What Sort of “New” Is Acceptable in the PC(USA)?

September 30, 2014

One of the first things a counselor (of any type) will tell you is that if you want to change a behavior, the best place to start is by monitoring what your current behavior is. If you want to change your eating habits, for instance, you would keep a food log for a couple weeks to observe what you are actually putting in your mouth. Then when it is time to start the behavioral change project, you know where your points of vulnerability are, you know how much of a change is required, and you get a pretty good idea of what to do to change course. If you are honest and complete in your log, self-monitoring is also a good foil against self-deception. Human beings have a huge capacity to sweep reality under the rug, underestimate its impact, or avoid accountability simply by changing the facts one keeps track of.

It has been said that what gets measured gets valued. A few years ago, Willow Creek Community Church came to the conclusion that they were measuring the wrong signs as indicators of their success. While they attracted a lot of people into their worship services (easy to measure), there was a disappointing lack of evidence that the throngs were actually growing more mature and deeper in their faith commitment (something notoriously hard to measure, but everybody would agree is more important than just church attendance). When it comes to measuring progress in the Christian life, congregations and denominations have a difficult time getting to the real issues related to discipleship.

One such area where I think a study should be conducted [within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tribe] is the relatively new 1001 New Worshiping Communities project trumpeted at the 2012 General Assembly. As was reported in my blog last week, one such new worshiping community sponsored within San Francisco Presbytery seems to have gone sideways, as evidenced by the so-called worship experience it led for the September presbytery meeting. And yet, at the 2014 General Assembly, news of the proliferation of new, experimental communities was applauded based primarily on the number of new groups formed and grants distributed (easy to track). It did not report the number of groups that formed and failed nor did it report the theological center-of-gravity. I do not believe that the numbers collected so far are telling the real story, but you can find that report by going to www.pc-biz.org and adding key words 14-01 to see the story the General Assembly was given.

Lest you get the wrong impression, let me just say that I am all in favor of the mission of new worshiping communities that seek to make and shape new disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen to that! On its website, 1001 New Worshiping Communities defines itself:


  • Seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture


  • Gathered by the Spirit to meet Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament

  • Sent by the Spirit to join God’s mission for the transformation of the world


  • Practicing mutual care and accountability

  • Developing sustainability in leadership and finances

A great starting point, n’est-ce pas? In the elaboration of this definition, “varied forms” and “innovation” have high value. In general, and within parameters, I have no problem with experimentation and innovation, because many congregations survive on the maxim WADITWB (the seven last words of the church: We’ve Always Done It That Way Before).

But immediately, I am also cautious. The word innovation, and its Presbyterian cousin “Reformed and Always Reforming” (a misquote/mistranslation of one of our hallmarks, “Reformed, and always needing reform according to the Word of God”), is fraught with temptations not only to “think outside the box” but to “go to la-la land.” My pastor friend Frank Jackson, now with Jesus, used to say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” That is why Presbyterians rely on church discipline to keep ourselves accountable to a biblical standard—or at least we’re supposed to.

The PC(USA) and some congregations within it have not demonstrated an ability or a willingness to hold one another accountable. Recent history has shown, for example in Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery, that we are unable to define orthodoxy and therefore cannot “practice accountability” for it. What suffers, as the higher value becomes innovation, is sound doctrine, spiritual focus on the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) in the context of Word and Sacrament, and a differentiation between the church and culture. Hence it is possible for the experience we endured two weeks ago to be tolerated and to be perpetuated by PC(USA) grant money.

Wouldn’t this be a great Ph.D. project for someone: to visit the new worshiping communities and report on the intangibles of Christian discipleship, through carefully designed interview collection and observations of behavior within those communities? Who wants to take up the challenge?


10 Responses to “What Sort of “New” Is Acceptable in the PC(USA)?”

  1. Anyone who could come up with a way to measure discipleship deserves a Ph.D.

  2. Jodie Says:

    Interesting challenge, Mary, to make the intangible tangible, and report the results. ‘Be worth a whole lot more than a Ph.D.

    Science makes building rockets a whole lot easier. But it doesn’t seem to help church making that much.

