Future of Mainline Protestantism
Necessary Change for the Denominational Church
You know, there's a common saying in the church that "youth are the future of the church," to which someone else will say "no, youth are the today of the church." To which I follow up and say, "but they're not." For all intents and purposes, there's a whole generation of people that is missing from our congregations, so to say that "youth are the today of the church" is kind of lying to ourselves and a way of saying to ourselves we're doing okay, which we're not. One or two young people in your congregation do not a future make. Until we have young folks at a significant place at the table in thinking about the future, we're paying lip service to thinking about what's next. And then it's a bunch of us who become calcified, holding on to what we've always loved until it dies, and that's not what the church is to be about. And I think folks get that and are trying to figure out what to do with that.
As you look ahead at the future of this denomination, where do see the biggest areas of growth and change?
The biggest challenge, and place we need to shift and change, is in our theological education. As Presbyterians, we're always going to have this idea that folks are set aside for ministry, so how we train people for pastoral ministry in a variety of manifestations is going to be crucial to the future of our denomination. We're going to need to figure out how to train pastors to be tentmakers, to be bi-vocational, and to see ministry not as a last resort but as a calling. We need to broaden our understanding of pastoral ministry. Our seminaries have to re-engage with the church so they better understand what is needed. For the most part, we're still training people for a church that exists now, but not for a church that is yet to become. I think seminaries need to take the lead on training folks to help transform the church in the future.
The other piece that is going to be major is institutional structure, from church sessions to middle governing bodies. Because again, if I believe in the connectional church, we have to have the structures there that support that and manifest a healthy presence. So in a denominational future, how we structure middle governing bodies is going to be huge. That's the game changer for the PCUSA -- re-thinking our synods and presbyteries to model ministry in a connectional way.
As far as ministry components, I predict a resurgence in justice ministries again, as so many young folks are looking at issues like trafficking, gender, invisible children, environmental issues, etc. Folks are realizing that we need to come alongside some of these movements and be influencers. The last thing I'd say is that we just hired a new director of our Washington office who is going to reinvigorate our prophetic presence in DC. I think that piece is going to be really important.
What would a vibrant mainline church of the future look like?
It is one where you walk in and you feel that there is life. You feel that there is theological integrity and you feel like people in that space have been part of its birth. There is this sense that there is something greater happening and that it is because of this that people have gathered. In a reformed understanding where we believe God is unfolding some reality, it's a place that knows its role in that and is journeying along that way.
Read the full interview with Bruce Reyes-Chow here.
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team after more than ten years managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of Christian Education and music/theatre programs for young people and has served as a music director for worship and special retreats.