A group of male and almost all white pastors of large conservative Presbyterian churches has recently issued a letter and manifesto to the denomination. It has been called the “deathly ill letter” because that is their diagnosis of the church. Their title for this initiative is “Time For Something New” (TFSN).
TFSN lists the familiar statistics documenting the decline of the Presbyterian Church in terms of loss of membership and influence over the last 40 years. Hence the diagnosis that the denomination is “deathly ill.” The cause of this illness, they say, is conflict, mainly the protracted war over ordination standards – that is, the ordination of GLBT Christians. They also identify a church divided along ideological and theological lines.
I suggest that it is not “conflict” that has debilitated the PCUSA. We have had conflicts throughout our history. Many past conflicts were arguably far more traumatic than our present ones. (We’re not shooting at each other like in 1861.) Yet the church often grew and matured through them. If the framers of TFSN are seeking a denomination without conflict, I wish them well. If they think that being conflict-free will automatically cause the kind of quantitative growth they seek, I respectfully suggest that there is little evidence of this from our history.
Our loss of membership and influence is not due to conflict. It is because many in the church are trying to live in a world that no longer exists. Our problem is that we are a church well-equipped to succeed in the 16th through the early 20th centuries… but we find ourselves deep into the 21st century. Few of our usual tools are working. So the long list of quantitative declines that the authors of TFSN offer as evidence of the “trouble” we are in as a denomination is beside the point.
We are failing at almost every level to understand and adapt to the comprehensive changes that are rolling across the church, our culture, and our whole planet. We have fond memories of the church of our parents and grandparents, and we still think this can and should be maintained. I illustrate this by pointing to our glorious, large, beautiful, stately, centrally located, and historic buildings, fully fitted with classrooms, large kitchens, pipe organs, and stained-glass windows… that now often house dwindling, aging, depressed, and ineffective congregations. We spend our energy trying to keep up these facilities, maintaining a grand heritage, and have little left to actually accomplish the mission Jesus Christ gives to the church today.
I suggest several circumstances that illustrate this. Here are some characteristics of the institutional edifice that burdens us today:
1. The legacy of Christendom, an obsolete cultural arrangement in which the church stood at the center of society, wedded to other national institutions as part of a common “establishment.” These other institutions include government and the courts, business, industry, the military, education, media, entertainment, etc. Many of these institutions have been losing legitimacy over the past few decades; all are in significant upheaval. They have never followed Jesus Christ. As long as the church is identified with them it will share their fate.
2. Our persistent ethnic identity as white and largely Anglo-Saxon, a demographic that is in decline. We thrived for at least a century on immigration from Western Europe. That has all but dried up. We have tried to attract and reach out to other ethnic groups, with mixed success, probably because of an at least tacit assumption that they need to become like us. While assuming everyone should want to join us, we have mostly failed in even keeping our own children in the church.
3. Our theology remains a relic of the Reformation/“Enlightenment” period. Many of the issues and conflicts of that era no longer matter much to people today. As long as we keep seeing the world through that individualistic, propositional, objectively verifiable lens, and speaking the gospel in that increasingly arcane language, our message will be less and less intelligible. Who outside the church today knows or cares about the solas or TULIP?
4. Our sense that we have to advocate and enforce a certain type of morality which may have made sense in terms of maintaining social control a century ago, but now appears to be at best quaint and at worst oppressive. We still want and expect everyone to be like the Cleavers.
6. A Gnostic rejection of the value of creation and the material world, including our own bodies, which has left Western culture to fall into the most godless and destructive atrocities against nature and people. The church frequently defended, rationalized, and participated in practices like slavery, the assault on indigenous peoples, economic injustice, war, the subjugation of women, environmental degradation, etc., and has therefore lost its moral authority and its connection to the God of creation.
7. Comprehensive ignorance of the spiritual, mystical core of the faith. Protestant denominations are confused, tongue-tied, and lost when it comes to the Holy Spirit. The spiritual connection to God and each other which people most seek from us, and for which they turn to other sources, is something we have forgotten we ever even had. Yet the Spirit of Jesus is the spring from which everything else flows.
8. Most importantly an almost complete disregard for the life and teachings of Jesus. We long-ago replaced trust in him and obedience to his way of living with an institutional religion more concerned with providing cover for the powers-that-be in Western society. We still care more about maintaining economic growth and enforcing narrowly moralistic societal norms than following Jesus.
I suggest that these are the main reasons the old main-line churches, including the Presbyterian Church, continue to lose members and influence. None of these are addressed by TFSN.
