Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16:24-26)

I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world…. In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love (Mother Teresa).

The Church is called to be Christ’s faithful evangelist… to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ (Presbyterian Church USA Book of Order). 

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).

Prompted by an e-newsletter I read, I checked out today an essay* by Jack Marcum, of PCUSA Research Services. It’s all about the decline once again in the membership of my denomination. For example, in 2008, the net loss was 3.1%; in the past year, 2.9%. The PCUSA has lost more members than it has gained every year since it was created in 1983 by the reunion of the PCUS and the UPCUSA. In 2009, more than 6 in 10 of the losses were to “other,” Marcum reports, a category that mostly includes people placed on the inactive roll. In other words, they moved to the ranks of the dechurched. And, as Marcum further observes, people join and leave congregations, not denominations. The implication is that local factors like dissatisfaction with some aspect of the life of the church account for folks heading for the backdoor exit. Both my personal and pastoral experience confirms that this is true.

Tom Ehrich, the author of the report** that led me to the Marcum piece, has some other stats for 2009 to share from PCUSA sources:

  • It closed 94 congregations in 2009, most closings in a decade.
  • It lost 3% of its membership.
  • It only opened 20 new congregations, lowest in a decade.
  • The mean size of a PCUSA congregation fell below 100 members for the first time. 
  • 64% of its 10,623 congregations fall below the level of sustained viability. 
  • Non-viability means fewer full-time clergy. One-third of its non-viable congregations have no pastoral leadership at all. Nearly half of its 13,400 active clergy have no congregational employment. 
  • Presbyterians continue to gravitate to larger congregations, with the largest 1,500 congregations accounting for half of the denomination’s total membership.

It’s interesting to read these numbers at the same time I’m working through Brandon O’Brien’s wonderful book The Strategically Small Church: Intimate, Authentic, Nimble, Effective. O’Brien, the editor of Leadership Journal questions the prevailing wisdom that makes mega the norm and numerical growth the measure of success. Most churches of any stripe, he points out, are small churches. Megachurches make up a tiny percentage of congregations in the US. Small is actually the norm, then. If someone should object that 3000 were added on Pentecost to a congregation numbering 120 (Acts 1:15), O’Briend points out that many different nations or ethnicities were represented in the gathered throng to hear Peter’s sermon. 3000 refers to the total number saved, who then dispersed to their respective homes, not to the size of a resulting Jerusalem church.

(more…)

Lanning:  Good to see you again, son.

Spooner: Hello, doctor.

Lanning:  Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.

Spooner: Is there something you want to tell me?

Lanning:  I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions….

Spooner: Why would you kill yourself?

Lanning:  That, detective, is the right question. Program terminated.

                                                                                  –from the film I, Robot

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sometime ago I decided, on a whim, I guess, to uppgrade to IE 8 from version 7. Of course, I created a restore point first. But then I uninstalled the latest incarnation of Internet Explorer, having seen that its new features lacked a certain “wow” factor. Big mistake! Things started going wrong, like the failure of Windows Live Writer (the program on which I edit this blog) even to load. Having the restore point didn’t help me.

After trying to figure things out myself, I emailed my friend the IT guy, and he guided me through some steps to try to recover the program’s function. Unfortunately, and through no fault of my friend’s, none of them worked. But his guidance emboldened me to try again on my own. So, I Googled various possibilities for finding what I needed, like “reinstall Windows Live Writer,” “fix Windows Live Writer,” and others I don’t remember right now. Finally, the one that produced the answer for me was “Windows Live Writer crashes.” I followed the instructions I found on the site I chose, and voila, my program was up and running once more!

The experience led me to begin thinking about the questions we ask in life. Like the Dr. Lanning hologram from the movie dialogue above or like the search engine, life seems to require us to ask the right questions if we are to find the answers that will help us regain our emotional health, discover what God is calling us to do or be open to new possibilities.

For example, a man I know lost his wife of many years to illness. He insists on continuing to ask “Why did this happen to me?” with the result that he routinely ignores the pain of his children and his late wife’s parents. The widower is asking the wrong question. Instead, if he is to move through the dark tunnel of grief, he needs to wonder how he can help his loved ones with their pain. Move out of himself, asking “How can I help others?” I am sure he will discover in such service that his own hurt is transformed and even diminished.

Or how about the comments of the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly, the Rev. Gradye Parsons? When faced with dismal statistics about more losses in the denomination (a little over 69K in 2008), Parsons insisted that Presbyterians can be evangelists. He went on: “But we often stumble over the words. Can we not challenge one another to be able to answer these basic questions… ‘Why do I believe in God? Why do I go to church? Why do I go to that particular church?’”  For the whole story, visit http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2009/09525.htm.

But on the blog of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, a writer observes that Parsons asks the wrong questions for the postmodern age. “Of course Presbyterians can be evangelists, but how eloquent we are (or are not) is not the issue….To be be effective witnesses of the Gospel, it is not what we can posit or defend theologically (although that remains important.) Rather, to be effective witnesses of the Gospel in today’s culture requires authenticity, deep relationships, and sacrificial action for the sake of others…. In short, I don’t think the question is getting the words right. I think we have to recover the ability to be Christlike in the world for the sake of our communities.”

The writer comments then on the specific questions Parsons invites us to ask: “I don’t think the question is helping people communicate WHY we believe in God but rather WHO Jesus is and how we desire (and try!) to be more like him…. ‘Why do I go to church?’ is indicative of the institutional and attractional model of church that is…shrinking as an institution and failing to attract people to it. The question missionally minded people would ask is, ‘How can we be the church for the sake of the community?’”

There’s more, but for the sake of space and your patience, I’ll stop there. If you’re interested, the whole piece, with comments, may be found here: http://pgf.typepad.com/outbox/2009/06/gradye-parsons-asks-the-wrong-questions.html. I accessed it through Dr. Steve Hayner’s blog, www.shayner.tumblr.com, which I also recommend to you.

The similiarity between the grieving man’s question and the shrinking church’s question is striking to me. Both focus on survival; both turn inward. In the former case, on the widower’s hurt; in the latter, on the denomination’s dwindling resources and influence. But as the PGF blog pointed out, the right questions are those that focus on getting out of ourselves in personal, involved ways.

Ironically, the PC(USA)’s own standards say that very thing. After outlining various kinds of Christlike service, the Book of Order has this memorable and profound statement: “The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ (G-3.0400; emphasis mine).

Maybe this is the right question: what would happen if we really lived what we say we believe?

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Note: The next post will be September 18.