My wife and I had the pleasure of spending Holy Week and Easter in Abilene, Texas, where our son, David, is rector of Church of the Heavenly Rest. In addition to spending delightful time with our three granddaughters, we attended multiple church services with moving liturgy, inspiring preaching, great music, and lots of people. Everyone seemed so happy to be together and, after two years, have “normal” celebrations. Due to the ruling of a federal judge, the mask mandate was lifted on our flight back to New York – yet another indication of normalcy.
Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems as though Heavenly Rest was not unique and that most Episcopal parishes enjoyed robust holiday services which has generated some excitement, enthusiasm and even optimism. Was this just an Easter “flash in the pan” or an indication of new vitality? Might this mean that the pandemic slump in church attendance is finally behind us, and people will be coming back to church as before? Might we even be turning a corner when it comes to numerical decline?
As we move well into the fifty days of Easter, it appears that in most places the attendance numbers have reverted to their earlier lower levels. This is just part of our current reality. The Episcopal Church, and other denominations as well, continues to decline in membership and attendance on an annual basis, a phenomenon only exacerbated by the pandemic. And given the significant demographic shift in Americans who identify with organized religion, this trend will only continue. Clearly there are some bright spots. Many churches have developed and maintained a significant online presence with new people tuning in from far and near. Yet we are still discerning what a vibrant and sustainable hybrid church model may look like in the long run. And the church is not alone. Given current realities – global conflict and economic uncertainty - and the seemingly endless state of the pandemic, all of us are still trying to figure out the “new normal” whether in the workplace, marketplace, or the church.
These are challenging times but as people of faith we need to recognize and embrace the hopeful message of Easter. By his resurrection Jesus overcame death and despair and continues to transform the world to this very day. Furthermore, because Jesus rose from the dead, nothing has or will ever be the same and that includes the Church as the Body of Christ. I firmly believe that while we may look very different in the future, the Episcopal Church will continue to be a prophetic voice and a source of inspiration and comfort to a broken world. During these fifty days of Easter and beyond, let us recommit ourselves to this core mission.
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!