Like many who will gather in Orlando, I share many concerns about the state of our denomination. But, like some, I am still called to work within the covenant of relationships that have shaped and formed my life and faith for 25 years. Recently, I was engaged by a friend in a conversation about the reasons for staying in the PCUSA. This post is my response.
I realize that for some leaders leaving the PCUSA at this time is an issue of conscience. For them, being members of a denomination or Presbytery where some would condone what they find to be in contradiction to the Scriptures is a violation of their consciences. I too have deeply struggled with this and continue to wrestle with it, so it is not difficult for me trust them to their convictions. I would guess that my opinions on this will matter little to these who for conscience's sake feel as if they must withdraw from the denomination, and frankly that is the way it should be. But, I offer this rationale in a spirit of inquiring conversation to any whom would be interested in perhaps finding a different way.
The small bit of perspective that I bring to this conversation is influenced significantly by my role as Moderator of the General Assembly Mid-Council Commission (formerly the Middle Governing Body Commission). This work has led me to consider the discussion through two lenses:
- a genuine curiosity and struggle in ecclesiology and
- a genuine call to reconsider the mission of God in a post-Christendom world.
First, I believe we are desperately in need of a post-Christendom Reformed ecclesiology. It goes without saying that we are in a season of deep cultural change. This moment allows us to reconsider many of the organizational and ecclesiological assumptions that have been shaped more by Christendom than by our theological tradition. Historically, Presbyterianism in America was itself an adaptation to a new world and a new context beyond state-sponsored churches. Today, with the decline of Christendom and the rise of globalization, we have an opportunity to re-consider and even re-conceive that ecclesiological structure again. Because of my work with the Mid-Council Commission, I have been able to engage in conversations about ecclesiology with other branches of the Reformed family, have seen models of mid-councils that are different than our own, have learned about other ways of 'being Presbyterian' in other national churches and have learned from our own rich history with historically All-Black Governing bodies and Korean non-geographic presbyteries. I have come to recognize that there are lots of ways to “adapt” our theological "DNA" for a post-Christendom context that we have yet to even consider very deeply.
Personally, my faith has been nourished by the western stream of Presbyterianism that is far more independent, at times more congregationally-identified and is very comfortable with the kind of generously ecumenical evangelicalism for which my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, is known. My “evangelical” colleagues within the Presbyterian Church have made significant contributions to the theological discussions around justification, sanctification, missiology and spiritual formation, but we really haven’t engaged in the theological discussion of ecclesiology very deeply. We struggle with clearly talking about the unity of the church in genuinely practical ways, instead often defaulting to either ‘spiritual’ or ‘regulatory’ categories. I believe that the broader church needs our voice in this discussion of ecclesiology and that we need the broader church to sharpen our ecclesiological thinking.
Even more, part of this rapidly changing context is a very regrettable polarity and incivility of issue politics. We see this writ large in our government, and we tend to replicate it more than offering an alternative form of discourse, an alternative model of collaboration, and alternative practices of being diverse yet truly one.
Across the spectrum, we Presbyterians hold up "connectionalism" as one of our heartfelt, shared values. Yet, I contend that we have yet to truly explore what that connectionalism could be in a less regulatory, more relational structure; or what it would like to express a clear theological, ecclesiological and constitutional unity that allows for real diversity, and genuine dissent without division. For many of us, including me, this is as much a crisis of imagination as anything else. We really can't conceive a way forward, we have yet to engage in the kinds of 'experiments' that would allow us to discover something new and we are stuck in mental models that seem to limit our choices to either regulatory uniformity or painful separation.
I am concerned that the anxiety of the moment and the drive to bring ‘relief’ from our tensions is keeping us from doing the hard work of truly defining and experimenting with a Reformed, Presbyterian ecclesiology in a post-Christendom, missional context. If nothing else, staying within the PCUSA keeps me squarely in the middle of that critical ecclesiological conversation and exploration.
Second, I am more energized by what could be than what is. My perspective is framed more by the larger changes that are required of every church, every community of faith, and every theological institution that endeavors to remain culturally engaged and prophetic for the gospel of Jesus Christ today than any particular issue, no matter how important.
