Yesterday, 8 Presbyterian elders of various persuasions issued a joint letter to the many thousands of disaffected Presbyterians presently contemplating leaving the PCUSA. The letter was a plea not to leave, saying in essence that things are not as bad as you think, that perception is not reality, that there is much going on to stir hope that God is rebirthing this denomination. I felt this letter deserved a response, as one of those apparently misguided, disaffected members to whom it was addressed. There is too much to cover in one reasonably-sized post, so I will offer installment one today, and post the remainder tomorrow.
Though the authors completely skirt the profound issues tearing about our denomination, they do acknowledge that we are undergoing “complex changes.” They want the disaffected to know that they love us, and want to continue to serve Christ together side by side — as long as we remain in this denomination.
I am grateful for these stated affections, but find it hard to receive love that is delivered with such a patronizing approach. I’m sure the authors aren’t even aware of this, but the overarching message that “Your perceptions of what is going on in our denomination is not at all on target” discounts our years of experience, struggle and efforts to undo the damage done in the name of “progress” to a once great denomination. They, of course, see the reality; we are awash in false perceptions.
This is seen even in the choice of words to describe how both sides of the debate have responded to the changes in ordination standards and in the revised Form of Government. For those in favor of these, the departures from the past are a welcome change. For those opposed, they feel like a betrayal. Notice the subtle differentiation which discounts our position. The changes are indeed a good thing, though they may feel to us right now like a betrayal. But one day, these enlightened elders hope, our wounded feelings will pass as we too discover how wonderful these developments really are.
I would like to respond to the claim of the authors that with regard to the health of the PCUSA, “perception is not reality” — that if we only knew the facts, we would join them in tiptoeing through the tulips into a bright, new springtime of hope. Here are some purported evidences to support their view of reality, and my counter observations:
1) “The PC(USA) is deeply missional.” Why? Because a) the 2010 GA reaffirmed the 2008 GA’s call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide”; b) the 2012 GA will take up the vision to plant 1001 new worshiping communities in the next 10 years; c) there are now some evangelically-minded leaders at the GA offices level who have dreams of how to equip Presbyterians to turn things around; d) Tom Taylor (formerly an evangelical pastor, now president of the Presbyterian Foundation) “…often affirms, ‘Planting and growing congregations, proclaiming the gospel effectively, building up the church – these are at the core of who we are as Presbyterians.’”
This is slim evidence for such a bold claim — that our denomination is deeply missional! As a Texan might say concerning a drugstore cowboy’s claim to be a successful rancher, “All hat and no cattle.” The 2008 GA launched a glitzy campaign to grow the PCUSA deep and wide. How successful was it? The fact that the 2010 GA had to reaffirm this commitment should give us some clue. The GA offices have come out with another plan, one based more on marketing hype than on substance, in my opinion, to create 1001 new “worshiping communities” in 10 years. It’s a lofty goal, to be sure. But what constitutes a “new worshiping community”? How long will they stay in existence? What will make them “Presbyterian”? What resources will be mustered for this effort? What motivation in the present church is there to take up this challenge?
It’s true that because of significant unrest and refusal of the evangelical wing of the church to financially support the liberal agenda of the GA offices over the last decade, concessions have had to be made by the liberal leadership– the office staff has been downsized and restructured a number of times, bringing in leaders more responsive to evangelical concerns. But after 30 years of liberals at the helm, with our denomination lying on the operating table in danger of bleeding out, is this not too little, too late? The quotation from Tom Taylor (whom I like and respect personally), while nice-sounding, is in reality laughable. What he says was once true of Presbyterians (close to a century and more ago), but it in no recognizable manner reflects the core of who we are as the PCUSA now or in recent memory.
Let’s look at some statistics to back up my realism: over the last decade, according to denominational statistics, the PCUSA has lost 20% of its official membership. From the 6 years of 1999-2004, our average rate of loss was 1.5% of our total membership annually. For the last 6 years (2005-2010), that rate has jumped to 2.6%. That means over the last 6 years we have lost members at a 73% faster rate than over the 6 earlier years. You may remember that in 2005, the Peace, Unity and Purity report, adopted by the 2006 GA, was made public. To say that we have been “building up the church, growing congregations and proclaiming the gospel effectively” is to blind oneself to the data. We have been trending from bad to worse.
As for planting new churches in the midst of closing or losing existing ones, here are the facts for the period from 1999-2010. The PCUSA was made up of 11,216 congregations in 1999. Over the last 12 years, we have established 248 new congregations, averaging a little over 20 per year. In the past we used to receive at least some congregations from other denominations or from independent status that wished to transfer in. In the last 6 years, that has dwindled down to an average of around 1 per year (these represent mostly Korean congregations wishing to affiliate with the “mother church.”) Of course in the last 12 years we have also lost churches either to institutional death, merger or dismissal. This number totals 1099, an average of roughly 91.6 per year. We now stand (2010 figures) at 10560 congregations, a total net loss over the last 12 years of 656 churches.
So, how are we doing at growing the church deep and wide? Pretty miserably, when we look at the facts. If one were to compare our statistical trends to those of countries and their emigration rates vs. their immigration rates, I’m afraid we would mirror countries like Iran and North Korea (where people are straining to leave) more than the United States or England (where people are straining to get in). Yet this letter tells us that we have always been missional, that this is at the core of our being as a denomination, and that great things are happening. My response to the authors: your perception is not reality.