We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, June 9, 2014

PC(USA) in 20 Years - A Scenario

As reported in my  recent post, "Reconfiguring the Mainline?," there is a recent trend in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in which its traditional congregations are continuing to decline in numbers but it is adding an impressive number of affiliated new worshipping communities (NWCs).  Working from the numbers given there, we can assume that the PC(USA) might well continue to lose traditional congregations at a rate of 50-100 a year over the next twenty years, leaving it with perhaps some like 8,000 old-style churches by the year 2034.  Given historical trends, it might even be optimistic to guesstimate the denomination still having 8,000 churches in twenty years.

At the same time, we might suppose that the denomination continues to add NWCs at a rate of about 25 to 50 or so a year.  In order to maintain that rate, many more will have to be actually formed because we can safely assume that individual NWCs will come and go at a fairly fast rate, many of them lasting less than five years and not so many lasting a decade or more.  By 2034 according to this scenario there would be as many as 2,000 NWCs affiliated with the denomination.  That also may be too optimistic, but no one can really say with any certainty one way or the other.  In any event, it is possible that PC(USA) still will have 10,000 or so "congregations" in twenty years but in a new configuration that includes a good number of non-traditional NWCs.

One other thing to consider is that some of the NWCs may "evolve" toward a more traditional congregational structure if they survive their first few years—become, that is, hybrids of different sorts, partly unconventional and partly conventional.  It is also entirely possible that some existing churches will reinvent themselves in innovative ways that will make them hybrids as well.  So, by 2034, there could be three broad categories of Presbyterian churches, old-style, new-style, and hybrid.  the whole denomination could thus conceivably take on the dual aspects of being an innovative, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants movement and a more stable institutional organization.

If something like this happens, how will it work?  Will presbyteries embrace the NWCs or will they ignore them?  Will the denomination have to redefine the office of teaching elder (clergy) to include individuals who have unconventional theological training but function has pastors in NWCs?  Who will get to vote in presbyteries and in General Assembly?  Will it matter?  How will theological education be structured and provided?  These are only a few of the institutional questions that will have to be faced if the NWC movement really does begin to take hold.

More generally, will the NWCs have become the wave of the future by 2034, or will they remain merely an auxiliary curiosity?  Or will they already be a distant memory, a might-have-been that never came to fruition?  My own sense is that the future of PC(USA) lies in its ability to transition from predominantly old-style congregations to encompassing a wide variety of innovative worshipping communities stimulating the denomination with new ideas, approaches, and styles.  The old-style churches will provide stability.  The new-style ones will give it life.  The hybrids will combine the best (and worst?) of the two in interesting and hopeful ways.  And the Spirit will continue to move.