Reply to "What Can the Presbyterian Church Do to Turn Around Its Long Decline?" by Rev. Carol Howard Merritt
This is the second in a series of responses to the five articles in Beyond Rebuilding, which were written in answer to my Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment.
My primary focus is rebuilding a structure of authority within the church so that we can actually solve some of the denomination’s endemic conflicts. The main job of an establishment is to articulate a coherent vision for the whole organization and stick relentlessly to the practical steps needed to realize it. After more than a generation of drift and decline, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has forgotten that problems actually can be solved, and that healthy organizations grow.
Carol Merritt approaches the problem of decline in the PC (USA) as a pastor, which is appropriate; that is her job. She wants to evangelize young people and build new churches, with which I entirely agree. She wants to focus on choosing leaders in her congregation who are an ethnically diverse group of young men and women interested in spiritual traditions and social justice ministries. This is the niche of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, of which she is the pastor. I think her approach is a sensible strategy for her congregation.
I do not think it is a sensible strategy for the entire denomination.
Merritt takes it for granted that the niche of the entire Presbyterian Church is to draw people like her - “writing as a woman who grew up a conservative Baptist and converted to Presbyterianism.” Her strategy for contextual evangelism is “in this particular time we can especially minister to those who are leaving politically conservative evangelical megachurches.”
Yet when we look at the entire denomination, the politically conservative evangelical churches, mega- or wishing to be mega-, have been the main sources of growth in the whole denomination. We have been driving out evangelicals – that is, people who actually evangelize – faster than we have been growing them. In the past decade, we have been driving out entire congregations of evangelicals and conservative proponents of Reformed spiritual traditions.
The core of Generation X, who count as “young” in the PC (USA) though some are now in their 40s, are famously concerned with rebuilding basic institutions, most especially strong marriages and strong families. Churches that have approached social justice by promoting strong marriages and clear standards of childrearing have been the most successful at evangelizing the younger generations. This includes churches that encourage people to have more children, a strategy Merritt dismisses as unrealistic.
The way we find leaders for the whole denomination is not simply like finding committee members in a local church. The establishment is not a bureaucratic structure that a nominating committee chooses. An establishment is not made by choosing “those with the most authority, influence, and power in our society.” An establishment is not chosen at all. An establishment, if there is to be one, comes from the people of the denomination recognizing the influence, granting the power, and accepting the authority of those in the church who have made themselves its best leaders and most effective guides. The problem for the church is finding such leaders and not hampering them with counter-productive bureaucratic structures.