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Church membership in US now less than half the population

Presbytery leader in spiritual but not religious Northwest: ‘Membership model must change’ because it’s ‘going the way of the phone booth’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Brian Heron, the Presbytery of the Cascades’ Presbyter for Vision and Mission, on the Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved highway in the world. This photo was taken at 12,183 feet above sea level at the summit in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Contributed provided)

LOUISVILLE — After seeing the Gallup Poll study, which came out during Holy Week, that for the first time church membership in the U.S. has declined to less than half the population, Presbyterian News Service reached out to the Rev. Brian Heron for some insight. As Presbyter for Vision and Mission in the Presbytery of the Cascades, located in Portland, Oregon, Heron lives and works in one of the least religious cities in the nation.

Presbyterian News Service: So, what are you seeing and learning in what many refer to as the unofficial capital in the U.S. for the spiritual, but not religious?

Heron: I say this with some humility, but I have heard it enough to believe that there might be some truth to it. What is happening in Cascades and in the Pacific Northwest may be a foreshadowing of things to come for the rest of the nation. In 2020, we experienced a full 6% loss in membership in the presbytery and 60 of our 95 congregations are now under 100 members. At the same time, we are in the middle of a strategic planning process and one of the statistics that is driving our decisions is that our mission giving from churches (apart from per capita) has dropped 68% over the last 17 years, adjusted for inflation.

But while all of that is sobering news, we also know that membership statistics and mission giving don’t capture the whole story. Most of our churches now have a significant percentage of non-member participants and local mission initiatives are growing at a stunning rate. If we in Cascades have a message for the wider church, it is this: Our membership model must change. Christian communities and mission continue to be important and attractive, but membership appears to be going the way of the phone booth.

PNS: How has your experience of great loss in your personal life prepared you to lead and minister to others experiencing loss in our churches?

Heron: I can only say this in hindsight, but the early losses that I experienced have been God’s greatest gift to me. I spent most of my early adulthood trying to outrun my losses. When they finally caught up with me, I discovered that my redemption could only happen by facing my losses directly, acknowledging them, owning them and then moving through them. Because of this, I am very comfortable sitting with churches that are experiencing loss and decline. My own life has revealed that new life and resurrection comes not from outrunning our losses, but by embracing them. So, I help churches get comfortable with being on the metaphorical cross knowing that once they allow their hopes and dreams to be crucified that God has a way of initiating the work of resurrection.

We are death and resurrection people. I help us live into that narrative.

PNS: You’ve written a book, “Alone: A 4,000 Mile Search For Belonging,” about a bicycling sabbatical you took to decide whether you should continue in church ministry. How did this inform the work you are now doing?

HERON: My pilgrimage in 2011 really became the catalyst that led to my current position as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. It was the start of a six-year period of shedding my expectations around professional ministry. I came out of the pilgrimage convinced that God was saying that my call was not to spend the rest of my career serving churches that wanted to be “saved.” I didn’t have the emotional patience for such work.

The Rev. Brian Heron biked through Yellowstone National Park during his pilgrimage. (Contributed photo)

In 2012, I attended the CREDO conference and the one theme that kept emerging was, “Brian, it is time for you to work with churches rather than just a church.” I spent the next five years trying to build a consulting, writing and speaking business. During that time, I ended up on food stamps for a short period, housesat in order to save money, gave away 90% of my possessions and bought a travel camper expecting to spend the rest of my career on the road working with churches discerning their final legacy.

Ironically, just three weeks after buying the camper trailer I was offered this position. It felt like a clear call and fulfilled the message from CREDO that it was time to work with “churches, not just a church.” I also think it was God’s way of playing a joke on me!

PNS: How do you see the pastor’s role changing for churches in the future — and how does that relate to those church leaders feeling great anxiety and also to those who are incredibly excited about potential changes in the church?

HERON: This is the most difficult question to answer as anyone who is honest with themselves doesn’t really know what is around the ecclesiastical corner. This is truly pilgrimage time when God lays out only enough of the picture to keep us moving forward, but not enough to truly project and plan. I believe that whatever is happening is actually happening at the molecular level. In other words, the anxiety and wondering by some — and the near giddy anticipation of others — is telling us something. Some are intuitively feeling that a world is ending along with their place in it; others are feeling that a new world is opening up, giving them new opportunities.

The Rev. Brian Heron being installed by the Presbytery of the Cascades as its Presbyter for Vision and Mission. (Photo courtesy of the Presbytery of Cascades)

This is a time of deep discernment and radical trust. My message to pastors and churches is largely this: “Trust what God is doing in you personally. The institution will adapt to what God wants, not the other way around.”

PNS: You’ve made the observation that church leaders often minister in ways to avoid people leaving the church — and that ironically this drives away those who are ready to have deeper conversations about their faith and the church. What do you think is at the source of this dynamic? 

HERON: I think the spiritual needs of our communities have become so diverse that pastors are in the position where to preach to one group almost excludes another group, by definition. We choose churches that reinforce our religious and spiritual worldview. Where it gets tricky is when a church says it wants to grow and the pastor finds herself in the impossible situation of reinforcing the beliefs of the faithful in the pew while trying to reach the “unchurched, spiritual, but not religious, ethnically diverse” community around the church.

It is a near-impossible task, and while the pastor attempts to hold onto one group, another group quietly slips away. I personally made peace with this impossibility years ago as I adopted a chaplain’s approach to my work. When I work with churches, I adopt the language and assumptions at the core of who they are. When I meet with the “spiritual, but not religious” groups in our community, people know me as that “agnostic Christian mystic biker-guy.”  The latter is closer to my authentic identity and represents my evolution as a “person of the cloth.”

PNS: How can you be “agnostic” and still be a church leader?                                                                                                                                       

HERON: When I get this question in the church I remind them that we have an agnostic thread in our hymns: “Just as I am, though tossed about; With many a conflict, many a doubt; Fightings and fears, within, without; O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

The Rev. Brian Heron is Presbyter for Vison and Mission for the Presbytery of the Cascades (Contributed photo)

That is very much my stance: Despite my doubts, my fears, my conflicts, and the journey of loss that I have experienced, I still come, I still come. My agnostic Christian mystic identity allows me to invite people both in the church and out of the church under the same tent. Interestingly enough, I find that my language is an equal opportunity offender. In the church I have to explain my agnostic element. Out of the church I have to explain my Christian element.

For my own mental, spiritual and physical health, I have learned how to provide a religious and spiritual presence to both communities, much like a chaplain moving from one hospital room to another. But I grieve that I have not been able to bring these two worlds together.

PNS: How might this chaplaincy approach help church leaders navigate this grief or tension as they minister into what is an unknow future?

 HERON: This may be a reflection of being in the Pacific Northwest, but I believe the gap between the articulated faith of our churches and the emerging spiritualities of our neighbors is so wide that navigating without disruption is a near impossibility.  Most of our churches are experiencing annual declines, which puts pressure on church leadership and clergy. I largely encourage our pastors to take a chaplain approach by saying to congregations discerning their future, “I can comfort you and take care of you for as long as you are here (a hospice-like approach) or I can walk with you on a journey of transformation. But it is important that the decision is yours. One road will lead to your eventual closure: the other to disruption and a radical re-orientation. Both can be faithful decisions.”

What I don’t want is our pastors to internalize that tension because it leads to depression, anxiety, burnout, health problems and spiritual suffering. And the church remains paralyzed.

The Presbytery of the Cascades is a Matthew 25 presbytery — working on building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty, which are the three focuses of the PC(USA)’S Matthew 25 invitation.

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