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At the end of my 2004 faith crisis, when I realized that I didn’t want to be identified as evangelical, I felt lost. Nobody likes to be labeled, but it’s scary to not know where you belong.

It was around this time that I began visiting the local Episcopal church, where friends I respected — smart, bespectacled types with good taste in books and music — had already found their places in the pews. There, I was surprised to find that I loved the liturgy. I grew up in charismatic churches, attended by an inordinate amount of former Catholics who left the faith of their families, declaring it stale, spiritually dead, and too ritualistic to allow for any movement of the spirit. I grew up among ex-Catholic Catholic bashers.

When I began attending Catholic high school and was forced to attend mass semi-regularly, I was prepared to be bored and maybe even a bit offended. But I wasn’t.  I remember talking to my mom one day after school and telling her that I might have felt the spirit there in that multi-purpose auditorium where the services were held. Sometime between the short homily and communion, where I sat awkwardly with the Asian kids as our Catholic friends climbed over us to reach the aisle, I felt something like the hair-raising tingle that I knew only from prayer services and youth rallies.

But I guess I forgot about all this when I went away to Christian college. I settled back into the praise bands, projector screens, and emotive worship songs. Though, I never could raise my hands or “speak in tongues” again.

So the liturgy I experienced at the Episcopal church reminded me of the quiet movement of the spirit I remembered feeling in high school, except this time I could actually participate in the eucharist. It took some time before my wife and I settled comfortably in the Episcopal church — when we moved to New York we followed the requisite path to Redeemer, than to a Redeemer plant, before remembering, just at the nick of time, that we felt most at home as Episcopalians.

And there, in the two churches we’ve been actively involved in these past years — first in Jersey City and now in Cambridge, MA — I’ve been delighted to find many young post-evangelical types like me. They share my story of moving away from the churches they grew up in, searching around for a place to belong, and finally finding a home. But, thankfully, I don’t just find people like me. In each of these churches, my wife and I have been delighted to be a part of richly diverse communities where we don’t check our differences at the door, but celebrate them in eclectic masses filled with songs sung in tongues — and here I mean tongues as in the languages of our fellow parishioners.

So, I found it difficult to square this admittedly anecdotal experience with Ross Douthat’s death nell of a column in the New York Times this past weekend. I can’t argue with the numbers, and Douthat is not the first to recount them. Certainly attendance in the Episcopal church is decreasing, but, as many of the critics of Douthat’s piece have pointed out, church attendance is decreasing across the board. But what most disturbed me about Douthat’s assessment is his suggestion that Episcopal church’s self-conscious progressivism, as he calls it, is the cause of this decline. On first reading, I wanted to reject this. This is precisely what drew my friends and I to the church, I argued in my head.

Then, I stopped arguing. I started to square this assertion with some other data I’d read recently, and some that Douthat himself includes in his column. He notes, “The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.” And I remembered a conversation I had over breakfast in Tribeca with a fellow blogger of the more conservative persuasion. We agreed that conservative churches, for a number of reasons, are better at growing their numbers. I suggested that they do this by providing a salve for our most basic ills — our fear of change and difference, our need to be told what to do, our aversion to gray areas.

If these are the churches that grow, should it be any surprise that a denomination that chooses to live in the gray, that welcomes diversity, and promises no respite from controversy and questioning, should see its numbers shrink at a greater rate than its conservative counterparts? And, why are we measuring the success of what should be a counter-cultural institution by its popularity?

While I can’t argue that the Episcopal church’s membership is declining, I do take issue with several others of Douthat’s poorly supported claims. It’s always dangerous to make the kind of across the board assertions that he makes at the end of his second paragraph about the Episcopal church, “But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.” This is particularly dangerous when talking about a denomination that has a great deal of flexibility at its core, as indicated (but not mentioned in Douthat’s column) by the recent news out of The General Convention of the Episcopal Church that ministers have discretion over whether or not they choose to bless same sex unions.

But more annoying to me, perhaps because it hits closer to home, is his unsupported suggestion that “instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.” Though there is solid evidence that church attendance is decreasing (dying is, of course, just sensationalizing the matter), he provides no proof that the church is not attracting a younger, more open minded demographic. It is conceivable that while attendance is decreasing, young, open-minded people are becoming attracted to the church. Again, I know it’s just anecdotal — you can bet I’ll be doing a bit of research on this — but my experience works against Douthat’s claim.