    I think the Apostle Paul’s organic model of the Church is still the best. It has stood the test of time very nicely. There is room for creativity and experimentation in the Church, because that is what living breathing thinking beings do. And it should be assumed and accepted that most experiments will fail. That’s why they call it “trail AND error”.

    Every once in while, though, we will find a gold nugget, or a pearl, that will make all the failures worthwhile. But where shall we conduct all these doomed to fail experiments? In our local churches? I hope not. Where can we find mature experienced believers who will not loose faith and not get scared out of their wits every time someone comes up with some hair brained idea they want to try out? Where is the basement laboratory for the crazy theologians to conduct their mad experiments?

    And, where do we add some kind of focus to the experiments? What are we trying to learn from them? Are people actually conducting an experiment, or are they just playing around because they are bored? I suspect much of the latter and little of the former.

    Still, I would like to place some value in experimentation if only because we have a problem to solve. Presbyterianism, whether it be the PCUSA or Presbyterianism in general is shrinking, maybe even dying. I think its worth saving. But I am not worried about the Faith, or the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit built the Church from scratch under the noses of the Roman Empire. And Christ is the door into the Kingdom of God, not us, not what we say, and not even the Church. We are not the gate keepers, even though from listening to many Christians you would think we are. Or were meant to be.

    So, divide and conquer. What problem do we wish to solve?

  3. Ron F Says:

    It is probably to much to ask, but one might take the time to consider the old doctrines…

    Interesting concept….

    John Calvin on the Regulative Principle of Worship

    “… which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.”


    – John Calvin, Commentary on Jeremiah 7:31

    There is much commentary at…



  4. The Rev'd Neal Humphrey` Says:

    Just a note about your mention of Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery the inability of the PCUSA to define orthodoxy.

    Last weekend I was examined and received into the EPC by the Presbytery of the West as a Teaching Elder. The commissioners grilled me for 50 minutes, particularly about my taking exception to the affirmation of the filioque in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

    The EPC not only defines and demands orthodoxy, they insist on it being Reformed if you want to serve.

    At the same meeting another candidate was voted down primarily for not being Reformed in his views of the Sacraments.

    • Does the EPC ordain women?

      • The Rev'd Neal Humphrey` Says:

        The EPC ordains women. In fact, the mentor/coach assigned to me to prepare me for examination was the Rev’d Sharon Beekman.

    • Jodie Says:

      Dear Rev Neal,

      Being grilled on your exception to the the affirmation of the filioque in the Westminster Confession: Is that supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing? Your comment could be taken both ways, it seems to me. Is that something they want you to preach about regularly on Sunday Mornings?

      • The Rev'd Neal Humphrey` Says:

        Curious that you could not detect the intent of the post. The PCUSA has no definition of orthodoxy, the EPC does. My congregation voted to join the EPC, in part, because of the rigorous standards required for church officers.

        And no, I don’t preach about the filioque, but it does come up in Bible studies and theological classes.

    • Jodie Says:

      Rev. Neal

      It’s just that Orthodox Reformed Faith accepts the Filioque, and Eastern Orthodox rejects it, and therefor you can be “orthodox” either way. So why discuss it in the context of examining a person’s adherence to Orthodoxy?

      The statement in the Westminster Confession, while attempting to draw heritage to the Western view on the topic, is itself inconclusive, being of the form “A and Not A are both True”. Nobody really knows what it means, so you either accept it as a “mystery”, or you project your own meaning into it, take sides, and argue about it till you either become enemies, or the urge to argue dissipates.

      So I couldn’t tell if you thought spending a lot of time questioning you about it was a sign they were worried you might be the wrong kind of orthodox (a bad thing), or if your comment was to emphasize that you think they take orthodoxy just seriously enough to discuss it a little (a good thing), or you think they take it way too seriously (a bad thing).

      To be fair, my cards say the question is not relevant to determining whether a person is going to be an effective Teaching Elder, and I would be concerned that an examining body that focused on that topic is either being way too argumentative, or, more likely, simply distracted and confused about their priorities. You threw them a bone and they just chased it.

      I think you were trying to say it was a good thing. But was it really?

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