by Vic Pentz, Pastor Peachtree Presbyterian Church
To most observers, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been a slow motion train wreck for the past thirty years. Year by year, membership dwindles, conflicts mount, finances shrink and trust in the existing leaders and structures dissipates. With the most recent General Assembly in San Jose, the smoke seems at last to have cleared, and the steaming debris of the PC(USA) has settled into place.
It’s not a pretty sight. One thing for sure: this Humpty won’t be getting back together again for a long time, if ever.
My purpose in writing is to offer the Presbyterian Global Fellowship (PGF) Conference in Long Beach, August 14-16, as a hopeful way forward. But first I want to take my best shot at explaining where we are as a denomination and how we got here.
Some folks are elated. Justice/Love has been served. Others feel hurt and betrayed. Others say that what has been true for a long time simply at last has come out into the open. These folks ask, “So what has really changed with this latest General Assembly?” The answer is that the PC(USA) rejected unequivocally what has long been considered—and still is in the global church-- the biblical standards for sexual practice. In a clean sweep that even successfully included a move to expunge an inconvenient Bible verse out of the venerable Heidelberg Catechism, the culturally progressive wing of the PC(USA) had their way in San Jose. The battle is lost for evangelical renewal groups within the system. The old “stay-fight-win” strategy is history.
The options now remaining seem to be: 1) to live with the new ascendant ideology; 2) to enter into the legal complexities of trying to get permission for one’s congregation to be dismissed to another denomination; or 3) to find a way to be “in the denomination but not of the denomination.”
This third option is the one Presbyterian Global Fellowship affirms. Let me explain why our post-San Jose context makes PGF so important.
The Christian life is unfashionably tough today. The difficult cruciform task of loving one’s neighbor as Jesus did in the gospels becomes far easier when reduced to a kind of beige “tolerance” and “justice love” equaling little more than “live and let live.” California, my native state, famous for its pop expressions of this understanding of love, was an apt setting for this General Assembly.
The church is not the plaything of its leaders. We are accountable before God to Scripture and, to a far lesser degree, before the communion of saints to the creeds they left for us. We’re not making this up as we go along. We have a charter and a divine calling to be the people of God in the world. The Christian faith is about grand tensions. God is immanent and transcendent. Jesus is fully God and fully human The church is reformed and always being reformed. Christians are to be in the world but not of the world. We are called to love the sinner and hate the sin.
When these grand tensions have been collapsed in favor of one way or the other throughout church history the result, theologically, has been heresy. For today’s church, the collapse simply means irrelevance. As Douglas John Hall writes, “The church that is simply of this world has nothing to bring to this world. It does not engage the world, it only reflects it.”
The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the General Assembly, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, ''My biggest concern is, 'How does the church move forward?'''
That’s fine, but the biggest concern of people, including Christians, around us runs deeper. They’re asking “Why even have church—any church? What good is it?” Pollster George Barna reports that for the first time the majority of adults believe there are biblically legitimate alternatives to conventional church when it comes to experiencing and expressing their faith. Says Barna, tens of millions of people are experiencing and expressing their faith in God independent of any connection to a conventional church. Thus the PCUSA announced the loss of 57,000 members at this GA.
Echoing again Douglas John Hall, “The church that is simply of this world has nothing to bring to this world.”
So then is the answer for us to be against the world, or against today’s PC(USA)? Evangelicals have often fallen into the Christ-against-culture trap. The problem is that when we see ourselves as countercultural or alternative we’re still letting the culture define us in a negative way.
I for one am not interested in living against something. I want to live for something!
That’s why I’m excited about the Presbyterian Global Fellowship. The Presbyterian Global Fellowship seeks to be a parallel society living a new vision for the church within the PC(USA).
In PGF we treat the PC(USA) for what it is: a relic of a Christendom that is disappearing before our very eyes. I’ve called our denomination a rotary dial phone wanting to be taken seriously in a digital world. I’ve personally appealed to the leaders in Louisville to become the Gorbachev who will bring about the painful perestroika to make our denomination viable in a new era.
One of the most helpful ways of understanding the missional vision of PGF is from Craig Van Gelder, and plays out the grand tension of “the church always forming and reforming.” While ecclesia semper formanda is missional, ecclesia semper reformanda is confessional. The interplay creates the balance between change and continuity. Thus, the church lives both “outside in” and “inside out.” “Outside in” means we must always be contextual, taking the outside—culture—and bringing it into our structures. We are always forming. We renew our identity in keeping with the changing context.
But we also are always reforming “inside out,” confessionally, by looking inside to our past for the timeless truth which will enable/empower us to have a faithful/real/transformative impact in our context. The Spirit-led missional church carries within its DNA both the passion to engage the new (outside in) while stewarding a proper understanding of the old (inside out). This continuous forming and reforming are the dynamics of gospel and culture.
It is at this point that today’s PC(USA) failed. San Jose offered an unconditional invitation for the “outside” to come in without asking the “outside” to be transformed by “inside.” Anything inside (confessions, Scripture, Book of Order) that did not fit comfortably with the outside was asked to leave. Or as I heard someone say, “The Bible got voted off the island.”
PGF has a very high view of “the outside!” We acknowledge with sadness and regret that the church has much to confess in our poor treatment of women, homosexual persons and Muslims through the centuries. We are sinners. We continue to believe, however, that conversion and transformation are at the heart of the church’s mission. Most of all we do not believe that the power to accomplish this lies with us, the PCUSA or even the Church.
The heart and soul of missional Christianity is that God himself is the primary acting subject, not the church. PGF is about the missio dei—the missioning God or the God of mission. We seek to join the in-progress, kingdom-building work of the Holy Spirit in persons, families, cities and nations. God is bringing in his Kingdom and we want to be part of it!
PGF is a lot about going back to the basics: how to share faith, new ways to see God at work in the world, building authentic Christian community, along with a few high techie things like a great website. We’re not into marketing or adapting corporate tactics to the church. When a sports team is on a losing streak, a good coach takes them back to the fundamentals.
Then in another sense, PGF isn’t looking back. There’s so much excitement in looking forward. It’s more fun to be at the beginning of something new than to be at the dying end of something old. PGF is a place to learn together who we are and what we are about to become.
What if we’re wrong? As an evangelical I sometimes wonder. How could so many good people on the other side be wrong about these things? How can I be so sure that my reading of Scripture and Spirit is correct?? And if it’s not, what then? Should that possibility stop me in my tracks? I don’t think so, but it calls for humility and civility toward those with whom we disagree, knowing that in the end God will sort it all out.
13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil. 1
Along with my friends in PGF, I am passionately praying that our meeting this August 14-16 in Long Beach will show the way from San Jose toward God’s future.
Yours in Christ,
1 The Holy Bible : New International Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Ec 12:13