The Meaning of Minnesota

This is a blog for those interested in the future of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Again, though denominational issues aren’t my favorite subject, I would be remiss not to offer an update. I’ve just returned from a huge gathering of Pastors and Elders in Minnesota who were planning the future of the denomination. Here’s what I take away.

I have to say the gathering of The Fellowship in Minneapolis (#mn2011) is the best Presbyterian conference I’ve been to in fourteen years of ordained ministry. Specifically because it both generated an upbeat atmosphere and because it did something practical.
• It was well attended, with around 2000 people. To put that in perspective, that’s bigger than the gathering of delegates, advisory delegates, and staff to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.
• People were excited to be there and clearly having fun reconnecting with old friends. There was a lot of laughter.
• The worship experience was outstanding.
• The message was direct and had concrete action plans that people could get behind. There was a clear next step when it was over.
• The demographics were surprising. Maybe a quarter or more of the crowd was under 45. There was a significant contingent of young adults, giving it a feel of being a voice of the future of the church.

You have to realize that this is all the more powerful because it is so ironic. What company or enterprise has a huge, nation-wide meeting in which people spend tens of thousands of dollars getting together to talk about the fact that the company is failing. No one does that. That’s outrageous. And that very conference was uplifting, exciting, forward-looking, and hopeful. Nothing about that makes sense. Must be a God thing.

What was most impressive was what the gathering accomplished. The gathering is now a united movement of Presbyterians who will form a New Reformed Body (NRB) for churches who are tired of the failure, incompetency, and conflict of the PC(USA). This body will be ready by a January meeting (in Orlando) to formally accept churches into it. The NRB will include:
1. Churches that will formally ask to be dismissed from the PC(USA) and join the NRB with their property. In so doing, they will most likely also leave the Board of Pensions. In the NRB, congregations own their own property.
2. Churches that will establish a union membership in both the NRB and the PC(USA), making them members of two bodies.
3. Churches that will establish an affiliate membership in the NRB. This might be best for churches for whom deeper commitment might create internal or external conflict.

This is a smart structure on a number of levels.

First, in acknowledging that denominations are dead, it’s an act of living into a new structure which will function differently than a denomination. What exactly that will look like is as yet uncharted territory, meaning the pioneers will most likely get to define it as they go. Bureaucrats will look for paperwork and policies to explain this change, but this is really too innovative to fit into pre-existing boxes.

Second, in allowing for concrete movements with a concrete timeline, it offers an alternative to death-by-status-quo on the one hand or transfer to not altogether appealing denominations on the other. It should calm some of the panic that congregations are feeling.

Third, it’s actually an act of affirming those elements of our tradition which we value while admitting that it’s time for a game-changer. Churches leaving for other denominations, even Presbyterian denominations, have sometimes left a wake of resentment. This at least might be a way of saying that the desire is not so much to leave as to avoid changing the moral and theological positions many of us believe cannot be changed. It’s sort of (oddly) an act of radically staying in place by changing everything.

It may be time to acknowledge that this is a moment like the one that Paul and Barnabas came to, where, for the good of the whole Church, they had to do ministry in different directions. There’s a certain grace to allowing each body to function without persistent threat of conflict and a poor witness to the world. There’s no gain by forced maintenance of the status quo, because, again, the status quo has been 45 years of declining membership and financial hemorrhaging. Change will come fairly soon anyway as systems are no longer able to keep their doors open. We’ve witnessed the closing of SFTS in So. Cal., there are presbyteries switching from full-time to part-time executive presbyters, there have been regular layoffs at the national offices, and there have been budget cuts at every level of the denomination. An optimistic move forward is far better than the alternatives.

So let’s bless it and look for new life.

