A letter to the editor in this morning’s Beaufort Gazette questioned whether the Presbyterian Church is “ignoring its members” and heading down a path of self-destruction. I would like to use this space to respond to Earle Everett, the letter’s author, and share with you my perspective on the challenges facing the church (Presbyterian and other traditions) today and why I still believe there is a future for the church of Jesus Christ and for the denomination that has called me into service.
The numbers Mr. Everett shares about membership declines in the PC(USA) and other mainline denominations are a matter of fact, and they should be disconcerting to anyone who loves the church and believes in her mission. However, Mr. Everett misses the mark when he attributes the declines in the Presbyterian church to decisions made by our national governing body, the General Assembly. (As an aside, I would like to remind Mr. Everett that the General Assembly is not a far-away “them” who make decisions disconnected from the lives of the men and women in the pews. The 750+ commissioners at the biennial General Assembly are pastors and church elders elected by their local presbyteries. These men and women are chosen not to represent the will of the people, but because their lives evidence the movement of the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit they will seek in their decision making (Book of Order G-2.0103). Let us refrain from criticizing the “top levels” of the church organization until we understand that next year one of those “top level” folks might be a member of your local Session.)
While the PC(USA) may indeed be experiencing shifts in how it interprets Scripture and responds to contemporary culture, these are not the reasons behind our decline. Perhaps I wish Mr. Everett were correct, for these kinds of challenges would be easier to solve. The truth is, church membership and participation is declining because we are in a time of great cultural change. It is not that folks are leaving mainline churches and heading to evangelical ones; people are leaving every kind of church. According to a Pew Research study, predominately white mainline Protestant churches have experience a 3% decline since 2007. Predominately white evangelical protestant churches have seen a 2% decline in the same period. Only African-American Protestant congregations are holding steady, along with Mormons and the Orthodox. The group that is growing the fastest is the group that has come to be called the “Nones”: those who claim no religious affiliation. The Nones represent 20% of the American public, and the vast majority of these Nones say they are not even seeking to affiliate with a faith group.
This may sound like a lot of doom and gloom for Christian churches of every stripe. It is certainly troubling. However, there is good news, and there is hope not only for the institutional church but for the work of Jesus Christ on earth. While the vast majority of the religiously unaffiliated say they are not seeking to join a church, they are seeking a meaningful spiritual life that is connected with the practicalities and realities of life on earth. (For more information on these trends, check out the Post-Christian metrics by the Barna Group.) If the church hopes to lead these men and women into a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ, we will do it not, as Mr. Everett suggests, by “serving our members” but by reaching out to those who feel alienated from or even burned by the institutional church.
Sea Island Presbyterian has long affirmed that the church does not exist for the benefit of her members (join a country club or the Chamber of Commerce if that is what you are seeking), but to share the grace of Jesus Christ with others, both our neighbors and our enemies. Jesus did not come to preserve “Christian family values” but to inaugurate the reign of God on earth, a reign where lives are shaped in accordance with God’s values of compassion for the suffering, forgiveness for sinners, justice for the poor, and peace among all people. Much of the excitement surrounding Pope Francis is due to the fact that he has embodied the ministry of Jesus in the face of an institution that has been much more interested in self-preservation. Presbyterians can learn much from our Catholic brother. James Carroll’s beautiful opinion piece in the New York Times is worth a read and provides a welcome contrast to Mr. Everett’s perspective.
As I help lead our small congregation nestled in this beautiful corner of God’s world, it is my firm belief that the church will experience growth not when the denomination starts serving her members but when members of Christian churches get serious about serving Jesus Christ in the face of every man, woman, and child we meet. May it be so.