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SeatWhile my reflection on the first 1/2 of my term as moderator is in the works, I wanted to first get offer up some thoughts that I am SURE will get some comments and I hope some good discussion: membership decline.

As you know, the most recent membership numbers where just released and, for various arguable reasons, the PC(USA) declined in membership  by 69,381 members.  As we see these numbers announced each year, the theorizing and punditry around the decline is nothing new and I suspect it will continue as long as there are people with opinions and who care about the church.

The prevailing reasons that are usually sent my way are basically three:

  • We are in decline because we are too liberal, having stopped being a people of The Book and are caving to cultural trends especially around homosexuality.
  • We are in decline because we are far too conservative, no longer live the love that Christ calls us to and the world no longer sees us as a place of welcome.
  • Our 1960's members trends were but a blimp in our history for churches in the United States . . . so numbers need to be taken in context.

Now it is obviously easy to assign blame for our decline in membership, often falling into a far too simple rhetoric that there is indeed only ONE reason for our decline.  Now regardless of how you value the use of numbers as measure of worth, I think that we are more nuanced than that and that if we really think about it there are probably multiple reasons for our decline.

Now as a new church development pastor, I have never been solely driven by numbers.  Not surprisingly, like most things, I find God speaking to me in the gray, somewhere between only finding worth in numbers and thinking that numbers are silly and irrelevant.  I think numbers are an important measurement that can give us some useful indications of trends and developments, but we can also get into trouble when our ONLY drive is numerical.   In the end, I want us to impact lives that in turn impact the world and believe that if we are faithful to God's calling upon our lives, we will grow to the size that God hopes us to be. 

Still, our decline may give us some indications of our life together and I am not immune from offering some thoughts in the issue.  Now I have written upon this before, Number 1 reason why PC(USA) churches are dying a slow, painful, sad, drawn-out, death and other happy thoughts, but let me add something more as I have continued to listen to and reflect on what I am hearing as Moderator.  I believe that one of the main factors in our failure to grow is that we still operate with an institutional worldview that is not built for the fluid, adaptive and complex nature of the world today.  Theological and ideological perspectives aside, we – at all levels of our church life – still operate with a 1960's worldview that simply does not speak to the world today.  We spoke well to the United States culture during a long stretch of our denominational life, but we have forgotten how to speak to the world in a way that offers a transformational experience of the Gospel life in a Presbyterian context.

I grieve this because I have been so fed and formed by my Presbyterian heritage and deep theological history that I am compelled to find ways to meaningfully pass this rich tradition on to my kids.  But sadly, as I look around the church, those under 35 are painfully absent.  And while many of us would like to hold onto our youthful spirits for as long as we can, 60 is not the new 50 and 40 is not young.  We who hold power and influence in the church must stop pretending that we are the future.  We are not.  In fact, as those with power and influence in the church, if we do not joyfully embrace our changing rolls in our institutional life, we will die with no reason to expect resurrection.  Simply put, we must ask ourselves hard questions and learn to adapt if we are to impact the world as Presbyterians for any length of time into the future.

To get things started, here are some of the questions I think we need to address:

  • Is Jesus enough? What ARE our essentials and non-negotiables as we gather as a denominational gathering of the Body of Christ?
  • Do we live the Trinity? Do we fully understand the nature of living in community and living out our understanding of the Triune God?
  • Are we committed to connectionalism and if so, how committed are we to creating healthy Presbyteries?  Because unless we have Presbyteries that are vibrant and at the heart of our lives together, we are no longer Presbyterian.
  • Can we handle an abundance of manifestations of the Presbyterian family where congregations look, feel and operate in drastically different ways?
  • Can we fathom the idea of the death of some parts of our structural and institutional life together trusting that where resurrections is to happen it will happen?
  • Are those who hold power and authority willing to create space for who are not part of our life but will best be able to help us navigate our way into their world?
  • Can we find a way for an institution to live the peace of Christ in a world of chaos?
  • Will we be able to respond well even if the answer is, "We do not have the capacity to adapt, the time of our current way of being is done."
  • Can we truly embrace the unknown, but yet joyfully strive to seek God's intentions?

These are obviously not all the questions that we need ask of ourselves and as hard as it may be to believe, I would not want to place values on the answers to these questions.  But, if we do not venture onto some deeper questions about our future, we will never fully be able to navigate our way into who God hopes us to become as a Presbyterian people.

So . . . there you have it, what other questions do we need to ask of ourselves?  What are more reasons for our decline?  Does it even matter?  What say ye Presby bloggosphere?

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