The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow: The Big Sort of the Presbyterian Church

For my non-Presbyterian readers, pardon the interruption for some musing about the denomination in which I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I suspect we are not the only ones in this pickle.

Last year I read a great book by Bill Bishop called, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart.  In this book he basically makes the case that overall voting trends of the United States have not changed much over time, but the clustering of society has lead to people living in bubbles of like mindedness that has made our "blueness" or "redness" that much more intense. Ideological mixing of society has been replaced by well defined and separate communiteis that are never exposed to one another in the day to day interactions of living in community.  

This has got be thinking about we Presbyterians. Are we, the PC(USA), going through our own "big sort?"

Presbyterians love our groups. I am sure most other social gatherings have "special interest" groups as well, but we Presbyterians don't just love them, we love, love them. Big difference ;-) Our instutional committment to group discement and flat decision-making bodies makes our culture fertile soil for people to gather together for a variety of purposes. We have groups that traverse the broad theological and ideological landscape; we have groups that focus on reproductive options, ex-gay movements, clean water projects, theological perspectives and more. We pretty much have a little something for everyone. While some of the groups are sponsored by the denomination, most are not "officially" connected to the denomination and, of course, some are more well known and/or influential than others.  

For fear of leaving anyone out, I am not going to try and list all of the groups that claim a place in the Presbyterian Church (USA) community, but new groups like The Fellowship and The Next Church have raised the bar in terms of gathering groups of like-minded folks to dream about the future. Both groups are passionately declaring transformation, defining a new way forward and gathering those who are compelled by it all. Now of coruse, many people who affiliate with groups are not just tied to one single movement or cause, but both of these groups, while taking different approaches to perceived issues, seem to be aligning along theological and cultural lines. This new crop of gatherings has me asking the question, "Are we sorting ourselves as a healthy response to our collective future or are we sorting in order to ensure the survival of our own flavor of being Presbyterian?"

I have no answer to this and I am genuinely conflicted about the new crop of groups that are trying to gain influence and are faithfully seeking to be the church that God hopes us to be. On one hand, I do think that the future of the Presbyterian Church will have to be manifested in a variety of styles, perspectives and niches.  From big to small, modern to traditional, mono-cultural to multi-cultural, etc. if we are to have any kind of social capital in the world, we must expand our understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian. Then there is a part of me that thinks we are just trying to strengthen and protect our particular kingdoms much like we have done in the past. We may wrap our words and rhetoric in language that says we are thinking seriously about what the future holds, but the default still seems to be "try harder" "fall back on doing things the way we know how to do them" and/or "talk about transformation, openness and conversations but fail to live it."

The tension for me is exacerbated because I have good friends involved in many groups, old, new, left, center and right. We may disagree on theology, politics and baseball, but I have little doubt that there is a genuine yearning to be faithful God's call on our lives. But even so, the tired metaphor of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic seems all to apt these days. Even the most creative of organizational theologians and thinkers are having a hard time landing the proverbial plane about what we are to do next. With so much uncertainty about the future it is no surprise that we try to do something, find some people with whom we share a passion, get together and do something. Natural and exciting for some, frustrating and a waste of energy for others.

So what do we do? Do we just give in? Do we just make sure we are the last group standing? Do we leave and find the place where we may better thrive? Do we just try harder and hope for the best? The options really are endless.

Okay, I lied, I do have one answer.

We reboot.

We shut down. 

We pause, take a breath and with bold abandon power back up.

I know this may be cavalier and a bit insensitive to some, but what would happen if we really took stock of every part of our existence as Presbyterians and started over: as congregations, as governing bodies, as a denomination? Speaking the words of radical transformation and being open the possibilities that God has for the church is one thing, but if our institutional structures are not designed to allow such things, than we doom ourselves to radical tweaking rather than radical transformation.

I know that as I talk about this there are many things to take into account: people's livelihood, a profound denominational legacy and many powerful current ministries. At the same time, the kind of transformation we need may demand us to upset those things that we have allowed us to give us worth and define our existence. Yes, trying something radical, risky and faithful may bring about some places of death, but if we are to be a resurrection people, we can no longer take leaps of faith with a safety net of our past accomplishments below us to alleviate our anxiety.

So I say let's keep gathering for fellowship, let's keep dreaming about the future and let's keep being faithful to the God who has called us to be the church. But I also say, if any of the groups that we are part of begin to ring hollow in our words and actions, shut it down and risk being the church that we all truly hope to be.

This post orginally appeared 3/4/2011 on Bruce's blog at