Church attendance in the United States is down. The mainline church seems to have lost its significance in American culture. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been decimated by decreasing numbers, churches leaving over sexuality issues, aging buildings and aging members.
Why be Presbyterian, and why now?
A friend of mine received this question in the final stages of his ordination process to be a pastor in the PC(USA). As a relatively young leader serving full-time as a Christian education director in a Presbyterian church and entering the final stages of my own ordination process, I can’t help but ruminate on the question myself. Why Presbyterian, and why now?
I did not grow up in the Presbyterian world and did not expect to be a pastor of any sort. The American-born son of two Filipino immigrant parents, I was raised Catholic like most Filipinos are. After confirmation, I became a devout atheist. Then, in college, through various life events and relationships, I found myself in a non-denominational Christian church plant that reached out to unchurched young people. That’s where I came back to faith in Christ. There I was immersed in a decidedly anti-denominational, anti-institutional, anti-mainline church culture. Even typing these words, I fear calls of “sell-out!” from good friends who will read this.
Years later, I sensed the call to leave a career in journalism to attend Princeton Theological Seminary. But even then, I was not in any formal ordination process, and loathed to associate myself with any particular tradition, jumping around and visiting different churches in different denominations. After graduation, I started working at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where I eventually sensed the call to go through the ordination process.
So then, why Presbyterian? Why now? If I had every denomination to choose from, why here?
Of course, attending a Presbyterian seminary and serving at a Presbyterian church – not to mention being mentored at MAPC by the great pastor Fred Anderson – were huge factors in the decision. So, in a way, there’s nothing really mind-blowing about where I find myself. My calling to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church is first and foremost that: a calling. God called me here, through the circumstances God has placed me in. Not that this was necessarily the best or only path. Nor that Presbyterian is somehow the best denomination of all the perceived shopping options.
And I am not naive about what I’m getting myself into. The PC(USA) is aging and shrinking. Keeping up those buildings really is a full-time job. Predestination theology has some baggage, to say the least. This denomination still struggles with being oriented toward God’s mission rather than institutional maintenance, and even struggles with being excited about things like evangelism and church planting. And, not for nothing, I am fully aware that as a Filipino-American, I’m joining one of the whitest church bodies I could have joined.
But, despite all this, I am genuinely excited and proud to be serving in the PC(USA), at this time and in this place. I almost feel like as an “adopted Presbyterian,” I want to give inspiration and hope to friends and colleagues of mine who talk about being Presbyterian with guilt and self-deprecation, rather than as a flawed but instrumental part of the body of Christ.
I am immensely grateful for our tradition’s contribution to the wider church, especially the emphasis on God’s grace in Jesus Christ and gratitude as our faithful response. I am proud that we have always placed Scripture centrally, and that we trust in God’s providence and sovereignty. I am also grateful for how we value intellectual thought, how we take theology seriously, and how we leave room for questioning, doubt and our continually reforming understanding of God.
I am glad we take the expansive scope of the gospel seriously. LGBTQ pastors can be ordained. Pastors can perform same-sex marriages. Our new female co-moderators are awesome! I love that I go to emerging leader retreats and Next Church conferences filled with a lot of women pastors attending and hear women speakers; as basic as this sounds, this is simply not true in other church circles.
Despite Presbyterian whiteness, I love that we are starting conversations about confronting the church’s own complicity in the country’s racism. With the adoption of the Confession of Belhar, we have committed ourselves firmly to the tradition of faithful resistance to societal evils and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.
I am heartened by our commitment to start 1,001 new worshipping communities, reaching out to the unchurched and de-churched with an experimental and entrepreneurial spirit. I also hear stories all over the country of existing churches both honoring our rich tradition while taking risks in worship and mission for the sake of the gospel.
I am even grateful for our often frustrating commitment to rules and order in the spirit of a connectional church. The Presbyterian realism about humanity means we structure ourselves so that no one person or congregation or entity can consolidate power. There is something incredibly freeing and faithful about being held accountable to each other and not being blown to and fro by the whims of charismatic, forceful people.
And more broadly, there is something awe-inspiring about being a part of a continuum of traditions, theologies, confessions and good works much bigger than myself, while at the same time humbly but boldly adding my own input. God has placed me here, in the PC(USA), now. And all I can do is faithfully join my Presbyterian brothers and sisters to do all I can do to, as the Westminster Catechism says, glorify God and enjoy God forever.