ST. LOUIS – J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), spoke to participants in a workshop session at Big Tent July 8 about his vision for the denomination and what he sees in its future.
Referencing his response to the PC(USA) 2016 denominational statistics indicating membership loss of nearly 90,000 members from 2015, Nelson said the denomination is “not dying but reforming,” and that Presbyterians need to continue believing that is true.
“What I’m seeing is change. Things shift,” Nelson said. And he enumerated three factors that he wants Presbyterians to consider:
- Reformation takes time. “The Reformation was a long period of time,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t just 95 theses tacked on a door,” as Martin Luther did at the church in Wittenberg, Germany, “and then everything changed.” As Christians prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Nelson described the debates and internal struggles that burdened the church during that time of Reformation. He also referenced his sermon at the beginning of the Big Tent conference, in which he contended that the time is right for another reformation in the church.
- The past is competing with the future. Nelson said there is a tension between “the history we carry and bring with us versus the significant changes of the current age.” The church is struggling to keep up with changes in the world such as technology and globalization, he said, but the most significant changes are found in the perspective, hopes and expectations of church members’ children and grandchildren.
- Who is the PC(USA)? “We’ve been through a lot,” Nelson said. As churches have departed for other more conservative denominations, there is a fear and anxiety among some who remain, he said, about what’s left and what’s next. As the denomination tries to regain its footing, it needs to have a sense of its core. Nelson said Quakers have peace as a major focus – but what about Presbyterians? “There’s no answer,” Nelson said. “We have snapshots of who we are all over the place, but we have no centering point about who we are and about our theology.”
In order to live into the 21st century, Nelson said, Presbyterians need to reflect on “what is our identity as Presbyterians in North American” – as a denomination that has endured a significant split over slavery, a meaningful reunification, and which now is searching for a new way forward.
Why is it important for Presbyterians to think about these things? Nelson asked. “It was so bad” at the 2016 General Assembly that the assembly created three groups (The Way Forward Commission, the 2020 Vision Team and the All Agency Review Committee), all charged in some way with discerning the future of the PC(USA).
When Nelson was asked to issue an advisory opinion about the role and responsibilities of the Way Forward Commission, he said that process made him think, “any time we have THREE groups trying to figure out” the church’s future, “I think we’re in pretty bad shape.” That sends a signal, he said, that the PC(USA) continues “to be in a major quagmire of transition.”
However, Nelson continued: “I’m not sounding the alarm that we’re going to die tomorrow. I believe we’re always reforming. But reformation requires a death to some things.”
Nelson said he has spent time thinking about who will stay in the PC(USA) – and who will leave. “This left, right and middle madness that people are talking about – I have no idea what” they’re talking about, what it means for the life of the church.
“I think of the Presbyterian Church as part of my family,” Nelson said. “We don’t have to categorically agree with everything the church does,” but it comes down to “these folks in my church – do I love them enough” to stick in with them?
So what does he hope the church of the next decade will look like?
“We have to reclaim biblical literacy” because it’s a part of our theological foundation, Nelson said. He said he believes that it should be mandatory for churches to teach the Bible and host Bible study. “I’ve seen churches that have no Bible study,” he said, shaking his head.
In 10 years, Nelson said, he wants to see a denomination that utilizes all its resources and is committed to training both pastors and church members. “I want to see a vibrant, Bible-centered, committed-to-justice church that wants to risk its life for the sake of the world.”