The Big Sort of the Presbyterian Church

[photo: The Tim]

For my non-Presbyterian readers, pardon the interruption for some musing about the denomination in which I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I suspect we are not the only ones in this pickle.

Last year I read a great book by Bill Bishop called, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart.  In this book he basically makes the case that overall voting trends of the United States have not changed much over time, but the clustering of society has lead to people living in bubbles of like mindedness that has made our “blueness” or “redness” that much more intense. Ideological mixing of society has been replaced by well defined and separate communiteis that are never exposed to one another in the day to day interactions of living in community.

This has got be thinking about we Presbyterians. Are we, the PC(USA), going through our own “big sort?”

Presbyterians love our groups. I am sure most other social gatherings have “special interest” groups as well, but we Presbyterians don’t just love them, we love, love them. Big difference 😉 Our instutional committment to group discement and flat decision-making bodies makes our culture fertile soil for people to gather together for a variety of purposes. We have groups that traverse the broad theological and ideological landscape; we have groups that focus on reproductive options, ex-gay movements, clean water projects, theological perspectives and more. We pretty much have a little something for everyone. While some of the groups are sponsored by the denomination, most are not “officially” connected to the denomination and, of course, some are more well known and/or influential than others.

For fear of leaving anyone out, I am not going to try and list all of the groups that claim a place in the Presbyterian Church (USA) community, but new groups like The Fellowship and The Next Church have raised the bar in terms of gathering groups of like-minded folks to dream about the future. Both groups are passionately declaring transformation, defining a new way forward and gathering those who are compelled by it all. Now of coruse, many people who affiliate with groups are not just tied to one single movement or cause, but both of these groups, while taking different approaches to perceived issues, seem to be aligning along theological and cultural lines. This new crop of gatherings has me asking the question, “Are we sorting ourselves as a healthy response to our collective future or are we sorting in order to ensure the survival of our own flavor of being Presbyterian?”

I have no answer to this and I am genuinely conflicted about the new crop of groups that are trying to gain influence and are faithfully seeking to be the church that God hopes us to be. On one hand, I do think that the future of the Presbyterian Church will have to be manifested in a variety of styles, perspectives and niches.  From big to small, modern to traditional, mono-cultural to multi-cultural, etc. if we are to have any kind of social capital in the world, we must expand our understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian. Then there is a part of me that thinks we are just trying to strengthen and protect our particular kingdoms much like we have done in the past. We may wrap our words and rhetoric in language that says we are thinking seriously about what the future holds, but the default still seems to be “try harder” “fall back on doing things the way we know how to do them” and/or “talk about transformation, openness and conversations but fail to live it.”

The tension for me is exacerbated because I have good friends involved in many groups, old, new, left, center and right. We may disagree on theology, politics and baseball, but I have little doubt that there is a genuine yearning to be faithful God’s call on our lives. But even so, the tired metaphor of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic seems all to apt these days. Even the most creative of organizational theologians and thinkers are having a hard time landing the proverbial plane about what we are to do next. With so much uncertainty about the future it is no surprise that we try to do something, find some people with whom we share a passion, get together and do something. Natural and exciting for some, frustrating and a waste of energy for others.

So what do we do? Do we just give in? Do we just make sure we are the last group standing? Do we leave and find the place where we may better thrive? Do we just try harder and hope for the best? The options really are endless.

Okay, I lied, I do have one answer.

We reboot.
We shut down.
We pause, take a breath and will bold abandon power back up.

I know this may be cavalier and a bit insensitive to some, but what would happen if we really took stock of every part of our existence as Presbyterians and started over: as congregations, as governing bodies, as a denomination? Speaking the words of radical transformation and being open the possibilities that God has for the church is one thing, but if our institutional structures are not designed to allow such things, than we doom ourselves to radical tweaking rather than radical transformation.

I know that as I talk about this there are many things to take into account: people’s livelihood, a profound denominational legacy and many powerful current ministries. At the same time, the kind of transformation we need may demand us to upset those things that we have allowed us to give us worth and define our existence. Yes, trying something radical, risky and faithful may bring about some places of death, but if we are to be a resurrection people, we can no longer take leaps of faith with a safety net of our past accomplishments below us to alleviate our anxiety.

So I say lets keep gathering for fellowship, lets keep dreaming about the future and lets keep being faithful to the God who has called us to be the church. But I also say, if any of the groups that we are part of begin to ring hollow in our words and actions, shut it down and risk being the church that we all truly hope to be.


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  • jerry dunn  

    BRC; You blog much insightful stuff. There are parallels with the government and the denominations that are way too similar. We don’t seem to raise the church circles above the governmental pending disaster. Recently I chose to retire and have found more spiritual satisfaction outside the denomination. It has been a time of refreshment that was not possible inside the denom. Love your blogs and your leadership within the denomination.

  • Mark  

    That’s a good question. Though I do know of some Executive Presbyters who THINK that they’re Bishops. 🙂
    As I said initially, it’s a question of if and when our polity becomes less important than our theology for defining us. Is it our polity that connects us? Or has it become our theology?

  • Ed Brenegar  

    Why is it that I feel more Presbyterian than ever before, yet don’t feel any enthusiasm for clustering with like-minded people?
    Maybe it is because like-mindedness is not unity, but uniformity.
    I’d rather have a respectful relationship with someone with whom I disagree than with those who measure their relationships be whether the other person agrees with them.
    Thanks Bruce for stating what many of us feel.

  • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

    Mark . . . I have heard this in some circles and can totally see how this is a possibility, but do you think a bishop-less Presbyterian could EVER buy into a system with Bishops? The other way around. I think there are def common theological threads, but ultimately it IS our polity that connects us.

  • Linda  

    Mark sees it clearly – pay attention to Mark above!

