How Square is Your Church?

For the first half of the 1990s, Father Christopher Moore spent most of his Sunday mornings guest preaching in parishes across New Jersey.

Each week, he stood in another pulpit, gazing at another set of Episcopalians in another set of pews. He quickly spotted trends.

"I found an incredible similarity from church to church, even from service to service. It seemed like I kept seeing the same 20 people at 8 o'clock and the same 100 people at 10 o'clock," said Moore, who served as the Trenton-based Diocese of New Jersey's communications director. Today, he leads a parish in Pennsylvania.

Eventually, Moore made a master list of unspoken assumptions that governed life in these parishes, whether people knew it or not. His conclusions will disturb some leaders in the oldline Protestant churches that have struggled to reach new members and fulfill old missions in a changing culture.

Many of these churches claim to embrace diversity and openness. But what Moore has described, in a national clergy newsletter, are striking patterns of cultural uniformity that hinder growth and threaten the futures of many parishes. Churches, he concludes, are assumed to be institutions:

  • With about 120 attending worship. This shapes church facilities, staff and programs. However, one study found that about 80 percent of all Episcopal churches have 200 or fewer active members, in an age in which it takes about 250 to fund one priest.
  • That feature 19th-Century, Northern European music -- on a pipe organ. However, the recording industry says only 4 percent of Americans prefer classical music. It speaks volumes about Episcopal culture and style, said Moore, that church musicians have been the most outspoken critics of his article.
  • In which newcomers must adapt to the parish's "customs and traditions" rather than the parish adapting to the needs of others. Meanwhile, studies indicate that growing churches strive to address the concerns of visitors and new members in programs and services.
  • That constantly struggle for members and money. Meanwhile, some oldliners actually hail decline as proof that their churches are being faithful and "true to prophetic ministry" and, thus, fail to attract ordinary people who want easy, simplistic answers. With this logic, noted Moore, small must be good and big is bad.
  • That are too small to garner money and talent to build programs for persons of many ages and interests. Clearly, many parishes "simply do not possess the critical mass necessary to support ... specialized ministries" for singles, young parents and those in other niches, said Moore. "Let's face it: growing churches offer something for just about everyone."
  • In which the priest, alone, provides pastoral care. Thus, church membership "tops off" as the priest becomes stressed out and exhausted. Some members may drift away if the pastor doesn't visit them enough. Closely linked to this is another belief: All true ministry is centered in church programs, led by professionals.
  • That do not market themselves aggressively. They teach, by example, that faith is a private affair and never pushy or tacky. Moore found one illuminating statistic: the average Episcopalian invites a friend to church once every 27 years.

Experts differ on theology's role in growth, noted Moore. It is true that the vast majority of "megachurches" are conservative and, as one researcher put it, churches tend to grow when the pulpit is more conservative than the pews and decline when the pulpit is more liberal than the pews. Above all, growing churches are not afraid to be practical, to help people wrestle with the sins and puzzles of daily life, said Moore.

"You see that in these really big evangelical and charismatic churches, and even in the few liberals ones that exist," he said. "It's a kind of Christianity you can plug into real-life situations Monday through Friday at your job, with your kids or in your marriage. ... In too many of our churches there's no sense of urgency, no sense that you need to go out that very day and do something that will make a difference."