Are You Ready for What Can Happen in 2013?

January 2, 2013

Looking ahead to the coming year, my sense is that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will see an accelerated decline in “the measurables,” and the spiritual gains will be harder and harder to discern. It is customary in some circles to predict the trends of the coming year, so I will take a stab at a list for the PC(USA). By mentioning these things I am not saying I want them to happen, or that I am certain they will, but I feel confident asserting that the trends are a real threat to Presbyterian covenant life. I believe that we will see the following developments continue in 2013:

• Court rulings that promote reinvention of the wheel with every examination and every dismissal—This trend is based on the false assumption that “the Spirit will say something different each time we come back to the same question.” Congregations and church leaders will gradually opt out of the decision-making process because of its seeming futility.

• Increasing difficulty for evangelical pastors to get or keep pastoral positions—pastoral calls will favor those who have not taken positions on anything controversial for fear of dividing a congregation. Evangelicals in particular will be scrutinized more carefully for indications that they might lead a congregation out of the denomination. This trend is based on the false assumption that evangelicals with more conservative worldviews are unable to lead a pluralistic congregation.

• Continued exodus of church members, whether or not their congregations dismiss to another Reformed body—While presbyteries and Sessions undertake the slow (and slowing process) of discernment, ordinary church members will lose faith and seek to resolve their own cognitive and spiritual dissonance with a move elsewhere. Where I live, this is a major factor in the congregational osteoporosis I have named previously.

• Increasing pressure on Presbyterian pastors to conduct same-sex weddings and to overlook moral deviations among church officers—peer pressure, pure and simple.

• A new, corporate “conscience” formed by the holy trinity of “inclusivity, relativism, and denominational loyalty,” rather than by Scripture and the confessions—This trend is based on making unity the highest value, at the expense of purity, and we have seen its expression in Parnell v. San Francisco and in the machinations of the General Assembly. The tipping point has already occurred, but in 2013 we will see those decisions filter down into presbyteries and processes throughout the church.

• A blatant disassociation between what is written and what is practiced—Due to the developments cited above, it is now possible to have perfectly good “books” (constitution and creeds, for example) that are meaningless in the life of the church because “freedom of conscience” reigns as the highest personal value, not “captive to the Word of God.”

• An emphasis on process at the expense of decision-making—that is to say, practice will snowball in certain (liberal) directions without changing anything in writing (constitution, minutes, judicial rulings). Presbyterians will outdo the Pharisees in hypocrisy.

• Transfer of material wealth from congregations to middle-governing bodies and the Foundation—as congregations disband or dismiss rather than continue association with the PC(USA), their assets will be seized to secure the future of a shell organization. Previously, I had privately predicted the demise of the denomination within ten years, but now I think an institutional fountain of youth has been discovered. Presbyteries will increasingly demand property and assets as congregations follow their consciences and seek dismissal to another Reformed body.

• Loss of the evangelical voice in denominational conversation at all levels, despite efforts to open up discussion. In an effort to appear collegial and relational, and employing methods of rule by consensus, evangelicals in the minority will find themselves out-shared, if not outright dismissed in ordinary conversation. We are noting in San Francisco Presbytery that spoken evangelical points of view at round-table discussions never get reported to the whole group or appear in the summaries.

• Tolerance requiring intolerance for doctrinal confidence and definition—an irony noted in the past will only get worse as the situation morphs from a fluid transition to a new hard line.

• The fracturing of covenant groups and pastoral fellowships—the collateral damage of divergent ideological views are blowing groups apart, while forming other alliances aimed at codifying a new liberal position on social issues before the church.

• Growing shyness to include evangelism in church mission—evident in the presentations by Louisville staff to the General Assembly last summer, I observed through note-taking that the mention of “mission” only once included proclamation of the gospel for spiritual conversion and transformation.

• Increasing pressure to preach a so-called gospel shaped by our culture, less from the Bible, and more from psychology and “human wisdom”—as an example, a church in my presbytery has indicated that because fewer than half its members feel the Bible should be the primary text for pastoral sermons, they are looking for a new pastor who will inspire them with diverse texts other than the Bible.

 If you feel called to remain in the PC(USA), are you ready to be a part of a church in which these dynamics will increasingly shape the reality? By making this list, I am not saying an evangelical within the PC(USA) must leave the denomination. I’m not planning to do so any time soon, so this is the question I feel challenges me at the moment. Am I ready to stand faithful to Jesus Christ amidst organizational pressure, blacklisting, ridicule, interminably repetitious discussions in presbytery, and dismissal of what I share in supposedly open round table discussions?

