The results of the church-wide conversation on the identity and purpose of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have been released by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), and it reveals a denomination with a theologically and socially liberal majority which has a strong agreement that Reformed theology is a positive and defining feature of the PCUSA.
The report – When We Gather at the Table: A PCUSA Snapshot – shows that a majority of those responding to the online survey identified as liberal – both theologically (54 percent) and socially (62 percent), while 35 percent were theologically conservative and 29 percent socially conservative. Both groups place a priority on the “Reformed tradition.”
There is a difference, however, in how these different “clusters” in the PCUSA define “Reformed.”
In his analysis of the information gathered in the survey process, John Brueggemann of the Department of Sociology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., wrote that that there was an “enormous affirmation for the Reformed tradition embodied in the PCUSA.” However, he described two different orientations of how that is expressed in the denomination.
The first includes those that “express pride in Reformation theology, clear doctrine, Scottish roots, intergenerational membership, the church’s polity and its commitment to balancing reason and spirituality.”
The other, he said, link Reformed tradition to “ongoing reform, ‘reformed and reforming,’ ‘progressive’ sensibilities, reimagining the church’s role in the world, and an expansive, elusive and inclusive sense of God’s love.”
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, describes the difference. “Reformed and always reforming, according to the Word of God is one of the hallmarks of the Reformation. However, over the last 30 years, the Reformation slogan has been truncated by some who embrace the idea of always reforming but holding neither to the essential tenets of Reformed theology nor to its moorings in Scripture. Which is why they see no reason for their always reforming notions to be found in accordance with the Word of God. What the survey evidences is more than different clusters – these are people expressing different understandings of Reformed faith.”
Brueggeman says, “It appears that some respondents regard these two orientations—both the rooted notion and forward-looking notion of tradition—as being in tension.”
He added that there are some who feel invested in a combination of both.
While analyzing the comments, those conducting the survey “became aware of various clusters of individuals who share particular values distinct from other clusters of Presbyterians.”
A total of 79 percent of the survey participants “clearly fit” into one of the following segments, while 21 percent weren’t able to be categorized.
Purposeful progressives: The largest cluster – 35 percent – were identified as “Purposeful Progressives,” and are not only pleased with the denomination, it would like the PCUSA to narrow its focus and “claim a more progressive identity both for theological reasons and to gain cultural relevance and our own societal niche. Many in this group feel we need to get more involved in politics and in social action. They are less tolerant of conservative theologies within the denomination.” While some in this group hope that the conservative will learn to accept the theological differences in the PCUSA, “others would simply be happy if the conservatives left the PCUSA, and a few offered suggestions for helping dissenting congregations to leave the denomination with grace and dignity.”
Disappointed and discerning: The second cluster – identified as “Disappointed and Discerning” — include 19 percent of the participants. The report said that this group is the most displeased.
“Though the name given to this segment might appear to be strong, it truly reflects how they feel: forsaken, abandoned, and for some, held hostage by their denomination … They tend to feel that there is little room left for them at the table; that the liberals in the denomination treat them disparagingly.”
Members of this group include those who either cannot leave the denomination or are conflicted about leaving.
LaBerge noted that “this disappointed and discerning portion of the PCUSA has already been functionally written off in the membership decline projections released earlier this year by the Office of the General Assembly. Nineteen percent of the PCUSA’s 1.5 million members is 285,000. The PCUSA is counting on losing 400,000 by the end of 2020. I think it’s fair to say that the reason the currently disappointed and discerning people don’t see a seat at the table is that their seat has already been functionally removed.”
Family Facilitators: This group – 15 percent – are the peacemakers, who value the PCUSA’s theological diversity and would like to see reconciliation between the conservatives and liberals. It consists mostly of liberals and/or progressives who are “generally pleased with the denomination but worry about their brothers and sister in Christ who are distressed by recent changes.”
This group also includes some who are angry at the congregations that have left because they took the “easy way out” or placed undue importance on what they believe to be secondary issues.
Rooted and Resolute: While theologically conservative, this cluster – 10 percent – is socially moderate or mixed. It believes its PCUSA identity is important, but also feels that the denomination “has strayed from the Bible and/or gotten too involved in liberal politics.” It has been known in other circles as the “stay and fight” group.
“Some believe liberals are merely a vocal minority with disproportionate control of the denomination, and believe that they can convince the denomination to repent and return to the Bible. They tend to prefer a literal reading of scripture and feel that liberals/progressive Presbyterians will see their error and repent, when they are reminded that they’ve turned their backs on God,” according to the report.
