As we enter the latest round of churches leaving the PCUSA, it seems the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (or in alphabet soup terms, EPC) is the green pasture of choice for those fleeing the soul-sucking skirmishes of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Now, I like the EPC. There are many great congregations in the EPC. In fact, that old standard line is true for me when I say that some of my best friends are members and ministers in the EPC. But (and you all knew there had to be a big “but” here somewhere), I’m not so sure that the EPC is necessarily a better and less problematic place to be than the PCUSA.
Oh sure, it sounds absolutely delirious to think that I could go to a typical presbytery meeting and not have to endure the proclamation and “esteem-ation” of some amorphous deity that oozes from our sentimental pores and that craves the sacrifice of revealed Truth at the altar of left-over Marxist views of justice and developmentally-stunted demands for tolerance “or else.” And of course I feel the siren call of being in a denomination that really does presume the basic, essential, and universally held beliefs regarding Jesus Christ as the Son of God who lived among us, was God’s sacrifice for our sins, and was raised from the dead so we may live the life of God in this world through trust in Him, obedience to the Word, and being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Such basic things can become powerful enticements after wandering in the biblical and theological wastelands of the PCUSA.
However (which is more erudite terminology for a big “but”), despite my occasional day dreams about frolicking in the daisy-filled fields of the EPC, there are two things (actually, three things, but I’ll only address two here) that have kept my dreams just dreams, and have made me reluctant to seek refuge with these evangelical kin.
The first issue is the lack of growth in the EPC. Now, I know no one from the PCUSA (especially me) has any right to critique any church body on a lack of growth, but I can tell you lots of reasons why the PCUSA has members fleeing in terror. But (and this is a really big “but”) the EPC has “evangelical” written right in their name, for crying out loud. So what gives with the lack of substantial growth?
In 1981 or so, when the EPC started (as I understand or misunderstand it, these were mainly old United Presbyterian congregations separating over the issue of the ordination of women, e.g. Kenyon case et al ignotus res), there were around 110 congregations with about 60,000 members throughout the USA “and Argentina” (I’m not sure why they always mention Argentina). After 25 years, they had increased to around 160 congregations and 70,000. I’m glad they at least grew, but I would expect a thoroughly evangelical denomination that had cast off some of the regulatory restraints of an overbearing denominational structure to grow a lot more than this.
Friends of mine in the EPC tell me that they have had their own institutional roadblocks to new church development and reaching out. There have been some theological controversies (even in the EPC) that have taken energy away from some overall visioning for the denomination. Still, this doesn’t really explain it for me. The Presbyterian Church in America also started with a number under 100,000 members in the 1980’s, and the PCA is now over 350,000 and adding 20 to 30 thousand per year. They too have had to work on improving their approach to new church development, and they too have had to deal with some mission-distracting theological controversies, but they still managed to keep on track with reaching new people with the Gospel. If it wasn’t for those who are fleeing the PCUSA, there wouldn’t be any real prospect of growth for the EPC.
The second issue is that while the EPC is more congregationally oriented and supportive, it still has a “gate-keeping” mentality and effect in the leadership and structures of the EPC presbyteries and the General Assembly. I’m not sure why this is so, unless it follows from the fact that those who founded the EPC brought with them the restraining and regulatory mindset of the PCUSA. A friend of mine was forced to start a new congregation outside of the jurisdiction of an EPC presbytery due to the political and regulatory hoops he was facing as an EPC minister. His new congregation quickly zoomed to over 3000 members involved in effective discipling structures and innovative missional outreach. (Ironically, he is now a PCUSA minister. Long story.)
I hope the influx of new congregations in the EPC will yield a new openness to process and mission. I know many of the PCUSA congregations who are switching are looking forward to being able to do innovative mission with presbytery structures and leadership that encourage Spirit-led, biblically-obedient risk and innovation. Maybe this is the way God is opening up the EPC leadership to something new and wonderful that God wants to do with them. I certainly hope this is the case. Otherwise, the former PCUSA congregations may find themselves bound up by the yoke of a new Pharoah in a new Egypt rather than the inspiring visionary leadership of a fiery Joshua in a new Promised Land.
Finally (and yes, there is at long last a “finally”), let me make clear again that I respect and admire the EPC, pray for the EPC, and if God so leads me in the future I may even end up with the EPC. (It could happen, though I’d probably go Orthodox before going EPC.) However, I wonder if the frustrations that we have with the PCUSA are more universal than we realize. Maybe our frustrations with the PCUSA are really frustrations shared by all Christians in all denominations with the very existence of denominations. Maybe denominations are not only anachronistic entities that no longer serve the mission interests of the faithful Christians within them, but maybe they are actually being eliminated by God. Maybe those who are wanting to serve God with energy, imagination, intelligence, and love are not supposed to be comfortable in a denomination, just like we are not supposed to feel comfortable in a old dirty rundown house that has become unlivable, unsalvageable, and inhospitable. That is something we’ll explore in my next blog (whenever that happens).
KEEP THE CELEBRATION GOING!