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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Needed: A Second Opinion

Many of us have been following with concern the recent debate over the "deathly ill" letter, signed by a large number of large-church pastors from across the denomination. Reading some further material from that group ("The Fellowship") online, I was struck by one observation they call "non-negotiable." I've posted this response (which reflects my own opinion and should in no way taken as anything more than that):

As a cancer survivor, I’ve learned of the importance of always getting a second opinion. I advise newly-diagnosed patients that, if their doctor bristles at the suggestion of a second opinion, it’s time to find a new doctor. Such a physician, no matter how impressive-looking the diplomas on the wall, has an ego so large that it will eventually impede medical decision-making.

With that thought in mind, what am I to make of the statement, in the very first item of the “Markers for the Way Forward” document, that the diagnosis of our denomination as “terminally ill” is the sole item described as “non-negotiable”? The claim that the PC(USA) is “dying” because of popular discontent over liberal theology is but one more repetition of The Big Lie the Presbyterian Layman and similar groups have been repeating, ad infinitum, for so long that good people are starting to believe it.

It is without basis in fact. Yes, we can all come up with anecdotal evidence of some individuals, even some churches, who have defected in place or departed for this reason (many solely on the basis of their having been hammered into submission by the endlessly-repeated Big Lie). Yet, the truth is this: in no way does a real or imagined swing of Presbyterian denominational leadership to the left begin to account for our loss of membership.

Several independent sociological studies have convincingly demonstrated that larger, societal factors are to account for the gradual loss of members in mainline Protestant churches (and would be true of Roman Catholics as well, were it not for the growing Hispanic population).

Check out Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers.Wuthnow convincingly demonstrates how massive, well-documented social changes like the declining birthrate, the sharp increase in average age at marriage and the rise of two-paycheck households (with all that’s meant for churches’ volunteer pools and families’ discretionary time) – to name just a few – have had a massive, negative impact on church participation. He also shows how – historically speaking – the post-Second-World-War surge in church participation was a statistical anomaly. In no way was it a Third Great Awakening (even if it were, the tide did go back out after those earlier high-water marks).

Then, check out Robert Putnam’s and David Campbell’s new book, American Grace, and especially the “Trends in Religious Identity” graph from that book, which can be found by clicking on this link and scrolling down. Putnam and Campbell convincingly show that EVERY religious denomination has been experiencing slow declines in membership – even, in recent years, the more evangelical denominations.

In short, this is not just a Presbyterian problem. To imply otherwise, or to imagine that “rearranging the deck chairs” in the form of a two-synod structure will help the situation is a colossal act of hubris.

Still, this is no excuse for complacency. Christ’s Great Commission calls us to redouble our efforts at sharing the good news. The world is as hungry for the gospel as ever. We will accomplish far more to advance this greatest of causes by working together than by splitting apart.

Friends, our current predicament is much bigger than anything our national church leadership may or may not be doing. To imply, as the tired old Presbyterian Layman refrain puts it, that the denomination is “dying” because it has “gone liberal” is to engage in false prophecy.

Please, please don’t make the mistake of considering your recent “deathly ill” diagnosis as your one “non-negotiable.” Do the smart thing and get a second opinion. You will be leading many good people astray if you do otherwise.

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