One of the most liberating thoughts I have ever had in the midst of trying times as a pastor was this one: Jesus did not need people to like him in order for him to be effective at what he did. He didn’t need ministry to be easy, either, because he had an inexhaustible supply of divine power with which to act.

Lord, in 2013, I repent of the need to win the approval of my presbytery colleagues and to have an easy life as a pastor. I relinquish both and simply ask that you would empower me to stand. Wherever. Whenever. Whatever it takes.

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5 Responses to “Are You Ready for What Can Happen in 2013?”

  1. Jake Horner Says:

    Mary,

    It’s nice to see you blogging again. I came to essentially the same conclusion you did for a paper I handed in at Thanksgiving. Here is the pertinent paragraph:

    With regard to the PCUSA, I envision schism. The liberal faction is relentlessly pursuing an agenda brought to it by the LGBT lobby in America. Just as the issue of women’s ordination was framed, so this present issue is being framed politically as an issue of social justice, and not as an issue of theology and hermeneutics. Because it is a matter of justice, disagreement or peaceful coexistence with the theological right cannot ultimately be tolerated, for tolerating refusal to ordain practicing homosexuals or to marry same-gender couples is to tolerate injustice, bigotry, and homophobia, and injustice is evil. For this reason, I expect that some of the more evangelical pastors and churches in the PCUSA will no longer perform the liturgy of Christian marriage. In the longer term, I expect the PCUSA to divide into two streams, one of which holds the power and money and is theologically liberal (and is “reformed and always reforming”), and the other essentially disenfranchised and theologically conservative (and is “reformed, and always being reformed, according to the Word of God”).

    Jake

  2. Jake Says:

    MARY,MARY, ‘QUITE CONTRARY, HOW DOES YOUR CHURCH GROW?’ your analyis is right on IF YOU REMAIN IN THE PCUSA==they==MIGHT THINK YOU ARE AN ACCEPTABLE CONVERT to the real church way!!!!! another Jake

  3. garyt123 Says:

    Mary – I read your exposition with great interest. It’s an excellent summary of many changes I am seeing throughout our society. While your commentary focused on the Presbyterian Church in the USA, I couldn’t help thinking how some of your observations are applicable to the state of political discourse:

    – A tolerance for the certain kinds of intolerance (Christians are criticized with impunity by our media and some politicians, references to God and/or scripture are purged from our public places and schools.)

    – A growing tendency to marginalize time-tested processes that promote mediation and collaboration in favor of executive actions (i.e. czars for this or that crisis, laws passed without bipartisan support, a budget process that seems hopelessly broken)

    As we’ve become polarized, it’s become easier to denounce and criticize rather than listen and understand the other side. We allow ourselves to be manipulated by those who divide us by class, race, and/or economic status. We move farther and farther from Jesus’ last commandment – that we love each other.

    I wonder what the end result will be? Will we see a broad-based exodus from all denominations? How many will give up completely on faith – just as many younger folks see our political system as increasingly irrelevant to them. Mostly, I fear that, as we lose purity of faith we will become less hopeful – and more apt to forget that our identity comes from our belief in God (not our government or economic status.)

    Gary Thompson

  4. Truth Tolife Says:

    Mary: Jesus instructed: “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:11). When does this trump Paul’s admonition “to stand” (Eph 6:13)?

    • revmary Says:

      We can get some guidance, Bruce, by examining the context of those two quotations: Paul’s famous exhortation regarding spiritual warfare is about standing in the face of “the principalities and the powers,” i.e. opposition to God in the spiritual realm. The use of all those warfare aids (shield, belt, helmet, etc.) is defensive, not offensive (except for the sword of God’s Word), and the point is to remain standing in faith no matter what is going on around you. Jesus’ instruction in Mark 6 is related to evangelism and Kingdom-announcement: the disciples he sent out two by two were told to maintain a witness unless/until a village resisted the gospel, at which point they were to move on to the next one.
      I believe the question comes from our own Presbyterian context and what we are to do if we feel we have met irreversible resistance to the Word of God. Resistance and receptivity are in the eye of the beholder; some of our evangelical colleagues have reached the end of their rope, so to speak, but others see signs of great hope. Each must do what must be done to remain at the center of their particular callings, as prophet or as leader into exile. But all of us, regardless of where we end up denominationally, must “stand” in Christ, find our life in him, confess our faith in him, and otherwise hang on. One can “stand” in that faith while shaking the dust off one’s feet and moving on to the next village. But if moving on to the next village is a person’s way of saying, “I have given up on Christ, and the church can just go to ______,” then one has collapsed spiritually. Whatever one chooses to do (and I do think we have some freedom here) must be done not in fear, but in faith and trust in our Savior.

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