The New Millennium: Should Presbyterians Prepare for a Funeral or a Future?

Calvin BrownCalvin Brown is a former Executive Director of The Renewal Fellowship.

Although mainline churches in Canada are in steep decline, the Presbyterian Church may still be pulled from the fire. The world wants and needs the clarity and tough-minded theology that Reformed people have traditionally been known for.

As we begin a new millennium there is much speculation about what the emerging church will look like. Loren Mead and others suggest some changes (mostly to do with de-institutionalization and de-centralization) but say the jury is still out on how the church will re-configure itself to meet the needs and demands of the emerging postmodern world. One such change noted is the megachurches (more than 2,000 attendees per week) which are swarming the USA with more than 1.7 million attending them — especially in the Sun Belt and suburbs of large midwestern cities. The growth of megachurches over the years is:

    1970 — 10
    1980 — 50
    1990 — 300
    1998 — 470 (as reported in USA Today, April 1, 1999).

In Canada I believe a more modified but similar thing is happening. In our consumer society the churches that can offer the most are the ones people go to. But Canadian Presbyterian congregations tend to be small and have only modest programs. Even our large congregations are not offering what people seem to want. A recent study by a minister of our church has suggested that the greatest percentage of our denominational decline is from our larger congregations (although there are some notable exceptions). This reflects again the reality that although Christianity is growing (especially among the charismatic and conservative churches in the third world) the mainline denominations are in decline. Graphs prepared by Jim Doherty show the decline in the PCC to be precipitous.

Some sociologists predict that the Presbyterian Church needs to prepare for its funeral in a few years. A similar situation is occurring in the United Church of Canada. A UCC Renewal publication called Concern reported:

    Once a denomination brimming with promise, one that could make a positive impact on Canada through a gospel that met people's spiritual, moral and physical needs, our church is now, in danger of losing her own soul and of standing in the way of God's purposes.

    Such a deterioration is admitted in the Report on Ministry of Sept.'99: "If one looks only at statistics, the picture is grim for the United Church." And a former Moderator sadly announced at a Conference meeting last May: "The United Church is in free fall!" Many commentators give our denomination only five to ten years.

A similar report could be made about our own Presbyterian denomination. In view of this then is the only sensible millennium preparation we should be making for our church a funeral — or at least hospice care so that we who have outlived our usefulness may at least die in dignity?

It is my conviction we may still be pulled from the fire! The world wants and needs the clarity and tough-minded theology that Reformed people have traditionally been known for. It is interesting that many young people from more energetic denominations studying theology come to Reformed conclusions and some even seek out a Reformed Presbyterian church. What they often find in the PCC at present sometimes disappoints them — they are confused by our lack of appreciation for our own strong tradition, our sagging commitment to biblical standards and our compromised attitudes to clear moral teaching. Recent polls say that the most needed work of the church in society is to give clear moral direction. This is not simply to issue a declaration or a well-reasoned statement of our moral positions but to be a community of godly and disciplined people that models a morality that is life-enhancing, a faith that builds confidence, and a worldview that is invigorating — a world where Jesus is acknowledged as Lord, not only in word but in deed. I believe that if we can renew our church in that way we will have trouble accommodating all the people who will want to be a part of our church. As always there will be those who oppose such a view as hopelessly optimistic- who think such ideas are outdated and impossible in our undisciplined generation.

I am not calling for a return to yesterday — certainly we must be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our own time (dead orthodoxy is not the way to anything but self-righteousness), but as one theologian said " It is not so much that Christianity has been tried and found wanting as that true Christianity has rarely been tried at all." We all can acknowledge that we have fallen short of being the image of Jesus both as individuals and as a church but that must not lead us to a despondency that prompts us to quit. True faith as Paul reminds us "Keeps on keeping on." That is not to say we keep on doing the same old things in the same old way — God in his perfection is not static but dynamic — a living tree keeps on growing. To be faithful means recognizing that reality and being able to distinguish between essence and style. The branches of a living tree may reach out in new directions but the fruit of the tree needs to stay the same.

Are there any signs of life in our denomination? Indeed there are! More Presbyterian congregations are participating in the Alpha course than any program I can recall for decades. It is having wonderful and positive spiritual effects in many places. There are other congregations doing other courses that are also effective but Alpha is the most widespread and consistently effective that we have heard of in enabling people to affirm their basic faith, have their questions dealt with, and share faith with friends and neighbours in a comfortable and winsome way.

While much has been said about "worship wars" in congregations, and indeed much that goes on around it is less than Christian, nonetheless the fact that many Sessions and congregations are wrestling with worship in an attempt to come to some understanding about the purpose and form of worship that is both faithful and relevant is a good sign.

While our Sunday Schools are in serious condition that fact is somewhat balanced by congregations who hold Vacation Bible Schools (by a variety of names) which are attracting record numbers of children to hear the gospel and be exposed to life in the church. I am not just referring to congregations who have traditionally done that but to many congregations who are doing it for the very first time!

Another positive sign is that every Synod I heard from reports that camping is a growing ministry and some church camps are forced to cope with serious crowding problems. This is true right across the country from the Atlantic, through Ontario and to the West coast. There are also some congregations that are showing steady growth and have undertaken important building programs.

In the Renewal Fellowship we continue to grow in membership and support; the number of prayer groups, Renewal Days, and activities we are involved in is growing and deepening and there is an increasingly positive attitude in many areas of the church.

Statistically, our church has declined ever since 1965 as the graph indicates. I mistakenly said in the last editorial that our church had declined another five per cent when in fact what was said at the last Assembly was that the church had declined for the last five years. Whatever the details, the reality is, as the graph indicates, a rapid decline in our church at a time of population growth in the country. That statistical trend led Dr. Clyde Ervine, a commissioner to Assembly, to call for the establishment of "a special study group to research (a) causes of congregational membership decline in the last five years and (b) present proposals for the recovery of congregational health." Interestingly enough, the statistics in the 1999 Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly noted an increase in membership and even a marginal increase in Church School pupils. Time will tell whether this is the beginning of real change or simply a reporting blip. In a general sense many more Presbyterians are comfortable about talking about their faith and the recent appointment of an evangelical Principal at one of our seminaries is a good portent of better things to come.

However, we are still a denomination at the crossroads and will have to decide what kind of church we want to be. The decisions of the next few years will be vital ones and I pray we will have the boldness to be uncompromising in expressing biblical faith. The bottom line is this: I believe in the Resurrection and I believe we have a future in Christ as salt and light in this nation and around the world! All that is required is our faithfulness and trust in God's sovereignty!