A Skewed Bell Curve

December 6, 2011

This week I am articulating six reasons for my sense of urgency about equipping individual presbyters for stand-alone discipleship. Yesterday I suggested—as I have been demonstrating for weeks—that there are increasing challenges to orthodox faith and practice in PCUSA circles. The second reason has to do with the political impact of congregational departures. A few weeks back I used an asymptote graph to illustrate my point. (A reader has since corrected my equation for that post. It would have been more elegant to define the function as f(x) = 1/x2). Today I will draw a bell curve to show what has been happening to the general makeup of the PCUSA.

Across the country, 25 congregations have left the denomination since May 1, 2011. In the previous three years before that, 24 congregations had separated from the PCUSA. The rate of disaffection is growing, and there is no reason to believe this trend will stop. As the more conservative churches leave the denomination, the ideological bell curve skews toward liberalism. In the present reality, “the right” comprises congregations that fifty years ago would have been considered in the center between liberal left and conservative right.

Conservative orthodox Presbyterians are departing our fellowship in significant numbers. Those called to remain in the denomination already feel the absence of their like-minded colleagues acutely. One reason for their grief is that a baton has been passed from the departing conservatives to the remaining centrists. Now it is up to those centrists to stand up, speak out, and engage in a debate they perhaps had allowed their more strident “right wingers” to handle up until now. Some of my friends have called these centrists “the mushy middle,” believing that they comprise a majority willing to go along with the arguments of one side or the other depending on who resonates with them.

This, by the way, is why liberal organizations such as the Covenant Network have adopted familiar language and co-opted evangelical words in order to create the illusion that they are holding out olive branches or themselves moving closer to the center. This is not the true case, however, as evidenced by their most recent advocacy for an Authoritative Interpretation that would allow pastors to preside at so-called weddings of same-sex couples. But I digress.

I do not believe it is inevitable that the middlers of the previous bell curve are mushy in their convictions or tongue-tied in their presbytery participation. They may only be out of practice and complacent, having relied on a vocal few to carry their points in debate or serve on influential committees, for instance. But the point is, it is their turn now to get involved for the sake of maintaining orthodoxy and upholding biblically defined behavioral standards.

Those conservatives and centrists who do not yet feel God’s release allowing them to leave the PCUSA (and I count myself among them) have mixed feelings about their position. Emotions range from a sense of abandonment to a bracing sense of call to be missionaries to their own tribe. But because they are (or will be) fewer in number, the bench isn’t as deep as it used to be, and the responsibility of individual Presbyterians for action and speech and polity is larger than ever. It is time to “man up” and deal with it. There is work to be done, with perhaps fewer people to do it, but this does not prevent God from showing up in a mighty way as he did for Gideon, David, and Paul.

While we pray for God’s intervention, we should at the same time take every opportunity for spiritual growth, biblical literacy, theological reflection, and skill development. You can see how these needs fuel my ministry passion: desired outcomes are dependent upon the provision of discipleship and equipping occasions and intense prayer along the lines of the apostle Paul, who finished his list of spiritual armor with the plea: “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Eph 6:19f).

Every Presbyterian has a choice about who will be his or her teacher, for all places on the theological spectrum are represented in our seminaries, colleges, and congregations. I am equipping my readers to be able to differentiate truth and error, in hope that they will  apprentice themselves to Jesus in covenant community with other Christians.

Tomorrow: the third reason for urgency in developing stand-alone disciples.



4 Responses to “A Skewed Bell Curve”

  1. Robert Says:

    Actually, a truncated bell curve. I love your posts and pray for you to continue publication of your insight and activities.

  2. Entropy, erosion, attrition—these make up the engine of the Progressive Left. Sit still long enough and you are guaranteed to become a relative “right winger” in the PCUSA. Great article, Mary.

  3. TPT Says:

    Ah, but this is about congregations leaving. How many congregations have left their members as the articulate right leaves for other churches or other denominations? Leaving those who remain under the domination of the determined left.

  4. Ron Says:

    Hegelian dialectic
    Study this technique, it is at the root of the progressive trend that moves relentlessly toward the left. Two sides in conflict, a compromise to meet somewhere in the middle (with the loss of orthodoxy), establishing a new position on the right. The left continues with it’s liberal position, and establishes a new conflict which ultimately is again resolved with a new third way in the middle. The cycle repeats over and over and you get a steady progression to the left.

    As those you mention above who hold to the orthodox position then decide no more and leave the process accelerates.

    It is rare if ever this process works in reverse.

    I like to illustrate the effect with two water glasses.
    The one on the left is filled with plain clear water, no orthodox doctrine to be seen, one might look at this side as the goats in the church. The one on the right is filled with a deep dark blue dye of orthodoxy, these might be the sheep. These groups decide to merge and the two waters are mix, resulting in a blue (but not as blue) mixture. Again time passes and another group of clear water converts joins the church and the resulting blue becomes weaker still. Eventually, the church is diluted so that only a hint of blue orthodoxy can be picked up only upon close examination.

    Since the orthodox tend to leave and the non-orthodox tend to come in, the process accelerates and never reverses.

    Finally one must remember that 70-80 years ago, J Gresham Machen – Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, led a conservative revolt against modernist theology at Princeton and formed Westminster Theological Seminary as a more orthodox alternative. Machen led a group of conservatives out of the church (what is now the PCUSA) to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

    Christianity and Liberalism (1923) ISBN 0-80281-121-3 is still a great read and applies equally today as it did when written.

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