Shuck and Jive

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.

7 comments:

  1. Probing and insightful as ever, John. The Church (i.e., the universal Body of Christ) has done Itself a great disservice by persisting in medieval command-and-control tactics that exploited the fears and superstitions of illiterate masses.

    It seems the only way to reverse the downward trend is to revert to our Founder's original message and methods. Instead of threatening His followers, He constantly challenged them with truth they struggled to wrap their minds around. Dumbing down the Gospel as a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card not only insults those we want to reach; it undercuts the intellectual standards set first by Jesus and then the Apostles.

    It's time we learned "back to basics" isn't basic at all. It's tough to understand and tougher still to practice. There will always be lazy thinkers who'd rather get the Hell scared out of them than making the Kingdom come alive within them. They'll continue to pack the pews wherever this simplistic (and erroneous) doctrine dominates. The MIA's you write about see through that; they recognize the fear and want none of it. We can and must offer them a better alternative that rises to Christ's level of teaching. If we build on that, they will come.

    And by the way, my partner and I net out two lost members by choosing to worship with a Presby congregation whose pastors make us think and whose members make us welcome. So we're proof this approach works...

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  2. In uncertain times, people need churches that are certain about what they believe, John. "Find your own path" comes across as "I really don't care."

    As for young people, they have never really wanted to be part of the church for generations - it's nothing new. The demographics of the nation tell us that by 2012 the majority of people in the country will be over 65.

    Personally, I'm working with the Boomers and seeing more people join the church than ever before.

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  3. "In uncertain times, people need churches that are certain about what they believe, John. "Find your own path" comes across as "I really don't care."

    Yes, that's the answer! Give them pablum! Everyone loves to be patronized!

    This is the bean-counting game with numbers as a proxy for God's blessings. Feh.

    Instead of worrying about the message we're presenting as the far right continues their prurient obsession over genitalia, people think the solution is just to make the message more palatable (ie. "certain" ... the underlying assumption is of course that we need to be certain about fundamentalism). Maybe sermons could be changed into doing crosswords puzzles. There's always a single correct answer in a crossword puzzle! In uncertain times people love crosswords.

    It is demographics, mostly, and everyone has known this for years, in spite of the rhetoric from the Layman crowd. It is also the continued loss of members due to folks getting tired of the busybodies, fusspots, tattletales and scolds in the denomination. That's the loss the far right wants to ignore, of course, but those are the folks who are leaving the church and not coming back, and not going elsewhere. So if we want to play the numbers game, 34,000 conservatives left the denomination because of their obsession over genitals, and 104,000 people left the denomination because they got sick of conservatives' obsession over genitals. Shall we try to guess which number conservatives will tout as evidence that they're the last, best hope for the denomination? (Or will they even more cynically just quote the total 138,000 number ignoring the fact that it's unlikely that a far right fundamentalist is just going to stop going to church altogether?)

    BTW, did anyone see that the SBC has posted it's first decline in years? Clearly they must be getting way too liberal too. They need more certainty ... those Southern Baptists are always so wishywashy.

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  4. **"Find your own path" comes across as "I really don't care."**

    Perhaps it does to you. In a place in which people are used to being told what to think and what to do believe, permission to find one's own path is liberating. It means I will accept and honor you whatever path you take.

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  5. Thanks Tim!

    **"...my partner and I net out two lost members by choosing to worship with a Presby congregation whose pastors make us think and whose members make us welcome. So we're proof this approach works..."**

    Awesome! Those are the stories we need to hear and tell!

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  6. Alan gets the quote of the day:

    **34,000 conservatives left the denomination because of their obsession over genitals, and 104,000 people left the denomination because they got sick of conservatives' obsession over genitals.**

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  7. "Find your own path" means that each of us has the light of God within us and that our relationship with God is unique and sacred whatever it may be. It means that I can have my own path and at the same time respect yours. It means that we transcend our silly reliance on "my way is the only way" approach and evolve in our beliefs and understanding.

    The younger generations have spoken and don't want a church that tells them what to believe or that tells them their homosexual friends will burn in Hell.

    They want a place to explore their own unique relationship with God that is safe and open to different opinions. They want a place where they can experience real fellowship and community.

    The conservatives can yell all they want about how we must return to the old ways and beliefs but every poll states that the those ways are outdated and over.

    Nice post.

    I just wish more would read it.

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