Those who put together the TFSN document do propose some interesting new approaches. Many of their proposals present a new and creative way forward. They deliberately move away from the top-heavy, centralized, hierarchical, institutional model that characterized the Christendom church. When they talk about “a commitment to nurture leadership in local congregations,” “a passion to share in the larger Mission of the people of God around the world, especially among the least, the lost, and the left behind,” “a dream of multiplying healthy communities of faith throughout North America,” “a pattern of fellowship reflecting the realities of our scattered life and joint mission,” I hear new things that really are promising to respond effectively to the 21st century and its challenges. When they propose things like “a minimalist governmental structure,” and even “clarity on property issues” in which congregational assets are more locally controlled, I hear something worth engaging with. Getting away from “large institutional structures,” supporting more “joint ventures with specialized ministries as congregations deem helpful” are good ideas.
(In fact, much of this is in the same decentralized, flexible spirit as the proposed new Form of Government (nFOG), currently being voted on by the presbyteries. It makes me wonder why so many people who would approve of TFSN are also opposed to the nFOG.)
Unfortunately, these proposals are placed under their primary agenda upon which they seem to think everything else depends, which they state as:
“A united theological core to which we subscribe, aligned with classic biblical, Reformed/ Evangelical tradition, and a pledge to live according to those beliefs, regardless of cultural pressures to conform.”
So much for “something new.”
In other words, TFSN wants a church that relates theologically to the issues and questions of the 16th and 17th century Reformation, as seen through the lens of 18th and 19th century Evangelicalism. Everyone is expected to “subscribe” to this set of theological propositions, presumably on pain of exclusion. (Think that’s not going to create conflict?) Subscriptionism is a pretty old practice in Christendom. Nothing new here. Subscriptionism ultimately fails because humans discover different circumstances of life in each generation. A narrowly defined, one-size-fits-all religion has never worked well, serving more to divide than unite. I also do not understand how their enthusiasm for something as centralized and top-down as subscriptionism meshes with their advocacy of a decentralized, bottom-up ecclesiology.
The writers of TFSN talk about how they follow the Bible, while others are caving in to “cultural pressures to conform.” Clearly they don’t like many trends in today’s culture. Are they really about listening to the Bible? Or do they merely conform to the “pressures” of an earlier culture’s way of doing things? In other words, they want us to reject conformity to contemporary social norms, but subscribe instead to social norms of the past, and call it faithfulness to Scripture. Yet the Bible is positively packed with messages about justice (economic, social, and ecological), inclusion, healing, and forgiveness that the advocates of TFSN routinely choose to downplay or disregard. In other words, they have chosen to follow a particular slant on Scripture, one that fits well with their nostalgic view of culture. Indeed, a less charitable observer might wonder if their entrenched cultural biases aren’t governing their interpretation of the Bible.
Nothing new here either. Historically, every fading paradigm has used the same strategy in the face of an emerging new paradigm. One thing they seem to forget is that there was a time (500 years ago) when their theology was the new, emerging, radical thing that conservatives were dismissing as caving in to a decadent culture.
So it seems like the TFSN framers want to maintain an old, inflexible, centralized,
top-down, Christendom theology, but they want to express it through a new, flexible, decentralized, bottom-up, post-Christendom ecclesiology. Old product; glitzy, streamlined new packaging! As if the medium and the message have nothing to do with each other. As if we could still sell Studebakers if all we did was change the marketing and distribution strategy, but not the car. Some cars would sell. There might even be a few successful dealerships. But if these folks think that changing the presentation and organizational structure is going to make their understanding of the “classic biblical, Reformed/ Evangelical tradition” wildly successful again… well, we’ll see.
At the same time, I would say, “Go for it, guys!” There is room in Christianity for many different voices, new and old. Certainly the Reformation theologies have a lot to teach us, even today. I would not want to shut out the voices of these great saints of the church. But now they have to be seen as a part of a broader mosaic, particular threads woven into a greater tapestry. Our time is one in which we have the benefit of drawing from all traditions as never before. Communities need the flexibility and encouragement to engage with many voices as they seek to follow Jesus Christ.
TFSN is desperately trying to hold together something they love and cherish in a blizzard of cultural changes. They are trying to stay recognizably “historically Reformed” in a time when that way of being Christian is becoming less and less relevant. I agree with the need for new and less centralized structures; but I doubt if this can be done while retaining the identity they want to retain. (I hope they are not suggesting that those who agree with them get to be flexible and decentralized, while the rest of us are subject to supervision under a rigid subscriptionism….)
I predict that they will end up with a loose, idiosyncratic network of like-minded people; but I doubt it will be the revitalized mass-movement for renewal they are hoping for.