their people are at spiritually. That is itself a courageous step.
You can read the full white paper here: RenewalWorks White paper-10-17b
 For an important exploration of the nature of the faith formation challenge, see my colleague Andy Root’s latest book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age.