I was at a Diocesan meeting today which was called for purposes of "restructuring." Since I am only an intern in the diocese, my interest was more on the objective level. Frankly, the diocese is basically broke and having to move to the Mutual Ministry model sooner rather than later. This is an across the board (read: white and native american churches) move. Many churches simply cannot afford a full time priest, or even a half time one for that matter.
For those of you not caught up on Episco-speak, Mutual ministry is a system that combines two elements. The first is the creation of lay ministry teams on the parish level. Essentially, the laity have to learn to fend for themselves and raise up local members for facets of the job that a full time priest would otherwise be doing. This element is combined with, for lack of a better term, the old circuit rider method. There would be a seminary trained priest working with a circuit of churches sort of as an overseer to train lay folks to take control of their parishes.
The need to go to this model arises from several factors. A lot of rural and small town parishes are dwindling in size, as are small town USA and mainline churches in general. On the reservation and some of the "white" areas, the diocese has been largely operating on the state church model for years. In a weird way, religious life on the reservation is at the same level as what is going on in Europe. Essentially, many churches have become places for hatching, matching, and dispatching (baptisms, marriages, and funerals). On the reservation, even the matching is largely falling into disuse because no one is getting married these days. The Common Law marriage is largely the norm.
This is not a univeral thing. Some churches are doing their best to break out of this mold. However, with limited resources, there is not much money for programs. The place I am working on Rosebud is an exception in some ways. There is a Habitat for Humanity on the premises amongst other things, but even then, the majority of what goes on is sacramental in nature.
The strange thing is, no one on the reservation is willing to consider closing any of the churches. There is historically a connection to ancestors and burial places of ancestors. The church has assumed this role for over a century. Thus, to close a church, even if there are 3 people at church on a Sunday, talk of closing a church is a sure fire method for outrage due to burial places of ancestors are sacred places. Lakota don't take well to closing sacred places.
A proverbial pickle has been created. Largely, people do not want to participate in the life of the church, but no one wants to close a church either. I guess the trap of "We've always done it that way" reaches across cultural lines. I really have no clue how to remedy this situation. In my younger days, I wanted to blame the church for not being active enough, in not having enough programs, energy, enthusiasm, what have you. There is much bewailing of manifold sins and wickedness at seminary, as the fad is to blame the Church for the mainstream church decline. You can insert you favorite theological pet peeve of choice into this train of though: not being post-modern or inclusive enough, yada, yada, yada.
I am not convinced, however, that you can lay it all on the Church's door. Back when I was taking political science classes in undergrad, there was a fad among poly-sci circles about "the death of civil society" debates. Largely, the research pointed out that civic groups across the board were having catastrophic drops in membership. This ranged from everything from us Masons to the Kiwanis to Bowling Leagues.
Many theories as to why this trend was occurring were put forward. Basically I think it has to do with the radical individualist culture we live in these days combined with globalism and urban sprawl. People move frequently for jobs, even across country or beyond. Many people live in bedroom communities and are doing good if they know who their next door neighbor is because they likely do not work with their neighbors or know anyone who does. The culture has become whatever is best me the individual and not the we of community. I think also the hippie/baby boomer community largely checked out of civic groups for their own rebellious reasons.
I am not certain how the community based church can rebound in a radically individualistic culture that has not interest in community. I am not convinced most people could even give you a good definition of the word "community" if you asked them. One could go the route of looking at the churches that are flourishing. Th mega church phenomenon draws large masses, but it creates an consumer-based oasis of individuals who want to be entertained and not a community. I am just not comfortable selling out the substantial body of Christ to the empty calories of McChurch, and yet the business as usual method certainly does not work either.
I guess that is enough pontifical ranting for the day...goodnight.