  • Rob Smith  

    Great comment that points to the great satire of division as we continue to say “one holy catholic and Apostolic Church”… But what does the sorting hat say???

  • Merwyn S. Johnson  

    The proposal for an enabling constitution (overture by Foothills Presbytery, 2010 GA) was all about the reset button–to replace the manual of operations approach to church government/governance which characterizes the 1983/current FoG and the revision now being considered. It held the promise to refocus the PCUSA on its true UNITY AND CENTER, in Christ, create a discussion about something other than ourselves, and pre-empt the current, seemingly universal, prevailing demands for UNIFORMITY of agreement, experience/relationships, inclusiveness, rules, procedures, organization, +. Looks like we will have to learn about these things the hard way … again.
    Yours together in Christ,

  • Matt Ferguson  

    In your vision of the ‘Rebot’ would it be mainline denomination-wide or just within the PCUSA? I cannot tell from what you wrote and I would be most interested in how radical you are willing to envision things.
    If you are only thinking PCUSA-wide then I don’t think it will work—and I may even suspect progressives in the PCUSA would want to have such a pause and rebot in order to firm up the ground they have recently gained. (Just keeping it real here.) But if you envision something bigger—mainline denomination-wide pause and rebot, then it is an option worth considering. Often those who sense they need to do radical change fail because of the difficulty to think beyond what they have always done. A true pause to help clear the board so you can start fresh is essential but often resisted becuase of many reasons, some of which you listed.
    Matt Ferguson,
    Hillsboro, IL


    Great topic and insights, Bruce. It seems to me that the problem will continue even if we started all over. Won’t this continue, even get worse, so long as we don’t learn how to disagree with respect, even love, for each other?
    Peace & Blessings.

  • Bruce Reyes-Chow  

    I hope so . . . I think you all are one place that must be able to hold the tensions of the denomination with care and courage, you will help give permission for folks to “reboot” “rething” re-whatever in order to be the church. Still glad you said yes 😉

  • Tod Bolsinger  

    Thanks, Bruce, for adding to the conversation. We certainly do need your voice in all of this because you have the ability to be both bold and calm at the same time. So, let me check in with you on this… as the guy who said ‘yes’ to your invitation to look at the way we do church, do you see our commission as part of the “reboot” or one of the things that needs to “pause.”
    Just checking.

  • Stephen  

    Thanks for posting this, Bruce. As one who was at the NEXT conference, I agree with the post above that observed that the NEXT organizers have less of a plan than they are getting credit for. After the NEXT event and the Fellowship event this summer, I believe what needs to happen “next” is to move beyond these “like-minded” conversations to talking across and beyond our like-mindedness. I heard one Fellowship-affiliated pastor who was at the NEXT event say he was ready for a “without assumptions discussion about being Presbyterian” – and several other NEXT-affiliated pastors agree with that sentiment. Perhaps this is the “reboot” opportunity you are calling for. In any case, I pray we Presbyterians will be led by the Spirit to talk across whatever lines that divide us so we can discover anew the Christ who unites us all.

  • Beloved Spear  

    I’m hoping to end up in Ravenclaw.

  • Mark  

    I believe that there may be more to it than this. I believe that the lines that divide us into denominations and the lines that divide us WITHIN denominations are about to flip. I believe that the progressive wings of the Reformed denominations will ultimately unite (ELCA with PC(USA) progressives), and that the conservative wings of the Reformed denominations *may* unite. We’ll reach the point where being defined by our governance (and the theology behind it) takes a backseat to being defined by our Christology and theology of the authority of Scripture.
    We used to be Presbyterian because our theology drove us to be structured in a certain way – strong presbyteries over congregations, equal representation of clergy and lay. But that division from other denominations seems to be becoming less important than the way we interpret the Bible and the place of fundamentals in our theology, which are dividing us within denominations.
    So in essence it’s the GRAND reshuffling of deck chairs. Or maybe you look at it as taking apart the Legos from two creations and putting them together in different combinations to create new creations.
    The Presbyterian Church was created as a gathering of like-minded people. It will ultimately die and/or transform into something new which will also be a gathering of like-minded people. The only question is exactly what they’ll be like-minded about.

  • Yorocko  

    Bruce, I’m going to get that book ASAP.
    Three things: first, you no doubt occupy a unique place in conversation, having been Moderator of the denomination and made friends in all of these groups. That’s a good problem to have, one that I have admitted that I don’t have. I only know a few of the people affiliated with NEXT and even fewer of the Fellowship folks.
    Second, I think the NEXT organizers have much less of a plan than they’re getting credit for. My sense is they’re trying to cultivate a process, a conversation, that is open to several potential outcomes.
    Finally, a reboot strikes me as exactly what the Fellowship is proposing. A controlled reboot that makes sure that, when the system restarts, only the programs they want to load do. When I first got to Heartland Presbytery in 2004, they were entering a process of “sabbath” in which all non-constitutional committees were suspended in favor of relational gatherings and tasks. I think that bore some fruit, but it fell far short of a total reboot.
    Thanks for this.

  • Pulpit  

    Thanks, Bruce, for your thoughts. I wish you would say more about what this would look like. Fire everybody in Louisville and start from the ground up? Fire ourselves (those of us paid by congregations to be pastors), sell our buildings and start over? I’m not being facetious here – really wondering what “starting over” really looks like to you. It’s a bold plan, but I’m not really sure that it would alleviate us from the perils of rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. Chances are, things would reboot pretty close to the way they started. As much as I’d love for my PC to be transformed into a hip, new mac, when I hit the power button I’m going to see the same screen.
    I don’t think there is a reboot for human beings – we’re an organism not a machine. That’s where the analogy breaks down for me. But I’d love to hear some more.

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