Part I – Identity Crisis

For the next couple of posts I am going to write a bit about what can only be described as an identity crisis in the Episcopal Church and spend some time thinking about how to address some of these very real concerns. First though, what are the symptoms of this identity crisis?

What is an identity crisis? I found, on the interwebs, the following bit, “’Those who fail to achieve a cohesive identity-who experience an identity crisis-will exhibit a confusion of roles,’ not knowing who they are, where they belong, or where they want to go. This sort of unresolved crisis leaves individuals struggling to ‘find themselves.’ They may go on to seek a negative identity, which may involve…the inability to make defining choices about the future. ‘The basic strength that should develop during adolescence is fidelity, which emerges from a cohesive ego identity.’”

The Episcopal Church is now in a profound identity crisis. We might look at the recently released membership statistics to find proof of this. The Church has dropped below 2 million members while at our peak in 1966, we numbered 3.6 million members. Both a cause and effect of this collapsing membership is our collapsing sense of what it means to be either Episcopal or a Church.

I actually believe that the Episcopal Church is wonderfully prepared and equipped to grow in witness, service, faithfulness, and yes, in numbers. But we must take a look at where things are now, be honest about where they are going, and then pray and think about how we meet the challenges of the future. We also have to pay attention to the voices of those who are our future leaders in the Church – young adults and adolescents.

Perhaps more useful as a barometer of church health, and more troublesome for Episcopalians, is to look at the numbers from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). The NSYR is, perhaps, the most comprehensive and ambitious study of adolescent spirituality that has been done. The results are interesting in some places and jolting in others.

Some of these questions are vague and a bit stilted. I think, overall however, they paint a broad picture that we need to reflect on both in terms of what they mean for the future and what they say about the present.

This post will simply lay out some of the results, with minimal comment, from the survey and the following post will look at some causes, effects, and courses of action.

From the NSYR Survey:

“Over the three-year period, more adolescents reported they were unsure about their belief in God, fewer reported belief in a personal, involved God, fewer reported belief in a judgment day, and fewer reported belief in angels or some form of afterlife. The shift away from standard religiosity can also be seen in both their public and private religious practices. The surveyed adolescents reported attending religious services and religious education classes less often. Reading scripture alone and praying by themselves also occurred less often. On the other hand, there were slight overall increases in the proportion of these adolescents who believed in demons and evil spirits, reincarnation, and astrology.”

There are some signs of hope though and the study concludes that “The majority of adolescents reported remaining at the same level of religiosity, and when adolescents did report a change in their overall religiosity, a higher proportion of them reported becoming more religious than becoming less religious.” However, the vast majority of teenagers were found to be “incredibly inarticulate about their faith and its meaning for their lives,” with mainline Protestant teenagers ranking among the least religiously articulate of all.

The results for the Episcopal Church are stark. Below are highlights found in the report section that compares responses between the Episcopal Church and protestant denominations:

  • “At the low end of church attendance, less than half of the teens with Episcopalian parents report attending church once a month or more.
  • “Seventy-one percent of Assemblies of God teens, for example, report youth group activity while only … 34 percent of Episcopalian teens say they are currently in a youth group.”
  • “At the high end of Sunday school participation, more than three-quarters of teens whose parents affiliate with the Assemblies of God or the black Baptist denominations report regularly attending Sunday school. Conversely, only … 23 percent of teens whose parents are Episcopalian report regular Sunday school participation.” (Lowest among surveyed groups)
  • 72% of Episcopalians versus 90% for all Protestants and 62% of unaffiliated reported a belief in God.
  • “There are relatively high levels of uncertainty about God among some of the mainline denominations’ teens…23 percent of the Episcopalian teens” are uncertain as to whether God exists (Highest among surveyed groups). For comparison, consider that 26% of unaffiliated (those without a specific Church identity) are uncertain!
  • “less than a quarter of Episcopalian teens say they feel close to God.” (22% by far lowest – next lowest was UMC at 38%) – 18% of unaffiliated
  • “teens whose parents are affiliated with mainline denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are less likely than most other Protestant teens to say they definitely believe in life after death.” Episcopal teens (35%) are actually less likely than unaffiliated teens (37%) to believe in the afterlife.
  • “91 percent of Church of God in Christ teens say that faith is important in shaping their daily lives. Less than half of the teens from some mainline Protestant denominations, such as the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church, say faith is very or extremely important in shaping their daily lives.” (Episcopal Church is the lowest at 40%)
  • “88 percent of Assemblies of God teens and 80 percent of Southern Baptist teens say they made a commitment to live their lives for God, while only 32 percent of Episcopalian teens say the same.” (Episcopal teens are the lowest by far – only 5% higher than unaffiliated)
  • “Well over 40 percent of Assemblies of God and Church of God in Christ teens say they read the Bible alone at least once a week while only 22 percent of Disciples of Christ and 8 percent of Episcopal teens say they read the Bible alone at least once a week.” (Episcopal teens are the only group under 10%)
  • For instance, 84 percent of Assemblies of God teens and 76 percent of black Baptist teens say they talk about spiritual things with their families at least once a week, compared to only 27 percent of Episcopal teens. (We are the lowest with the UMC next at 31%)
  • “For instance, while 93 percent of Presbyterian Church (USA) teens and 91 percent of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America teens report that their churches usually feel warm and welcoming, only 69 percent of teens whose parents are Episcopalian say the same.”
  • “less than one-half of Episcopalian teens who attend church more than a few times a year (46 percent) say that church usually makes them think about important things.” (by far the lowest group and the only one under 50%)
  • “65 percent of Church of God in Christ teens and 57 percent of both Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist teens say that church is a very good place to talk about serious issues…while only 31 percent of Episcopal teens agree that church is a very good place to talk about serious issues.”
  • “At the low end, only 58 percent of Episcopalian teens say that adults in their churches are somewhat or very easy to talk with and get to know.”
  • “35 percent of Episcopalian teens who attend church more than a few times a year say that most or all adults in their congregations are hypocrites while only 2 percent of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America teens and none of the Presbyterian Church (USA) teens in the NSYR sample agree that most or all adults in their congregations are hypocrites.” (Apparent hypocrisy is one of only categories we lead in)
  • “There are also sizable differences between the specific denominations. None of the Presbyterian Church (USA) teens in the NSYR sample say that most or all teens in their churches are hypocrites, just as none of them reported that adults in their churches are hypocrites. On the other hand, 28 percent of teens whose parents are Episcopalian say they think of most or all teens in their congregations as hypocrites.”
  • “Twenty-three percent of teens whose parents are Episcopalian, for example, say they drink alcohol a few times a month or more. Nevertheless, teens whose parents are affiliated with the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) are the least likely to drink alcohol, with none of the Presbyterian Church (USA) teens in the NSYR sample saying they drink alcohol a few times a month or more.” (This is the other category we lead in by a significant margin  – one reader pointed out that they might be referencing Communion!)
  • “Forty-four percent of Protestant teens report helping homeless people, needy neighbors, family friends or other people in need, directly — not through an organization — some or a lot.” This is the same percent for all U.S. teenagers and Episcopal teens are at 38%.

You can find the second half of this post here…