Sunday, July 23, 2006

How Big Will the Schism Be?

These are heady days for the movement to split the Presbyterian Church (USA). The New Wineskins Initiative meeting is underway in Tulsa. They are working their way toward voting on a timetable for a "process of dismissal." They excitedly heard a lawyer tell them they might be able to leave with their property after all. The Layman is egging them on. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which might be the prime beneficiary of a mass pullout, sent their moderator to Tulsa to offer encouragement.

Full Court Presby reported on Friday afternoon that

Based on my discussions with leadership in NWI and voting delegates, I believe that the recommendations discussed earlier will be approved. That approval sets a course and time-table for action. There will be convocation in the winter of 2007 that will be VERY INTERESTING. NWI could be in a position at that time to receive congregations that desire to leave the PCUSA. Would this be the time of a mass pullout from the denomination? No one knows.
On the other hand, the biggest renewal organizations have made clear that they are for renewing, not splitting, the church. The Global Fellowship of Presbyterians, a new mission initiative of tall-steeple churches, is observing the Tulsa meeting with interest and is clearly distressed with the way things are in the denomination – but they won't leave, either.

New Wineskins is proud of having accredited representatives of 121 churches with a combined membership of about 65,000. Many other congregations which are not represented in Tulsa are also disaffected, including most of the 1300 that have signed on with the Confessing Church Movement.

However, I think that, when push comes to shove, very few of these congregations will vote to leave the denomination, much less take part in creating a counter-denomination.

So how big might the schism be? At the Assembly, when I was asked this question, I off-handedly said "40 congregations, tops." I still think that is a good estimate. It is a very difficult business to get a whole congregation to leave a denomination, even if the denomination did not own the church buildings. Unless the denominational brass do something boneheaded – such as acquitting Jane Spahr after she begged so hard for conviction – I think the NWI schism will be mostly angry talk.

Bottom line: a year from now, the PUP schism will amount to 40 congregations and 40,000 members. In other words, about an average year's membership loss anyway.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the supposed "schism." I think "chip" might be a better word for it. Or perhaps, "cut and run."

Still, regardless of how many, it's still sad.

Jody Harrington said...

Do you see that 40 congregation/40,000 member loss because of schism as part of or an addition to the average 40,000 member loss that is not part of a group "pullout" from the PCUSA but represents individual decisions?

In other words, are you predicting a net 40,000 loss or a net 80,000 loss?

Anonymous said...

It's possible you may be right, given the property trust problem. However, a financially imposed unity is not real, and after those 40/40,000 have left, will we be better off? Do you think we'll have peace then?

I don't.

Remove the property trust clause, and then see what the loss would be. I believe it would be much, much larger, and a more accurate reflection of the alienation from the denomination that exists in congregations and sessions.

Gruntled said...

Hmm, 40K or 80K? Surely some in departing congregations might have gone anyway, so there should be some overlap. Let's split the difference: the individual decline in 2007 will be 60,000. You heard it here.

I think there might be somewhat more peace. There will be many of the same divisions at the presbytery and session level, but the people are nicer to one another.

Also, if Parker Williamson finally goes, one source of low-level irritation will be removed. Though the Layman will live on.

Agreed: it's still sad.

Anonymous said...

You severly underestimate the depth of disaffection. The issue is scripture, and that is big. Also, my experience is that the left-of-center people are much more militant and intolerant of opposition than those right-of-center.

Gruntled said...

Oh, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction. The question is, how many congregations are dissatisfied enough to leave the denomination as a congregation. That is very difficult. J. Gresham Machen knew that many people were dissatisfied with the church in the '30s, but he grossly overestimated how many of them would follow him into schism. That is why the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is a miniature denomination to this day.

Pastor Lance said...

I think that it would be a HUGE mistake to underestimate what happened at the NWI meeting. Only 40 congregations leaving? My best guess is that at least 200 congregations will go and that number could easily double or triple.

What would lead me to make such a projection?
1. While NWI has approximately 130 endorsing congregations there were easily another 250 – 300 congregations represented there! I did not talk with a single pastor or elder that expected their congregation to be in the PCUSA in another year or two. That is significant. The “property issue” is the biggest roadblock to more congregations leaving.
2. NWI has two endorsing congregations in my home state of Washington. There was at least one church from all five of the Washington presbyteries (several had elders present). This week I will be attending a meeting with 10 – 12 pastors from my presbytery to talk about our response to the ’06 GA and the NWI. Similar discussions will probably be happening in several other presbyteries in this state. My guess is that if NWI leave the PCUSA there would be at least 10 – 20 church from Washington State alone!

