This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A "Dying Denomination"?



            With the departure of some big church in California, and the near departure of another big church in Texas, some Presbyterians have taken to describing ourselves as a "dying denomination."  Maybe.
            First of all, I would not necessarily call a patient who is having malignant cells removed from their body “dying”.  The patient may not survive the operation, but their chances are greatly improved if they are not pinned down by fighting a grueling interior battle for survival. 
            Secondly, denominations are dying all over the place.  They are dinosaurs.  They are adapting too slowly if at all to changes in their environment.  Whatever emerges as the new, standard layout of Christianity, it will not be the same arrangement we inherited in the middle of the last century.  Denominations will certainly continue in some form, but most will be smaller, leaner, more decentralized, and more fluid than the corporate behemoths of 50 years ago.
            Those departing sisters and brothers, giddy and triumphant as they may feel today, may discover that their growth was not being hindered simply by their connection to those  “apostate liberals”.  They may discover that their approach to the Christian faith doesn’t gain as much traction with people, especially young people, in 21st century America as they hoped.  In fact, the idea of creating a new denomination in today’s world may be roughly analogous to trying to set up a new and exciting chain of video rental stores.
            On the other hand, those of us who remain in the beleagured PCUSA, the “sinking ship” that churches seem to be climbing over themselves to abandon, may wake up and discover that, without being so paralyzed by inner conflict, we may actually have energy to be more effective witnesses to Jesus Christ.
            The dangers are three-fold:
            1.  We could, in an attempt to “stop the bleeding”, bend over even further backwards in appeasement of the remaining conservatives… and allow ourselves to continue in debilitating arguments over the same crap, caving to the threats of an ever smaller minority, for the foreseeable future.  That would not be good.
            2.  We could retrench into the battlements of some imaginary “true Presbyterianism,” reasserting as the hallowed “Reformed Tradition” every obsolete ecclesiastical model we can remember, basically hamstringing ourselves in procedural superstructures that effectively exclude, dismiss, and condemn every innovation or new insight as not sufficiently Reformed or Presbyterian to pass muster with us.  Some words to beware of: “covenant,” if it means some kind of enforced uniformity, “sustainable,” if it means that it’s all about the money, and “flexible,” if it means the tyranny of the majority.
            3.   We could, not having much of a right wing anymore to fight with, simply commence to fighting among ourselves, with the previous center becoming the new right, and so on.  At long last we may be on the verge of a new consensus, something we haven’t had for at least two generations.  Let’s not blow it.
            One way forward would be to listen carefully to some of the concerns and proposals of the disgruntled conservatives.  They have some interesting and workable ideas… once we get beyond the hot-button, polarizing stuff.  Not being necessarily included in the “in” group of the denomination, they have been more free to think outside the denominational box.  I have written about some of these ideas in this space recently, in particular on non-geographicality and relaxing the grip of the Trust Clause.
            The new consensus will be broad, maybe even an anti-consensus, that sets congregations and presbyteries free to explore different ways of doing mission and expressing the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus Christ.  But we’re going to have to do this without worrying about what is “orthodox,” “Reformed,” or “Presbyterian.”  I see this in the spirit of the Reformers themselves (not to mention the apostles), who were not trying to define a limited new sect but to express the catholic faith in their time and place. 
            Finally, each unit of mission – which means congregation – will have to be free both to find its own missional vocabulary, and, frankly, to fail.  We learn at least as much from our failures as we do from our successes.  Which is a good thing, and means that we should be freaking brilliant by now.  
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