By Sue Cyre, retired teaching elder in the Presbytery of the James
Presbytery of the James (PCUSA) has a plan to reverse the dramatic membership losses experienced by the mainline denominations including the PCUSA. It is funding a visiting professor of evangelism for four years at Union Seminary in Richmond who, in addition to teaching the next generation of seminarians, will visit congregations and equip them to do evangelism. But, the evangelism that this visiting professor will espouse isn’t the biblical Good News and therefore will likely not produce an increase in membership but instead contribute to the denomination’s further decline.
John Vest, a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School and McCormick Seminary, has been called to the position. Vest observes that while he grew up as a “functional fundamentalist,” he was “born again as a progressive” while at the University of Chicago. In his statement to the presbytery at its October meeting, Vest declared: “God is not an idea. God is not the words we use to talk about God. God is not the words the Bible used to talk about God. Ultimately, all of the words we use to describe God are metaphors, incomplete and provisional.” He posits that “God is the love that we share with each other, the love that binds us together in a complex network of life.”
At the luncheon presentation following the presbytery meeting, Vest was asked if he accepted orthodox doctrine on for example, the Trinity and the atonement. Vest answered opaquely, “I would not say that I’m not orthodox.” When pressed about whether he accepted the Nicene Creed, he did not respond but suggested that his teaching would not be about his faith (or apparently the church’s faith!) rather he would be equipping others to share their faith.
Earlier in the presbytery meeting Vest invited attendees to write what they thought the Gospel was in two sentences. Then Vest invited people to share that statement with those near them. He laughingly concluded that the results showed that there are many expressions of what people believe the Gospel to be.
Vest is an enthusiastic disciple of author Rob Bell, who rejects biblical, confessional Christian faith. After taking some seminary students to hear Bell speak, Vest enthused, “I found Rob Bell’s Everything is Spiritual presentation… inspiring and fascinating…. I continue to resonate with his theology and approach to Christianity.” Vest continues, “Bell is defining ‘progressive.’ … It is the insistence that our encounter with the divine is never finished or concretized but continues to develop and grow as humanity develops and grows.”
“He [Bell] tells a story that is accessible and compelling. He shares good news,” says Vest, who then interprets Bell’s agenda – and likely his own–by saying: “I think this talk is mostly about evangelizing the church.”
For a fuller description of Bell’s beliefs, a principal source of Vest’s theology, one need only look at Bell’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
Bell rejects historic Christian doctrine including the Trinity, the atonement, and the authority of Scripture. He writes, “When I was twenty, I drove an Oldsmobile…. But they don’t make Oldsmobiles anymore…God is like Oldsmobiles.” Bell goes onto explain that his straw-man-Oldsmobile-god cannot keep up with the modern world. He opines, “Things have changed. We have much more information and technology than ever. We’re interacting with a far more diverse range of people than we used to. And the tribal God, the one that is the only one many have been exposed to—the one who’s always right (which means everybody else is wrong)—is increasingly perceived to be small, narrow, irrelevant, mean, and sometimes just not that intelligent.”
The PCUSA lost 1026 congregations and 645,111 members in the decade from 2003 to 2013. In 2003 the PCUSA had 11,064 congregations with 2.4 million members. Ten years later in 2013 there were just 10,038 congregations and 1.7 million members. Membership dropped in 2014 to 1.6 million members. While the liberal mainline denominations like the PCUSA continue in steep decline, theologically conservative bodies such as the Assemblies of God continue to increase.