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21 thoughts on “The Meaning of Minnesota

  1. Having attended the Gathering as an Elder and active at Synod and Presbytery levels of Presbyterian Women I found the meeting refreshing and energizing. I came away saying with internet access, networking, websites, etc. why must we continue the way we have for a couple of hundred years? We need a new body for a new time and generation. I planned to leave my congregation and find a community more closely aligned to my beliefs and I have decided to “stick it out” for another year or so to give my congregation time to understand this new reformed body with my help.
    Since my heart has been for international mission as well as local evangelism I was encouraged that our brothers and sisters in Mexico have taken a stand on morality issues. Even the New Form of Government adoption is filled with questions and confusion.
    My table discussion was filled not with fear about the future but hope and direction as well as resolve.

  2. How is forming a “New Reformed Body” a way forward for the PCUSA? To me, it’s the same old thing Presbyterians have been doing for 300 years in this country. Old School/New School; Northern Church/Southern Church; PSUS/PCA; UPCUSA/EPC/OPC. What it leaves us with is a main body of approximately 1.9 million; PCA at 350,000; EPC at 85,000, and an NRB of “true believers” as defined by an individualistic understanding of substitutionary atonement and a fundamentalist reading of Scripture of 100,000 if all the congregations that went join the NRB.

    As an antendee, I agree with the “7 Dwarves” that we need smaller, more relational Presbyteries. I also agree that we need to revitalize Young Adult and Campus ministries. While I don’t think this country needs more churches, I think we should develop strategies to redevelop the ones we’ve got–so I agree with their call for more church development. What I don’t agree with is that the way forward is to return to the fundamentalism born of Presbyterian elders like William Jennings Bryan in the early 1900’s. That’s what I heard preached at the conferenece. That doesn’t feel very forward looking or hopeful to me.

    1. Joe .. how is affirming what the church has been teaching for over 2,000 years (longer if you include the Old Testament) ‘fundamentalist’ a la Bryan ??

      I’m not really sure what you heard, because at least 1,900 people would disagree with you.

      1. Part of what the church has been teaching for 2000 years is substitutionary atonement. Scripture speaks of the atonement in many other ways. Justification by grace through faith has many trajectories of teaching through the centuries. In the Catholic tradition, and in some strains of the Protestant Reformation, this was understood to mean the believer’s faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. In Calvin, it was Christ’s faithfulness unto death. We are saved by God’s faithfulness embodied in Christ–not by the integrity of our own faith.

        What I heard in Minneapolis was a call for “fundamentals” a la “essential tenets.” Those essentials focused on individual sin, and individual salvation only through our faith in Jesus Christ. That is the articulation of early 20th century fundamentalism.

        As for 1,900 people who would disagree, I think that group was more diverse than you imagine.

      2. Joe, (with all due respect) you call for renewal in young adult and campus ministries and yet seem to be unable to adopt THE Biblical atonement model presented by New Testament writers? Have you taken the pulse of Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), Intervarsity, and a whole host of other amazing campus ministries that are dynamically bringing powerful transformation into the lives of young people? They confess a Biblical substitutionary atonement. Why? Because it’s Biblical, it rides with the wind of the Holy Spirit, and it works.

        Sure, others have come along since WJB and wasted good ink and time pursuing theological rabbit trails for atonement theories including notions of infanticide (seriously? cosmic child-abuse? when I read that I knew I was wasting my time), moral atonement, and universalism. And look where it has gotten their churches or ministries? I’m sorry, but every Presbyterian (USA) campus ministry I came across in my college days was paltry, pitiful, and more about progressive agendas of the 1960s than about salvation in Jesus Christ.

        Theological dialogue, exploration, and articulation within a context has its place. Theological adventurism that drifts from Scripture for the sake of a whole bevy of agendas is dangerous and kills churches (or shall I say denominations?).

  3. Wow, a totally different take on the meeting from the mainline viewers: Seeking a solution, not separation.

    My view is that if you don’t get enough churches to opt in to option 1, the NRB will wither as an option. Opts. 2 & 3 make no sense. Like, “We don’t want to compromise… okay, we will, but just a little bit.” Kind of like being just a little bit against slavery, racism, or abortion…

    The success of this move depends on how many opt to go the first route. If you get the typical presby commitment of 100 churches, you’ve got a minor failure. You get 1000 churches and you have a major success.

