Thursday, September 28, 2006

So What Should Mainline Denominations Do?

What should mainline denominations do about the serious problems facing their future?
  • Membership numbers are plummeting (no one even mentions attendance numbers).

  • Reserve accounts are almost tapped out and current donations aren’t enough to make up the difference.

  • Leaders at almost every level of denominations are frustrated and fearful for their future.

  • Mutual trust is rare.
In The Layman (September 28, 2006) I just read some of the recommendations that came from a PCUSA gathering of General Assembly Council officers, as well as synod and presbytery execs. It began with some activities that, to me, speak more of spiritual vapidity than spiritual formation.
The General Assembly Council spent much of its time this week introducing presbytery and synod executives to “an appreciative inquiry,” “a new way for a new day,” meditative labyrinth walks and creating the “eschatological church.”

During three sessions, the middle governing body leaders compared their “faith journeys,” interviewed each other, and envisioned a future focused on the positive. They also retrieved stones immersed in water to take home with them as reminders of their baptism, and posted hand-scrawled newsprint lists on the walls.
But there were some good responses from the synod and presbytery people who attended.

One dealt with money
“Many presbyteries are trying to develop a vision for the future while dealing with disgruntled congregations that are withholding per capita or threatening to withdraw from the PCUSA. Offers of matching grants have little value for presbyteries that have nothing in reserve.”
Another dealt with the "headquarters" attitude:
“We need you not to promote a personal agenda or to act heavy-handed in a controlling or dictating way,” one executive said. “We need you to act with servant leadership. We need you to give away yourself and your position for the new life and health of the church, rather than trying to protect your own turf. If you are getting ready to take an action that you know will be controversial, we need you to consult us and get our feedback first, being willing to change your mind and not take the action at all if you hear from us that your action will cause a greater lack of trust … in our fragile denomination.”
Another person brought up a lack of focus:
“[O]ur diversity, once a source of creativity, seems now to have become an unmanageable cancer. We could use a unifying vision or mission to unite us, which seems to have come to our Biblical foreparents [sic] when they cried out in desperation and repentance. I understand that the Presbyterian Coalition … is struggling to find the future and that one option is to begin a dialogue with the PCUSA leadership towards a gracious separation. Will we have a creative, prayerful response or simply shut them down?”
Clark Cowden, an evangelical who is the Evangelist (executive) Presbyter in San Joaquin Presbytery in California, suggested that what needed fixing was the General Assembly.

“[It] provides more negative fodder during its biennial meeting than anything else. The General Assembly sets people up in opposing camps” and the rift continues long after the assembly's adjournment. “We can change that week, so that at the end of the week, we have positive news that goes out to a positive denomination.”
I have some suggestions to add for denominational leaders:
  1. Clearly set out what you do and don't believe. This will irritate some, but it is absolutely necessary for an honest beginning toward unity. If you believe what the Bible says, then publicly and repeatedly affirm that. If you don't, then let that be known. This also applies to the classic doctrinal statements of the Faith. A church's unity is in what it believes and teaches--not in its history.

  2. Remind each other that Biblical salvation is about souls, not social movements. The power to change the world comes first through changed hearts. If you need proof of this, read the Book of Acts, a biography of General William Booth, or a biography of William Wilberforce.

  3. Ruthlessly eliminate unnecessary or burdensome governing bodies, and make the remaining ones smaller. A connectional system requires that pastors and elders really know each other, as well as each other's ministries.

  4. Emphasize content over process. I once watched two labor teams at work in the Middle East. The first one was digging a trench, the second was immediately behind them filling the trench. People were kept busy, but nothing was accomplished. There is real content in fellowship and worship, which can be at the center of all denominational functions.

  5. Keep business real. Unnecessary announcements, silly skits, interminable reports that people could read, and committees without real purpose kill any sense of ministry and purpose. Any business done should be vital business, like ordination examinations, transfer of pastors, or conflict resolution.

  6. Set meeting times when people who have to work for a living can come. Younger people cannot attend weekday meetings during working hours. Too many weekday, day-time meetings automatically keep a vital portion of the church from attending.

  7. Use ministry teams instead of committees. Committees tend to find something--anything--to fill their time. And, over time, they continue to justify their existence even if they have nothing to do. Ministry teams are organized around projects, events, and well-defined, ongoing ministry. If their job is done, they are done.

  8. Make extensive use of networking tools between (or instead of) meetings. Email, conference calls, and video conferencing through the internet, can make true church business immediate and efficient. It can also connect congregations worldwide--not just in their particular geographic location. It can also save literally thousands of dollars in travel and related costs for face-to-face meetings.

