I’ve spent considerable time over the past year and a half reflecting on the challenges faced by Mainline Protestant denominations, especially the Presbyterian Church (USA). There are numerous conflicting assessments of the situation “on the ground”. Some have said that we are “deathly ill”. Others are quick to point out the numerous signs of life and vitality still evident in our denomination. This anecdotal evidence, drawn from positive experiences in succeeding churches and with faithful people, is offered as a counter-narrative to the “deathly ill” diagnosis. We long to believe that God is doing good things in our midst. We hold on to the energy and promise that still exists in our church. I get this. I do the same thing.
But this is a kairotic moment we cannot afford to miss. Walter Brueggemann, who has suggested that exile is a fitting metaphor for the situation in which the US church now finds itself, describes the embrace of pathos as a critical moment in the exercise of prophetic imagination. “How,” asks Brueggemann, “can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation?” His answer lies in the embrace of pathos and the willingness to engage the very real possibility of our own death.
Brueggemann notes that we have a remarkable propensity for numbness about death. Apathy—the absence of pathos—characterizes our attitude toward the institutions that we turn to for order, security, and meaning. We refuse to recognize failure. We cling to familiar patterns and structures. We want to pacify our grief and reassure ourselves that everything is going to be okay.
Prophetic imagination cuts through these tendencies and brings us face to face with the realities of our situation. In order to move us into a place where we can envision new realities, we must first confront the sobering realization that our current trajectory is leading us to death.
We cannot let legitimate signs of God’s Spirit moving throughout our church obscure the equally evident reality of our slow but steady demise. We must hold these realities together in creative tension. For all of our genuine vitality, there are also critical indications of death. Our declining numbers, aging congregations, diminished resources, and debilitating conflicts cannot be ignored any longer.
Consider these facts:
- The PC(USA) has lost over 1,000,000 members since Reunion in 1983—a decrease of almost 36% over the course of 27 years.
- During this same time, we have gone from 11,662 congregations to 10,560—a loss of nearly 9.5%. In every year since Reunion, we have lost more congregations than we have gained.
- Half of all PC(USA) congregations have a membership of 100 or less.
- 44% of PC(USA) congregations cannot afford to pay an installed pastor.
- The median age of our church is 61.
- Between 2000 and 2010, only 226 new PC(USA) churches were chartered.
This is simply not sustainable.
We cannot move too quickly to obscure the grief of our situation with comfort or hope, as important as these are. We must embrace the pathos associated with admitting that what we are doing is not working.
More bluntly, we must admit that we are dying in order to experience rebirth.
For more on the embrace of pathos, see Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 39–57.