Hope for the PC(USA)? Perception Is Not Reality…. (Part 1)

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, apparently, see the reality; we are awash in false perceptions.

This is evident 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.

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17 Responses to Hope for the PC(USA)? Perception Is Not Reality…. (Part 1)

  1. Jeff Ogden says:

    Thanks, Mateen! The patronizing and intimidating nature of this letter is frustrating beyond belief. I feel like the progressives are peaceful the way bank robbers are peaceful: “Do exactly what I say and no one will get hurt.”


  2. Bill Teague says:

    Thanks Mateen. In addition to the frustrating audacity of the letter there is a sort of unbelievable sense of naïveté about it. Do they really think that their argument is going to be persuasive for anyone in their target audience – members of churches whose manipulative leaders have conned them into thinking that there is something gone afoul in our beloved denomination?

    The Outlook’s clumsy treatment of the moderator’s change of heart about going somewhere full of schismatics could make for some interesting dynamics in Orlando next week. I wonder if she will bring moderatorial greetings in the name of common cause and mutual forbearance.

    I much prefer thanking about what we need to differentiate to than what we need to differentiate from, but this is good reminder of the latter.


  3. John E says:

    What bothered me about the letter was the call for congregation members to “insist” that congregational leaders expose them to positive messages about the denomination. That assumes that they are not well informed already, which sounds patronizing to me. OTOH, different views are NOT welcome on the blog set up by the Vice Moderator of GA to “discuss” this letter and video. Any criticisms have been deleted.

    Even worse, that request (demand?) to congregation members can be seen as trying to increase conflict and divisiveness within evangelical congregations that are considering departure.


  4. Whit says:

    And if they can gin up enough dissent in an evangelical congregation seeking to leave, there will be a “true church” which the Presbytery can claim is entitled to the property.

    I have just read Robert Mills’ article on the divide in our denomination over the authority of Scripture in the Nov/Dec Theology Matters, and it is clear that the Left in the PCUSA do not, for all their protestations, really believe in the authority of Scripture in any meaningful way. As a result, not only on sexuality, but on everything else, now and in the future, it will be impossible to ever reach agreement except by pure coincidence. There is nothing for us in the PCUSA but continued strife and the Long Defeat.

    It is time to flee, flee now! The strongest believers among those left are hobbled in preaching the Truth of Scripture by being in the PCUSA. And the weaker believers are subject to being led astray. So flee now. Flee as a congregation or in groups if you can, with or, if necessary, without your property. A building is not worth your soul, or the souls of your people. And if you can’t flee as a congregation, flee as a family or even as an individual. But flee! Flee like Lot from Sodom, and don’t look back.

    The only reason for staying is to help lead others out of the wreckage.


  5. phubert28 says:

    Liberals are consistent with their patronizing attitude toward us, the crude children of Conservative persuasion. Liberals pursue their fantasies, while Conservatives stand on truth.

    Truth is uncomfortable to Liberals, since their fantasies wilt and die in its presence.

    I believe the image of the “Flower Children” of the 60’s is MOST appropriate – their cut flowers wilt quickly!


  6. phubert28 says:

    One thing we very much need to keep in mind: for Liberals, the goals are all political. They are only interested in power and in agendas tied to this world – never in any recognition of the utter ‘lostness’ of the individual soul.

    Whatever belief they have in soul or spirit is essentially meaningless except for the fact that this ‘squishy’ belief aids and abets the very roots of sin in society. In other words, it holds the hand of everyone marching into eternal hell fire.


  7. Jim Smith says:

    Great article!


  8. Once again your POV is all tilted to your own biases. All clergy, elders, and deacons took the vow to support the constitution of the Presbyterian Church. What happened to loyalty to this pledge? Do we simply take these without the seriousness they demand? So far no one of your persuasion has ever called these clergy and ordained elders or deacons to task for not honoring their pledges. When you do that, then I will be mroe than happy to honor your requests for leaving.