  9. Encourage individual congregations, or alliances between congregations, to start new congregations. The old models are dead and should be buried. National or regional control over new church development smacks (correctly, I think) of control rather than encouragement.

  10. Learn from those who demonstrate spiritual life and growth. The ecumenical movement has devolved into lifeless meetings of liberally like-minded denominations. Pentecostal churches are the fastest growing in the world. While their theology should not be universally emulated, their faithfulness, sincerity, and spiritual focus have much to teach all of us. Individual congregations that are growing are often (usually?) resented. They also have much to offer.
Mainline denominations are at a critical crossroad. They can tinker their way into obscurity, or they can seek transformation. The prophet Jeremiah's words speak, I believe, to this very time:
“Jeremiah, say to the people, ‘This is what the LORD says: When people fall down, don’t they get up again? When they start down the wrong road and discover their mistake, don’t they turn back? Then why do these people keep going along their self-destructive path, refusing to turn back, even though I have warned them? I listen to their conversations, and what do I hear? Is anyone sorry for sin? Does anyone say, “What a terrible thing I have done”? No! All are running down the path of sin as swiftly as a horse rushing into battle! The stork knows the time of her migration, as do the turtledove, the swallow, and the crane. They all return at the proper time each year. But not my people! They do not know what the LORD requires of them. (Jeremiah 8:4-7)
This is a season for discernment. Unless we all find what the Lord requires of us, our ministry will be in vain.

Keep praying--keep the faith,


Larry said...

I agree with your list. I also agree with you concluding comment: "Mainline denominations are at a critical crossroad. They can tinker their way into obscurity, or they can seek transformation."

For the past 40 years or more the mainline denominations have been tinkering their way into obscurity. The pastors for the most part control the decision making in the presbyteries and the elders let them get away with it.

It has now been three months since GA approved PUP and but a few of the churches and presbyteries have taken any action in opposition to PUP.

It is not like PUP was a bombshell dropped on the churches and presbyteries. They knew years in advance it was coming. If the feckless PUP response is any indication of the PCUSA's future, I would give odds to a continued tinkering into obscurity.

Chris said...

These are great ideas from a pastor who has seen it work. I agree and hope to take these into a ministry situation with me.

trumpet worship said...

We are always at a crossroad. We can always change direction. It is just more or less painful / pleasurable depending on when the turn is made.

Logically it is too late for PCUSA. The arrow of the denomination is not in a direction that evangelicals can tolerate. It is correct for the progressives, just not fast enough. Evangelicals are leaving, progrssives are not. The effect of evangelicals will lessen with their departure, and the progressives will get their desires met.

Of course God could intervene, but Biblical history bears witness to the fact that he will not honor those who do not hold to His Word.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

Brenda and I today received a letter from S.Douglas Dodd of the EOP informing us that they intend to start having services at the Southminster Church for members of the Kirk of the Hills. I guess for the 36 that voted against leaving.
We have responded with the following e-mail to Mr. Dodd, "To S. Douglas Dodd,

We recently received a letter from you at our home concerning a Worship Service for "any members of the Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church who do not desire to leave their Church or the Presbyterian Church, USA.

I fail to understand why we were sent this letter. We both voted with the 967 members (versus 36 nos) that voted to leave the Presbyterian Church, USA as we do not believe this organization any longer represents our views and beliefs. We do not wish to leave our Church, The Kirk of the Hills. We will continue to meet and worship with this congregation ably led by Tom Gray and Wayne Hardy. With Kirk of the Hills proposed new affiliation with the EPC, we are still Presbyterians and can give our offerings without worry over their use.

We, therefore, decline your invitation to your proposed Services at Southminster. Since we no longer are affiliated with your organization and since we are very satisfied with our current worship affiliation, we request that you remove our names from your mailing and e-mail list immediately.

Brenda and Stewart Vaughan"

Anonymous said...

Brenda and Stewart,

Thank you. I received the same letter, as I am sure many others did. I believe I will also let Mr. Dodd know that I wish to be taken off his list. I found it particularly interesting that he used the word "some" in a way that obscured the numbers and implied that the only reason they could not meet in the current facility is that those wishing to leave had not yet physically left the premises.

Mike Gwinner said...

You might add to the list of biographies (item 2) the biography "A Foreign Devil in China"(1988 edition)of Dr. L. Nelson Bell, a former moderator of the PCUS General Assembly (1972-73). He did not run, but accepted the office under conditions strangely similar to those today.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know the truth about whether the PCUSA is really running dry on money.

They seem to have enough to waste on prosecuting dissent though they have none to spend on prosecuting heresy.

I agree with everything else, but would really like to believe that the mainline denominations are so short of funds their insanities must end soon.