Why a new reformed body might not be a good thing

October 5, 2011

I posted recently about why the creation of a new evangelical, presbyterian, and missional denomination might be a good thing. The conveners of the Fellowship have made clear from the very beginning that they are trying to avoid the binary option of in/out of the Presbyterian Church USA, which has been the traditional way in which denominational conflict was handled (at least over the last 100 years).

Instead they are trying to create a number of options that will serve congregations well in a variety of contexts. No two presbyteries or congregations are identical. The experience of an evangelical minister or an evangelical congregation can vary significantly based on which presbytery they are a part. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

Of the proposals that have been floated, the one with seemingly the greatest traction is also the most controversial–forming a new presbyterian denomination. In this post I want to offer some reasons why the creation of a new reformed body might not be such a good thing. 

In no particular order:

  1. If its not really reformed in theological identity. I’ve heard unsubstantiated rumblings that a supporter of the Fellowship (not someone on the steering committee or the advisory committee) is setting aside his ordination in the PCUSA to become a pastor at a non-denominational church. Part of me is concerned that if the meaning of “reformed” is unclear in the PCUSA at present, it may well be equally unclear in the Fellowship of Presbyterians.  I have read the document of Reformed Essentials produced by San Diego presbytery and find it an encouraging beginning. It is, however, only marginally reformed in my mind. The vast majority of the headings describe evangelical or orthodox essentials. This suggests that there may be a degree of latitude even in the Fellowship. 
  2. If it is not reformed in practice. Evangelical churches in the Presbyterian Church USA often look more non-denominational than presbyterian. One of the beauties of the Reformed tradition is its latitude in allowing Sessions and Pastors to order worship. However, I think it’s important to remember that our church’s Directory for Worship is a great resource for ordering worship. Yes, there will always be some presbyterian churches that are liturgical, some that are low church, and every other category you can think of. However, I do believe that the essence of our Reformed worship tradition is simple, Biblically-informed worship that centers on the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. Ideally Biblical preaching and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper would be the hallmark of Presbyterian worship as well as the participation of the people in the service of worship. If this is simply Willow Creek for presbyterians then I won’t be very interested. My hope is that the emphasis on being missional means that the new Reformed body will emphasize a departure from the exclusive use of the at tractional or extraction model of the church.
  3. If it is a large church denomination. I don’t have anything against large churches per se. After all, I worship at one and occasionally preach and lead worship there. As long as there is an awareness that in our emerging post-Christian context bigger isn’t better then I think we’re fine. However, if size becomes equivalent to effectiveness then count me out. Again, I’m hopeful that the stated goal of developing a robust church planting culture will be indicative of a belief that large churches can serve as resource churches to help multiply new evangelical congregations in new parts of our cities.
  4. If it isn’t intentionally multi-ethnic. This is a tough one because the Fellowship initially received a lot of criticism for being initiated by a handful of white tall steeple churches. Granted, that the proponents of the Fellowship are all majority culture and powerful pastors in our denomination doesn’t mean that their observations are false. However, it does show their limitations. I don’t think that we have to choose between being evangelical and being multi-ethnic. As a ministry leader in a ministry that is deeply committed to, and growing in multi-ethnicity, I know that it’s a tough and long sojourn, but it is one that is profoundly compatible with evangelical faith. InterVarsity has been on this journey for thirty-something years (if not more) and I’m a relative newcomer. I don’t have sage advice. My simple observation is that if we fail in intentionally being a multi-ethnic movement then we have failed in a Gospel imperative.
So. There it is. Thoughts?