    • mateenelass says:

      Dan, doesn’t any point of view necessarily represent one’s personal slant? Even your comment reflects a private slant. For example, you interpret the ordination questions as requiring a vow to support the constitution of the PCUSA. As a matter of fact, no vow presently uses that language. Many evangelicals believe that in vowing to obey Christ as Lord of the Church, and to hold to the authority of Scripture, and to be guided by the Confessions, they are forced by obedience to these vows to oppose the present directions of the PCUSA. Even in leaving, they are for the most part seeking to work within the framework of our polity, until it becomes too oppressive and unchristian to endure any longer. I don’t accept your premise that evangelical leaders are simply blowing off their vows. If you believe this, you haven’t spent much time listening or getting to know those you are castigating.


    • Whit Brisky says:

      In arguing my case to the governing bodies and PJCs of the Church I have constantly asked them to follow their vows to “accept the Scriptures . . . to be the unique and authoritive witness to Christ . . . and God’s Word to [them]”, that they “receive and adopt” the Confessions, and that they fulfill their offices “in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture” and be “guided by the Confessions.” Unfortunately, many times they have not.


  9. Michael says:

    I can’t read any more of this rant! My personal opinion is if you’re not happy with the PCUSA, then leave. It’s that simple. Find a conservative denomination that you like, and put all your love and energy and support into building it up, and stop this vindictive, hate filled attack on the PCUSA. You’re not helping. The GA votes on matters concerning the denomination, and the majority wins. If you’re not in the majority on issues you feel strongly about, maybe you would be better off somewhere else. Good bye.


    • mateenelass says:

      Wow — your response to me, Michael, seems more along the lines of what you accuse me of than my posts were. By the way, my posts were a response to an open letter from leaders of the denomination seeking to convince folks like me that the denomination is on the right track. As someone who has been an active part of the PCUSA for all its existence, and who knows the Bible and Confessions well, and who loves what this denomination stands for on paper, I happen to disagree with these letter writers about the direction and health of the denomination. My posts were an attempt to show the many fallacies inherent in the thought, reasoning and claims of the Chicago 8. Your comment to me, however, provided no interaction with my thoughts, only the spewing of your dismissive attitude toward what I wrote.

      My posts were not directed at you personally, and if you are offended by them, of course you are welcome not to read them. To seek to silence me and others, however, is not the Presbyterian, nor Christian, way. It is true that the GA votes on matters concerning the denomination, but the majority does not really win if the decision takes us further from the will of God. Should the 2012 GA decide to put a stop to the last GA’s momentous decisions, will you still feel the same way about the PCUSA? If not, will you take your advice and leave the denomination? Or will you say that since this new decision is the will of the GA, it must be right? If so, then you must conclude (if you are logical) that either God changes His mind (not a good way to go), or that the GA was mistaken in its last momentous decision. If you admit that majorities can be wrong, then how can you castigate me for wanting to help folks in the church to reconsider their perspectives? Please don’t dismiss me unless I’m ready to go.

      By the way, if you really feel so strongly about helping folks like me to find a more friendly place where we can put all our love and energy and suppport into building it up, then I hope you are backing up your feelings by working hard to allow such churches in your presbytery to leave with no conditions and with your full blessing. So far the liberal establishment hasn’t shown much Christian love to its more conservative brothers and sisters. The Lord is watching.


  10. Clarence and Judy Lanka (Stapleton, NE) says:

    How or where could I obtain a copy of the joint letter issued by “the Chicago 8” Presbyterian elders referred to above? My pastor is eager to see this original letter to better understand some of the points made. Our church is in the process of leaving the PCUSA because of our strong disagreement with and disappointment in the changes in ordination standards and the revised Form of Government. He is (and we are) in full agreement with your recent postings “Perception Is Not Reality … Parts 1 and 2.


  11. Victor Jack says:

    Thank you very much Mateen. Here in Colorado Springs, things have been “interesting”. I wish I would have read this sooner. Thanks again and God bless.


    • mateenelass says:

      Victor, I pray for God’s best upon the people and ministries of First Pres in the Springs, and any other congregations struggling with their place inside or outside the PCUSA. May what is “interesting” become “exciting”!


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