Future of Mainline Protestantism
Presbymergent: A Reforming Spirit from the Inside
By Adam Walker Cleaveland
I've been involved in what has been popularly called the Emerging Church movement for more than seven years. I was there for the very first Emergent Convention in San Diego, and ever since have developed friendships with many of the folks involved in the movement. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Emergent Christianity "saved me," but it does give me hope for the future of the church in our world today.
The emerging church has long been criticized by some in the mainline for not really coming up with anything new. Some mainline folks think that, theologically, those in the emerging church are just catching up to where the mainline has been for a long time. While there may be some truth to that, it can be frustrating to see folks from my tradition being so defensive and critical about a movement of the church that is trying to imagine a new church for a new world. While many of us mainliners may pride ourselves in our open and progressive theology, when it comes to our church structures, polity, ordination processes, ideas of who can serve communion and who can't, and liturgy (just to mention a few), we can be staunchly closed off to any concept of reform and letting the Spirit of God move us in new ways.
I'm a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and we like to use the phrase reformata semper reformanda -- reformed and always reforming. Many Presbyterians believe they do a good job of being open to the Spirit, but I wonder if that is actually the case most of the time. We are also known for doing things "decently and in order," and while I understand the reasons for holding onto such a value, I believe that it can often stifle the possibilities before us.
At times I picture progressive mainline Christianity having one hand open -- being open and inclusive of new theological ideas, new ways of understanding and talking about our experience with the Divine -- and one hand closed tightly, a fist clenched around our ideas of what it looks like to be and to do church today.
For mainline churches and denominations to be able to withstand the ever-growing cynicism and questions of irrelevance, we need to be open to reform and new ideas. But that can no longer be restricted to simply reform of our theologies. I'm not suggesting we get rid of all traditions and rituals simply for the sake of relevance. However, we need to have the courage to place everything on the tables of critique and reform. Our ordination processes are just as in need of reform as our theologies of the atonement. When we take the step forward and embrace an inclusive reforming spirit in our churches, we present ourselves fully and completely open to the movements of the Spirit in our contexts.
There are organizations and movements within mainline denominations that are beginning to think about these issues and open themselves up to this inclusive reforming spirit. Presbymergent is one such organization. Since its founding in 2007, Presbymergent has grown and evolved into a loose network of Presbyterians who are eager to engage in many of these conversations of what it might look like for an inclusive reforming Spirit to be let loose in our denomination. Using a term coined by Bob Hopkins with the Anglican Church Planting Initiatives in the UK, they identify themselves as "loyal radicals." This loyalty isn't a generic party loyalty from the past, but a loyalty that challenges and pushes for change. Presbymergent, and other similar groups (Anglimergent, Methomergent, Luthermergent), consists of people who choose to stay on the inside to bring about creative, emergent expressions of an historic faith for various contemporary contexts.