And I think it’s bigger than me and my friends. Others have noticed the attraction that former-evangelicals feel toward liturgical worship, and many do find their home in the Episcopal church.

But the bottom line is, though it may seem self-evident that declining church attendance is evidence of something gone wrong, would we rather see churches that accommodate society’s ills grow? Isn’t it more likely that a faith that asks more than we can naturally give, that compels us to believe in things we can’t see, and calls us to live in ways that are counter to our own self interests, would find itself at odds with the prevailing culture?

In my experience, the Episcopal church doesn’t ask parishioners to agree wholesale with every precept in the Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes this is frustrating, as in a recent confirmation class I attended where a classmate intimated that she wasn’t sure she believed in sin. The old evangelical in me wanted to shake her shoulders and suggest she leave. But mostly this means that we journey together, each at different places and constantly extending grace to one another. This is not a great growth model, but it sure looks a lot like the kingdom Jesus describes.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

  • http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/ Kevin Davis

    Amen and amen! It seems that conservatives have replaced Luther’s theology of the cross with a triumphalist theology of glory.

    Your own experience is similar to my own, as I have recently discussed on my own blog. I could have easily mentioned both the liturgy and the greater diversity as part of my own attraction to the PCUSA. However, many “post-evangelicals” have not gone to the mainline Protestant churches; rather, if they haven’t left church altogether, many are becoming Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The reason, in my opinion, is because the R.C. and E.O. are still socially conservative, which is a difficult thing for many post-evangelicals to drop altogether. Plus, the R.C. and E.O. provide the epistemological security of Church authority, paralleling the evangelical security of an inerrant Scripture. When combined, social conservatism and an historic authoritarian structure are very attractive features for a disaffected evangelical.

    • Tom Hunter

      My partner and I joined the Episcopal Church about 6 years ago (I was 66 then) precisely because of the qualities you found attractive coming from another tradition. The congregation was welcoming, liturgical, theologically informed but not doctrinaire, reasonably conscious of social and environmental issues and had a healthy, not stuffy, sense of history. Besides all that, we have really good music to sing and enjoy. What more could an aging gay man want?
      Thanks for your response to the Douthat article. He has verbal and writing skills, but is a bit short on sorting out facts from his bias.

  • Patrick Sawyer

    Jonathan,

    You said, “Sometimes this is frustrating, as in a recent confirmation class I attended where a classmate intimated that she wasn’t sure she believed in sin. The old evangelical in me wanted to shake her shoulders and suggest she leave.”

    Jonathan, with sincere respect, the above statement is a good microcosm of one of the things that plagues liberal and post-evangelical commentary. It creates a caricature of reality, essentially a straw-man, and attempts to rebuke it. And then, along the way, it fails to underscore the obvious.

    In reference to your statement I quoted above, my friend, that is NOT what an authentic evangelical would do. Authentic evangelicals are real Christians. Real Christians would not “shake her shoulders and ask her to leave”. Real Christians, as a primary disposition, are the opposite of self-righteous. That attitude is a flawed caricature of true evangelicalism. And then there is a failure to underscore the obvious, which is, if an authentic evangelical would in fact do such a thing, he or she would be sinning and be misrepresenting what Christ would have him or her to do, and moreover, would not be giving an accurate representation of what it means to be evangelical.

    In addition, if that type of thing were to happen, the Holy Spirit would also bring the authentic evangelical to repentance over his or her self-righteuos display, even prompting him or her to seek out the girl and ask for her forgiveness.

    With that said, an authentic Christian/evangelical response would be to gently and lovingly plead with the girl who is holding such a view that such a view is deleterious to her soul and her eternity if left unchanged. Reminding her that, among other things, Christ has revealed in His word, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10). She should also be reminded of Luke 5 and Mark 2 where Jesus says He ONLY seeks relationships with those who understand their sin and desperate need of Him. And moreover when they do, when they do come to that understanding, there is abundant grace and mercy for them.

    This is what it would mean to authentically “extend grace to one another”. Hopefully that took place.

    • F. Hugh Magee

      Sin is bullshit.

