I spent this past weekend in Knoxville, TN for the fourth biennial Big Tent conference of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In a departure from previous Big Tents—which were structured so as to bring together several PC(USA) conferences at one time and one place—this time it was designed as a single conference. I was on the fence about going because I’ve intentionally curtailed my summer travel this year because moving my family across the country has been disruptive enough. But the conference topic, “Live Missionally,” and a number of workshops on the PC(USA)’s work in evangelism and church growth convinced me that it would be beneficial for me to attend this gathering. And, as I mentioned last week, I am on the outlook for good news in the denomination I serve.
I don’t know if it was because of the particular workshops I attended, but this Big Tent felt a bit like a commercial for the ministries and staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. While it struck me as a little odd to use a conference like this to promote PMA programs, I happened to be interested in learning more about these very ministries so it suited my needs. Here are my takeaways:
- Despite recent troubles, the 1001 New Worshipping Communities movement is still among the most innovative and exciting things happening in the PC(USA). Other than continuing to tell stories of the cool things happening under the 1001 banner, I’m not exactly sure how to restore the church’s confidence in this program. But I feel strongly that established and emerging leaders and congregations need to get more involved in this effort.
- The PC(USA) has a solid evangelism curriculum in Engage. I plan on spending more time with this in coming weeks as I prepare for my first evangelism course at Union.
- More of our stagnant and struggling churches should be doing New Beginnings. While I still think that new church development is a better investment that revitalization—I keep thinking about this book I read years ago—there are great resources available for transformation.
- Jason Brian Santos, who oversees the denominational offices for young adults and campus ministry, is a dynamo. His workshop on emerging adults was brilliant. I’m glad he’s involved in these critical ministry areas.
All of this gives me hope.
Of course, there were sobering reality checks as well. After her presentation on what makes for a thriving congregation, I asked Deb Coe of Research Services how many PC(USA) congregations she thinks are thriving. She guessed 20-25%. Not only do we close more churches than we start, the ones that remain aren’t doing very well.
It was also clear to me from various conversations that the 1001 NWC controversies and another round of staff restructuring in Louisville is taking it’s toll on our denominational leadership.
I left Knoxville in a swirl of thoughts about the state of the PC(USA) and where we are going as a denomination. While there are plenty of Presbyterians and congregations doing amazing things out there, there is no question that as a denomination institution the PC(USA)—like all mainline (and soon, evangelical) denominations—is a denomination in crisis. Any other conclusion drawn from our declining numbers and institutional turmoil is naive at best.
As it has been for years, my first impulse was to think about priorities. Where should we be putting our resources to turn this ship in a different direction? But I keep returning to a statement made by David Loleng from the Office of Evangelism. Reflecting a sentiment I have been feeling for some time now, David noted that Presbyterians know a lot about God but don’t always know God. Maybe this is more about where I am myself, but I think there is something fundamentally missing in mainline Protestantism when it comes to spirituality.
I’ll have to unpack this in subsequent posts, but this is definitely where my thoughts on church are leading me right now.