The local high school football team is in a slump — 45 consecutive years of losing seasons. In recent years, it has gone virtually winless. The once-full stands are now more than half-empty and the town residents by and large have turned their attention to other Friday night attractions. But the high school principal is looking for signs that things are turning around. Where does he cast his eyes? To the coaching staff? The players themselves? Neighboring school consultants? No.
In this case, he calls together the cheerleading and pom pom squads, whose native DNA compels them to cheer with abandon no matter what the reality on the field. He invites them to perform some of their cheers for him and one another, and soon he is feeling hopeful again. All is not lost — the team will succeed in the coming year — how can they not, with all the excitement in the room???
Such, it seems to me, is where we find ourselves presently in the PCUSA under the leadership of our “principal”, GA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons. Last week, as the grim 2010 PCUSA annual statistics were released, Gradye acknowledged that the numbers were not what anyone wished for: “Seeing the data on paper is sobering. And yet, incredible things are happening in the PC(USA).” While we have endured another 3% net loss of our total membership, on the other hand “Presbyterians continue to be incredibly generous even when their own pocketbooks are taking a hit from the economy.” And while the number of faithful givers continues to decline, I might add.
Gradye spoke from the midst of “The Big Tent” gathering, a joint convocation of 9 different conferences covering various PCUSA interests and ministries. Attendance for the event was projected to be around 1700 total, comprised of those most excited about things presently happening in their field of interest within the PCUSA. Like the high school principal among the cheerleaders, Gradye was moved by their enthusiasm to conclude that “incredible things are happening in the PCUSA.” While again acknowledging that the most recent statistics are indeed grim, he concluded with this statement of back-handed optimism: “The excitement doesn’t nullify the numbers, but it’s a clear indication that God is not nearly finished with us.”
I’d say about as clear an indication as the excitement in that room full of cheerleaders would turn around a football program going on a half-century of unbroken losing seasons. If this is the best indicator that our national leadership can hold forth as a sign of better days to come for our denomination, then my counsel is — “Don’t buy season tickets this fall with high hopes for a turn-around year.” Go and enjoy the enthusiasm of the cheerleaders, but don’t pay attention to the scoreboard. Better yet, lobby for a new coaching staff and for players committed to a different result.
Until we see a concerted effort to realign our denomination around the truth of a personal, transformational relationship with Jesus Christ as the world’s sole Lord and Savior, pointing us thereby to the central tenets of orthodoxy and the foundational practices of the Christian life, we will continue to bleed members and repel potential converts. Those fleeing the bankrupt solutions of the world will not turn for hope to a church which mirrors the mindset of the world they are running from.
Given the present state of the PCUSA, I would slightly modify Gradye’s words from “God is not nearly finished with us,” to “God has not nearly finished us off (yet).” After all, it’s taken 45 years for God to whittle us down to a membership that is now 48.4% of what it was in our heyday year of 1965. There are no signs on the horizon that the trend will slow, much less reverse itself. Among mainline churches we have been losing members faster than any denomination other than the UCC. This does not bode well for us, for multiple reasons. Perhaps the most striking of these reasons is the liberal wing’s flimsy hope that with the embracing of the homosexual agenda the PCUSA will now experience a tidal wave of new members, both from the homosexual community and from the masses of society so disaffected by our “exclusionary” policies that they wouldn’t previously darken the door of a Presbyterian church. This hope rests on an interesting hypothesis, and one that is testable. In fact, it has already been tested. The UCC denomination, believe it or not, stands to the left even of the PCUSA, both theologically and socially. For years it has welcomed unrepentant gays into leadership and full involvement in its corporate life. If the liberal hypothesis is true, we should expect to have seen a reversal of the statistical decline of the UCC. However, the exact opposite is the case. Among mainline denominations it has suffered the largest and most sustained losses across the years, and continues to lead the race toward extinction. God, it seems, is more nearly finished with them. Yet we Presbyterians are apparently excited to follow in their lonely footsteps, with these naive grins on our faces, mouthing vain, unbiblical hopes as we pump ourselves up over the enthusiasm of small groups of individuals in our midst who are increasingly free to pursue disobedience to God disguised as “joyful submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
It doesn’t look like the slump will end anytime soon.