Who will be the last Presbyterian?

That thought whistled through my brain some months ago when I read the Personal Information Form of the man my church has called as our new pastor/head of staff. In it he wrote this:

“In the 21st century, the Presbyterian Church finds itself in a culture that has moved from generally churched to generally unchurched, from shared societal values to divergent, generational values. If current attrition rates continue, the PC(USA) will no longer exist in 2060.”

  But then he added: “As stewards of such an amazing Reformed theology and heritage, we cannot allow this trend to continue.”

If I’m still extant in 2060 I will be 115 years old, so chances are I won’t be the last Presbyterian.

Besides, that 2060 estimate, however it was made, is subject to regular revision. It’s a little like projecting that a baseball team that wins on Opening Day will go 162-0 for the season. Well, maybe the 2060 demise estimate isn’t that goofy, but a great deal can happen to change the dynamics.

And my prayer is that a great deal will happen and that, by 2060, the PC(USA) will have been a strong and growing branch of the body of Christ for several decades. How can that happen, especially in light of our consistent downward membership trend in recent years?

Here are some ideas for turning this ship around:

·       Some things must die. Perhaps the first governmental structure at the top of the list for many Presbyterians would be synods. We must streamline our polity so it’s designed for both efficiency and evangelism so we can invite people to share the joy we experience as followers of the God-man we proclaim as lord. And we must care for those people in sacrificially loving ways.

·       What also must die is any sense of false certitude about what we can know about the God we serve. People smarter than I am have put it this way: The opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is certitude. We must not abandon our commitment to the essential tenets of Reformed Tradition theology but neither can we pretend that our tradition holds all the truth and all the light.

·       We must commit to becoming Biblically and theologically literate. That means taking the Bible seriously, not literally. The two are mutually exclusive. We must remember that every word we use is a metaphor, pointing to some truth beyond itself. And words in the Bible are no different, even if those words are somehow divinely inspired.

·       We must abandon our propensity to do things decently and in order when that causes us to resist moving with the Holy Spirit and following Jesus on the counter-cultural path he laid out for us — a path of love that can lead to the cross. Decency and order have their place, but if we’re not careful they can lead us to the decent order of the grave.

·       We must lead the culture by living out our faith’s eternal values. For instance, the fight over gays and lesbians is over. Let’s acknowledge that the PC(USA) has been a reactionary voice of condemnation and not a joyful voice of love. Let’s change our ordination rules, quit standing in the schoolhouse door and get on with ministry in the name of the God who loves all of us. Where our eternal values conflict with the culture we must stand our ground — against war, against injustice, against oppression of any kind. But when we’re wrong let’s cut our losses and be leaders of justice, not defenders of injustice.

·       And as the man who will become our new pastor says, let’s make sure our only sacred cow in the church is the Lamb of God.

BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. He is the co-author of the book, They Were Just People. E-mail him at [email protected].

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