Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Presbyterian Pruning

We are whittling down our denomination to the size of Gideon's army. The Presbyterian News Service published a story today about our latest loss which is the largest since reunion in 1983.

LOUISVILLE — Membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fell by 69,381 in 2008, the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) has announced in its annual statistical report, continuing a trend that began in the mid-1960s.

Total membership of the denomination is now 2,140,165.

Where did they go?
Almost 104,000 people joined the PC(USA) last year, but that good news was more than offset by the 34,101 Presbyterians who died, the 34,340 who were members of the 25 congregations that left the PC(USA) for other denominations, and the staggering 104,428 who were removed from the rolls by their sessions without apparently joining any other church.
Our stated clerk, Gradye Parsons said, “Presbyterians can be evangelists!”

I tried that word "evangelist" on my folks the other day, but they didn't like it much. It reminds people of a sweaty tent-meeting filled with loud, insistent Bible-thumpers. When I tried to suggest that evangelism means "good news" they didn't buy it. Too much baggage. On the other hand, they are good about inviting people to our congregation. Just don't call them evangelists.

I have no clear idea why our denomination is losing members. I suppose if you don't want to go to church, one excuse is as good as another. Baggage is a big issue. Creeds, boring hymns, bashing gays, superstitions, and the general nausea caused by Christian "evangelism" have got to be turn offs. It can't be working in our favor when the true believers actively prevent congregations from welcoming members. I am surprised that anyone shows up at all.

We have carved out our little niche by being anti-evangelists. We aren't going to tell you one thing that you need to believe. I will blather on about my religious opinions but no one needs to accept them. Jesus is my ishta devata but he doesn't have to be yours. Find your own path.

Of course I could be the problem. The fundamentalists complain that our denomination loses members because we aren't fundamentalist enough. If we were only more narrow-minded and bigoted folks would beat down the doors to enter.

Gradye Parsons lamented that we are losing our young people.

“It is a trend supported by a recent survey on religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life” he noted. “The survey reports that seven in ten former Protestants gradually drifted away from their childhood religion. Initially, they are in worship every Sunday, then every other Sunday, and then gone.”
I think this is a telling statement: "seven in ten former Protestants gradually drifted away from their childhood religion."

Good for them. Who wants a childhood religion? Maybe our youth are smarter than the rest of us. They are becoming adults. Maybe it is good news that the denomination is losing members. Perhaps it is a sign that people are growing up, thinking for themselves, and have no need of evangelists who want to save them from the pits of hell.

It could be that "childhood religion" is the problem. In the three churches I have served, all the children, like those of Lake Wobegon, were above average. Most went to college. If anything challenges a childhood religion, a university education does. After this marvelous experience they come back to church and are forced to re-enter the fourth grade.

Religion is changing. The things that denominations and congregations at one time relied upon to keep people in the pews no longer work. Threats of hell? Yawn. Social survival? Not needed. Archaic creeds and notions of God are not only not compelling but are limiting. They are all part of childhood religion.

Because our denomination does value education we are in a good position to be a free-thinking, thoughtful denomination. In order to do that I think we will need to move beyond belief. But that won't happen if we put our efforts on being unified with traditionalists who are intent on forcing belief. So I will expect more and more huge losses for the PCUSA until progressives and traditionalists part ways. I don't think this will happen by design, but by attrition.

It is hard to predict. My hope is that the progressive wings of the mainline denominations will forge alliances, sharing clergy and congregations, energy, and activism. We may find out sooner rather than later.
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