With recent developments in the Presbyterian Church (USA) regarding changes in our constitution – AKA Amendment 10a – that now make it possible for openly LGBTQ folks to be ordained into leadership, there has been quite a bit of finger-pointing and blame directed towards those who live in the more progressive neighborhoods of our church. If you are a Presbyterian, you have no doubt seen the letters or had conversations that usually contain some derivations of the following accusatory statements.
The reason the Presbyterian Church is dying is because we have lost our way, we have strayed from the Gospel and have turned our back on Biblical authority. Liberalism is killing the church.
Just look at churches that are growing, they are Bible-based, conservative followers of Jesus.
We are not leaving the Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church has left us.
Look what YOU [insert liberal label here]s have done to my church.
I want my Presbyterian Church back.
While I do not in any way want to invalidate the genuine anger, frustration and calling my conservative brothers and sisters are feeling about the church, I want to challenge the idea that there is any ONE reason that the church has changed and is changing. While we should certainly study trends, cultural shifts and other organizational markers to help guide our way forward, the idea that if we were just more Biblically “true” and/or conservative we would not have experienced the decline just does not make sense to me. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the liberal part of the church has abdicated it’s call to traditional evangelism and the idea that new believers are a good thing, otherwise we too could make the same claims about the conservative church’s impact on the decline of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The reason the Presbyterian Church has been dying is because we have remained rigid, closed-minded and unable to see the Holy Spirit’s proddings to shift on social issues, especially around the issue of LGBTQ ordination.
The growth of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, which tends to be more politically and socially progressive, has been pushed away from the Presbyterian Church because we worship doctrine and regulation over advocacy and relationships. We have missed a huge growth demographic.
We are not leaving the Presbyterian Church; most old progressives have already left and young ones won’t come near us.
Look what YOU [insert conservative label here]s have done to my church.
I want my Presbyterian Church back.
It really is silly, isn’t it? We keep fighting over deeply held beliefs and can’t find a way to either live with a healthy amount of tension or allow one another to shift in relationship without someone ELSE being to blame for our decisions or disagreement. One of the things about Presbyterians that I love is the passion with which we argue our points of view, try to persuade another person to see God’s will in new ways and engage in the kind of wrestling with one another that help us grow into who God intends us to be. Our love of meaningful theological discourse is commendable, but it seems to have gotten to the point that we only think we can be happy when one set of people are proven right and another group is proven wrong.
This is not the Presbyterian Church that I grew up with.
While I do not want to fall into the “let’s go back to the good ol’ days” trap – and I do know that this is GOD’S church and not “mine”- there is something about the time when we really did live with a deeply held sense of what it meant to live together as a denomination even as we disagreed over the deepest held beliefs. I remember when we valued people over the ideology when we examined candidates for ordination, when progressives found ways to stay in a denomination even when we disagreed with our constitution and when it felt like floor debate felt Holy Spirit driven and not ideologically fueled. I remember when we Presbyterians, fought passionately over issues, got angry with one another and didn’t always like the outcomes of votes, but through it all we truly believed that we best discerned the mind of Christ and will of God . . . together.
So come to think of it, there may be one thing that would make a huge difference.
If I had to choose my one reason for our decline in numbers and relevance, it’s not that we are too liberal or too conservative, but it’s that we have forgotten how to live together as a denomination in a way that honors the genuine faithfulness of both. Heck, it seems that we can’t even acknowledge that the same Christ is at the center of our discerning. While we used to be able to weather the fiercest of debates, it seems that we no longer value ending up together on the other side of our disagreements. For as long as we continue to remain entrenchment in an either-or, blame-based relationship the church will be driven by this energy and will continue to lose relevance and meaning to a world that desperately needs to see genuine community lived out among disagreeing parties.
As I think back on my earliest years in the Presbyterian Church as a youth and hear stories from my mentors, while we have always taken on political issues, we have believed that the church should engage in the discourse in a different way. We have lived a different story of community than the rest of society, one marked by a graciousness of spirit, a posture of loving our enemies and a hope for reconciliation over separation. Now it seems that we have adopted the ways of the world when it comes to our disagreements: graciousness has been replaced by judgement, loving replaced by demonization and reconciliation by isolationism.
Again, I want my Presbyterian Church back.
Now I have no delusions about our future. 1960’s denominationalism is crumbling around us, the future of large religious institutions in an exciting time of discovery and ultimately some people will choose to not longer be part of the larger body called The Presbyterian Church (USA). I am not so concerned about the Presbyterian Church getting our numbers back up to those 1960’s levels, but I am concerned with how we express our understanding of the Body of Christ to the world. So here is the challenge . . . if you think I am on the right track, left or right, we must reach over and beyond the tried and true ideological chasms and unspoken rules of engagement that have been built up for decades and be the church that we want it to be.
If we can do this, we may not get the exact Presbyterian Church that we remember it being in the past, but we will be the church we are supposed to be in the future . . . and ultimately we all live and experience this Presbyterian family, no longer as “my church” but as God’s. And that would be great.