In my work with the Mid-Council Commission, I have been exposed to the overwhelming data that confirms what we all know intuitively. The church as we know it is in decline. Precipitous, decades-long decline. This is not just us as Presbyterians; it is the entire mainline tradition. Until about 2001, it could have been said that there was a theological distinction in the conversation. During the end of the last century, those with more evangelical theology were doing better generally speaking than our more progressive friends. But not for the last decade. We, with very few exceptions, are all in decline. Indeed, that, not ordination standards, was the concern that inspired the now-famous ‘deathly ill’ letter. Since the adoption of 10-A , that focus has been largely pushed aside. Some insist that the division on ordination standards is important enough to warrant this change of focus. But, I believe that the central issue for our denomination is how to create the kinds of conditions that will equip and encourage congregations to work together in mission and discipleship in this rapidly changing context.
To be sure, the PCUSA needs significant change and continued organizational and spiritual transformation. Our Mid-Council Commission report will raise up the need to reengage the missional necessity to
- reengage the pew with presbyteries;
- for presbyteries to be “balconies” that offer naturally provincial people (aren’t we all?) larger perspective for wisdom, discernment and challenge;
- for the development of leadership capacity that can create communities of continual transformation and collaboration to faithfully adapt in each local context; and
- to rebuild trust in a world where there is so much cynicism and skepticism.
All of this is beyond structural changes that can be implemented within or by leaving the denomination. As one who has spent the last 18 months charged with trying to find 'structural' and organizational 'models' that are 'responsive both to the Spirit of Christ and the changing opportunities for discipleship", I am concerned that the focus of creating of yet another denomination, at this time, can become a way of avoiding addressing the deeper issues of ecclesiology, discipleship and mission in a post-Christendom world.
I am most hopeful that those in the Fellowship who remain within the PCUSA could be significant contributors to this conversation. Indeed, we need the voice and perspective they bring. I am deeply supportive and appreciative of the Fellowship as a kind of "order" within the PCUSA. I am hopeful that a broader conversation by leaders across our theological spectrum will enable us to do the necessary work of learning how to re-engage the whole people of God, creating genuine elder parity, developing new ways of functioning as leaders, rousing our stilted organizational imagination and raising up and supporting transparent leaders who will engender the slow (it’s always slow) restoration of trust.
Yes, there are significant frustrations that cannot be minimized. Yes, there are significant theological differences that cannot be ignored. Yes, there is a history of bad behavior and even worse rhetoric on all sides. At the same time, perhaps the urgency of this moment--if we could be patient enough to stay together and at least attempt to experiment with new ways of being the church--could give rise to a new season of mission together.
One closing thought. Next week, I will NOT be in Orlando. Over a year ago, I was invited to be one of the speakers at a denominational conference on Disciple-Making Churches. I will be addressing how discipleship in a changing world is an issue of developing adaptive leadership capacity within missional congregations. I will also be consulting with a group of New Church Development Coaches on tools to help them do likewise. It promises to be a rich time…for the 100 of us who will be there. Meanwhile 2000 people will gather less than two hours away at the Fellowship Gathering to address these internal issues of strife and the possibilities of division.
So where is the energy in our system focused?
This is what must be addressed within the PCUSA, within the potential NRB, within the Fellowship, within every congregation, presbytery and denominational office. How could we create the conditions for the day when 2000 highly motivated and deeply engaged people will gather to learn together about forming disciple-making churches and planting new ones?
Again, I know there are some who believe that can only happen by breaking away from the denomination. I understand and respect their decision. But, I believe the vital question of our day is “What does a MISSIONAL CHURCH in a post-Christendom world look like?”
And while “Missional” has been a good, engaging (albeit often confused) conversation for the past decade and a half, the “Church” part is in need of much more reflection, at both congregational and ‘higher’ levels. While the circumstances could change as rapidly as the world is changing around us, and while I respect the decisions of those who differ, I believe that we can still engage this question much better within the context of remaining in the PCUSA rather than by starting a new denomination.