Archive for February, 2012

The Shifting Sands of our Times

February 5, 2012

In Gil Rendle’s book Journey in the Wilderness, he identifies some of the shifts that are taking place in American denominations today. He writes that there is a “temptation to seek an identity and a purpose that will fit everyone’s needs and expectations and produce full agreement. One mistake of leadership is the desire of leaders to seek too much agreement and uniformity. We have overlearned the managerial habits of orderliness and tidiness from the past that require agreement as prerequisite for participation. We think everyone must agree before we can move forward. In any of our mainline denominations the voice heard in the mid-Atlantic states is different from the voice heard in the northwestern, the south central, or the southeastern states. Our denominations are a union of regional churches with all the differences that suggests, including the differences in the political map of red and blue states.”

Rendle also says that “in every area there are sister congregations of the same denomination that attract different generational cohorts, which, by definition, means that they do not agree with one another on practices of worship, programs, structure, or decision making. Such differences and diversity make full agreement on identity and purpose impossible. Nevertheless, having lost our denominational unity and agreement through the growth and diversity of a changing culture, leaders naturally responded by trying to install a singular new identity that everyone would agree upon and that would bring us all back together as well as attract and welcome newcomers. Much of the internal contests in our mainline denominations over the past decades revolved around arguments of what all Methodists or all Presbyterians or all Episcopalians should look like or should care about.”

Rendle continues by saying that “the challenge for mainline denominations will be to discover ways to hold a much wider array of congregational forms together around a shared story of identity and purpose. The corporate vestige that remains within denominational structures will be severely tested because it is no longer time for uniformity and control. If denominations are to house within their community such a disparate group of forms of congregations that are now developing, a new model of denomination will begin to emerge that is less about regulations and uniformity and more about a shared story of purpose and identity that holds a network of unmatched congregations, leaders, and people in a whole.”

In August of 2011, Tod Bolsinger wrote an article entitled “One Source, Many Streams: On Being Presbyterian in a Parched World”. In this article, he identified how the Presbyterian Church (USA) is made up of three very different regional churches – the northern stream, the southern stream, and the western stream. Each regional church has a very different way of looking at its presbytery, the General Assembly and how each functions. Each one has a different culture with different values. There is no one way to be Presbyterian.

People have been acting differently within the denomination for years, even during our corporate era. Some used to think of the denomination as a top-down, command and control structure, where dictates would flow down from the national office to those at the local level. If that ever was true, it certainly is not true anymore. The denomination acts much more like a voluntary or covenantal coalition of regional churches, than a single corporation. That is part of the shift that is going on today. Thus, it is not possible to say what all Presbyterians believe. It is not possible to think of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a single entity. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a conglomeration of regional churches. It acts differently in different places. Yes, we still have a default of trying to say what all Presbyterians believe or what all Presbyterians support. But, the PC(USA) is more like a fleet of ships than a single ship.

So, what are some of the aspects of these shifting sands that we will have to address within our denomination? I would suggest that there are least five things:

1. The presbytery has become more important that the denomination. Local churches are impacted much more by what happens in their local presbytery than by what happens at a national level. It is the local presbytery that makes decisions about participating in the mission of God in their region, provides training for ministry, cultivates the local environment for missional experiments, ensures accountability, assists with conflicts in congregations, guides pastoral search processes, makes property decisions, and discerns which candidates should be ordained.
2. We need to move from a permission withholding culture to a permission giving culture. This still must include relational accountability. But, we cannot think or act like a top down corporation where we expect everyone to function in the same way. Instead of trying to control by saying “no”, we need to encourage by saying “yes”. The answer to “how” is “yes”.
3. In the same way that we have allowed theological diversity within certain boundaries, we must now also allow polity diversity within certain boundaries. The new Form of Government (nFOG) is much less regulatory than our old Form of Government was, but we are still thinking in a regulatory way and reading the nFOG through regulatory lenses. The nFOG gives us more freedom to structure our ministries regionally and locally as we see fit, but we are still reading it through our permission withholding perspectives.
4. We will agree on less. But, unity doesn’t just come from agreeing on lots of ideas (quantity). Unity can also come from agreeing on a few big ideas (quality). This is our Reformed understanding of essential tenets. If we agree on the core, central ideas, we can handle disagreement on the peripheral ideas. We will hold a fewer ideas in common.
5. People only have a small amount of time to give. Their willingness to give their time will be based on the value of the time spent together. If the time together will help their congregations grow stronger, help them participate in the exciting mission of God, and make a difference in the world for Jesus Christ, people will show up. But, if people are asked to give their time to meetings where they argue over our differences or to try to get someone to conform to one standard of being Presbyterian, people will stop showing up. They will find something else to do with their time. They will follow the Spirit into new relationships and create new structures, to accomplish what God has laid on their hearts.

The shifting sands of our times in the Presbyterian Church (USA) can be hot and give way at the same time. But, if we can learn new habits, values, and practices, we can be used by God to “tip” the church over into a different place where a more effective witness for Jesus Christ can be lived out. Walking on shifting sands keeps us on our toes. It keeps us learning and growing in community together. And ultimately it will make us stronger. We walk by faith and not by sight.