How many will leave? Only God knows that answer. My guess is that it will be substantially more than 40.

Pastor Lance

Michael Kruse said...

When the OGA made their per capita budget decisions earlier this year they estimated the following 2006 losses at 85,000. The actual 2005 turned out to be 48,474. (2%+) I haven't seen projections beyond 2008 but my understanding is that there is an assumption that things will move toward stabilization after 2008. The 2006 loses will be driven by the controversy.

Personally, I don't see schism into a new denomination as the issue here. We are looking at things statically instead of dynamically. A disproportionately large portion of the denominational growth is coming from evangelical congregations. Say we lose 40,000 members and the pastors of 40 or so churches. My guess is some of those are going to be some larger churches that are generating new members. From a very crass institutional picture you have just cut off some of your most effective “sales people.” You are decreasing your potential to generate new members.

But these 40,000 are the most energized and organized of the more conservative wing of the church. I suspect that the number of pastors who quietly exit to another denomination will be much greater. I think there will be 1,000s of members who will quietly depart to other congregations. That is already happening in our congregation which has a fairly diverse theological make-up. Meanwhile, attracting new evangelical pastors will be ever more difficult and replacing retiring ones will become more difficult because of the perceived departure from orthodox Christianity and left-wing “prophetic” political activism. Those who have departed to other communions will have taken their growth potential with them.

A static view says we sadly lost 40,000 or so, but it could have been much worse. The dynamic view paints a more sobering picture. I would not be surprised to see losses of 3-4% (or higher) a year into the 2010s unless something significant changes in the next couple of years.

I don’t see a “blow up” or “blow out.” I see a steadily growing leak.

As for Gresham's day, there was considerable identity tied up in denominations. The psychological barriers to leaving for all involved were much higher. Those barriers are MUCH lower today.

Gruntled said...

Mind you, I think losing any of these congregations would be a bad thing. I don't want them to go. That is why I think church officials should move strenuously to really enforce the chastity and fidelity provision. I don't know what they are really saying at the New Wineskins meeting, but Parker Williamson is reporting that they said that the GA made the seventh commandment optional. With this kind of wild misinformation abroad, the best thing we could do to plug the leak is to show that the constitution is real.

Anonymous said...

Whether it's 40, or 200, it's still a much smaller number than the word "schism" suggests. In fact, 200 congregations doesn't even break the 2% mark. I'm sure using the word "schism" has some PR value for those advocating a cut and run strategy, but just using the word doesn't make it true.

Anonymous said...

Well, you might be right about the initial estimate, but you are missing the sudden change in the winds. It is interesting to note that many of the advocates of staying have switched from "we will never leave" to "we need to study the situation" and a number of churches are putting their affairs in order, just in case.

stjones said...

As the real meaning of the AI sinks in, the numbers will go up. G-6.0108 used to say that candidates' consciences were captive to Scripture as expressed in the standards of the church. After the AI, we are supposed to pretend that it says something entirely different - departure from standards is Ok if it doesn't violate "essentials" that the PCUSA has consistently refused to enumerate.

Why do you suppose a majority of typcially left-of-center commissioners decided not to send this substantive change back to their own presbyteries? Because they knew how the presbyteries have responded in the past to attempts to dilute or remove ordination standards. They knew that months of study and deliberation would expose this sleazy gimmick for what it is.

As others have noted, it is fear that will keep the departing numbers artificially low. I don't know which is sadder - Christians who will accept compromise and apostasy in exchange for keeping their buildings or a dead denomination that props itself up on such fears.

Anonymous said...

if 25% of the church wants to pay 100% of the bills (which is what was voted with PUP) then let them.

most galling to me is that G.A. makes it impossible to leave graciously or "have room to move" (i.e. geographic presbyteries) and then makes it more painful and difficult to stay because of their decisions.

