Of White Papers and Denominations

A little known or remembered fact about the Titanic is that if the Titanic had hit the iceburg head on, that it would not have sunk.  The Titanic really was designed to withstand almost anything nature could have thrown at her.  But the designers never envisioned a rip that would run the length of much of the vessel, making the water-tight compartments useless.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), along with many mainline denominations, is facing a demographic iceberg.  What is true and has been true for many years is that our denomination was very attractive to a post-World War II generation.  It is less attractive today.  And as the post-World War II generation continues to age, the “iceberg ahead!” warnings are coming more and more frequently.  Jim Singleton, a PC(USA) pastor and one of the signers of the recent “PCUSA White Paper” recently put a video out to explain some core problems (lack of young adults, lack of baptisms, “backdoor loss”, and fewer and fewer new congregations) and then proposes solutions (creating theologically based presbyteries and synods and then allowing non-PC(USA) churches to be parts of that fellowship).

In my view, he succeeds in doing is identifying problems without staying focused on the root of the problem.  Most people in the pews do not come to church because of denominational affiliations (or lack thereof) .  What our generation has seen is incredible growth in churches that maintain no denominational affiliation at all.    We also have lots of Presbyterians (and folks we would call friends) who have no history of being Presbyterians and some who never intend on becoming Presbyterians.  By and large, they come because of the people in the church.  They come because of relationships.  They come because they feel God’s presence.  But they don’t come (or stay away) because of denominational theological statements or because of the latest battle over ordination standards or church property issues.  There are exceptions to this but, in my experience in five presbyteries and with many churches, this is largely what I have seen.

So, what is the root of the problem then in Presbyterian churches?  Why do we fail to baptize like our predecessors?  Why don’t we have more young adults?  Why is there so much ‘backdoor loss’?  I believe our generation does not believe one’s church membership, or even participation, has a great influence one way or another with their relationship with God, with what happens to them, and what is going to happen in our society around us.  Church is for those who get something out of it.  But there is no judgment at all against those who don’t.  Going to church is like going to the movies.  For some it is good and enjoyable.  But it isn’t for everyone.  This is not what I believe, and is not what many active members in our churches believe.  But this is what our culture believes and what many in our pews have taken in as their worldview too.

For those of us who spend much time in the church, we are like the lookouts on the Titanic.  We see the problem.  We spend alot of time thinking about it too.  And we think we know the solution.  Maybe we do.  Maybe we don’t.  But until we reach a point in our culture where church is compelling again, where folks feel like they have missed something if they have not come to church, and where they fell their individual lives will be fundamentally different if they are or are not here, nothing is going to change.  We can write position papers all day long, demolish and rebuild denominations, and fight with one another and all it will do is re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Jesus said those who lose their life will gain it and those who desperately try to save it will lose it.  Perhaps the same is true of denominations in His church.

Until next time,

Tom

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