    If you get at least half that, the PC(USA) will be spending so much time in legal fees and lawsuits over property trying to stave off an implosion that they will actually create the implosion through wasted resources.

    If you don’t get but a handful moving away, you suffer death by a thousand cuts.

  4. My first response is skepticism. Why must we be so reluctant to denounce heresy? Why must we be so timid?

    Presbyterians love to cheer on Christian martyrs in other parts of the world. Yet, some congregations refuse to leave a denomination that takes an adolescent delight in denouncing the authority of Scripture because it could mean that PCUSA would seize their buidlings. While some Christians are rising their lives for the Gospel, we refuse to face down a tacky collection of school yard bullies.

    I’m glad that the folks in Minnesota were excited and had fun but to compare the NRB to Paul and Barnabas is an appalling act of arrogance.

    Christians love to complain about the media. From this report it sounds like the Minnesota gathering was a satiric act that the Saturday Night Live comedians couldn’t match on their best week.

    I am speaking only for myself.

    Jim Meals
    First Presbyterian Church
    San Deigo

    1. Having actually attended the “Gathering” in Minnesota, perhaps I can help you to understand what really happened.

      First was an acknowledgement that each congregation has a specific context or situation it is living in. So a one size fits all solution will not work.

      Second, congregations are important. They are the place ministry and mission happen. So actions which harm more than help a congregation should be avoided.

      Third, we Evangelicals are facing problems larger than the PCUSA. We are looking at radical shifts in society, where 30 yr old pastors don’t know how to reach 15 yr olds. Membership and Baptisms are declining in our congregations, not just the Progressive ones. If we don’t address underlying problems, leaving the PCUSA will not help.

      Fourth, taking one step does not prevent a congregation from taking the next right step later. Moving to a two-Presbytery model may be the first step in leaving the PCUSA altogether for some congregations.

      Finally, I saw our Pastors connecting and worshiping as people who have been walking through the desert and have finally found water. They needed to worship, pray, and study together with fellow Evangelicals.

      So we are entering a period of dialogue with PCUSA Staff and Executive Presbyters. They may be telling the truth when they say, “we get it.” And they could be telling us bold faced lies. Their actions over the next 2 years will prove things one way or another (2012 GA then voting on Overtures).

  5. Very well put. I agree, denominations are a by-product of the industrial age and what ever is to come (NRB) or be reformed (PCUSA), we have to have a flatter, nimble structure that empowers.

  6. “It’s sort of (oddly) an act of radically staying in place by changing everything.” That has to be my favorite line about the gathering. Captures so much of the spirit of things. Radically staying in place and changing everything is so much better than leaving to discover that nothing actually changed…

  7. Jim, it was good to connect with you there. We’re relating to what’s going on here quite differently, for sure, but I’m glad to have you as a conversation partner as whatever happens happens. Peace.

  8. Finally, a concrete direction. I’ve been an Elder (3 terms) and Committee of Ministry for our presbytery for 6 years and this is the most exciting news I have heard in a long time. We’ve waited a long time for this type of direction on a national scale. Well written. Bill Mathews

  9. I wish I could have been there with all of you. As an evangelical Presbyterian pastor the last 24 years, I’m very interested in what’s going on with the Fellowship. This has the potential to rock the denomination and that is what I am hoping for. I’m encouraged that the Fellowship seems not to be settling for mediocrity and incompetence of our denomination.

    Anyway, just wanted to thank you for giving me a glimpse of the conference.
    http://dweidlich.com

  10. Thank you for giving a concrete and simple explanation of what happened. It’s crazy to think about as I took my last ordination exam today that I am likely stepping into a world that doesn’t exist yet but also excited that I am entering into a new place that will give even more meaning to my eventual vows.

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