Here’s a little trivia question for you: What is the one sacramental promise that we make as members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
Answer: At each baptism the church is asked to promise to help guide, raise, and nurture the child (or adult) in the ways of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Working for years in business, I have been fascinated by the way we do “business” as a Church. No other organization would continue to lose more than 40,000 “customers” a year and not make major changes after two or three years. And yet the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) loses members at that rate and I find that most Presbyterians don’t even notice.
After much study, thought, and prayer, I have come to the realization that one of the major contributing factors to this problem has nothing to do with business, and has everything to do with being faithful. In all the many baptisms I have witnessed I have never seen a person sitting in the congregation not raise his or her hand and commit to the spiritual development of the child. And yet, every time we send our children off to college at age 18, we make liars out of the entire Church. As a Church we are asked to make one sacramental promise; we have not been faithful to this promise. At a time when our young people most need the guidance, influence, and nurture of the Church, the PC(USA) is largely absent. We have no national Campus Ministry program, no guidance, no leadership, no plan, and no vision to even address this issue. As an active and supportive member of the PC(USA), that makes me a big fat liar.
“¢ From 1990-2000, one state had more new members join the PC(USA) than all other 49 states combined. (www.thearda.org)
Need a hint? This state ranks first in violent crimes per capita, first in mobile homes per capita, third in deaths by motor vehicle accidents. Still stumped? The answer is: South Carolina!
“¢ From 1990-2000 more than 10,000 new members joined the PC(USA) in the state of South Carolina — more than all other 49 states combined.
Maybe this doesn’t surprise you, but it shocks the heck out of most people.
Many factors play into this, but I have a theory about one of the major contributors — campus ministry. I grew up in South Carolina, and it is not a given in that state that a young person will graduate from high school much less go on to college. Yet I believe that if a person grows up in the PC(USA) in S.C., with our proud emphasis on education, this person is more likely to go to college than not.
So why is South Carolina special? I am not naive enough, nor blind enough, to think that campus ministry is solely responsible. But I do believe that one of the indicators of a healthy Church is a healthy campus ministry program. One of the indicators of the health of churches in that state can be traced back to the campus ministry program of one specific church: Fort Hill Church in Clemson,
From the late 80s to this day, Fort Hill Church and the Presbyterian Student Association at Clemson University are committed to creating arguably one of the best examples of a successful campus ministry program in the country. Few single colleges or universities can claim credit for sending as many young students off to seminary. But Fort Hill didn’t stop there. This local church committed to creating a successful statewide campus ministry program. Each year there are statewide retreats on various campuses in the spring or fall, as well as special events throughout the year. It is a fine example of what a statewide campus ministry program can look like.
“¢ 85% of PC(USA) high school students stop going to church when they go off to college and less than 15% ever return (Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian Education, Columbia Theological Seminary)
“¢ From 1990-2000 the PC(USA) closed 327 churches and lost 411,769 members. (www.arda.org)
“¢ During this same time period the Presbyterian Church in America opened 280 new churches, gained 93,901 members, a growth rate just over 42%. (www.thearda.org)
My point is this: The PCA focuses on three main areas of mission: international mission, campus ministry, and new church development (www.pcanet .org). Most of their new church developments are in or near college towns. As different as I feel we as the PC(USA) are from our PCA sisters and brothers, the truth is we believe in 95% of the same things. Yes, ordination of women and segregated worship are big issues, but they are a part of that 5%. We can learn from the PCA in this regard: They have been faithful to the sacramental promise they make to their young people at baptism.
This is not about numbers. This is not about being successful. This is about being faithful, and as a church we have not been faithful to the one sacramental promise we make to each and every young person in our denomination.
This is also about stewardship. If stewardship is defined as what we do with what God has given us, then we are being terrible stewards of the children of this church. We have some of the best Christian Education programs in the world K-12, and yet when we send our young people off to college we abandon them and abandon the promises we make to them.
The single greatest mission field facing the PC(USA) in this next century is the college campus. If we, as a Church, are faithful to the one sacramental promise that we make, if we really are good stewards of that which God has given us, then one day we might begin to see the PC(USA) transformed into all that God has ever hoped and called for her to be.
John R. Richardson is vice president for development at Montreat Conference Center, Montreat, N.C.