Russell Moore, academic dean at Southern Baptist Seminary, wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal that attracted the attention of many Presbyterians thanks to his title, â€œWhere Have All the Presbyterians Gone?â€ Since Moore is a Southern Baptist, perhaps he should not have weighed in on matters Presbyterian. But then again, asking the question â€œWhere Have All the Baptists Gone?â€ would be silly since the Southern Baptist Convention weighs in a the largest Protestant entity in the United States. We canâ€™t really call it a denomination or a communion because being Baptist is premised on preserving the authority and autonomy of the local congregation.
Mooreâ€™s point was not so much to tell Presbyterians to shape up but to observe the decline of denominationalism in the United States â€“ or more accurately, the loss of denominational brands for believersâ€™ identity, such as â€œHug me, Iâ€™m a Presbyterian.â€ He writes:
Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communionâ€”Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.
Moore argues that the rise of megachurches corresponds to Americans looking for church for practical reasons: â€œIs the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?â€ If people bring these concerns to a Baptist church, they may be disappointed: â€œA church that requires immersion baptism before taking communion, as most Baptist traditions do, will likely get indignant complaints from evangelical visitors who feel like they’ve been denied service at a restaurant.â€
But Moore sees some hopeful signs for a return to an older understanding of church, grounded in a doctrinal and evangelistic identity. One sign is the growth of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 10,000 seminarians now a six different schools.
If denominationalism simply denotes a â€œbrandâ€ vying for market share, then let denominationalism fall. But many of us believe denominations can represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared aboutâ€”personal conversion, discipleship, mission and community. Perhaps the denominational era has just begun.
The SBC may not be the best case for denominationalism not simply because it is self-consciously not a denomination but also because it hardly has the order or unity that insures a SBC congregation in Saddleback, California will be remotely similar to one in Louisville, Kentucky. But the point about the decline of denominations is fitting and the example of Presbyterians is a good one. Aside from the mainline PCUSA, which continue to hemorrhage its millions, the largest Presbyterians denominations are in the thousands: the PCA at roughly 300,000, the EPC at approximately 60,000, and the OPC bringing up the rear at around 30,000.
One factor in Presbyterian decline that Moore should not have been expected to acknowledge (since you need some local knowledge) is the phenomenon of Presbyterians becoming networkers. An irony of Mooreâ€™s piece is that it came out the same week that David Nicholas, one of the leaders in church networking, died. The founding pastor of Spanish River Church (PCA) in Boca Raton, Florida, Nicholas also established the Church Planting Network, which according to the website has nine churches around the world.
That may seem an insignificant number until you factor in that Nicholas was an important force behind two other significant church planting networks: Acts 29 and Redeemer City to City. Nicholasâ€™ Church Planting Network may not have impressive numbers, at least according to its website, but his congregation, Spanish River, helped to plant close to forty other churches in the PCA, including Kellerâ€™s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It is hard not to imagine that the idea for Kellerâ€™s Redeemer City to City network of churches came from Nicholasâ€™ own Church Planting Network.
But even more impressive, if youâ€™re of the New School Presbyterian worldview, is Nicholasâ€™ connection to Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 Network. According to the Acts 29 website:
Pastor Mark Driscoll founded the Acts 29 Network with Nicholas in 2000. Nicholas was influential in starting many current Acts 29 churches, and provided much support for many of our church planters.
The list of congregations associate with Acts 29 is too long to count â€“ though it does feature some nifty logos (which also make the page a bit tardy in loading) â€“ but it indicates another successful network that traces its roots to Nicholas. I am almost tempted to say that Nicholas is the man behind the Gospel Coalition since his fingerprints are all over two of the larger celebrities in that phalanx of Christian allies. Which makes Nicholas the leaven for yet another network of congregations, since the Gospel Coalition is also web of congregations.
And just when we were finished with Presbyterian networks comes news of yet another Presbyterian connection of congregations, in this case a group of churches from the mainline PCUSA who have finally concluded that their denomination is â€œdeathly ill.â€ As such, these pastors believe a new form of connection is important for Presbyterian conservatives:
We believe the PC(USA) will not survive without drastic intervention, and stand ready to DO something different, to thrive as the Body of Christ. We call others of like mind to envision a new future for congregations that share our Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical heritage. If the denomination has the ability and will to move in this new direction, we will rejoice. Regardless, a group of us will change course, forming a new way for our congregations to relate. We hate the appearance of schism â€“ but the PC(USA) is divided already. Our proposal only acknowledges the fractured denomination we have become.
In which case, the answer to Mooreâ€™s column is this: Presbyterians abandoned the structures that made their denominations tick â€“ such instrumentalities as sessions, presbyteries, synods, and assemblies for overseeing the ministry of word and sacrament. Instead of being Presbyterian, many Presbyterians find more congenial surroundings in locales where the schmoozing, entrepreneurialism and informal alliance-building are characteristic of being the church. Have they swapped Presbyterianism for Rotarianism? Maybe so.
This is a revealing development on two levels. The first is the fading cachet of Presbyterianism itself as a religious and theological brand. Time was in the not so distant past when saying you were Presbyterian was to indicate that you were part of a broad swath of American Protestantism that was respectable, reliable, dignified, and even refined. Granted, such cultural Presbyterianism was too much bound up with the mainstream Protestant project of aiding and abetting the American way as the Protestant way. Still, being Presbyterian was desirable because it connoted a certain seriousness of purpose â€“ like DuPont or IBM.
For conservatives outside the mainline, being Presbyterian said less about being from the right social circles and more about identifying with the Reformation and its wonder-working powers in reshaping western civilization. To be Presbyterian was to draw a connection to John Calvin and John Knox, and to place yourself within a certain trajectory of European history and the Westâ€™s heritage. To be sure, Presbyterianism was more than history or cultural significance, but it suggested a faith and worship that was older, weightier, and more profound than fundamentalism or dispensationalism.
But Presbyterianism no longer has such cultural resonance. The networkers seem to have calculated that they have less to lose by abandoning an older identity for a new constellation of congregations orbiting around a single congregation, visionary pastor, or â€“ better yet â€“ celebrity preacher.
The second oddity about the current Presbyterian penchant for networking is how little consideration its advocates seem to give to the ephemeral character of these ties. Say what you will about denominations, they last in ways that networks do not. Does anyone remember the Moral Majority? How about the Evangelical Alliance? So why will Acts 29 survive the career of Mark Driscoll or Redeemer City to City outlive Tim Keller? Once Jack Miller, the founder of one of Presbyterianismâ€™s original networks, the New Life phenomenon, New Life Presbyterian congregations have persisted but the buzz no longer fizzes. So if you are a congregation looking for a larger set of associations, you may think that Acts 29 is a solid bet. But will you actually receive any of the care and oversight that a Presbyterian denomination provides through its â€“ yes dull â€“ but effective structures?
Of course, the more important question is whether God has ordained networks to feed his flock. Granted, some will likely argue that denominations have no such divine imprimatur. But because Presbyterian denominations do have sessions, presbyteries, and assemblies, they are actually far more biblical than any network of churches, no matter how Calvinistic its celebrity leader or creative its congregationsâ€™ logos.
Correction: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church claims approximately 115,000 members. (Thanks to one of our scrupulous readers.)