Hitting the Big Time

In this month's Episcopal Voice, our diocesan magazine, I wrote an article about being a young adult in the Diocese of Olympia. Part of my article called for more access to leadership for young adults as an avenue for growth in that demographic. Apparently, somebody called my bluff, b/c I've been asked to be a co-preacher at our diocesan convention in November. I guess that's what happens when you open your big mouth!

But seriously folks, now I've got to figure out what to say to diocesan leadership. I'll be the iconic representative of young adults in Western Washington, so I'm feeling the pressure to represent. Maybe I'll suggest that there'd be more young Episcopalians if we would just work hip music into the liturgy--you know, like having the priest rap the Eucharist, or singing "I Write Sins not Tragedies" for the recessional. I personally always appreciate an awkward attempt to be either "relevant" or "ethnically diverse".

Which brings up the pointed question: can and should the Episcopal Church (read: predominantly old, rich and white) pour energy and finances into reaching a more diverse crowd? Should we, for instance, put the token young (black, Asian, working class, Gay) person up front during convention (as we so often do), or would we be better served to not bother, and to play to our strengths, emphasizing our traditions and waiting for today's crop of young people to ferment to proper Episcopalian age?

Here are some of my unrefined thoughts that I thought when I was working in the warehouse today:

The latter option is really probably pretty sensible from some perspectives, and is a relatively common opinion. Admittedly, I am biased as a young Episcopalian, but I think that opinion is short sighted. I honestly think the Episcopal Church is in great strategic position to recieve the masses of young people who are disgruntled with the way things are--both religiously and socially. We're broad enough to incorporate both liberals and conservatives , as well as various sorts of "third option" types that are cropping up. We've also generally avoided getting wrapped up in the religious right, so we don't seem to have the same sort of political taint that a lot of American denominations do today.

I think we've got a lot more problems when it comes to developing ministries to a diverse set of ethnicities. For whatever reason, we seem to be among the least culturally adaptable of the denominations. Anglicanism worked for so long under a colonial model, where we simply forced people to conform to our norms (for salvation, social status, whatever), but post-colonialism we seem relatively inept at adapting our message and methods in a culturally appropriate way--at least when compared with the fluidity of Pentacostalism and Evangicalism.

A couple of barriers: A real challenge for traditional denominational churches today, in relation to both ministry to young people and "ethnic" ministry is that cultural change is incredibly rapid in a context of instantaneous global communication. Among youth, for instance, musical tastes change literally from month to month, as do language and other cultural trends. What's the target we're aiming at, or are we even aiming at a target anymore? Do we change, or do we stay the same and hope that the cultural river flows in our direction? The established churches seem to have a real difficulty keeping up b/c they are slow moving beaurocracies, and we don't typically adapt quickly. It's a liquid/fluid culture, and in some regards we are a solid organization. That's the draw for some, but also can tend to limit our options.

Christianity--or at least Anglicanism--is also well past the point of being a culturally normative religion, which is a problem when you functioned for years as an establishment Church. My feel is that most people in the PNW are indifferent towards the Episcopal Church, and hostile towards Christianity in general, so we've got both an informational barrier and an emotional/religious barrier. Real "conversion" is a difficult thing to achieve. If we don't want to just be "stealing sheep" from other denominations for growth, then we've got a lot of work to do. We're entering a situation that's foreign to a lot of Episcopal Parishes, where we're going to be neither rich nor socially prominent.

The key job, and I think this is always the key job, is figuring out what's core to Anglicanism and doing lots of R+D to figure out ways that that can be expressed in a fluid, post-modern culture. Adaptability is key, b/c of the speed of cultural change. That is, if we decide that we're concerned with growth. Do we want to grow, or do we want to stick to our guns and shrink? Who's to decide?

I need to go to bed.


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