      • Beeper812

        In what way, F. Hugh?

  • Gentry

    Merhinks he takes the shaking of shoulders reaction too literally.

    According to our Bishops the Diocese of MA is actually growing. If so, they’ve clearly benefitted from leaders straight outta Gordon and GCTS.

  • Josiah

    My church story is rather similar to yours. Thanks for sharing.

    And to add to your anecdotal evidence of a younger generation attending Episcopal churches: I just graduated from a small, Christian liberal arts school in the rural Midwest. The Episcopal church that I attended was comprised mostly of older local couples (a few families) and then younger professors and students from the school I went to – those typically on the more progressive side of things but all very serious about their faith. It’s been a good experience and my wife and I will be looking for Episcopal churches close to our next location.

  • F. Hugh Magee

    Sin is bullshit!

    • Tom

      Can you contribute anything more than blatant provocation?

  • Derick T

    You forgot to mention that another thing that draws people into the Episcopal Church is that it is the only religious body in America that has consistently a haven for good choirs, nice organs- the most consistent guardian of High Church culture left in the US.

    I appreciated your article. My experience however, is closer to what Kevin Davis mentioned, in that I was a disaffected evangelical to ended up Catholic while still living in Indiana. There is strong social conservatism in both Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but my experience is that social conservatism is balanced with compassion towards people.

    I certainly have a great appreciation the Episcopal Church, especially given that my Catholic parish where I now live in Idaho has nothing but guitar/piano-bar Masses. The musical culture of the Episcopal Church has much more in common with the stubborn old-school Bach&Mozart-loving German Catholics in my Indiana home.

  • Jennifer

    I don’t care if we are losing members. We are a much better place for it!

  • Deb S

    Mr. Fitzgerald: I’m glad you’ve found home in the Episcopal Church and I agree with most of the reasons you’ve cited for the growth of the more fundamental churches–i.e. in uncertain times, it helps to provide answers and that is the reason these churches are growing. As an Episcopal priest (and someone committed to evangelism), I think there’s another issue at foot. Namely, for a very long time, it was considered in poor taste to reach out and evangelize. I find my parishioners so inclusive that they find it difficult to say what they believe in. The religion sociologists term this “The Great Commandment” type of Christianity. Frank Schaeffer posted a good article recently about the failure of the more ‘liberal’ (I hate using this term) denominations in reaching out to disaffected evangelicals. I think that until we (Episcopalians and others) can be clear about what it is that we DO stand for, we will continue seeing a decrease in our membership. Another reason the evangelical churches grow is that their members see it as their Christian duty to tell the story about Jesus. Would that Episcopalians had half the fervor to do that, we might not be shrinking.

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  • http://leadingchurch.com Paul VanderKlay

    There is blessing and resilience in the diversity of the church. I’m amazed at how people can find space in a church that runs counter to their profession in dramatic ways. It happens all the time. People are complex with many layers. God sneaks into our lives in ways we never imagine he could. Thanks for the post.

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  • Betty Mac

    “It was around this time that I began visiting the local Episcopal church, where friends I respected — smart, bespectacled types with good taste in books and music — had already found their places in the pews.” Ahh, yes, nothing in that statement smacks of narcissism and vanity about your approach to faith. Perhaps you’d get the same from worshiping with the beautiful people when you pick up your morning latte and save your weekends for poetry readings and independent film?

  • Bill Norton

    To Patrick Sawyer…thanks for your words and your example. As a journalist who came to faith in Christ in 1999, I’ve made a habit of watching how my peers in the print press have used and applied the term evangelical to people of faith. By my unscientific sampling, I’d say the term is misused and misunderstood 9 of out every 10 times it appears in print. While I never intended to be evangelical once I got up off my knees, I was led to a church so Jesus-centered, so compassionate, so giving, so loving, I knew I was “home” the moment I entered the vestibule. Turned out to be an independent Baptist church that humbly served our Lord evangelically. I am saddened when I read terms like liberal and conservative and progressive when applied the churches or denominations. I’m equally saddened by terms like “post-evangelical.” Such terms quickly become pejorative because it implies the “post evangelical” is somehow superior or has found a “better way.” Maybe what they have found is a way that of worship that better suits their personality or worship preferences. If Christ remains the center of the worship style, amen to that. But I didn’t notice the Lord mentioned once in Mr. Fitzgerald’s piece.

