Jeff MacDonald’s cover story makes a point and implicitly asks a question.
The point is not a new one, but is important precisely because it is so persistent. Mainline Christian congregations are declining, and Jeff drives home this point by looking at itinerant preachers. The tradition of clergy preaching to multiple congregations has its roots in the 19th century. But back then, the phenomenon grew from an excess of need. An expanding America – stretched over more and more space – had a dearth of preachers.
Today, itinerant preachers are a cost-saving mechanism. Congregations are doubling up on clergy they can no longer afford alone.
Which leads to the question: Can itinerant preachers be part of a revival – a reimagining of American mainline Christianity that brings people back to pews? There is anecdotal evidence in Jeff’s piece that this can happen. One Episcopal church in Newport, New Hampshire, saw its congregation double, from 12 to 24, when it began sharing its priest.
But the story of the Church of the Epiphany is about more than the Rev. Jay MacLeod, the priest it shares with a church about 10 miles away. It is also the story of Messy Church – another experiment at Epiphany that uses a “casual, intergenerational format” and once brought 65 people. It is the story of the decision behind the decision to share Mr. MacLeod with nearby St. Andrew’s Church, which one person described as a choice to shut down, merge with another church, or make “big changes.” Epiphany chose to make big changes.
The fact is, declining membership is not a problem unique to Christian churches. As sociologist Robert Putnam notes in his groundbreaking book, “Bowling Alone,” America has undergone a dramatic decline in “social capital” during recent decades. Put simply, people aren’t investing as much in neighbors and acquaintances as they once did. As a result, everything from Elks Clubs to labor unions are declining, too.
This recognition, however, does not come with a solution: No one really knows how you rebuild social capital. Yet here’s one thing we do know, and which the coronavirus has only underlined. Humans do still want connection.
Experts who study the internet will tell you that it’s not really about information. People use it for connection. This is the secret of YouTube’s success. It is a platform for creating communities around personalities and shared interests.
Professor Putnam found that megachurches were fantastically good at doing this, too. “They have the mountain bikers for God group, the volleyball players for God, ... and so on,” he tells The Guardian newspaper. They are connection engines. So is Messy Church, Epiphany is discovering.
The answer to Jeff’s question is not itinerant preachers or even Messy Church, per se. It is the choice to look at the problem in new ways. How humanity finds meaningful fellowship is evolving, and everything from coronavirus quarantines to YouTube channels is offering clues about what shape that future will take.