by Louis B. Weeks
Geneva, Louisville, Ky. 111 pages
It’s only fitting that Louis Weeks bring us “A Sustainable Presbyterian Future: What’s Working and Why,” since he was part of the team that gave us the definitive 1992 study “The Re-Forming Tradition: Presbyterians and Mainstream Protestantism” along with Milton J. Coalter and John Mulder. This look at what has continued to define “Presbyterian” in the United States and what things have changed in two decades comes at a pivotal time. Weeks recaps that Lilly Foundation study’s findings from that 1980s data, including the importance of family religious impact and the symbiosis, but not direct correlation, between local church membership and participation in wider denominational life.
Much has changed, including, most notably, the 50 percent membership loss since reunion in 1983, translated as not just an issue of numbers, but also as a decline in influence and presence in American society. Weeks carefully balances the look at statistics — a by-the-numbers-look at some things which have changed in our culture — with anecdotal stories of congregations that have been resilient in that change. “What we did not address to the same extent twenty years ago, was the current accelerated reconfiguration of American life and cultures, a restructuring that now augurs quite a different Presbyterian future in the United States in years to come.” This book does address this wave of change.
After a brief review of historical marks of Presbyterian identity, a large portion of the rest of the book addresses our “New Presbyterian Ecology,” defined as ways of growing in faith as Presbyterians. After defining eight marks of our culture, Weeks examines both traditional practices which still provide valuable worship experiences and actively grow mission and evangelism, as well as the integrity of new practices. Words not necessarily found in mentions of Presbyterians decades ago now abound, such as ecumenicity, imagination and agency. Weeks has visited countless Presbyterian congregations, from Spokane to Virginia Beach, and has found stories to share of scarce resources but abundance; of engagement at home and abroad; of demise but also new life. He describes pastors and congregations who are doing effective, faith-developing ministry and sharing successes and support with one another in purpose groups for specific types of ministry. “Can they, these exemplary case-study congregations, keep it up?” The final answer, one of hope, is from the PCUSA Foundations for Polity:
In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the church confesses that he is its hope, and that the church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God. (F-1.0204)
This book should be used in group-study settings so that the faithful could learn something about past, present and hopeful future. “A Sustainable Presbyterian Future” both describes such a future and gives case studies and perceptive insights into how it just might be possible.
LEIGH B. GILLIS is associate executive presbyter for congregational vitality of Heartland Presbytery.