    • Patrick Sawyer

      Bill,

      Thanks for your kind words. As you essentially indicate, the term evangelical has been so misused it has lost its true meaning. I am in secular academia currently doing a piece on the crises of meaning plaguing the word “democracy”. The word evangelical is in similar straits. Best.

      • Bill Norton

        Patrick,

        I’d love to at least see the outlines your approach to your research. I am engaged in research of how media critics employed what I call the “failure frame” to U.S. print and television reportage of the run up to and then the invasion of Iraq. i can be reached at wbnjr49@gmail.com. And again thanks for your thoughtful post earlier.

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  • JRP

    Jonathan,

    I appreciate your article and believe I have much in common with you–including that I recently moved to greater Boston (Somerville). Which church do you attend? My wife and I are currently hunting…

    Thanks,
    JRP

    • http://www.jonathandfitzgerald.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

      Woah! Sorry to have missed this so long ago. I wonder if you’re still hunting (or still reading). We go to St. James’ in Porter Square.

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  • Emily O

    I’m a college senior, born and raised LCMS Lutheran. In high school and especially in my first two years of college, I was very attracted to nondenominational and evangelical models of church life. For my first three years of college, I attended (as regularly as I could) a charismatic, nondenominational, evangelical church.

    Then one of the elders gave a sermon entirely about political values, espousing conservative politics “from the pulpit” with little mention of anything biblical or theological for 45 minutes. While that instance alone didn’t push me out the door, it certainly exemplifies the alienation I began to feel because of my politically liberal values.

    An author and some professors I admire all attend Episcopal churches – and I have to admit that it’s the presence of thinkers I admire that makes me want to explore the Episcopal Church as a worship option for myself.

  • Alicia

    Your experience squares with mine: from the surprising love of the liturgy, to the draw for intellectual and artistic types, to the space for questions and differences. I’m fairly new to the Episcopal church after a lifetime of various evangelical flavors (Baptist, Bible, Charismatic). Our church reflects exactly the diversity you describe: a variety of ages, opinions, walks of life. I love that there are so many older folks that share their wisdom (we sadly buried two just this week), but the church is also flooded with a baby boom from the many young families that attend.

  • William Larson

    The Episcopal church is apostate. The trappings of Word and sacrament belie a common belief of universalism and Unitarianism.

    Is the Episcopal Church evangelical? No. It considers the spreading of the Gospel to be nothing more than proselytism.

    Does the Episcopal Church believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation? No. It believes that Judaism, and Islam worship the same God as the Christian. In that context they proclaim to the world that they don’t know Jesus. The Christian Church is a has historically worshiped a Triune God – Father, Son and Spirit, a thought that is altogether foreign to the Muslim and the Jew.

  • George Waite

    If this church is so welcoming, why is it so White and middle/upper middle class; with over forty years of “celebrate diversity” behind it, shouldn’t it be over 5% non-White? If all you’re getting is ex-catholics and ex-Fundies and a steady crop of gays who are into it for the church show tunes, what’s the point? Ideologically, you’ve become a mirror image of the Fundiegelicals.
    I’m so glad I don’t waste time and effort and money on religion. You can mince around in chasubles and pretend that there’s a Grampa in the Clouds-or a Granma or a Transgendered Ghost or whatever; I’m going to sleep in and not bother.

  • eli

    I tried the Episcopalian and Lutheran church in my area because I love the liturgy and wanted to attend a church that was more accepting of my doubts and questions. My problem with those churches was that, though on the surface they were very accepting, I never felt like I belonged because I’m not politically (more accurately, economically) progressive. I heard a lot of hatred while sitting around drinking coffee after worship for anyone with different political beliefs. They were great with many types of diversity- race, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc but not very good at understanding that people of good will can come to different conclusions on how to help the poor. I absolutely believe Christians are called to help the poor, clothe the naked, etc but I was bothered by the people who thought that anyone opposing government doing the feeding necessarily hated the poor. I don’t expect all Christians agree with my beliefs- I just wanted a little tolerance, love, and some of that open-mindedness I thought I would find.

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