(By Dale M. Coulter, First Things). The last time we saw such a massive shift in Protestantism was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Holiness and Pentecostal movements spawned over ten major denominations. When one adds to this the formation of the Wesleyan Church (1843), the Free Methodist Church (1860), and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1870), all of which came out of the old Methodist Episcopal Church, it is easy to see just how large the divisions and realignments were.
It now seems apparent that something similar is occurring in the final decades of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century. Not only are there new denominations forming, such as the Association of Vineyard Churches (1982), networks of churches are emerging that are quickly becoming a nucleus for local congregations leaving mainline Protestantism.
The trend of realignment among mainline churches can be seen in the formation of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (2012), the North American Lutheran Church (2010), and the Anglican Church of North America (2009). Both ECO and NALC were formed from networks of ministers and churches that had decided that renewal from within existing Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Anglican denominations was no longer possible. This realignment first began with the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (1973).
A similar move may be occurring within the United Methodist Church. The largest UMC congregation in the Mississippi Conference just finalized its departure.
The graveyard of Protestantism is full of dead or deceased sects over time. The “Shakers”, Swedenborgs, various Anabaptist sects thrived in the 18th/19th centuries only to go into slow and gradual deaths over time. Will the PCUSA join them in their eternal rests? Time will tell, but they do share many characteristics of those departed groups.
– Insularity and self-absorption: Most of the life energy of the PCUSA is spent on itself and its own internal issues and matters, in various study boards and commissions. Again in service of itself.
-Polity and processes, internal workings as the new god or deity: A “good” PCUSA person is now defined not by any confessional integrity to anything related to Christianity, but whether they support or buy into the contemporary power dynamics of the PCUSA. To be a good denominationalist counts more than any other faith quality.
-Tribalism/use vs. them/circle the wagons/cults of personality: Again, defensive and reactionary responses to any who question their god given wisdom and “prophetic” whatevers. Cults of personality connected to the leaders, shunning or shame applied to any who would question the new orthodoxies. Intolerance applied to any who questioned the processes. Speech and expression suppression of thought, not in alignment with the new orthodoxies. And general blindness to their own institutional decline into death. Blaming others for their issues and problems. Is the PCUSA on that path? The signs are there.