>A Call for "Something New"

>A group of pastors in the PC(USA) met to discuss what they see as the way forward for a denomination that is in decline. That is not unusual… there are pastors doing this on a regular basis, as well as elders. In parking lots after session meetings, at GA and Presbytery meetings – the “what does the future hold, if anything” conversation happens almost “wherever two or more are gathered in [Christ’s] name.”

This particular group of pastors, however, went beyond a conversation and released a White Paper, followed by an Open Letter. Both of these outlined why they feel that the denomination is not likely to be a viable connection for them any longer. This is how they state it:

We believe the PC(USA) will not survive without drastic intervention, and stand ready to DO something different, to thrive as the Body of Christ. We call others of like mind to envision a new future for congregations that share our Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical heritage. If the denomination has the ability and will to move in this new direction, we will rejoice. Regardless, a group of us will change course, forming a new way for our congregations to relate.

You know, I kind of get that. But this isn’t anything new. I’ve only been associated with the PC(USA) for a little more than a decade, and I’ve seen two or three groups make these sorts of statements: We need to get “back to ” or people will continue to leave; if votes go counter to the way we want them to go, we will leave.

A little later, they go out on a limb to ask

Is it time to acknowledge that traditional denominations like the PC(USA) have served in their day but now must be radically transformed?

Which sounds oddly like the conversation that former Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow and many others have attempted to start for the last several years.

But my heart is troubled by the values to which they’ve ascribed:

  1. A minimalist structure, replacing bureaucracy and most rules with relational networks of common purpose;
  2. Property and assets under stewardship of the local Session. Dues/Gifts for common administration should only allow and enable continued affiliation among these congregations;
  3. Rather than large institutions, joint ventures with specialized ministries as congregations deem helpful [PC(USA) World Mission may be a source of joint support, aspects of the Board of Pensions, Presbyterian Foundation, Presbyterian Global Fellowship, Presbyterians for Renewal conferences, Outreach Foundation, etc.];
  4. An atmosphere of support for congregations both within and outside of the PC(USA).

What I haven’t mentioned is that from all appearances, the pastors involved in this “new” movement are all men and all from large churches. The majority of them are Anglo. They have been members of a variety of conservative advocacy groups, most of which lift up property ownership and ordination standards as highest priority.

When I read these values in light of that reality, I wonder just how well women, racial-ethnic minorities and other emerging leaders will become a part of these relational networks.

I wonder whether these leaders of large churches truly understand what they are asking small church leaders to choose between.

I wonder what becomes of long-standing and life-giving benefits for churches of all sizes, like PW and denominational study curricula, access to youth camps and conferences, and the ministry of groups like PHWA and APCE.

I wonder what sort of fellowship this will be, given that the Presbyterian tradition is built on the connectional model- an understanding that each particular congregation is part of the Body of Christ and brings particular gifts to the whole, just as individuals are given gifts that edify the local church. No one church (or person) is less valued or valuable than any other, regardless of location, size, theological center or age.

The heart of the problem seems to be here:

Our divisions revolve around differing understandings of Scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation amidst creeping universalism, and a broader set of moral issues. Outside of presbytery meetings, we mostly exist in separate worlds, with opposing sides reading different books and journals, attending different conferences, and supporting different causes. There is no longer common understanding of what is meant by being “Reformed.”

This is the thing that grieves me most. Partly because it’s true, but mostly because it could be changed. There are people with whom I have had heartfelt and hard conversations about the issues that have produced division in the denomination. Some have ended in friendship. Others have ended in frustration and separation.

The difference? When me and my colleagues both enter the conversation trusting God to lead us, to speak to us and through us and willing to respond should the Holy Spirit show us something new, the conversation is a step toward righteousness.

When we come in suspicious, seeking to change the other or to show the error of the others’ ways in false humility that barely disguises the arrogance of one who is completely sure of God’s mind… those conversations become chasms across which we can barely hear one another speaking about anything.

I don’t know what will come of this open letter. I would hope that it will be a call to all Presbyterians to reconsider the big ideas… what it means to be the Body of Christ, what it means to be Presbyterian, and what it means to live in fellowship with people who are difficult to love. I hope it will be a call to something new, indeed: a denomination that truly understands the value of keeping the toes, ears, elbow, appendix, eyes, and every other member of the body functional and functioning together. We are richer for our diversity – of age, location, gender, orientation, theological bent, race and so much more. May we recall that these gifts are from the God who is able to give and do so much more than we are able to ask or imagine.


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