In his analysis, Brueggeman defined the four clusters this way:
“There seem to be four clusters of respondents: a group we might label as ‘conservative,’ who are invested in biblical authority, Reformed traditions, and well-defined doctrine; a group we might label as ‘liberal’ who are more likely to emphasize social justice, tolerance, and the ongoing ‘reform’ embedded in church tradition; a third group appears to prefer ‘getting along’ and resists conclusive stances, disagreement, or conflict; finally there seems to be a miscellaneous category of people who are invested in the PCUSA but do not fit easily into any of the first three categories.”
Is PCUSA-affiliation important?
One of the first questions asked in the survey was if it was important that the respondent’s congregation be a part of the PCUSA. Fifty-six percent said “yes” while 34 percent said “no” and 10 percent “didn’t know.”
The survey indicated that it was more important to the self-identified liberals in the survey that their congregations belong to the PCUSA than it was for the conservatives. Seventy-four percent of the liberals — both theological and social – said that it was important for any congregation they are a member of to belong to the PCUSA, while only 29 percent of social conservatives and 33 percent of theological conservatives say the same.
“Furthermore, more than half of conservatives (59 percent of social conservatives and 55 percent of theological conservatives) state that it is NOT important that they belong to a PCUSA congregation,” it stated.
The largest portion of those answering “no,” said that they didn’t believe that the denomination was important as long as it was mainline, Reformed, open to women’s ordination, progressive and theologically aligned with their belief. They believed that the health and vitality of the congregation was more important than the denomination.
Thirty-eight percent of those saying “no,” however, seemed “genuinely unhappy to be part of the PCUSA.” That equals 17 percent of the total number of people answering the original question.
They believe that the PCUSA
- “has lost its way .. turned its back on God, ignored Scripture, it too political or has caved to the secular culture,”
- “Is too top-down and out of touch with congregations”
- “has changed or cannot be trusted”
Of the 1,598 who said “yes,” their reasons included:
- 30 percent the connectional nature of the denomination
- 28 percent identity/heritage/tradition
- 26 percent theology/Reformed theology
- 23 percent polity/governance
- 17 percent helping the world/my neighbor
- 14 percent thinking church/educated leaders
- Less than 10 percent cited each of the following: leadership/formation; progressive values; inclusive/welcoming; ecumenical and interfaith relations; worship style and liturgy; and embracing change.
What needs to change?
There were 2,675 who responded to this question and 24 percent of those believed that the PCUSA needs to “focus outward,” which included missions, advocacy, disaster relief/assistance, evangelism.
The second in the list –19 percent – was a focus on or return to Scripture, God and Jesus. An inward focus – spiritual formation, leadership development, pastor support and worshiping community support – was next on the list with 17 percent and 16 percent thought the PCUSA should promote reconciliation within itself, be more tolerant of theological diversity, discern the future together and educating each other about differing views.
Two other top concerns included streamlining the national church (14 percent) including flattening the structure and listening to the congregations who feel disconnected and steering clear of politics, liberalism and the secular culture (13 percent).
What is the PCUSA called to be?
The top to answers to this question are the same as the question of “what need to change” – Focus outward (this time 59 percent) and focus on/return to Scripture, God and Jesus (49 percent). Of those citing a focus or return to Scripture, the majority said that the denomination must “emphasize the need to be biblical (without mentioning anything about the denomination having strayed from the Bible), while one in five contend that we need to get back to the Bible and one in ten say that we need to live Christ-like lives.”
Twenty-seven percent of the 2,763 people who answer this question said the church needed to be inclusive, welcoming and loving, while both avoiding politics, liberalism and secularism and focusing inward both were mentioned by 13 percent.
Approximately 3,427 people – 98 percent who identified as Presbyterian – responded to the survey. According to the survey, respondents were:
- 41 percent ruling elders; 30 percent teaching elders; 19 percent members; six percent deacons
- 54 percent female; 46 percent male
- 34 percent over 65 years of age; 27 percent between the ages of 56-65; 18 percent between the ages of 46-55; and 19 percent between 26-45 years of age; two percent were under 25.
- 95 percent identified as white or Caucasian; two percent as Hispanic, Lainto/a or Spanish origin; two percent as black or African American;
- 359 were from Texas; 266 from Florida; 245 from North Carolina; 233 from Pennsylvania; 173 from South Carolina; all other states had less than 150 responding.