I’m in Minneapolis, along with 1,900 other people, mostly pastors, in the Presbyterian Church USA. That’s a lot of people in our denominational context, which suggests a powerful groundswell of feeling. The leaders who convened The Fellowship of Presbyterians–seven pastors of large evangelical churches–have adopted a very civil, non-schismatic tone. They recognize that people are angry and sad, and that some churches will continue to leave the denomination. They are trying, however, to find new structures that can enable evangelicals to live peaceably within the boundaries of the denomination but develop distinctive structures and identity. Much of this would require the acquiescence of the denominational leaders, which it is not clear will be forthcoming, but they are talking respectfully and hoping that the atmosphere has changed.
Everybody on all sides knows that the denomination is dying fast, and will surely be dead soon unless something really different is tried. The evangelical pastors here truly appreciate much of the Presbyterian heritage they find in the denomination–they just have radical difficulties in living with the liberal direction the denomination as a whole has chosen. I suppose the larger story, if there is one, lies in the attempt to find new structures. It would require thinking differently about denominations–as less a top down command and control model, with rules and regulations holding us together, and more a bottom up structure in which people of like minds can find allies to hold them accountable in their seeking to honor God and the gospel. One pastor who is helping lead this charge said that presbyteries–our regional bodies–should be thought of more as we think of a church and its pastors. Churches and pastors in the Presbyterian church choose each other. They carefully weigh the qualities they are going to find in each other, as they will have to live with and submit to each other in the relationship. If presbyteries also could be chosen, rather than simply assigned by geography, a lot of the friction and sense of abusive power might disappear.
Can denominations be restructured in a way that allows them to regain their usefulness? That’s a stretch to imagine, but stay tuned. A lot of people at this meeting would like to find out.