May 9, 2019
Francisco-fact: Where have all the children gone?
This question comes up in many forms, often. It is asked here at St. Francis. It is asked at our near neighbors at Great Falls United Methodist Church, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Andrew Chapel United Methodist Church, Smith Chapel United Methodist Church, and Dranesville Church of the Brethren. Certainly, there are some churches that have a larger population than others, and the distribution across all age groups is somewhat uneven. But, overall, the trends are the same.
As St. Francis looks at its ministry and service in community, to answer this question requires some background and some strategic thinking.
In the words of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts." Here are some facts about organized religion. Participation in traditional religious practice has declined precipitously overall since the mid-1960's. Peak Episcopal membership and church attendance occurred around 1965, and in 1966 membership was slightly over 3.6 million, in 2017 membership was under 1.9 million (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline/, People of the Way). If you check out the first Link, you will see that the Episcopal Church pattern is similar to the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Congregational Church. Just in case you think there are large special cases, there are some modest small denominations who have grown, both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church are trending toward decline as well. Other facts, listed in Chapter 2 of The Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile's book People of the Way, the Episcopal Church is also older, whiter, and generally wealthier than the population as a whole. These are the facts, but they do not have to be the Episcopal Church's nor St. Francis's destiny.
The answer to the question above is that children are, generally, not in church. They are at home, eating brunch, enjoying video games, playing travel soccer, baseball, lacrosse, basketball, and more. Both they, and their parents are overscheduled and over-programmed. None of these pursuits are bad, in and of themselves, but this means that church is the last priority on the list and that whatever formation that can be done must be done by age 8 when other activities draw off both parents and children.
The Rev. Dr. Zscheile perceptively notes in his book that we continue to assume that children and families are looking for us and that they are Christian. Those assumptions are out of line with reality. But there are models for changing outcomes like this. In the book of Acts, the "people of the way (soon to be labeled Christians)," go out looking for others. In Acts, chapter 16, Paul and his companions were out on Sunday morning looking for a place to pray. What they found were Lydia, a high-end cloth merchant, and other women. In finding these women, they found a profoundly dedicated and transformational group of disciples, ordinary folk who changed the world. Both Paul and the women are the models for the Twenty-first Century.