Is PCUSA decline just a ‘rummage sale?’January 28, 2015
The Rev. John Buchanan, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the editor and publisher of Christian Century has said in an interview that the decline of Protestant denominations does not suggest that they are doing something wrong, but that the church is going through a major shift. ““I think we’re in the middle of a rummage sale. We’re trying to figure out what comes next,” he said.
His comments in the Tulsa World article include:Buchanan’s ideas are not new.
According to one sociologist, Buchanan said, about every 500 years the church undergoes the equivalent of a rummage sale.
“Things that are old and worn out get sold to make room for new things,” he said. “Every 500 years there’s a major shift.”
The Protestant Reformation was 500 years ago, and 500 years before that was the split between the Roman Catholic Church in the West and Orthodox Church in the East.
“So we’re due. … There’s a great shake-up going on among all Protestant denominations,” he said.
“Lots of congregations that have served wonderfully for 100 years, 200 years, are seemingly in dire straits. Their membership is down. Their membership is aging.”
He said the reasons for the decline are complex, including changing demographics.
“I think we’re in the middle of a rummage sale. We’re trying to figure out what comes next.
“And I think something new is going to emerge out of this. We don’t know what it is yet.”
Buchanan’s ideas are not new. He is repeating the thesis of Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Tickle argues that every 500 years the Church makes a transition and something essentially new emerges. Buchanan is characterizing that as a rummage sale.
The question then is what’s up for sale in American old-line Protestantism?
One answer would be buildings. According to LoopNet.Com, there are more than 1300 churches for sale nationwide. The five states with the largest number of churches for sale are also large geographically and demographically. The sites lists 146 in Texas, 135 in Florida, 129 in California, 110 in Georgia and 76 churches on the market in New York. But church facilities are just part of what Buchanan sees as a national religious rummage sale, also up for grabs are the historic doctrines of the faith.
The United Church of Christ (UCC), The Episcopal Church (TEC), Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) have placed on the curb many of the doctrinal distinctives of the Protestant Reformation faiths in which they were forged. The ELCA is not recognizably Lutheran if what you mean by that is attached to theology espoused by Martin Luther. Nor is the PCUSA recognizable as a body that upholds the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the Westminster standards. Buchanan is right in his observation that there’s “a great shake up” in all Protestant denominations. But what he sees as positive progressive emergence others see as loss.
Isn’t that often the way with rummage sales? What one person sees as well-worn, worthy of preserving, and integral to the life of the household another sees as worn out, in need of replacing and utterly dispensable.
So it would seem, taking Buchanan’s analogy, that even in theology the adage holds true: one man’s treasure is another’s man trash.
Your thoughts? Is American Protestantism in the midst of a rummage sale? And if so, what’s being jettisoned in your local church to make room for the new?