Over the past four years, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has become more liberal.
Presbyterians are committed to their local congregations, and they take pride in the PC(USA)’s history, form of government and the idea of being a connectional church. But they don’t agree on where authority in the denomination should lie – and many hold strong negative views about the denomination’s national leadership.
There is also disagreement about how politicized or activist the PC(USA) should be and about what it means to be a countercultural voice in the world.
These are just a few of the many findings of a massive listening effort conducted in the PC(USA) in the fall of 2015 – the results of which are summarized in a report that the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly released May 3 to the 2016 General Assembly in a report called “When We Gather at the Table: A PC(USA) Snapshot.”
That report presents the findings of a churchwide conversation that the Office of the General Assembly conducted in the fall of 2015 – an effort to gather opinions about the church from grass-roots Presbyterians and to advise a General Assembly that is expected to take a long, hard look at the future and priorities of the denomination and at its structures.
The General Assembly’s The Way Forward committee will consider the report.
The information released consists of several parts, including a summary of the findings from the PC(USA)’s Research Services office in this report and an analysis of the data from John Brueggemann, a sociology professor from Skidmore College (and the son of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann).
Overall, 3,427 people participated in the listening exercise – making this the largest denominational effort of this type ever known, according to Eileen Lindner of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.
Of those 3,427 participants:
- 30 percent were teaching elders, 41 percent ruling elders and 19 percent members.
- About half (55 percent) were raised in the PC(USA). Those who had joined later averaged 24 years in the denomination.
- Three in five participants (61 percent) were over age 55.
- 95 percent of participants identified as white or Caucasian.
- Geographically, 50 percent came from the South, 19 percent from the Midwest, 16 percent from the West and 14 percent from the Northeast.
- 54 percent identified themselves as theologically liberal and 35 percent as conservative; 62 percent described themselves as socially liberal and 29 percent as conservative.
Here is just a taste of a few of many of the themes Brueggemann identified in the report:
Theology. Participants agreed “that Reformed theology is a positive and defining feature of the PC(USA). At the center of that conviction is abiding faith in God’s grace. The concept of grace appears to be one of the most central, unifying, and positive themes in these data. The implications of God’s grace are disputed, though. Moreover, there is a lot of disagreement and ambivalence about what Reformed theology means, including how scripture should be understood, and its authority in the church.”
Governance. “There is a great deal of commitment to local congregations and pride in the history of the denomination, its form of government, and to the ideals of ‘connectionalism.’ But there are differing views about where authority should lie. … One of the main sources of disagreement appears to be how much unity and leverage the denomination’s national leadership should have. Many respondents express strong negative opinions about the leadership, from different vantage points. The organization overseen by the national leadership is regarded as too strong, two weak, too bureaucratic, too politicized, or too politically correct, among other concerns.”
Inclusion. “There is strong support for ‘progressive’ stances relative to identity, race, gender, sexuality, marriage, and other cultural issues. But there are others who are concerned about straying from purported strictures stipulated in scripture, and neglecting the realities of sin. And there are quite a few who resent liberal ‘political correctness.’ ”
The Research Services report found that 79 percent of the respondents fell into four categories:
- Disappointed and Discerning (19 percent): Those who are disappointed with their PC(USA) affiliation but feel stuck in the denomination for various reasons, or who are conflicted and thinking about leaving.
- Rooted and Resolute (10 percent): Those who consider their PC(USA) identity to be very important, but feel that the denomination has strayed from the Bible, bowed to the demands of secular culture and/or gotten too involved in liberal politics.
- Family Facilitators (15 percent): Those who value the PC(USA)’s theological diversity and would prefer reconciliation between liberals and conservatives.
- Purposeful Progressives (35 percent): Those who would prefer that the PC(USA) narrow its focus to claim a more progressive identity both for theological reasons and to gain cultural relevance and its own societal niche.
That report also concludes that “our denomination as a whole has become more liberal in the past four years, and this liberal leaning influences the outcome of this study. Many of the differences in the ways participants answer questions about our shared and the future of our church are due to differences in social or theological orientation, whether the individual is committed to remaining in the PC(USA), and whether the individual feels the denomination should reconcile and support both conservative and liberal theologies, or should focus on one and claim a more specific theological identity.”
Brueggemann also addressed the question of “what’s missing” in the participants’ responses.
“Several potential topics, which one might expect to be prominent, appear to receive little attention from these respondents,” although it would take a comprehensive, systematic assessment of the data to discern the extent to which the respondents actually did consider such issues unimportant.
“From our preliminary appraisal, though, these issues do not appear prominent,” he wrote. “Music is hardly mentioned. Liturgy is cited very little. Worship is mentioned a good bit, but most people seem content with the status quo in this regard. The role of evangelism or missionary work does not come up much. There seems to be little concern expressed here about children, young people, or the next generation of leaders. Only a few comments about interfaith dialogue or ecumenism seem to surface. The potential relations between the PC(USA) and other denominations, non-reformed Christians, Jews, or Muslims does not seem to be a top priority for most respondents. The connection between the PC(USA) and the rapidly growing population of ‘nones’ (i.e., Americans who are agnostic, atheistic, or unaffiliated) gets very little attention.
“Sociologists of religion currently spend a lot of time thinking about Americans who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’ as well as demographic shifts in our population, but the respondents in this survey do not. Global conflict, domestic inequality, and environmental issues—what some analysts take to be the defining moral challenges of our time—are mentioned in some statements, but not with much specificity or urgency.”
Here are links to the reports in full:
- The Committee on the General Assembly’s report to the 2016 General Assembly – When We Gather at the Table: A PC(USA) Snapshot
- Research Services – Final report: The church in the 21st century
- John Brueggemann: Coding instrument for PC(USA) identity survey data