Virginia diocese admits aversion to starting new churches

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     Virginia Episcopal Bishop Shannon S. Johnston, in his first diocesan convention speech as leader of the nation’s largest Episcopal diocese, made a few surprising remarks today. One of them was that weekly church attendance in the Old Dominion is embarrassingly low.

   Speaking at a diocesan council meeting at the Richmond Marriott - which was cut short due to a pending snow storm headed toward southern Virginia - he first talked about an informal poll he recently conducted through a series of town meetings around the diocese. As he talked with Episcopalians about their priorities for church life, he found one thing missing: a lack of desire to start new churches. This did not completely surprise him, he said, considering that the 15 conservative churches and mission congregations that left the diocese from late 2005 to early 2007 (over theological differences and gay bishops) were known for their success in church planting. 

  In his words: “The context here is a sharp contrast with the priority from some years ago of establishing new congregations.  Given our recent experience with many of our new congregations leaving the diocese (having received tremendous spiritual, personal and financial support), it is obvious that many of us across the diocese feel a deep sense of loss, grief and, yes, betrayal and thus are quite “gun-shy” about new congregations. It should be no surprise, therefore, that church planting ranked last on all but one tally, where it was next-to-last. The sense is that with resources being spread very thinly the resources could be used for more stable and proven ministry, such as for our already established congregations.  I certainly do understand this, but can you truly affirm our diocese abandoning any vision for starting new churches?  I don’t think so. I know I can’t.”

  Now someone help me here: Is it possible that the diocese has not planted one new church since the Great Exodus that ended three years ago this month? The bulk of the churches that left now form a group called the Anglican District of Virginia and they are planting churches like crazy all over the northern part of the state. Every time I turn around it seems like I am getting a press release about another clump of new churches in places like Alexandria, Arlington and Vienna. I just heard of an even newer effort to move across state lines into Montgomery County. 

   (All of which is interesting but note they are planting churches in the richer DC suburbs. I am waiting for when they head for SE or NE Washington, or my neck of the woods: Prince George’s County, which is much more of a racial melting pot and definitely *not* wealthy. But I digress.)

  The bishop went on to say his diocese will put more effort into youth ministry, especially 20-somethings. Note to bishop: Don’t just look at the Gen Y types. The Washington area - along with Boston - has the largest singles demographic in the country. Reach out to singles, not just to an age group. Singles are the biggest unchurched population of all.

  But that’s another column. 

   Lastly, the bishop revealed the diocese’s ASA (average Sunday attendance) figures has dropped by 19 percent over 20 years. Again in his words:

   “Since 1990, although the number of our communicants in good standinghas grown from 53,000 to 64,000 (nearly 21 percent), our average Sunday attendance (the most telling statistic in the Church’s ongoing life) has actually decreased by 19 percent.  In other words, we’re growing with people who support the church but fewer and fewer people are actually attending worship with regularity.  With a current Sunday attendance average of 24,200 and a “good-standing” communicant strength of 63,900, we show a discouraging 37 percent of our people at worship on the Lord’s Day. “

  I believe the ADV folks made a point of saying, when they left three years ago, that *their* ASA stats were quite high. So, again, the bulk of the frequent attenders are out the door. 

   You can read the bishop’s speech here. And if you want to see a different set of numbers, look at this press release from the Herndon-based Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a sister group to the ADV. They only got going three years ago and they’re now at 90 congregations across the country. 

   It’s not rocket science to figure out where all those church planters went.

  -Julia Duin, religion editor

 

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About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times' religion editor. She has a master's degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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