The once and present church

It is as prophetic as any ever written on the subject. Mead predicted some changes that would take place for clergy, congregations, laity and denominations. As we watch the rapid changes taking place in the PC(USA), it is worth reconsidering some of Mead’s predictions.

Looking at denominations, Mead predicted that higher judicatories would become increasingly irrelevant to the mission of the church. He was already observing a renewed emphasis on mission at the grassroots. In an ever more connected world, it is possible for congregations to do things locally and globally that required denominational responses in the past. As a result, wrote Mead, “(congregations) are not particularly interested in supporting systems that do not seem to help them very much with what they want to be working at — their mission.”

Writing 20 years ago, Mead continued, “A wise friend of mine states the case more dramatically than I do: ‘It seems to me,’ he says, ‘That what God is doing right now is dismantling the denominational systems as fast as possible.’” For Mead, the changes that were taking place, changes he saw accelerating in the near future, were all related to mission. “Most congregations now see little connection between what their judicatory or denomination proposes as mission and what they themselves identify as mission. Fewer and fewer will find it compelling to support staffs and budgets they feel to be only marginally in touch with mission.”

Mead, by the way, did not think the demise of all judicatory-driven mission was necessarily a good thing. He was convinced that there is a need for church oversight (episopé). But unless the judicatories willingly gave up ways of being rooted in what he called the Christendom Paradigm from the past, the higher judicatory mission function might disappear totally.

Mead also predicted that congregations would increasingly have members who are what I call “First Century Christians,” meaning those who come to the church with no background in the faith. The congregation I have served for 29 years has been rebuilt by recruiting these First Century Christians. They are, by the way, a breath of fresh air!

In addition to having no background in Christianity, First Century Christians have no commitment to the Presbyterian “brand.” Most join Western Church, not Western Presbyterian Church. This makes their connection with “Presbyterian” and Presbyterian judicatories even more tenuous. Several colleagues have suggested to me that it is my responsibility to get them to buy into the brand. I’ve tried. It is a futile effort. Their desire is to be faithful Christians, not good Presbyterians.

Given the focus on grassroots-driven mission and the lack of identification by congregational members with a denomination, Mead recommended that judicatories think “bottom-up” rather than “top-down.” In so doing, he was predicting what has happened in organizations ranging from major corporations to the U.S. military. For an extended period of time in the 20th century, corporations were engaged in merger and acquisition strategies. As these strategies failed to produce profits, companies returned to a more narrow focus on a few core activities. Concurrently, they moved from vertical to horizontal organizational systems. Profits returned.

Our judicatories have very slowly acknowledged the death of the top-down strategies. There are judicatories that have embraced the language of “bottom-up” focus, saying they are all about empowering congregations. However, too many continue to have relatively large staffs and expensive overhead. The failure to adapt puts our hard-working, dedicated judicatory staff people in a very difficult position.

Mead’s predictions should give us pause about why the Presbyterian denomination continues to decline in membership. It is crucial to note that Mead did not predict we would have problems due to doctrinal differences or differences of opinion over ethical/moral issues. He knew full well that the church has dealt with such challenges from the beginning of Paul’s ministry. On the contrary, Mead said we would decline by failing to acknowledge and reshape our ministry to do mission at the grassroots in the 21st century.

If Mead was correct, and I think he was, we should view many of the changes taking place in our denomination as part of a natural evolution of the church. Our primary issue today isn’t about doctrine. Reformed denominations always have had doctrinal arguments and schisms. It isn’t about forms of government. It is about how we do the mission of the church. Those who are adaptable in doing mission survive; those who are not disappear. Congregations are the most adaptable organisms in our denominational system.

Following Mead’s logic, there will be a time in the relatively near future when most of the judicatory system I have known for the past four decades no longer exists. In a way, it is devolution, not evolution. My great-grandfather and grandfather, pastors both, wouldn’t have known what a presbytery exec or GAMC was. They didn’t exist. The denomination, however, was healthy and growing.

The disappearance of our judicatories will be a mistake only if the mission functions of judicatories in the future aren’t taken on by congregations or other entities. In fact, most of the church’s mission has already moved to the grass roots. One congregation in our presbytery has helped fund a new Afro-centric church in the D.C. suburbs, enabled a church in Ghana to grow exponentially, established a health ministry in Ethiopia, fed 250 people daily for 28 years and had a staff person doing campus ministry. Such a list of accomplishments can be matched by hundreds of congregations in our denomination. Mission, local and global, has gone to the grass roots just as Mead predicted.

As the dinosaurs evolved out of existence, the rest of the animal kingdom probably looked around and wondered, “If these powerful creatures are disappearing, what does it mean for us? Will we also become extinct?” As the American empire declines as has every empire before it, some think the end of history is upon us. It isn’t. Things have life spans. Things that don’t change have relatively short life spans.

The changes taking place in our denomination today are not to be feared. They are to be understood. Mead helps us understand some of the dynamics at work. If we can adapt and let things die that no longer are efficient uses of resources, the church will emerge from this period stronger than when it entered it.

Mead’s approach to the changes taking place was basically sociological and systemic rather than organizational. Surely there are many other sociological, cultural and societal trends involved in our denomination’s current situation— everything from technology to Christianity’s most powerful center being located in the Southern Hemisphere. Mead’s predictions cause me to stop focusing on who is right or wrong in this or that doctrinal or ethics debate at the denominational level. Instead, they cause me to wonder: Is the congregation I am serving being flexible and adaptable enough to serve God in this time and place?

JOHN WIMBERLY is pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and author of “The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management.”

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