Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beyond Rebuilding 2

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.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Like a Pope?

Gruntled said...

An establishment is not chosen like a pope. (Is that what you meant?)

Anonymous said...

"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.”

Reaching out to "people like us" seems to have been the de facto evangelization strategy of the Episcopal Church after the losses that followed WO and adoption of the '79 prayer books.
That didn't work out so well.

You're not really evangelizing unless you address your message to everyone.

One of the things I like about PCUSA is that in spite of conservative losses and liberals gains, it's still more demographically representative than the Episcopal denomination. True, PCUSA is very middle class, but it includes a more representative sample of the middle class than the Episcopal Church. Methodists with horses and all that, doncha know.

Anonymous said...

"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.”

Reaching out to "people like us" seems to have been the de facto evangelization strategy of the Episcopal Church after the losses that followed WO and adoption of the '79 prayer books.
That didn't work out so well.

You're not really evangelizing unless you address your message to everyone.

One of the things I like about PCUSA is that in spite of conservative losses and liberals gains, it's still more demographically representative than the Episcopal denomination (in which I was brought up). True, PCUSA is very middle class, but it includes a more representative sample of the middle class than the Episcopal Church. Methodists with horses and all that, doncha know.

Toby Brown said...

These are really good thoughts! I very much agree with the response to Carol's article.

The amazing thing about the Gospel is how it speaks to all of humanity. There is no one, no age group, no nationality, no income level that is without sin or without need of a Savior.

In my estimation, our health began to diminish the minute we allowed the gospel to take a back burner to other beloved "programs", whether they be conservative or liberal hobby horses. Of course, being a mainline denomination, those horses have tended to be leftward drawn...

If our strategy for growth is reaching out to disenchanted, former evangelicals with masters degrees in suburban areas, then we're pretty much toast.

Carol Howard Merritt said...

Y'all are funny...

You blew up one line of the paper and said that was my entire strategy. My point was to reach out to those who are not like us.

I'm a pastor who has only served growing churches in rural, village, and urban areas (I've never served a suburban church).

I'll respond on my blog.

Have a good day!

Gruntled said...

I will look forward to your response.

Greg Bolt said...

My question is about the particulars of "Rebuilding the Establishment". Are you saying we need to stay on message? Or is it more complicated than that.

This just sounds like a political/business model and secondly should our goal be rebuilding the establishment or preaching the gospel.

Blessings,
Greg

Gruntled said...

Greg:

It is more complicated than that, because new issues come up that have not been covered in the "message" before.

(Have you had a chance to read Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment? I deal with this question there more than in these blog posts.)

Greg Bolt said...

I have read it, will check it out again. I guess as a white male saying that other white males need to have more power makes me nervous.

I know that you are talking about tall steeple pastors, not necessarily white males, but who are we kidding.

As far as Carol bringing in people "like her". At some level don't we all. I mean as a pastor I know I can spread my arms wide open but there will only be a certain "niche" group that will be receptive to what I'm saying.

I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing, especially if the ones responding are self selecting. "You can lead a horse to water..." and all that.

Also, I believe one of the gifts of the PC(USA) is its diversity, which is also one of its greatest downfalls in this "give it to me now" culture with its polarizing stances. If we are to rebuild the PC(USA) I believe we have to live in the tension of not being overly relevant while still calling people to a higher standard of social responsibility through walking in the light of Christ.

Thanks for responding.

Greg

Aric Clark said...

Dr. Weston,

I've read your paper and strongly disagree with both your diagnosis and prescription for our denomination.

I think your criticism of Rev. Howard-Merritt's response misses the target for two reasons. You highlight a small aspect of her paper and turn it into the sole theme of your criticism. Secondly, you criticize her for something of which you are far more guilty in your original proposal. Painting the PCUSA evermore into the corner of middle-class WASPish "tall-steeple" men isn't a strategy for organizational growth and strengthening. It is a retreat to an era that no longer exists for good reason. It was a bad idea then too.

Anonymous said...

I doubt Jesus would care much about this bs. Just saying.