Thursday, May 26, 2016

Eyes that Don't See: Irony in the PCUSA

Sometimes, success can be measured by failure.

This time, success can be found by considering an article exploring the membership free-fall afflicting America's largest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA).  Just in the past four years, 463 local congregations have disassociated themselves from the PCUSA, representing a loss of about 21% of its membership.

Considering the fact that many Presbyterian churches are long-time, prominent fixtures in their communities, troubles in the PCUSA often become fodder for the secular media, not just chatty church-goers.  Many of the disassociating congregations have been forced to endure a rigorous, expensive legal process to salvage their buildings and property from the clutches of the increasingly desperate denomination.  It has not been pretty.

Why are so many congregations leaving their venerable denomination?  It's a mixture of things, starting with many Presbyterians becoming weary and resentful over the PCUSA's ownership claims on buildings and property local congregants have funded, often over decades and through generations.  And considering how valuable some of these church buildings are - Highland Park Presbyterian's exquisite campus in Dallas, for example, is worth an estimated $70 million - that represents a lot of money parishioners have invested in their local churches, often under an assumption that control over the facility rests with the congregation, not the denomination.

More importantly, however, has been the PCUSA's official stance on a variety of controversial social, moral, and religious issues - a stance that has been trending liberal for decades now.  Advocates of change within the denomination like to preach inclusivity and charity, while traditionalists try to champion scripture, not culture, as the barometer by which Presbyterianism should be run.  Intra-church wars have been waged over female pastors, gay elders, and gay marriage, with the denomination officially adopting liberal positions on each issue.

In a way, the PCUSA's distress resembles a microcosm of what has gone on in Amercian society as a whole.  But it hasn't worked out well for either the denomination, or our country.

You see, the broader conflict within the PCUSA is far more tragic than property rights and women pastors.  Increasingly, it stems from the willingness of many Presbyterians to diminish the role of scripture, the authority of God, and the historic interpretation of Christian doctrine when it comes to crafting a theological template to evaluate controversial issues.

In other words, just as relativism has become a popular byword in our culture at large, liberal Presbyterians have enthusiastically shunned the traditional metrics by which Christians have traditionally made decisions.  This means that controversies such as gay marriage have nothing but nuanced opinion or moralist emotions upon which church practices are now anchored.  Meanwhile, the relevance of the "house built on sand" in Christ's (formerly, apparently) famous parable gets marginalized for the sake of trendy intellectualized theology.

So, what does all of this have to do with success?  Because obviously, the PCUSA has not been experiencing success with their new formula.

Granted, regardless of denomination, experts widely expect that church membership will continue to at least plateau, if not deflate, as fewer and fewer Americans express interest in church attendance.  Then too, what's happening within Presbyterianism is more a rearranging of deck chairs, instead of the construction of an additional vessel.  Indeed, church growth experts sputter at the notion, but most church membership swings these days do not involve mass conversions of the unsaved as much as they do widespread church-hopping among adherents of our religious subculture.

Nevertheless, the critical failure of the PCUSA with regards to its inability to remain viable, even while while preaching cultural relevance, is stunning.  Conventional wisdom would say that mirroring one's culture should be the salvation for a denomination, but that's obviously not working.  And advocates of the new order within the PCUSA even seem to recognize the key problem.  But then again, even though they can identify the problem, they can't see it.

In a recent article exploring the denomination's decline, a PCUSA pastor is quoted as explaining his church's disconnect with today's young adults.  He can recognize that a curious irony exists over why the PCUSA, an openly liberal denomination, can't attract them, even though most modern youngsters actually share the PCUSA's liberal worldview.

“There’s nothing new here (in the PCUSA)," the Rev. James Wellman said.  "When the Presbyterian Church comes out for gay rights, they go, ‘What took them so long?’  It doesn’t show leadership.  It just shows a reflection of the culture.”

A reflection of the culture.

Actually, isn't that what the many Presbyterians leaving their denomination have been saying as well?  Only it's not a compliment.  Church should not be a reflection of the culture, should it?  Sadly, Wellman himself can put his finger on the problem, but he doesn't see it as the problem.

Success is being able and willing to leave the culture behind.  Whether it's as a denomination, a local congregation, or individual Christ-followers.  Frankly, it's encouraging to see that many Presbyterian congregations have people who can see the fallacy of culture.  There is more to life than whether women should be pastors, or gays should marry.  There is Christ.  There is His Word.  There is His wisdom, and grace, and truth.  These are eternal.  But no culture or mortal intellectualizing is eternal.

I've said before that Christ calls us to be salt and light, not Splenda and reflective tape.  The problem with the PCUSA likely is that, in their drive for cultural sophistication, they'd be more offended at being associated with a cancer-risk sweetener than being accused of not serving Christ.

At least, not the way He wants us to.

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