Post-Denominational Presbyterians?

There are some questions which need to be asked:

* Are denominations any longer viable? Or are they archaic? Or are they "The moral failure of Christianity?" (Richard Niebuhr)

* Does a majority of constituency even know why the PC(USA) exists within the mission of God for God’s Church?

* Do denominations even register on the screen of the emerging GenX-ers or NetGen-ers?

* Has the denominational era of the church’s history come and gone? Are we living with a past paradigm?

* Why did the Presbyterian tradition even come into being to begin with? Why does it still exist?

Twenty years ago Martin Marty wrote a painfully humorous article entitled “The Last Presbyterian,” in which he tracked the decline of the Presbyterian Church into the 21st century, and in his imagination the membership finally devolved upon one elderly woman, and so with it all of the denomination’s endowments. I met Marty shortly thereafter and asked him what he was trying to do to us. In his puckish humor, he grinned and replied, “I was trying to help.”

The current seemingly intractable differences within our denomination mirror a profound crisis, and somehow we seem to be in denial. Let me explain. Several years ago the Maryknoll Order of the Roman Catholic Church was in serious decline. It was dying off and there were very few new applicants. The order secured the gifts of one Gerald Arbuckle, a social scientist and cultural anthropologist from their own company, to investigate the reasons for this decline.

His findings are fascinating and germane to our dilemma. He determined that when the founding myth (i.e., that body of beliefs, values, vision and mission which brought the order into being) was diluted, displaced or forgotten, then the order reverted to chaos (his word). He also noted that “renewal” was quite a completely inadequate solution. Rather, the order needed to be “refounded” upon the original founding myth, or its raison d’tre.

I pondered that insight in looking at our own denominational dilemma. Our own founding myth is quite eloquently and succinctly stated in the first three chapters of our own Book of Order. That constitutional document says that our raison de’tre is founded upon a very high Christology (G-1.0100), is basically a missional community (G-1.0200), has a specific understanding of the gospel (“the Reformed tradition”) which is its contribution to the mission of God within the larger family of churches (G-2.000), and then comes back to the fact that we are a missional community pure and simple (G-3.000).

What this means is that the consensus, or covenant, which “connects” us is a missional, biblical and theological one. Our (Presbyterian) polity is only useful as the “wineskin” which gives form to that consensus, or covenant, i.e., to that biblical, theological and missional raison d’tre. The polity is not that reason! I have heard denominational leaders sincerely convinced that “the polity will hold us together,” or that “the middle will hold.” Perhaps this was true a generation ago, it might have been true, say in 1975. No longer!

Somehow the Modern era, with its emphasis on rights and inclusivity and pluralism, eroded that founding myth. “Other gospels” effectively denied the “exclusivity” of the church as a community of repentance and faith as taught in New Testament documents. Then the virus of postmodernism not only caused words and ordination vows to mean only what “I and my peers find to be acceptable.” It also deconstructed the biblical documents and the confessional traditions so that they have become irrelevant as any standard of Truth.

The ordination vows of the PC(USA), on face value, ostensibly bind those who take them to an evangelical faith, to the great catholic, Protestant and Reformed traditions, and to a clearly stated mission. But what has obviously happened, to quote Arbuckle again, is that these have been “displaced, diluted or forgotten” by a significant number of those who have taken them. This explains a considerable amount of the chaos that reigns in our midst. Seminarians may graduate from some of our schools and have little, if any, conviction or passion about “the majesty, holiness and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules and redeems the world in freedom of sovereign righteousness and love” (G-2.0500) — or even care! It is questionable whether any true unity is possible, or even orderly separation, in the presence of such chaos, as disturbing as that sounds.

That denominational order which was once a powerful witness to the glory and majesty of God in Christ, is simply dissolving and becoming chaos around us. But that very Reformed tradition is still the founding myth of our denominational being and begs to be refounded. If so, we would again be a vital community of mission and of Truth which could meet the enormous spiritual hungerings of the emerging generation. The “new wine” of the gospel has the promise of Jesus’ “all authority” upon it, and is guaranteed to prevail. “Wineskins,” on the other hand, come and go as they are useful to the mission of God. That’s a sobering thought!


ROBERT T. HENDERSON is associate editor of CATALYST (a journal for eminarians), a writer and director of seminar ministries with Presbyterians for Renewal.