The origin of the oft-quoted question dates to the 1920s vaudeville days, popularized by Groucho Marx. It seems that traveling shows faced super-critical audiences in the Illinois town, so if your show survived there, it was probably on its way to a long, successful run. Peoria also has been used as a test-market for product research given its demographic as an average, mainstream, midwestern American city. This litmus-test-market status took on new meaning when, in 1969, President Richard M. Nixon handed down a decision calculated to rile easterners. Addressing the question of a news reporter, Nixon aide John D. Ehrlichman quipped, “Don’t worry, it’ll play in Peoria.”
Go to the First Presbyterian Church in most American towns – even those out east – and you’ll find yourself smack dab in Peoria. We Presbyterians have turned average into an art form. We’re normal Americans, only more so. For that reason, many of us look upon meetings of the General Assembly with disinterest or even disdain.
Such disinterest/disdain comes after years of post-GA head shaking and hand wringing, as we’ve read reports of actions in the GA that won’t play in Peoria.
How can a collection of normal Protestant Americans generate actions that seem to fly in face of normality?
Many GA junkies, folks who attend the Assembly year after year, have noticed a common behavioral pattern. Commissioners and delegates, most of whom have never attended a GA, seem to start out like deer in headlights – feeling humbled, even overwhelmed, with the enormous trust granted them to tackle a huge number of far-reaching legislative proposals. ‘Tis a heady experience to don the blue name tags that designate one as a commissioner or delegate. But they muster the internal fortitude to step up to the challenge, and within a few days they’re running in full stride, taking bold, sweeping actions that could have historic consequences. The only problem, many would say, is that about midway through their weeklong sojourn together, they lose touch with Peoria.
That problem is exacerbated these days because Peoria is suffering from a deep ecclesiastical recession. Giving is slipping. Attendance shrinkage is accelerating. Support of governing bodies is flagging. National staff is suffering more layoffs (see p. 19) and middle governing bodies are consolidating and even closing. There’s no end in sight.
The last thing most folks back home want to hear from the commissioners is anything that’s going to rile any group of concerned, committed members.
That’s a tall order, considering hundreds of proposed legislative actions have been docketed for action. Every one of those proposals has behind it many hours of preparation, much passion and vision, many hopes and great anxieties. In almost every case, somebody thinks that their proposal will make a huge impact if adopted, and will signal a terrible setback if not.
As commissioners and delegates assess these proposals, their commission requires respectful consideration and prayerful discernment of the intentions, the ideas, the plans, the costs, the implications of every piece of proposed legislation.
To fulfill that commission well, they also need a healthy dose of common sense, a sense of proportionality, a level-headedness, a readiness to count all the costs, especially keeping a keen eye out for the unintended costs being paid in the local churches’ head shaking and hand wringing. Those costs often prove to be the most dear.
As the commissioners and delegates seek to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, they do well to remember that we in the Reformed church tradition have long said that we hear that voice best through the Word of God in conversation with one another – including the folks back home.
One irony not to be missed. Remember Caterpillar Corp., that company from which the PC(USA) has been threatening to divest its 54 shares of stock, in order to convince them to change their business practices as they interface with the Israeli government? Well that same Caterpillar Corp. just happens to be based in Peoria.