"wait and see" or "studying the issue" means we have come right up against the line of apostacy in our denomination, and if a window is opened that will provide an exit, we'll take it -- but until then we're stuck in a denomination that has become more and more intolerant of diverse (conservative/biblical) theology, more arrogant in its pronouncments of "peace and unity," and more accomodating to culture (less like biblical christian faith or historic presbyterian doctrine) than ever before.

i'm working for renewal and i'm serving Christ. however, the PCUSA is quickly becoming just another old house to me now, with broken foundations that may not be repairable. if it can't be fixed, then there's not much left but to move.

TheRev said...

One of the things frustrating me about what I'm hearing from the participants of the NWI is that there seems to be a sense of "Whew, now that we may leave the PCUSA our numbers are going to start increasing again."

It seems to me though that the real reason the PCUSA is in the state it currently resides much less because of the conservative/liberal squabble and much more because when American changed in the 50's and 60's and mainliners could no longer just swing their doors open and people would come in, that their lazy and unwelcoming (and I don't use the word welcome as it has increasingly been used) ways began to be revealed.

In other words, I have a bad feeling that those newly "released" pastors may be in for a rude awakening when they discover that simply changing billboards from PCUSA to EPC will not result in increased numbers.

I say this as a Presby pastor who has looked at the history of his church and been saddened to see that the reason for our diminshed state has very little to do with conserative/liberal issues and much more to do with the fact that the theological notion of hospitality and evangelism has gone by the wayside (and yes I serve a fairly conservative church).

Just a thought.

Gruntled said...

"if 25% of the church wants to pay 100% of the bills (which is what was voted with PUP) then let them."

What does this refer to?

Do you think any three conservative congregations could independently produce identical lists of "essential tenets?" It is not so much that the church refuses to produce such a list, as that we have never been able to completely agree on one, and when we get temporary majorities in favor of a list, they don't last.

Ray Schroeder said...

"Though Christian fortitude appears, in withstanding and counteracting the enemies that are without us; yet it much more appears, in resisting and suppressing the enemies that are within us; because they are our worst and strongest enemies, and have greatest advantage against us." --Jonathan Edwards, "Religious Affections."

Renewal groups such as New Wineskins have found new energy and purpose in their fight against what they believe to be apostasy and flagrant sin in the PC(USA) since the 217th General Assembly. However, all their talk of separation and schism is harmful to the body of Christ. As Jonathan Edwards reminded us in his work on Religious Affections, our main struggle with sin is to be against that which lies within our own hearts, not in fighting and judging the sin of others.

Edwards offers an interesting insight into the possible motives of those who are so indignant and vocal in their fight against others' sins of the flesh: "For it is the nature of spiritual pride to cause men to seek distinction and singularity; and so oftentimes to set themselves at war with those that they call carnal, that they may be more highly exalted among their party." There are many different parties within the PC(USA) today, and all seem to be focused on the sins of others, and not the darkness and error that lies deep within our very selves. They are certainly lifting themselves up as the answer to righteousness and holiness for Presbyterians today.

As we relate to brothers and sisters, sinners all of Christ's redeeming, we are to remember Jesus' call to us to be lambs, as he is the lamb that was slain. Christ, the great Shepherd, is himself a Lamb, and believers are also lambs; all the flock are lambs. May we with lamb-like humility confess our own sinfulness as we seek to build up one another in Christ.

Gruntled said...

The members of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church did confess their own sin, and the sins of their own parties, in creating the conflict and crisis in the church.

Ray Schroeder said...

Has the New Wineskins, PFR, et. al. done any confessing? Or do they have no sin to confess when it comes to schism in the body of Christ?

Anonymous said...

Confessing is one thing. Repenting is something else entirely. One isn't all that useful without the other.

Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, the conservative leaders called a meeting of confession and repentance about a year or so ago. They held an entire event to confess and repent of their sins.

What Ray Schroeder says is true about looking at our own sin; that isn't the issue. The issue has to do with whether those left of center are willing to place scripture's teaching above their own insight and culture. There is only one Reformed answer: that is that our ultimate authority is the Scriptures.

Gruntled said...

I believe that differences in reading the Bible and accepting the authority of the Bible has been at the root of all the major crises in the Presbyterian Church for the past century.

Anonymous said...

In response to R. Schroeder's comment that Jesus was the lamb and we should all strive to be like Him: He was the Lion as well as the Lamb. He was fierce in the protection of His unique values and standards of holiness. In this current situation where the clear standards of His Word are being compromised by cultural pressures, one must ask, What Would Jesus Do???